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User:MatthiasRat/Change Building

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This story is set in August 2003.

Change Building

Author: MatthiasRat

To Rob's complete surprise, the real problem with inviting Jan and Dennis to Blacksburg the last weekend before the August Change to join them on their trek down the Cascades Trail was not that Jan would get to see CM the she-bear naked. Rather it was that the boar would have to disrobe himself and as it turned out, he was genuinely nervous about doing this around others.

To even convince Rob that this was something they could do CM had promised to wear a male swimsuit. But the skunk had never expected that Jan would insist on wearing even more before agreeing to go into the water with the rest of them. Dennis the hedgehog had no such inhibitions and skinny dipped like the skunk, his spines rustling like an undulating sea slug as he moved through the waterfall fed pool.

Jan slipped deep into the water so only his porcine head was visible. "This is very nice," he admitted, his nostrils flaring momentarily as he settled down. CM swam on the other side with Rob and Dennis between them. Their cleaning gear remained on the bank. "Are all your Summer days like this?"

"Yeah, this area is great in Summer," Rob replied. "No humidity, rarely over eighty degrees, it's great."

"Especially with all this fur!" CM trumpeted before diving beneath the water. A dark brown mass swam back and forth and then lifted up with a fish trapped between her jaws. Even though he'd seen his friend do this a few times now, it still unnerved him. Dennis gaped, little eyes widening in disbelief. Jan stared for a moment and then guffawed.

"I think you've been a bear too long, ya!"

CM climbed on bank and deposited the fish in a plastic bag filled with water. Her thick fur clung to her body and as she lumbered on all fours, apart from the swimming trunks, she looked very much like a normal bear. "Leslie loves it when I bring back fresh fish. And since you both are staying for dinner, I'm going to catch some extra."

Jan shook his head and waved his arms in the water. After getting into the small pool beneath the forty-foot waterfall, he'd not moved from the rock shelf he'd settled on. Rob swam a little closer and found another shelf nearby. "So, Jan, I've never asked you what you do for a living."

The boar kept his eyes on the rippling surface of the crystal clear water. He twitched when a small fish brushed one of his bristly legs. "I work at a small engineering company. We do contract work around the area, so I get to play with all sorts of toys. It's how I met Dennis."

"I thought you worked as an insurance auditor," Rob said, turning to the hedgehog.

"I do. We contracted Jan's company to verify a client's claims. We'd used them before, but I never really knew Jan until he changed. I've met a few other Changed because of my job too. Just last week we added three more Changed to the NoVa community."

Rob idly watched CM catch another fish in her jaws. He really hoped no hikers came up the trail. The skunk dunked his head under the water and then shook out his fur. "You met three at once?"

"Through this Jack Russell lady. She filed a claim on some furniture she'd destroyed. Claimed her dog did it, but those claw marks were obviously not her dog's. I made her drop the claim to prevent an official investigation. She already knew two other Changed in the area, and we all got together and pooled our money to buy her new furniture."

"That's interesting," Rob admitted, glancing between Jan and Dennis. "I wonder how many Changed know each other but haven't met people in the network. CM, what do you think?"

The she-bear dropped her fourth fish from her jaws into the plastic bag and licked her jowls. "Finding isolated pockets of Changed? It's happened a few times. I think it's going to happen a lot more over the next few years. I wouldn't be surprised if we found some other websites for Changed communities that don't know anything about us." CM shook like a dog and sprayed water all over the river-smoothed rocks.

Rob pondered that thought as he relaxed in the water. The day was pleasantly cool in the shade of the valley, while all the trees swung with a light breeze, green leaves rustling and pines thrumming. The falls provided a constant crashing splatter that drowned out everything else. The vaulted walls of slate rising upward, domed by a variety of deciduous trees, sheltered them in an arboreal sanctuary.

"The network scrubs the web already," Rob pointed out. "If there were any such sites, they would have been found. Or they're going to be found eventually. Whatever."

"We're going to see a lot more Changed after next Sunday, ya?" Jan asked.

"Well, probably not right away," CM admitted as she slipped back beneath the waters. Rob wondered why she bothered to shake off if she was just going to get back in, but knew there was no point in asking. The Change brought some strange instincts that were often hard to resist. "Odds are we won't know anybody who Changes, but we need to keep watch anyway. Which reminds me, what are the NoVa Changed doing to prepare?"

"We've made lists," Jan replied. "At least ten people each that we'll check up on next Friday and Saturday for the sickness."

"And we've got everyone's phone numbers," Dennis added with a shrug of his shoulders. His spines rippled along his back and upper arms. "I'm not sure what else we can do except keep our eyes open."

"There's really not much else you can do," Rob pointed out. "I just hope there's more people here locally who've Changed."

"Kyle's coming down to Tech the week after," CM pointed out as she sank into the water. "And Barb knows a lot of people we don't."

"I'm hoping for somebody middle-aged," the skunk said with a churr in his throat. "We'll have three college students and a retiree. We need more variety to make all the connections we need in town."

The she-bear frowned and waved her arms back and forth to keep steady in the natural pool. "Well, as college students, we probably won't be living here forever."

"True," Rob admitted. "Which just makes our need for more people who do live here more important."

Jan grunted through his nose and played his hoof-like hand across the water's surface. "I'll be happy so long as I stay a boar."

"I'll be happy as long as I go male again," CM said with a heavy sigh.

"Ya, I hope so too," Jan replied, a twinkle filling his beady eyes. "You look too good to be a woman."

CM glowered and splashed him with a wave of her paw. Rob and Dennis laughed. The hedgehog shook his head and sighed, "Well, I'm stuck this way. Coming up on two years for me now. What about you, Rob?"

"I wouldn't mind changing again as long as I stay male. I'd love to become feline. But skunk isn't so bad. I'm not drinking as much as I used to which helps. I really hope Audrey changes though. And it'd be nice if some others from SOAP did too."

"It'll happen eventually," CM said. "Well, if we're right it will. Anyway, we've been checking in with the other Changed in the area, and things sound pretty good. I think everybody's ready for next week, or as ready as we'll ever get. Everybody's trying stuff similar to what you NoVa Changed are doing, so we'll compare notes and see how we did in two weeks."

"Sounds fair," Jan nodded. "Are we going to try meeting again like we did at Technicon?"

Rob groaned, "Oh I hope not! At least not at Technicon. I don't even want to think about Technicon for another three months."

CM chuckled and snuffed. "We probably won't be able to get everybody together like we did that time, but we may try to organize a couple get togethers. We'll see. First, we have to get through another Change Day."

"Do you really think it's going to be that bad?" Jan asked.

"Who knows!" Rob shrugged. "All I know is that I'm going to spend all day tomorrow working on the server, changing out cables, and figuring out why I'm getting an intermittent signal on my remote laptop." The skunk then elaborated on exactly what the problems were and what he thought he needed to do to solve them.

When he finished, the hedgehog, eyes raised, said, "And on that note, I think I'm going to start scrubbing." Jan guffawed and followed his friend to the slate ledge where they'd left their gear. Amazingly, CM's shaking hadn't completely drenched their things.

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The sky cleared by the time late afternoon arrived. The four friends laughed and teased each other as they made their way back down the Cascades trail. After scrubbing the shampoo through their fur, or in Dennis's case, bristly spines, they'd washed clean, played around a bit longer in the pool, and then lay in the open air drying off. Jan never lost his self-consciousness and kept his swimming trunks on despite how sopping wet this made him all the way back down the trail. When they reached the parking lot, he rubbed his middle down one last time with his towels while CM, Rob, and Dennis stowed their gear in Rob's Matrix.

As Jan finished drying himself off, his brow furrowed, eyes staring fixedly at the pair of bikes parked next to Rob's Matrix. He wrapped his towel behind his neck and snorted. "Hey CM! I got an idea."

The bear lifted her head from the trunk of the car and said, "Uh oh. What's the idea?"

Jan laughed and gestured to his bike. "Would you like to ride my bike down to the main road? Is not a long ride and there won't be many cars."

CM shifted her weight and regarded both the boar and the bike. He had shown her so much in the last five months that she had begun to feel very comfortable on a motorcycle. However, he'd never let her do more than drive around parking lots. If she became a rat again like she suspected, with such a long tail it would be nearly impossible for her to ride until her next Change. This was probably her last opportunity.

"Just to the end of the road. Not onto 460?"

The boar grabbed either end of towel draping over his neck and pulled gently. "Ya. It'll give you a taste of what bikes are really like."

Rob slapped the bear on the back and said, "Get on the bike and get it over with. You know you want to."

CM laughed, her fur and jowls shaking with the pleasure. "Okay, fine. You sure you trust me?"

Jan patted the seat and grunted. "Ya. Speed limit's only thirty-five. Take it easy on the turns and you'll be fine."

While CM took those few steps toward Jan and the motorcycle, Dennis climbed on his bike and chuckled under his breath. "I'll set a good pace for you, CM. Just stay a car length behind me and you'll do fine."

"Thanks, Dennis." CM swung one leg over the bike and felt her bulk settle comfortably into the seat.

Jan handed her the keys, patted her shoulder once, and followed Rob to his Matrix. "We'll follow you and watch you," the boar declared with his usual aplomb. "I'll let you know how you did!"

CM ignored the boar's attempt at a joke, inserted the key into the ignition, and started the bike. It rumbled to life and roared pleasantly when she gave it gas. Dennis nodded his pudgy head in approval, started his bike, and slowly eased out of the parking space and into the empty lot. CM gently followed him, feeling an anxious tightening in her heart as the bike responded to her commands. With a twist of her wrist, she shifted gears and turned to follow the hedgehog.

The parking lot was shrouded by deciduous forest on every side. Only the road leading to 460 offered a way out. Dennis eased down the road as it plunged beneath leafy boughs that obscured the solitary power line, and CM followed him, her paws gripping the handlebars tightly. The road ducked and wove as it followed the meandering stream to the valley's entrance. Rocks clustered on their right, huge stacks that supported trees and the vast hillsides that stretched from the mountains. Moss clung to their surface, and even as they cruised past, CM could smell the rich aroma of the wide variety of deer, grouse, and other game that made these mountains their home.

After only a few minutes the forest thinned enough that they started to see houses and yards on either side. Most were run down or in poor repair, with plastic siding or wooden beams long in need of replacing. They weren't truly poor, those who lived here, they just didn't have enough to rebuild what was slowly falling apart. The four of them were fortunate so far in their lives, but they could all just as easily end up living somewhere remote. For a Changed, it might not be such a bad thing either.

But none of this was on CM's mind. For the first time, the she-bear was riding a motorcycle down a road without assistance. And as she made turn after turn and kept her speed under control, she felt her confidence increasing. The wind sliced through her fur and pounded at her chest, but it was a good feeling, strong and powerful that made her call on her strength to beat it back. She sat firmly in the chair, her thick legs supporting her upper body as it bore the brunt of the air's cloying hands.

Her nostrils flared with the rich scents pouring her way. CM's ears folded back as she listened to the growling of the engine between her legs. She smiled and chuckled to herself at the odd sensation of the wind cleaning her fangs. Her stub of a tail twitched with delight in her shorts.

And then they passed out of the hills and onto the small plain that was the town of Pembroke. The road straightened as it neared the much larger and far busier 460. Dennis slowed and CM eased back with him. Behind them, Rob pulled the Matrix off to one side while Dennis and CM parked on the shoulder. CM let out a long sigh of pleasure as she turned the key and rubbed her paw pad over the bike's chrome handlebars and across the fuel tank.

"That good, huh?" Dennis asked with a knowing smile crossing his snout. His spines shivered down his back like a wave passing through sand.

CM nodded and could not disguise the awe in her voice. "Oh yeah. That was amazing."

Jan laughed as he climbed out of the Matrix and clopped his hooves to her side. "You looked like a natural, CM! Did you like it?"

"I loved it! I'm so getting one of these when I can afford it!" CM roared in delight, rubbing her paws along the bike's front some more. "This was a really sweet ride. Thank you, Jan."

The boar nodded, "You look right for a bike. Maybe one day we go riding together, ya?"

"I'd like that. These mountains beg to be ridden!"

Jan crossed his arms, glancing once at the low, green mountains that surrounded them. "Ya, they do. But there's just one thing."

CM looked back at him. "What's that?"

The boar's expression was of pleased amusement. "Could I have my bike back now?" Rob beat his paws against his steering wheel to keep from laughing.

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When not working, CM and Rob spent the next few days calling the few Changed they knew in Virginia and the surrounding states. They discussed strategies for looking for new Changed, and the warning signs that would precede the Change. Much of this was merely refresher for the others who'd been preparing on their own, but for most of them, this would be the first time they'd be actively looking for new Changed.

Much of their time on the phone was spent catching up with those who they'd gathered with at Technicon earlier in the year. Claire, the otter from Bristol, had her paws full getting her children ready for the next year of grade school. Edgar, the opossum from Richmond, boasted of his recent promotion and how smart his three year old boy was. Carl, the Golden from South Boston, spent most of the time asking them what they were doing in their lives, but did admit that his nephew was home from his tour of duty overseas and was most amused that his old fogey of an uncle had attended Technicon. Kyle the chipmunk wouldn't stop raving about how excited he was to be coming to Virginia Tech in another week. And of course Jan and Dennis were already talking about dragging CM on a biking trip into the Jefferson National Forest in September.

The only other Changed that had been there, Barb the panther, was local and had her own network of friends that she promised to keep an eye on. And so with little else to do but wait, Rob and CM kept up the facade of a normal life around their friends and coworkers as the days of the week trickled past. Until the sickness came on the fifteenth, they wouldn't know who might join their August company on Sunday morn.

Leslie could tell that CM was a little anxious, and it pained the she-bear not to be able to tell her wife what was amiss. But there always lingered that hope in her ursine chest that in a few days Leslie would join her amongst the ranks of the Changed and there would never need be any secrets between them again.

By Thursday night, CM's anxiety had reached such a height that he could only be thankful that Leslie worked that evening. The she-bear climbed into her Saturn and took the long drive down Harding Avenue heading out of Blacksburg. It was a particular favourite of theirs, winding down into a valley lined by ridges with ranches and old country homes on either side of the twisting road. At that hour of the night, he saw deer at the edge of the woods, and sometimes a raccoon or skunk.

The road changed names and turned down several other roads, including route 42 which climbed up a steep mountain face before returning to 460. By the time that CM returned home it had been a two hour drive, but it had done its job. The bear was finally able to calm down and collapse in bed. The metal groaned under her weight, but she was long since used to it. Her mind, once racing with wonder what the next day would bring, had calmed down enough that simple prayer kept it focussed.

Dreams of Leslie sprouting fur in a few days kept her in a pleasant slumber. CM could never quite tell what Leslie was becoming, but the sight of her changing was enough. With such sweet dreams, CM never cared what happened to herself.

But when her eyes crept open Friday morning and felt a crushing headache pounding on either side of her massive ursine head, and a sickening tightness stirring her corpulent gut, CM couldn't think of anything but herself. The agony raced from one side of her head to the other, like giants playing ping pong in her mind. She dug her claws into her belly fur and groaned loudly, twisting beneath the blankets.

Beside her, Leslie stirred and lifted one arm to rub at her forehead. CM opened one eye and felt a glimmer of hope. But then she scooted up and blinked her eyes clear of her usual pre-coffee bleariness. "Are you okay?" she asked in clear tones.

CM grunted and sighed. "Feelin' sick."

Leslie leaned over and rubbed the top of the bear's head, feeling for a fever. The usual pleasure CM would have felt at Leslie rubbing her head fur was not there. "You always seem to get sick right before the fall semester."

CM grunted and closed her eyes. "Yeah. I guess you're feeling okay?"

"Need coffee, but yeah." Leslie lifted her hand away. "You definitely feel hot. Is there anything I can get you?"

Medicine never helped this sickness. It just had to run its course. By tomorrow evening he'd feel fine again. But she'd have to wait at least another year for Leslie to Change. The she bear sighed. "The phone, so I can call off from work."

Leslie nodded, kissed her on the forehead, and climbed out of bed to retrieve the phone. CM sighed and kept her eyes closed. The pain was familiar but still debilitating. If not for the Change that followed, she wouldn't wish it on anyone.

There wasn't anything else CM could do but lay in bed and wait for the pain to go away. She hoped that Rob and the others would have better luck.

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After calling off from work and being kissed and tended by Leslie, CM spent most of Friday laying in bed. She attempted to read, but her eyes didn't want to focus on the pages. She tried at one point to climb out of bed to go watch a movie on the couch, but it took an hour to convince her body to make that journey; then after watching the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring she decided she'd rather try to sleep anyway. Apart from one time in the evening when she plopped herself on the porcelain pedestal to make her bodily offering, she never bothered trying to get out of bed again.

Leslie was kind enough to leave the phone at her bedside once she went to work, and so CM was able to answer the phone when Rob called to check on her. The skunk asked her how she was doing, but once he knew that CM was suffering the Change sickness, he excused himself and hung up. CM felt like growling at the world, but that would probably only make her stomach tie itself into even more knots. Instead, she lay in bed and let her bodily misery run its course.

Like all things, time worked its own wonders, and the she bear found the patience she'd honed in her many years alone and the seven times she'd suffered this before (not to mention all the periods she'd undergone during her five female years) helped her endure the long Friday. She got little sleep that night, and the illness persisted Saturday morning. Another quick call to work and she resumed her sojourn in bed. Leslie understood her need to suffer alone and after doing what little she could for her husband, Leslie closed the bedroom door and quietly went about her daily chores before work.

By the time Leslie left for her afternoon-evening shift, the pain began to ebb. CM opened her eyes and took a long deep breath of air that stank of bear fur. She panted, drool wetting her cheeks. With her right paw she thrust the covers off her frame, and enjoyed the relatively cool air inside their apartment. A few minutes later, she managed to lumber to her feet and began navigating her heavy bulk over to her dresser. She pulled a loose t-shirt on and a pair of shorts. If she was lucky, she wouldn't need the bras and panties after tomorrow morning, so decided not to bother with them.

Their dog Crystal lay sleeping on her beanbag, but did open her eyes at CM's approach. The she-bear pet the elderly Cairn on the head and then entered the kitchen to find something to eat. It would be her last meal as a bear, possibly forever, and after a day and a half of laying in bed, she was starved!

A hour later, CM had cleaned out the fridge and sat contented, one paw idly stroking her distended and gurgling belly through the fur. If not for being female, she'd love being a bear. And, CM had to admit with a sigh, being female wasn't so bad either.

But tomorrow morning she wouldn't be a bear anymore, and there was plenty to do still to prepare. Being the middle of the Summer, as it was only six o'clock they had a few hours until night cloaked their little mountain town. But CM wouldn't be able to stay up much more after that, not when she had a Change coming the next day.

With a grunt, she hefted herself out of the chair, found the phone, and gave Rob a call. The skunk answered on the third ring. "Hey, CM! Feeling better?"

"Much," CM replied. "No more headache and my belly's fed, so I'm good. How about you? And the rest of SOAP?"

She could almost see him shake his head. "Looks like I'm going to stay a skunk, and none of the other SOAP members reported coming down with the flu recently. Barb and I also checked with a bunch of folks from VTSFFC, but nobody there either."

It only took CM a moment to remember that VTSFFC was the local science fiction and fantasy fan club; technically Technicon was started by VTSFFC, but the last few years it had been mostly run by the furs from SOAP. "So nobody new that we know," CM said with a rumbling sigh. "It was probably too much to expect. What about the others across the state?"

"I called them yesterday to let them know you were out of it, but nothing on that front either. At least not yet. Not even Jan and Dennis had anything to report. Tomorrow's the big day. If anything's going to happen it'll be then."

"And then some," CM added with a faint laugh. "Well, next time you see me I won't be a bear. Most likely. We should keep our eyes and ears open tomorrow. If folks don't show up to work or church and all that, it could be because they've Changed."

Rob laughed. "I was hiding in my room last year! I don't know how long I would have stayed in there if you hadn't shoved your claws under my door! It'll probably take a few days before we can be sure."

"True." CM leaned her head back, shifting the handset from ear to muzzle as she spoke and listened. "Either way, when Kyle gets here, there'll be four of us in Blacksburg."

"He's already here," Rob replied. The skunk snorted and CM could imagine him rolling his eyes. "He's such a chipmunk. He couldn't wait and is crashing over at the furry apartment until the dorms open up. Patrick's going to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't leave fur all over the place."

The bear laughed and felt a smile crease her jowls. "I should have known he'd come early."

"Hey, CM, does Leslie work tomorrow night?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Since Kyle's here, I'm going to have a Changed party at my place tomorrow night. Only going to be four of us it looks like, but Audrey will be there too; Patrick's going to keep the others occupied. If you aren't going to tell Leslie, at least come join us to celebrate a year."

CM nodded. "I will. If I become male again, I'll have to tell Leslie. Until then, we'll see. Thanks for the invite though. I guess I'll see you tomorrow."

"Show up whenever, but not until after five." The skunk paused for a moment then added, "You don't work tomorrow do you?"

"No, I asked for that day off weeks ago."

"They probably think you took the last two days off to extend your holiday."

CM grunted, tongue clicking against the back of her fangs. "They better not."

Rob laughed and said, "Well, I'm going to go over the server one more time to make sure it's ready. If we're right, we should get a whole lot more Changed joining the Network in the next few weeks."

"Indeed! Take care, Rob. I'll see you tomorrow."

"I may try to come to Mass too," Rob replied. "See you then!"

CM hung up the phone and smiled. They may not have any new Changed from amongst their friends, but at least there'd be more of them local no matter what happened. It was a stark change from previous years when CM had spent her days and nights wondering if she was the only one in all the world.

CM lumbered into the computer room and opened her private closet. She pulled out the numbered boxes and opened all those marked "3". It was time to put all of her bear things away.

With care and precision, CM took her clothes out of her dresser and closet and one by one folded them tight and stuffed them into the boxes. She had to shove a few times, and snagged her claws in a few loose fibres a few times too, but managed to get everything inside. Next came all her bras and panties, as well as other female accessories she wouldn't be needing for the next year if she were lucky. Even if she did need them, she'd likely need much smaller versions.

CM stalked every corner of their apartment for anything else that had to go into the boxes. Such a thorough inspection offered several opportunities to clean which she took without thinking. By the time she stuffed all but a single pair of shoes in the boxes, she'd knew Leslie would be very pleased with seeing how nice the apartment looked. Twilight descended outside, and all that CM had left to store in the boxes was her current attire, the last pair of shoes, and her wedding ring.

Time enough for one last jaunt around the complex with Crystal, and then she should get to bed. CM slipped the shoes over her feet, watched them disappear, and called her dog after her. Crystal climbed off the beanbag chair and followed the bear out the door. Crystal was an old dog, but she managed the stairs fine. The evening was pleasantly cool and the slight breeze felt good through her thick fur. Crystal sniffed around and them ambled after the bear as they walked around the Chasewood Downs complex.

She didn't see any of the other neighbourhood dogs, and so after fifteen minutes they wended their way back to the apartment. CM closed the door behind them, gently pet Crystal on her hairy head, and then stretched, letting out a rumbling sigh. "Well, I guess it's time to go to bed, eh, Crystal?"

Her Cairn Terrier licked her nose and laid back down on the bean bag. CM laughed and padded into the computer room. She stuffed her last pair of shoes into the boxes, and then removed the last of her clothing, folded it, and shoved it in. She closed up the boxes and put them back into the closet, making sure that the boxes marked with a "4" were now on top so she could get to them easily if she changed as she expected.

Completely naked apart from her fur, CM turned off the computer room lights and entered her bedroom. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror and shifted about, noting the bulky, ursine form. Her belly curved outward as if she'd hidden a basket beneath her fur. Her breasts sagged, though covered by her brown fur, they appeared only as very noticeable lumps on her chest. Her face, broad and dark, ended in a wide black nose, while her eyes, small and black, stared out with a warmth that she had grown to love in the last year.

CM smiled and her fangs glistened beneath her jowls. Yes, she'd miss being a bear.

CM climbed into bed and pulled out her journal. She tapped the pencil against her fangs for a moment and then began to write.

Aug 16, 2003

Another year comes to a close, another chapter in my unusual life comes to its end. Tomorrow I will Change again, and the only thing I can hope is that I will be male again. I've been female for three years now, and I hate to admit it but it's starting to rub off on me. But there's a very good reason for that. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">This is the first time I've been seen and treated as a female. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">But this is also the first year I've realized that I wasn't alone. There are so many more who are Changed like me into animal-men. First my friend Rob was turned into a skunk. Then there was this lawyer from Cleveland, Walter Lundh who is now a long horn bull. And through him I met Carter Ryan a black wolf from Buffalo, who I've been working with this last year on calculating the number of Changed. And then there's the ones we met at Technicon, Jan and Dennis, Claire, Barb, Carl, Kyle, and Edgar. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">I'm so happy to know I'm not alone, it made being treated like a female from time to time well worth it. It's kind of funny, because I don't even mind the way Jan leered at me the first time we met anymore. I guess he's more than made up for it with his visits, and the time he's spent teaching me to ride a bike. I know I want one of those one day. Ah, but first I need some real money. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">The money we made from the work with the number crunching helped pay off some of my education debts, but there's plenty more of that to go. It's better to pay off debt anyway. Wish the government would figure that one out. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Ironically, the money I used to pay off my debt was tax dollars, so I suppose I shouldn't complain too much. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">It was rather interesting to meet Congressman Sandrick. Good to know there's at least one person in congress who understands our needs. But I really enjoyed meeting Number Two. Reynaldo De Smet was a very interesting fox, and he seemed to understand my situation better than most. It was nice to finally have a chance to talk with somebody who's been Changed longer than I have. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">The important thins above all else, I'm not alone. No matter what happens tomorrow, I'll never be alone again. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Bear. Female. It's been interesting. I love being a bear. I even love having a big belly and dealing with hibernation hunger. And I love making Rob, Jan and the others squirm when I catch a fish in my jaws. And it's kind of fun seeing the way they act all embarrassed around me when we're bathing. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Ah... but the year of bear is over. And hopefully the years of female are over. I only wish that Leslie was Changing too. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Lord, I don't know what You still have in store for me in the years to come, but I will trust in You that everything will be okay. No matter what happens. Please guide me. In nomine Patris, et Filli, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. </div> CM closed her journal, turned out the light, and lay her massive head down to sleep on her last night as a bear. For the first time in a log time, she was truly happy before a Change.

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Five o'clock. CM's eyes popped open at that early hour of the morning with the sudden need to use the bathroom. It was always like this. The she-bear could still smell the pizza on Leslie who lay snoring faintly next to her with mouth agape. Crystal was curled up between them.

CM slid one paw under the sheet and gingerly drew it over her chest and belly. She lifted one knee and eased her paw to the ground, being careful not to catch her long claws on the blankets. She put one hand on the bedframe and heaved herself up. The metal groaned slightly as it disgorged her three-hundred plus pound body, but Leslie continued her peaceful slumber. CM smiled, eyes warming beneath heavy brows, and pulled the covers back over her side of the bed.

With many years of practice walking with claws, CM had no trouble quietly making her way from the bedroom to the bathroom. She shut both doors behind her, sat on the toilet, and relieved herself one last time as a bear. A sullen energy filled her, building to what would come in only minutes. CM tensed her claws, digging through the fur over her knees. What was going to happen this year? What would her friends say when they saw what she became?

CM lowered the lid, flushed, and then shook out her fur, glancing at herself in the mirror. The charge inside of her flesh was making her fingers tremble. She smiled at her reflection and softly whispered, "Goodbye bear."

And then the power broke forth like water rushing through a dam. But instead of that internal expansion she'd felt the last time, this was like being wrapped tight in a glove and squeezed from every direction. Her fur lightened in hue, though still remained a warm brown. It shrank into her body even as her bulk sucked inward like plastic recoiling and corroding from a fire. Her snout narrowed, whiskers flanking on either side. Fangs diminished, while from her gums incisors began to protrude. Rounded ears did not shrink with the rest of her, but lost their fur and scalloped inward.

CM's paws gripped the side of the sink, and they too lost their fur. The skin beneath became a pinkish beige which could almost pass for a typical Caucasian skin tone. Her claws, once long and thick, were now narrow and pointed. The only fur left on her paws was a taper on the back extending just past her wrists.

Her heels lifted off the floor as the thick pads of her feet faded into a slender digitgrade stance. Her toes lengthened and splayed, ursine claws dwindling into tiny spears. She shifted her weight around, knees folding to adjust to her new stance.

Though her weight decreased everywhere else, behind her she felt her tail swell and stretch, descending down beyond her ankles and curling across the cool tile of the bathroom floor. It thickened as she shrank, until it was wider than her arms at its root. The familiar muscles twisted from side to side, and her long whip-like tail slid effortlessly across the floor and through the air.

Aware of all that happened to her body, CM still watched only her face. The face of the bear melted away, even as she shrank inch by inch from the top of the mirror down to its bottom. Though her eyes didn't move, it appeared that they slid further apart as her head moulded to its new shape. But they did bulge more as they darkened to a rich black. Her nose brightened to the same beige hue as her paws, while from beneath her cleft lips protruded a pair of thick, white incisors. Coupled with the long, thick tail, the short stature, the almost furless paws, and the still rotund belly, CM had once more become a rat.

But unlike the bear, this time there was an odd weight bearing down on her front beneath her belly. CM, glanced down and blinked a few times, her heart beating faster and faster as she took the sight in. She wasn't a she anymore. Betwixt her... no, his legs was something he'd pined for these last three years. CM no longer, he was Christopher Mattiaz once again. A man! A rat, but a man at long last!

Chris covered his longer snout with his paws, even as he felt the power of the change dissipate from his body. He trembled, trying to hold back the laugh that pounded at the back of his throat. His tongue pressed firmly against his incisors, and he felt the need to gnaw wake from a long slumber. He shifted his legs about, tail lashing in ecstasy, and nearly pinched his returned genitals. After three years of being a woman, he now had to remember he had something between his legs in front too.

Unable to contain his excitement, Chris grabbed his bathrobe and dashed out the bathroom, short claws digging into the carpet. He yanked the robe over his arms, even as the end dragged a full foot behind him. The robe, too short while he'd been a bear, was much too long now that he was a rat. But he didn't care. He fumbled at the lock to his front door, managed it, charged up the stairs and outside into the parking lot, and let out a shout for joy into the night sky.

"Thank you! Hallelujah! Oh thank you! Thank you!" Chris laughed and danced on his paws, not caring about all the little stones irritating his sensitive flesh, nor that anyone in the complex would wake and hear him. "Oh Lord, thank you! I'm a man again! I love you! Thank you! Hallelujah!" He laughed in delight so hard he started to cry. His tail lashed so hard that he managed to yank his robe off, leaving him completely nude.

Christopher Mattiaz was so happy he managed not to notice his nudity for another three minutes. He capered about, grasping his tail in his paws and feeling across its smooth surface marred only by the occasional scraggly strand of brown hair. He ran his paws through his fur, which was a uniform brown across his back with a lighter underbelly. And he enjoyed every bit of it.

The newly made rat finally pulled his robe back over his form and managed to huddle down on his modified knees. His long tail continued to whip back and forth behind him, so close to the asphalt that he could feel it tickle his scraggly hairs. He took a long deep breath, savouring the feel of every part of his new and very masculine body. In a much quieter voice he said, "Thank you, Father. Please let me stay this way. If it is your will. But for today, thank you!"

Chris made the sign of the cross, lowering his snout as his claw traced out that venerable symbol of his faith. In the light of the streetlamps, Chris consummated his prayer with a kiss from his incisors on the backs of his paws. He rose, once again a man, and walked back to his apartment. It was time to set out his year four gear and post his good fortune on the forums.

He still gave one more scream of joy before rushing back inside.

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Leslie slept for another three hours in which Chris readied all of his rat things and posted on the Changed network. It was too early for there to be any postings about new Changed, but there were a couple people who knew folks who'd been sick the last couple of days, so the rat hoped to see some good news from them soon.

Chris spent a good bit of time refamiliarizing himself with his rodent form. He'd been a rat once before, and had been male that time too, so it didn't take long for him to remember how his body worked. The profusion of whiskers were very sensitive and helped him determine which way the wind was blowing and also helped him find his way in the dark The long tail helped him keep his balance; as a bear he could walk and stand like a human, but the rodent body shape was more beastly and he always leaned slightly forward with bent knees and ankles. His fingers and toes were long and thin, and so he had to trade up for his original wedding band, the smallest of the four. His incisors yearned to gnaw and he realized he'd have to find some way to do so discretely. When he'd been a rat before, most of the year he'd still been a bachelor, and so it was easy to keep a supply of sticks to sate his teeth. Now he'd have to figure out a way to keep Leslie from noticing chewed up wood chips.

But with a new body there came other adjustments too. Chris had to find a comfortable way to sit down without pinching his tail and using the toilet without making a mess every time. Because his tail was not as flexible as he wished, he had to sit as far forward on the couch as he could, or lean back and slide his tail forward between his legs. And on the toilet he had to sit backward and bend as far forward as he could just to aim properly. It was one of the few things he knew he'd miss about being female — a male Changed always had to perform some sort of gymnastics to cleanly make use of a human toilet.

But those were challenges he was delighted to undertake. He was equally pleased to resume buttoning his pants in front and back. He'd have to be very careful about leaving laundry out because the hole he'd made to accommodate his rat tail was very large compared to the size of his pants. He'd even sewn tail sleeves onto his winter gear to help keep the sensitive appendage warm.

But now that he was male again, the thought struck him, perhaps it was time to let Leslie in on the secret the way Rob had let Audrey in on it. There wouldn't be the gender awkwardness, nor the spectre of a lesbian relationship, a thought that thoroughly discomforted and disgusted Chris. Not that he would say others couldn't do that sort of thing if it was their choice, he just had no desire to do it himself, no matter how comfortable he'd become in a female body.

But when Leslie finally woke, the inchoate desire to tell her what he truly was withered inside of him like a new shoot under a bright, arid sun. One look from her groggy face as she walked into the kitchen to prepare herself some coffee made him withdraw back into his nest of secrets. After a brief ‘good morning', the rat busied himself with stuffing his modified clothing into his side of the dresser. Maybe he'd have the courage after Mass to tell.

When he finished, Chris started to head out to join his wife on the couch when it dawned on him that this would be just about the first time he would be male with her since their wedding. He tapped his knuckles against either side of his snout to calm himself. It felt so odd to brush them through his whiskers, stiff but yielding and sensitive. His body trembled for several seconds, and then his breathing caught up to him. "I'm a man again," he whispered, new tongue forming the pleasing words without difficulty. "I'm a man again. I can be a proper husband."

He opened his eyes, emboldened, and left the bedroom, found his wife on the couch scouring the TV Guide crossword, and slid in next to her, one paw carefully gliding his tail around his other hip. He slid his left arm around her back, and then set his right paw on her thigh and stroked softly with his thumb and claw. He turned to look up at her, noting her face in all its lovely detail.

He knew that not everyone would say that Leslie was beautiful. She didn't fit the stereotype that the world considered glamorous of gorgeous. She had a small face that fit nicely beneath her tangle of tightly curled dark brown hair. Her lips only smiled when she was truly happy, which made her appear more focussed than she really was. And her glasses gave her a faintly standoffish look. But for all that, Christopher Mattiaz knew in his heart she was beautiful and he loved her.

Together they finished the crossword puzzle, then snuggled on the couch. Most of the time, Chris laid his head against her chest, curling up just like the rodent he now was. They didn't say anything, and they didn't need to. When the time came to head to Mass, they hugged once and then walked to their bedroom together to change. Chris made sure that Leslie didn't see him buttoning up his tail hole, but otherwise hid nothing from her. It felt good to be able to do that.

To his delight, Rob and Audrey were there at Mass. Rob was still a skunk and Audrey was still human. Rob grinned brightly, showing off his fangs when he saw the rat and Leslie enter. Chris nodded, noted the quick glance Rob made toward Leslie, and then shook his head. Rob furrowed his brow, long tail lashing over the back of the pew, and nearly brushing in the face of another parishioner who knelt at prayer, but didn't say anything to give him away. In a quiet voice he said, "Chris, Leslie, good to see you."

"And you, Rob," Chris said. "Glad you could make it."

Leslie and Audrey said their hellos too and the four of them settled down for Mass. Chris wished he could have paid attention, but he was still too excited by all the possibilities being male again brought. Nearly all of them involved Leslie, whose leg his paw stayed toward throughout the entire service. But after three years of being female, he knew he should try not to be so desperate. That was going to be the hard part.

And Leslie seemed to notice too. After Mass, Rob invited them out to lunch, but Leslie had to go into work soon so they had to decline. When they got home, Chris insisted on making her something before she left for work. At which Leslie said, "You've been awfully attentive today. Is something wrong?"

Chris tensed, long tail curling tightly about his foot paws. He licked his jowls quickly, and pressed his paws together. "No! No. Nothing's wrong. Well, just, I guess I've been feeling..." He took a deep breath, and lowered his ears and whiskers. "I've been neglecting you lately, Leslie. I want to try to make up for it. I know you wish I was around more and would be with you more. I'm going to give that a try too. I love you, Leslie. I want to be with you forever. I want to be your husband and not just in name. I want-"

Before he could go any further, Leslie wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the nose. "Oh, I love you, Chris. I'm sorry I've been so distant too."

Chris hugged his wife tightly and repressed the excited squeak that danced on his tongue. The tip of his tail squeezing his ankle in joy.

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Chris carefully tapped the numbers with his narrows claws and nestled the handset against the base of his ear so it could reach his muzzle. It rang twice before a beastly voice picked up. "Hey CM!"

The rat had to suppress a gloat. "It's Chris again, Carter! I'm back to being male."

The wolf barked in delight. "Hey, that's great!! Congratulations! Your voice sounds higher pitched. What did you become?"

"I'm a rat again."

"I bet that's weird after being a bear."

"A little, but I'm already getting used to being two feet shorter and a heck of a lot lighter!"

"And having a tail again," Carter added. He could picture the wolf's jaw cracked open in a lupine grin, that sort of half laugh that one can see in a dog as they pant.

"There is that too," Chris admitted. He reached down one paw and stroked the backs of his fingers across the top of his tail. The soft flesh tingled at the touch. "But my rat mind is wired to like having a tail, so it's not as hard as you might think."

"Yeah," Carter replied thoughtfully, "I feel the same way about my tail. So hey, any other news on the Changed front? I only got home a little while ago. Family insisted I go camping with them this weekend."

"Camping as a wolf? I bet that was fun!"

Carter barked another laugh. "Oh it was! I took a walk last night and once I was far enough away from the tent I gave a good howl! And other wolves answered! We howled for a good ten minutes, and then I headed back. My family was worried sick about me and my Dad had his rifle ready in case any of those wolves came around."

Chris's whiskers stood taut. "You're lucky you didn't get shot!"

"Nah, I was wearing bright reflective clothing. Anyway, any Changed news I should know about? Was going to check the network after dinner, but hey, you're here, CM... I mean Chris."

"Not much really to report. Rob is still a skunk. I've called several Changed I know in Virginia or nearby and none of them have yet reported any new Changed. And none of them had a second Change either. There are four of us Changed down here in Blacksburg now; Kyle came down early. We're getting together for a party at Rob's place in a little bit."

"Sounds like fun. Kyle's the chipmunk who drinks Red Bull right?"

"Yeah, that's him. Incoming Freshman here at Tech. I could restrain him before, but now we'll be the same size. Pray for me!"

Carter laughed again, yipping in pleasure at the image of a rat and chipmunk wrestling. "Will do. Wish I could say I had some good news on the Changed front, but, like I said, I was camping this weekend. Will keep my eyes open and my nose ready these next few weeks. It is early yet."

"True," Chris admitted. His whiskers drooped a bit and he slid one paw beneath his T-shirt to scratch at his light belly fur. "Most folks who did Change today are probably in hiding right now. Give em a week to get over the fur, claws, and hooves and they'll be out and about."

"Exactly! Then we get to start updating our models again and earning that government money."

Chris sighed, a soft squeak emerging from his throat. "Don't remind me! I'm hoping to actually finish my PhD this year."

Carter laughed. "We shouldn't have to do as much this year, but yeah, I hope you get time to do your own research. How's that going, by the way?"

"Decently enough. I'm going to probably try to do less Changed stuff for a few months to get caught back up, but I hope we can get together again sometime when Walter isn't making us."

"Me too. Hey, I'm going to go snag my dinner. I've got this T-bone steak I can't wait to gnaw on. Have fun at your party!"

"Take care, Carter!" Chris chuckled at the image of Carter laying on his belly, legs sprawled behind him, worrying a steak bone in his jaws. Then again, he'd spent part of the afternoon gathering some twigs and sneaking them into his closet so he could gnaw on them when his teeth hurt. The Change definitely made them adapt in strange and surprising ways.

Chris set the phone down for a moment and glanced at his list of numbers. He only had two more Changed to call, but these two shared the same number. He felt a little silly for leaving them to the end. A part of him couldn't help but worry how they'd react to hearing that Chris was a guy again. Silly, silly, silly! Chris picked up the phone, tapped the number with the ends of his claws, and put the handset back against his cheek.

"Congratulations!" roared into the earpiece. "Saw your post, Chris! Congratulations on being a guy!" The boisterous voice of Jan Krazinski was utterly unmistakable, and not just because of the Polish accent he picked up from his parents.

Chris felt another ten pounds lighter and laughed in turn. "Thanks, Jan! It is wonderful. I can be me again."

"And a rat, too," Jan added. "Going to have to do something with that tail of yours so you can ride. It'll burst your hip pack, ya!"

"Undoubtedly," Chris said with a sigh. He ran his knuckles across his tail root again and felt the tip twitch back and forth. "I guess it'll be a while before I ride again."

"Nah! Dennis and me will rig something for ya!" Jan laughed heartily. "So have you told the Misses yet?"

Chris sighed and paced back and forth. "No, not yet. I going to try to ease her into it I think. I'm just not ready to tell her what's been happening these last few years."

"I understand," he replied, his earlier enthusiasm waning into more measured tones. "Ya gotta tell her sometime though. Best do it while you're a guy."

"I hope I stay a guy! But anyway, I take it you're still a boar?"

"Yah, and Dennis is still a hedgehog. Course he was gonna stay that was, his third year now and all. I'm starting my second. And boy I'm glad I'm still a boar."

"It does fit you," Chris said without a trace of irony. "I'm glad that you get to be what you want, Jan. Have you told your family yet?"

"Nah," Jan replied with a porcine grunt. "But I'm going to once I know how Ma's chemo went. If not so good, I tell her so she knows. If good I wait for her to recover then I tell her so I don't make things worse."

"I'm praying for her," Chris replied, which was about all he could think to do.

"Thanks! Me too." For a moment, Jan's voice was faintly troubled, something so rare that Chris had to pull the phone away from his muzzle so his friend wouldn't hear him grind his teeth in empathy. When Jan did speak again, his cheerfulness returned in full. "Say, you posted this morning, but that was a while back. Have you seen any new Changed yet?"

"No, I haven't," Chris replied, breathing a sigh of relief. "Neither have any of the other Changed crew, but it is early. We probably won't see any for a week at least."

Jan laughed with a faint squeal. "Dennis and I met one!"

Chris blinked and his whiskers stiffened. "Really?"

"Yup! A trucker from Atlanta was passing through and just happened to stop at our diner! He turned into a badger while crossing into Virginia this morning and boy was he glad to see us. Thought he was going crazy but we set him straight. Name's Denver of all things, and he promised to always use our diner when passing through. Don't know when he'll join the Network, but we gave him the address. Denver isn't much one for computers. But he sure loved our bikes and his Rig sure was sweet. Except for all those new claw holes he put into the leather this morning, it was a thing of beauty!"

Chris started laughing as his friend described the newly-minted badger. He could always trust Jan to turn the conversation over to bikes eventually. "That's great, Jan. So did you guys introduce him to the other NoVa Changed?"

"Denver had a schedule so he couldn't stay long, but we got his number. Dennis is chatting with him now on all the stuff we missed."

"Well," Chris surmised, leaning his head back and stretching. His tail lifted with the stretch, as his toe claws dug into the carpet. "It sounds like we've found our first new Changed of the 2003 Change. Good working, Jan! Tell Dennis I said so too."

"Will do. Ya, told you that diner was a good place to eat!"

Chris laughed again. "It was! It was! I hope to go back. Won't eat quite as much this time though."

"Lost all the weight?"

"Most of it, yeah. But I've still got a pot belly here to work off. I think I got too much into being the big bear last year. I wasn't nearly this fat when I was a rat last time."

"Take a picture and send our way so I know what to expect when we see you next." Jan grunted again and it sounded like he was walking around his apartment. Chris could hear him flipping through some papers. "Hey, when would be a good weekend to visit? Either you come up here or we go down to you. Your choice."

"Jan, I do want to spend more time working on my PhD this year. I can't get together with you every free weekend. And I certainly can't come up to the DC area right now."

"No problem. So what weekend would be good?"

Chris sighed, surrendered, and looked over his calendar. "Hmmm, probably the thirteenth and fourteenth of September would be the best."

"I've got ya penciled in!" Jan declared triumphantly. "So, we staying at your place again?"

"So long as Dennis doesn't mind getting dragged to Mass on Sunday morning." No point fighting it anymore. Jan had invited himself down yet again. Not that he should really be complaining. How often did his other friends try to visit him? Not that often.

"Great! We'll see you then. Going to have to design something for your tail so you can ride. Weather should be great for riding! I'm really looking forward to biking through Jefferson."

"Yeah, it'll be nice up through November down here." Chris glanced at his clock and almost bit his tongue. "Jan, I really have to get going. Barb, Kyle, Rob and I are getting together tonight to have a little Changed party. And if I don't skedaddle I'm gonna be late!"

"Hey, have a great time! Congratulations again, Chris! Be good to see what you look like as a guy, ya. I bet not as good!" The boar laughed one more time, and then hung up. Chris hung up the phone before shaking his head and holding back the mirthful squeaks pounding from his lungs. "Jan, you are utterly incorrigible." He glanced down at Crystal who crouched beside him sniffing at his paws. She'd been doing that off and on all day. Could she tell he'd Changed?

There was no time to worry about it now. He was running really late. "Okay, Crystal. One time around the block and then I have to go!" He scooped her up in his arms and rushed outside, not even bothering to put on his shoes.

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After the quick walk, Chris slipped his shoes over his awkward paws, grabbed his car keys and wallet, and locked the apartment door behind him. Getting into his Saturn proved very easy, but with his reduced stature, the seat was now pressed nearly all the way forward. He left it back just enough that his tail could curl behind him comfortably. Still, he leaned his head forward to see over the steering wheel. The seat belt tugged back at his chest. It would be a while before he was used to this again. Maybe a bike wouldn't be such a bad investment even while a rat.

Like going to Mass that morning, Chris carefully checked every angle before pulling out and as he drove. The tight curves of University City Blvd made the fur on his back stand up in alarm, but they passed quickly enough, and soon he made the turn onto Prices Fork, and then into the Foxridge apartment complex. Rob and Audrey lived in the Strubbles Creek section, which were the nicest of all the apartments. Chris fondly remembered helping them move in a few months back, and all the times they'd spent the evening together, sometimes doing Changed things, other times just watching movies and drinking some. Rob's tolerance sucked, but while he'd been a bear, Chris could down more than he knew he should without feeling anything except warm. He wondered how much he could handle now, and decided it was best not to find out just yet.

He pulled into the lot and smiled when he saw the car with West Virginia plates. Kyle was already here. Chris climbed out of his car, straightened his tail out, and walked up the steps to Rob's door. He knocked with the back of his knuckles, and brushed his whiskers back into some semblance of order.

"Come on in!" Rob shouted from the other side.

Chris stepped through and grinned. The black panther, Barb Fisher, was reclining on the couch with her pack nestled between her legs. Audrey, the only human in the room, sat next to her with her sketchbook in her lap. Kyle Paglioni, the chipmunk, was dressed in a maroon and orange Virginia Tech T-shirt that blended nicely with his brown fur and dark eyes. He bounded to his feet at Chris's entrance and burst into a grin and shout, "Chris! Great to see you again! And a rat! That's so awesome!"

Kyle rushed to his side and yanked him into the apartment. Chris barely had time to whip his tail through the door before the overeager chipmunk shut it. "We were wondering where you were. This place is great. I've already driven around town and all over the countryside. There's these great mountains you can climb and some gorgeous trees too! And I hear they have some caverns as well. I can't wait!"

Chris laughed, and found Rob in the kitchen with an apron on. The sweet aroma of grilling steaks made his mouth water. He tore his eyes from the skunk to wave to Barb and Audrey before Kyle yanked him in even further. Turning to the chipmunk he squeaked in laughter and said, "Yes, we have all of that and more down here. We'll be happy to take you some of those places when we can. But if I'm not mistaken, you'll have school work to do very soon."

"It's why we have to go soon!" Kyle's black eyes gleamed with repressed excitement. His colourful cheeks spread in a smile and he gave Chris a pat on the arm. "Well, hey, how about you! Male again I see. Good, good! And my size too. Even better! Nobody expects the smallest guys to kick their tail!"

Chris looked him up and down and crossed his arms. "And just how many Red Bulls have you been drinking today?"

"None! It sucks! Rob won't let me!"

"Because I want to have an apartment to sleep in when you leave tonight, Kyle!"

"I'm not that bad," Kyle protested.

"But you did take out that stand at Technicon," Barb pointed out with a laugh in her muzzle.

"That was an accident. I was just trying to get around these big guys. It's not like those claw marks I left in the wall were that big."

Rob waved a meat fork at the chipmunk. "You're lucky the hotel didn't notice that too, or I'd have taken the damages out of your furry little rump!"

Kyle pouted for a moment and then laughed. "I know. I know! Sorry about all that. Anyway, it's great to be here."

"Indeed it is," Barb said with a smile that showed off her fangs.

"I wish I could just see what you all look like," Audrey admitted as she erased something in her sketchbook. "I'm trying to draw Barb here, but it's all guesswork really."

"You're doing fine," Barb assured her.

"So," Chris said, as he found a place to sit down. There were two chairs, and ostensibly Kyle could choose to sit in the other one if he could stay seated for more than two seconds. Chris looped his tail around one side and let it dangle off the edge of the chair next to his feet. His toes just brushed the floor. "What's the plan for tonight?"

"The plan is I finish cooking dinner, we eat, and then we do whatever, chat, watch movies, get drunk. Whatever. Just a little party for us Changed."

"And to celebrate you being male again, Chris," Barb said with true delight in her purring voice. "Yay!"

Chris felt his scalloped ears blush and lower against his head. "It is really nice. Leslie and I... we... ah, I am so glad I'm a guy again." He glanced at the others and then pointed to both Barb and Rob. "And also to celebrate one year of the both of you being Changed. Looks like you've both settled into your new forms."

"I like it," Barb said in her usual relaxed manner. "I feel more alive than I used to. And this nose told me so much more about the flowers in my garden. Have I shown you all the collage I put together?"

"Not yet," Chris replied.

"It's a collage of both sight and scent. Now let me see if I brought it with me." She leaned forward to dig through her bag.

Kyle's ears perked up and he jumped away from the set of console games he'd been inspecting. "Sight and scent? That's so cool!"

Barb rifled through her things for several seconds and then shook her head. Her long tail flitted back and forth lazily behind her. "Looks like I left it at the house. Oh well, better luck next time."

"Ah well," Kyle agreed. He returned to his inspection of the video games. Barb returned to watching Audrey draw her true portrait. Rob stayed in the kitchen and kept on cooking many delicious things. Chris's ears turned as he heard the meat sizzle on the grill. He sighed contentedly. His first full year not alone. And now he was a guy again. He couldn't recall the last time he'd felt so happy.

It truly was a good time to be Changed.

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