User:MatthiasRat/Not Quite Alone

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Paradise story universe
Works by MatthiasRat on Shifti
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This is the third story of Christopher's life in the Paradise setting.

Not Quite Alone

Author: MatthiasRat

Friday nights, the furry club of Virginia Tech, known as SOAP, met to play games, chat, and in general have a good time. Christopher loved the camaraderie, even if he still had to be careful. High-fiving his friends often ran the risk of severe laceration, or at least really sore palms. He chuckled under his breath as he remembered the way Rob had cradled his paw that first night a little over month ago.

SOAP met on campus in Squires so most of the others would drive there and park wherever they could find a spot. Not so Christopher, who walked from his apartment down Tom's Creek all the way to campus. Not only did he hate finding a parking spot on campus, but he hated having to squeeze his three-hundred pound ursine body into his Saturn. Besides, wearing a v-neck shirt with wide collar and shorts, the brisk evening air felt good. It'd be even better when he walked home after the sun had set.

Despite his bulk, especially around his middle, his bear body seemed quite able to handle the hike without feeling any exhaustion. He panted some, but not enough to feel self-conscious. He hadn't even bothered with a bra. It was too nice to worry about his breasts jostling around.

So early in the academic year, the campus was still busy at that hour. Cars circled the Drillfield, and he saw a ROTC squad jogging in formation and identical clothes. Past the War Memorial Chapel he could see a group of students throwing frisbees and footballs. The leaves hadn't begun changing colors yet, but they would in a month. Christopher wove through several groups of students as he made his way down to the arch. As he passed beneath the most recent architectural addition to the campus, he saw Rob pulling up in his Matrix. Nick was with him.

"Hey Chris," Nick called, waving as he climbed out of the car. "Did you walk again?"

"I love walking," Christopher replied, smiling. "It's only twenty minutes, and it's good exercise."

Nick chuckled. "It doesn't appear to be helping."

The bear patted his belly and shrugged. "Winter hibernation, you know?"

"So you're serious about this bear thing?"

"Yeah, Chris is very serious about that," Rob said as he slammed his door shut, backpack hanging from one shoulder. The skunk grinned, short little fangs poking out from behind his lips. "You've seen the way sh... he's been eating lately."

Christopher glared at Rob. The skunk had barely caught himself this time. He was the only one who knew the bear was really female. Well, him and this bull character who'd contacted them two weeks ago. The initial excitement had worn off after a few days. Now it had settled into a vague impatience. The bull, who'd never identified himself by name, had not contacted them again after that first night. He'd instructed them to wait, promising them that he would bring them into the know, and now nothing. Christopher had tried calling the number he'd given Rob three times, but the line had gone dead.

"Yes I have!" Nick said. "We're going to have to start buying twice as much whenever you come over."

"Sorry about that," Christopher replied as the three of them turned towards the doors at the rear end of Squires. "I've just been so hungry lately. And Rob's a good cook. Hard to resist having thirds and fourths!"

Squires was the main student center at Virginia Tech. It had convention space, offices for various clubs, a few fast food joints, an eight lane bowling alley, pool tables, arcade games, music practice rooms, display cases featuring trophies or snatches of Tech history, and even a dance hall. The three of them climbed to the third floor. Here they found the small meeting room in which SOAP took place, far removed from the regular Squires activity.

Trevor and Brett were already there, as well as Patrick, Audrey, and two of the new members of SOAP. The room contained two long tables pressed together. Trevor sat at one end with a pile of Ironclaw books, character sheets, and some dice. The others sat nearby with character sheets of their own. Patrick, thin and dark-haired, complained, "Why can't we play Jadeclaw? They have dragons in Jadeclaw."

"I don't have Jadeclaw," Trevor replied. He smiled when he saw the trio enter. "Greetings! We're making Ironclaw characters for this year's game. Here's character sheets." Trevor slid three sheets down the table.

Rob sat next to Audrey, who leaned over and kissed him on the nose. Nick settled in next to Patrick and Christopher took a seat where he would have plenty of room to stretch. He smiled to everyone, and waved to the two new members, trying desperately to remember their names. He'd met them only once so far, and despite the fact that one was tall and the other short, he hadn't been able to keep them straight.

"Good evening, gentleman," the tall one said.

"Hey, Randall," Rob replied. The skunk stared at his character sheet for a moment, and then turned to Trevor. "So why are we playing Ironclaw?"

"Chris said it was one of the best furry games out there, and I agree."

Christopher nodded. "It's very medieval. It won't have the unrealistic action and gothiness of Werewolf. And it will give us more time to interact with our characters instead of rolling dice all the time."

"Not with Trevor GMing it won't," Rob said.

Trevor chuckled. "I resemble that remark!"

Nick laughed. "Hey, Trevor, do you have any other books to pass around? It'll make character creation a lot easier."

"I have two extra books, so you'll need to share."

The other newcomer, Randall, and Brett shared a book, as did Audrey and Rob, and Nick and Patrick. Christopher knew the system well enough that he started adding a few details to his character sheet. He smiled and turned his head to one side and glanced down at his breasts. They were resting comfortably in his shirt. But it did give him an idea for his character. For race, he wrote in bear. Now all he needed was a female name.

If Rob thought he acted like a momma bear, then he would do so. In their game at least!

"Hello everyone!" a new voice said. Stepping through the doorway was a stout freshman dressed in a black kilt with combat boots. "Sorry I'm late. ROTC wanted to do an extra march around the Drillfield."

"Hey, Isaac," Chris said, waving him to a seat. "You're just in time to make an Ironclaw character. Well, once we have another free book."

"I'm sorry about that, I only have three copies," Trevor said. "Ironclaw character creation is easy."

"I have a few questions about making my character," Randall said. "If I make a bull alchemist, could I store my methane and make bombs? It's just a matter of simple science."

Everyone stared at Randall. Trevor grimaced and said, "No, I don't think you should be able to do that."

"Aww, but it's just science! A good alchemist will know some chemistry. And they'd know a lot about fire. Methane plus fire equals nifty explosion."

"Well, I'm not going to allow it."

"Aww," Randall whined, but he had a fiendish grin on his face. Christopher suspected that getting what he'd asked for hadn't been the point.

Isaac chuckled next to Chris, "Oh Randall, stop trying to powergame."

"I'm not powergaming, I'm just using the rules to make the optimal character."

"That's powergaming!" Rob said, long tail twitching.

"You're no fun," Randall moped and returned to fiddling with his sheet.

Christopher finished writing down the stats that he knew by heart, and set his pencil down. He stretched his claws and glanced about the room. Almost everyone from SOAP was there already. "Does anybody know if Cindy and Van will show up?"

"They will not be making it," Trevor reported, still in that level cheery voice. "Van had to take a job that has him working Friday nights, so they've asked to be excused from our game."

"Oh, that sucks." Christopher had specifically asked for Friday night's off when he'd started working at Target. Much to his delight, he'd received it.

While waiting for one of the books to free up, he chatted with Isaac. Isaac, like most Virginia Tech students, had come from northern Virginia, and was escaping the hustle and bustle of the DC suburbs. When asked about the kilt, he admitted that he didn't actually have any Scottish heritage in him, he just liked kilts. Chris wondered if that might not be a good solution for some of his furry forms. It'd save him the trouble of sewing tail holes in his pants.

Rob's cell phone began ringing, and the skunk nearly bolted upright in his seat. "You okay?" Audrey asked.

The skunk glanced at the number on his phone, and his eyes flicked briefly to Christopher. The bear sat up straighter, his chair groaning beneath him. "Yeah, just caught me by surprise. I'll be back, gotta take this." He rushed out the door as he pulled the handset open.

"Rob has been pretty jumpy lately," Nick said after the skunk was gone.

"Heh... have you seen his room?" Brett asked. "He keeps it clean."

"Well, at least something in that apartment is," the other new member replied sarcastically.

"I try to keep my side clean!" Brett objected.

"I seem to recall seeing laundry lying on your side of our dorm room, Aaron," Randall pointed out. And there was the last one's name. Christopher tried to fix it in his memory.

"Whatever," Aaron grumped.

The door opened and the skunk stuck his head in. "Hey, Chris, can you come here for a minute?"

Christopher nodded, heart pounding. It had to be the bull. About time too!

Once in the hall and the door closed behind him, Christopher leaned down, head next to Rob's with the phone between them. Rob said, "Okay, we're both here."

A gruff voice replied, "Chris, I need to hear your voice."

"I'm here too," the bear said, knowing that his growling female voice would be unmistakable.

"Thank you. I apologize for making you wait so long before contacting you again. I know you both have attempted to contact me in the interim, but you must understand how careful we have to be before exposing ourselves. Now that we've had some time to learn more about you, we would like to meet."

"As in, face to face?" Christopher asked.

"Yes. You may decline, but unless we meet, you will not have access to the Changed network."

"Of course we want to meet!" Rob practically laughed, his long tail dancing behind him, "When and where?"

The bull did not sound satisfied, but that may have been the phone. "That is all arranged. Tomorrow, we will meet at a small restaurant southeast of Pittsburgh. From Blacksburg, this is at most a six hour drive, so you can easily arrive by one o'clock."

"Hey, we're college students. We like to sleep in on Saturdays." Rob's tail no longer danced as happily.

"I assume a small break in your schedule will not hamper either of you."

"What am I supposed to tell my wife?" Christopher asked, rather disturbed at how sudden this had come. There were so many things to consider and plan. What would he wear? Where would they stay?

"Tell her that you are going to the Pittsburgh area to meet with friends. She is aware of your Internet contacts, is she not?"

Christopher grumbled. "Yes, but—"

"Good," the bull declared. "I have booked a room for you at a Holiday Inn off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I am paying the bill. I will send the directions to your email accounts after we hang up."

"But," Christopher growled, "we don't even know your name."

"I am Changed like you. When we meet tomorrow, I will tell you my name. It will do you no good to know it tonight."

"We'll feel a lot better about driving six hours tomorrow," Rob pointed out. "You know our names. We ought to know yours."

The bull was silent but for heavy breathing. After nearly ten seconds he said, "Lundh. My name is Walter Lundh. Will you come tomorrow?"

Christopher rubbed his paws over one another. "It's so short notice..."

Rob's tail flicked the bear's backside. "Yes, we'll come, Walter. See you tomorrow in Pittsburgh."

"Very good. Have a good evening, gentlemen." The line went dead.

Rob put the phone away and stepped back a pace. "I hope you didn't have any plans this weekend."

"I was hoping to spend time with Leslie before she goes to work tomorrow evening."

"Well, buy her a souvenir or something. I take it I'm driving?"

The bear straightened and stretched, toe-claws scratching the tiled floor and paws brushing the ceiling. "A six hour road trip? We better take your car! I'm liable to be one surly bear anyway after being cramped that long. If you make me deal with highway drivers on top of that, it'll be worse."

Rob grimaced, long tail drooping. "Great, now I have to set my alarm." He looked at the door. "What do we tell them?"

"Why not the truth? We need to meet with somebody in Pittsburgh this weekend, but we don't know what it's about."

"A job opportunity perhaps?"

"Works for me." Christopher grinned. "So what race is your character going to be?"

Rob laughed. "Skunk of course."

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Six o'clock came far too soon for Rob. He smacked his clock off the side table and crawled out of bed. He had a half hour to brush his fur and dress. Chris had suggested he pack and set aside clothes before going to bed. As his mind blearily tried to discern up from down, he was very glad he'd listened to her advice.

His tail fur was still frazzled and there was an irritating knot on the back of his thigh by the time he climbed into his car. But he was awake. The roads around Blacksburg were quiet. He only saw one other car on his way to Chris's place. Irritatingly enough, Chris was waiting for him on the steps outside her apartment with a huge thermos of coffee in her paw, and a large suitcase next to her.

She smiled as he drove up, her fangs gleaming in the soft morning light. She'd opted to dress in a blue button-up short-sleeve shirt, the top two buttons of which were left undone, and matching shorts. She hefted the suitcase as if it were a pillow and walked over to the trunk. Rob climbed out of the car and stretched out his tail. "What in the world are you bringing? It's just for one night!"

Chris shrugged and tapped the trunk with her claws. "I always overpack. And don't make any girl jokes. Are you going to pop the trunk?"

"Right." After the luggage was stowed, Rob and Chris climbed into the car. It sank a couple inches as soon as the bear settled inside. "That coffee smells really good," he said. "I need to get some gas. Could you go inside and grab me some?"

Chris nodded. "Sure. Do you take cream?"

Rob tapped the black fur on his arm with one claw. "Better make it that color."

The bear chuckled.

Ten minutes later, they had gas, they had coffee, and they were heading west on Route 460. Chris put a straw in her thermos and sucked on her coffee. She then picked up the map and traced the roads with one claw. "Have you ever driven 460 all the way to West Virginia?"

Rob shook his head. "How far is it?"

"Forty-five minutes to West Virginia, an hour to I-77. Some beautiful mountains along the way. Did you bring a camera?"

"No, didn't think about it."

Chris smiled and tapped her window. Rob nodded, and the she-bear rolled down the window to let in the cool morning air. She jerked one claw over her shoulder. "I have two cameras with me, my Polaroid for sharing pictures when we meet this Walter Lundh, and my SLR for anything we want to turn out well. I took a look at the map last night and we'll be passing the New River Gorge. I thought we could stop for a short break there."

Rob grimaced, "Didn't Walter says he wanted us there by one?"

"Yes, but the speed limit in West Virginia is 70 on highways, so you'll be able to make up some of that time."

The skunk grinned, steering carefully around the mountain bends, all the while letting the speedometer inch upward. "What do you think of this guy? He seems a bit secretive to me. What's with not wanting to tell us his name?"

She sucked on her coffee again and shook her head. "Makes perfect sense to me. You don't just go telling people you're a bull, a bear, or a skunk. And if you have to, you don't tell them who you are unless you know they have reason to believe you."

Rob's tail tip flicked across the top of his seat. "He saw my picture. He knows I'm a skunk. I told him you're a bear."

"True." She leaned back in her seat and let the wind run through her cheek fur. "He sounded older to me. Maybe his job requires him to be secretive. And maybe he's been like us for a while. The only reason I risked exposing myself to you back in August was because you were a friend, and I had just changed again. If I didn't know who you were, I'd be pretty nervous about revealing myself."

Rob scratched the back of his head with his claws. He'd learned to scratch gently in the last five weeks, and the scars from his latest hard-way lesson were all healed. He almost felt like he knew what he was doing in his skunk body. "I want others to know," Rob said. "Well, my friends that is. I still don't like the idea of some scientist getting their hands on me."

"You were alone like this for maybe six hours," Chris pointed out, her tone arch. "You only know what its like to be alone this way because I've told you." She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "And how did Walter find you, anyway?"

Rob glanced at those four-inch claws. Chris had trimmed them yesterday, so they were blunt at the end. He chided himself; Chris was his friend, she'd never hurt him like that. "You know that furry roleplaying forum you like to hang out on? I took a picture of myself and used it as my user icon."

Chris set her coffee down and snapped, "You what? I told you not to reveal yourself! You don't know who else might have seen it!"

"Hey now!" Rob slowed the vehicle as they passed through Pembroke. He pointed to the turn off to the Cascades Trail. "It was only up as long as we were up there. I posted it just before you invited me to go, and I took it down as soon as we got back. Besides, I thought you said nobody could see you were furry and female in your pictures."

"Nobody had! But that doesn't mean there aren't some people out there who could."

"People like us who we want to meet can, and did."

"But there might be others, some still human who can see what we really are. You shouldn't have taken the chance."

Rob found himself getting irritated. Chris was slipping back into momma bear mode and lecturing him like a recalcitrant cub. He was tired, groggy, and only a half hour into a six hour drive to meet a mysterious bull. He was not going to put up with this! "Look, Momma bear, if not for what I did, we might never have met anybody else like us."

Chris growled a bit, but settled back in her seat. One paw brushed over her breasts, and then she stared out the window. "It just makes me uncomfortable. You knew that."

"You're my friend, Chris. Not my mother."

"But you put me at risk too. I don't care if something good came out of it."

Rob sighed. "Hey, mind if I put on some tunes?" She waved her paw, eyes watching out the window as they drove into a light fog bank.

Neither of them said anything until they'd finally left the fog bank shortly before they reached I-77 in West Virginia. The road had passed through a series of low hills, another couple small towns, and along the side of a steep mountain slope before passing into the steady green hills of West Virginia. All the while the fog had surrounded them, making driving difficult. Rob had put on a movie soundtrack, but he hadn't really heard any of it.

When they came to the crest of a rise and saw several buildings along the side of the road, and the very first traffic light since they'd turned onto Route 460, Chris pointed to the right. "Here's the turn onto I-77."

"I assume we want North." Rob said as he pulled onto the exit. By now they weren't the only ones on the road, but the highway seemed sparse without a single semi in sight.

Chris fished in her shirt pocked and pulled out a roll of quarters. "We'll need this for the tolls along the way. Since we're getting off on Route 19 in about thirty miles, we shouldn't use too much of this here."

Rob nodded. "How often have you driven up this way?"

"Well, back before there was SOAP, I was looking at this University in Ontario called Waterloo. Things had been real tough for me that year, and I wanted to go some place with a good Math program where I wouldn't overheat all the time. I even had a few furry friends up there. Furry like SOAP that is."

"So why didn't you?"

"Waterloo didn't offer enough money. Being a bear is expensive, not to mention being three other types of fur too, depending on the year!" She sighed and rolled her window up. "Okay, that's cool enough for now. It all worked out in the end. What about you, why did you choose Virginia Tech?"

The skunk and bear continued to talk about school, trading stories of High School, where they grew up, and their families. All the while they sipped on their coffees, both of them using straws to accommodate their muzzles. By the time they left the highway, after paying a dollar and a half in tolls, they'd finished their coffee and were laughing and enjoying the music.

That is until Chris started shifting uneasily in her seat. "Hey, careful there," Rob said, noting the way she placed her claws on the seat's edge. "What's wrong?"

"I think the coffee went right through me. Could you find a place to pull off?"

Rob looked at the mountains of green forest on either side of the road. "Along the side of the road?"

"No, a gas station or restaurant or something." She grimaced and growled, shifting her legs against each other.

"Sure, just hold it okay." Rob picked up some speed, hoping they'd find some place soon.

"Hurry, please!"

A few miles up the road they found a gas station and convenience store. As soon as Rob pulled to a stop, Chris undid her seat belt and squeezed out of the car. She walked stiffly and quickly inside, not even bothering to brush out her paw prints in the gravel. Rob swore under his breath and jumped out to do it for her.

When Chris returned five minutes later, she couldn't stop rubbing her nose with the back of one paw. "That was disgusting! They haven't cleaned their restroom in weeks. I should have let you just pull off the side of the road. And that seat!" She shuddered and growled. "I broke it just trying to put it down. Let's get out of here."

"Suits me," Rob said. "Are you feeling better?"

"Much better now, thank you." She smiled and took a long sniff of the air, and then snuffled again. "Forgot the gas fumes. Oh, can you pop the trunk? I want to grab my camera."

The skunk did so, dragging his paws through the dirt and gravel to hide the prints. Now that she was calm again, Chris did the same thing. While Rob waited, the she-bear opened her suitcase and took out the larger of two camera cases stuffed inside. Rob observed that she had packed at least three outfits. He'd stuffed a single change of clothes, his claw trimming kit, some shampoo, and his dog brush in his backpack and considered himself in good shape.

"Okay, let's go," Chris said as she climbed back in the car, her camera bag resting on her knees.

Rob shut the trunk, slid behind the wheel, and pulled out of the station lot. He read the gas price as he drove past. "A buck fifty for the cheap stuff! I paid a buck thirty back in Blacksburg!"

"Yeah, gas in West Virginia always seems to be more expensive," Chris agreed. She unfolded the map and traced her claws over the roads until she found where they were. "Looks like the New River Gorge is another fifteen to twenty miles up the road. Mind if I leave the window down? I can still smell that bathroom."

"Sure, go ahead." While the bruin enjoyed the fresh air, Rob put on the soundtrack to The Matrix. Driving a white Matrix, he'd tried to get the license plate "NOSPOON" but somebody had beaten him to it.

Route 19 reminded the skunk of 460, except more mountainous. Every ten miles or so they would pass through a small town with a traffic light or two. The rest of the time it acted more like an Appalachian highway passing by dense forests, curving along mountains, dipping through valleys, and scaling tall peaks. The air was fresh with trees and grass, but also the inevitable automotive stink. Thankfully, he smelled no dead skunks, but there was the occasional whiff of deer and other wildlife he couldn't name.

Chris was right about the New River Gorge, and as they started across the bridge, she took a few pictures. The bridge had no superstructure above, and with traffic on either side, there wasn't much to look at. "There," Chris said, pointing to a road on the right at the end of the bridge. "That's the park office. Pull in there."

Thick woods surrounded the park office and parking lot on all sides. After climbing out of the car, Rob and Chris stretched again, the bear straightening her shirt. Rob saw one of her bra straps just behind her collar, but she pulled it tight and covered them up. "Okay," Rob said, "we're here. Now what?"

"I want some pictures of the gorge and the bridge. There should be a trail somewhere nearby to both."

At the end of the parking lot next to a small meadow for picnics they found an asphalt trail to an overlook. Once in the trees the asphalt became an M.C. Escher amalgamation of wooden platforms and steps that led down the gorge slope. The shade felt cool, and a breeze ruffled leaves and their fur. Chris began taking pictures, rumbling in delight. Everywhere they could smell moss and grass, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, and several larger creatures. A faint aroma of an egg and ham muffin lingered at a bench halfway down.

The final platform jutted out from the ridge wall overlooking the gorge. The gorge was hundreds of feet deep with train tracks and even a few homes clustered at its base next to the New River which flowed serenely by. Everything was adorned in summer green. To their right, they saw the massive steel arch holding up the bridge. Supports several feet thick anchored in the valley walls in multiple places. Chris snapped several pictures while Rob read the sign. "The longest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Yeah that's pretty big. Much better from down here."

"Oh, I know!" Chris focused the SLR lens carefully between her fingertips, making sure her claws never touched any part of the camera. "Here, get in the shot. I want a few of each of us in front of the bridge."

"You know the guy at the photo shop will see our pictures. Unless you develop your own film."

Chris snorted. "Like I could afford a dark room or the chemicals! Besides, I've been going to the same photo place for years. It'll be fine." Rob stood with his back to the bridge and stared at the bear. She fiddled with the lens and said, "Could you lower your tail? It's blocking the arch. Okay, much better. And smile... that's not a smile! I know you can do better than that. Thank you." She snapped a few photos, then made him take some of her.

"I don't know how you manage this with your claws." Rob had enough trouble with his own, and he kept them trimmed to only half an inch past his fingertips!

"Lots of practice," she replied. He handed her back the camera which she put away. The bear patted her belly and growled. "I'm starving! I'm going to grab some snacks from the park office. Do you want anything?"

"No, I'm good. I'll meet you back at the car."

Chris returned with an armload of pre-packaged pastries and a few bags of chips, with two bottles of fruit juice to wash it all down. She shared some of it with him as they continued north on Route 19, but she ate, as Rob put it, the "bear's share."

They reached interstate 79 a little after ten o'clock, and shortly thereafter Chris asked Rob to pull off someplace she could use the restroom again. Similarly, after merging onto Route 119 in Pennsylvania, Chris had to make another pit stop. Rob did his best not to say anything, but it was almost impossible to think of Chris as a guy at that point. When he mentioned it, Chris changed the subject to football.

When they finally turned onto the turnpike just before twelve-thirty, only thirteen miles from their destination, Chris asked, "So what do you think this Walter's going to tell us when we meet him?"

"I think he's going to tell us the same stuff you told me. How to hide this, how to live with it. And he said something about the Changed network. It sounds to me like there's a bunch of folks like us out there already and they've organized. This Walter is probably a contact or something for newbies."

"I'm hardly a newbie. I've never heard of any Changed network, and I've been searching for such a thing for years." The bear almost growled the words, but there was no menace in her voice.

"You showed me how you searched. It didn't work. They probably have their systems on proprietary networks, and the whole thing password protected. You'd never find it in a search engine."

Chris growled a bit more, but then said, "Pittsburgh seems an awfully far way to go. I'd hoped there would be more like us a little closer to home."

"Me too. Maybe he's in charge of this region? There can't be that many of us, or we would have seen others before." Rob glanced at his fuel gauge and clicked his tongue on his teeth. "Good thing we're almost there. I'm almost out of gas! What do the directions say?"

Chris grabbed the directions and scanned them with one claw. "At the Irwin exit, exit number 67, get off the turnpike and head west on Route 30. Drive four and a half miles, and turn left onto Lincoln Way. Another two miles and McArdle's is on the right."

"Sounds easy enough," Rob replied. While Chris studied the map, Rob kept his eyes open for the Irwin exit. They'd passed beyond the Appalachian mountains when they'd left West Virginia, and now traveled through rolling hills, spotting the occasional tree with yellowing leaves. Even the trees seemed shorter. The roads were decidedly worse, replete with pot holes and shoddily repaired cracks. Every few seconds one would jar the car and set Chris's breasts and belly jiggling. The bear did her best not to complain about it.

Rob found the exit easily enough. Route 30 had a lot more traffic than they'd seen throughout the day, and it led past several restaurants, shopping centers, and a pair of car dealerships. Both bear and skunk kept their eyes peeled for the next turn, but they still nearly missed it. Rob had to take a sharp left to make it to the turn lane in time. Lincoln Way led past a graveyard before entering a residential area. Rather abruptly, hills rose up on either side of the road and they ducked and wove back and forth between them.

As they came around a right bend, Chris pointed and shouted, "There it is!" The restaurant was set back in an alcove in the hill, the McArdle's sign prominently displayed at the road's edge. The parking lot was paved but still had several large pot holes. A dozen cars parked in the lot, most with Pennsylvania plates. Standing before a dark blue Sedan with Ohio plates was what could only be described as a bull in a business suit.

Rob parked the car and swallowed, eyes never leaving the bull, who returned the stare with equal intensity. "Well, we're here."

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Christopher took a deep breath and opened the car door. He squeezed himself free, eyes never leaving the longhorn bull. Walter Lundh waited for them both to get out of the car, then walked towards them on heavy grey hooves. His face was mostly white, peppered with black fur on his cheeks, ears, and around the base of his horns. His broad, dark nose flared as he neared them.

"I'm Walter Lundh," he said, extending a hand with a thumb and two large fingers ending in hoof-like nails. "Welcome to the greater Pittsburgh region."

"Thanks," Rob said, shaking the bull's hand. "I'm Rob Hallman."

"And I'm Christopher Mattiaz," he said as he shook the hand. He knew what hooves felt like, but Walter's hand didn't feel the same as his own had when he'd been a donkey. These nails had a curve to them, and on his second glance noticed that the tips of each bent towards each other ever so slightly.

"I trust your trip was uneventful?" Walter asked. His voice was brusque, business-like. He did not turn his head when he looked from one to the other, merely moved his eyes back and forth. With horns sticking two feet out of either side of his head, Christopher couldn't blame him for keeping his head still.

"We didn't have any problems," Rob replied. "It's good to finally meet you. And other folks changed like us."

Walter held up his hoof-like hand and motioned him to silence. "I know you have a lot to say, but let's go somewhere where we can safely talk about these things. The owner of McArdle's is also Changed and has a backroom set aside for us."

Christopher hooked one paw over his shoulder. "Do you mind if I grab my Polaroid? I'd like to take some pictures. You're the first person like this I've met since Rob a little over a month ago." Walter snorted, but didn't object. Rob popped the trunk for him, and Christopher grabbed his Polaroid bag out of his suitcase. He hooked it over one shoulder and smiled. "Okay, I'm ready. Is it just the four of us then?"

"No," Walter replied, gesturing to the door. "I invited two others along for this meeting. It's why we're doing it here. It was the most central location." He pointed at his horns. "Don't stand too close to me. I try to be careful, but I have hit people with these before. I haven't stabbed anyone yet, and I'd like to keep it that way."

Both the skunk and the bear kept back as Walter walked through the front door to the restaurant. The bull turned his head sideways to slide his horns through. Rob waved for Christopher to go first, and he glared at the skunk, but he still went through first.

The restaurant was divided into two sections, a regular dining area with lacquered wooden tables and a bar designed to look like an Irish pub. Nobody was in the pub section, but there were a few humans enjoying their lunch in the other half. A young waitress in a skirt was busy cleaning off a table. Standing behind a podium with a "Please wait to be Seated" sign was the owner. Christopher knew it was the owner because he looked like an overgrown groundhog in a white shirt and vest.

The groundhog smiled, revealing a pair of incisors beneath his cleft lips. His small, dark eyes gleamed as he noted Christopher and Rob. "I'm Angus McArdle," he said as he stepped around the podium. Christopher noted with some delight that the groundhog also had a sizable paunch. "If you'd follow me, I'll show you to your room. These are the last of them, Walter?"

The bull grunted. "Yes. We're all here now."

"Good. Follow me." Angus waddled past the tables to a pair of swinging doors at the far end. Beyond they saw restrooms on either side, and another set of double doors, these ones with a lock. Angus opened them and held the door. "Right this way." He nodded to Christopher and smiled. "Glad to have you, Miss."

Walter turned ever so slightly as Christopher cringed and growled. "This gentlemen's name is Christopher Mattiaz. And his friend is Robert Hallman."

Angus blinked, then folded his ears down and lowered his eyes. "Forgive me for that, Mr. Mattiaz."

"It's okay," Christopher replied, feeling embarrassed. The more Changed he met, the more he was going to run into this problem. As long as he'd been alone, he didn't have to worry about anybody thinking him a woman. It had been bad enough when Rob had slipped up, but now he was going to have to face it every time he met another true furry.

The private room had windows on two sides showing the rock wall behind the restaurant. A single table sat in the middle, with eight chairs around it. The chairs were wood with reinforced metal bars along each leg. The chair backs were cushioned at the top, with a wide gap on the right to make sitting and standing for a tailed Changed easy. Two others sat waiting for them, a black-furred wolf in a white t-shirt, and an older ewe with black face, ears, and arms, and a dirty-white coat of wool. A set of glasses perched on the end of her nose with loops of string wrapped about the base of her ears to keep them there. The wolf stared wide-eyed at Christopher's breasts.

Walter put one hand on the seat at the head of the table and snorted. "If everyone would sit down, I will handle introductions. Angus, you can tend to your customers."

The groundhog nodded, long tail whipping back and forth. "I'll be back in a minute with menus for you." So saying he closed the door behind him.

Christopher and Rob sat next to each other, with Christopher putting Rob between him and the wolf who still stared, though he tried not to. Walter snorted loudly, and the wolf turned to him, ears alert. "Now that I have your attention, we can begin. I am Walter Lundh. I changed in 1999 into a Texas longhorn. I'm a partner in a Cleveland law firm, and since I've changed, I have done pro bono work in the Midwest and Atlantic states in order to spread our network."

He gestured to the door. "Our host is Angus McArdle. He changed in 2000 and after we found each other in early 2001, has remodeled his restaurant to be a meeting place for Changed." He gestured to the ewe on his right. She looked up at him and smiled faintly. "This is Linda Blayless, an accountant who I've brought into my firm. She changed in 2000 as well. She is here to make sure that you three have the skills that we think you have."

"What does that mean?" the wolf asked.

"In a moment." The bull nodded to the wolf, light brown eyes narrowing. "You sir, are Carter Ryan, twenty-six, of Buffalo, New York. You changed five weeks ago, and had the good fortune of meeting one of our members at a business convention one week later. You have been working in the demographics department for a Gallup affiliate for the last three years."

The wolf nodded. "Yeah, that's me. I posted all that on the network."

"I know, I read it there. And I've confirmed all of the details. Thank you for not exaggerating." When Carter tried to add something more, Walter snorted and stomped one hoof. The wolf's ears went back and his tail tucked against the back of his chair.

Walter then pointed to the skunk. "This is Robert Hallman, a computer networking student at Virginia Tech. He is just starting his junior year. Like Mr. Ryan, he changed five weeks ago. Two weeks ago he posted his picture on a normal furry message board, and somebody alerted me to it. I contacted Mr. Hallman and had him remove his picture. Today, we bring him and his friend into the Changed network."

Christopher felt conspicuous when all eyes turned to him. Walter tapped his hoof-like nails on the lacquered tabletop. "And this is Christopher Mattiaz, and he is quite an enigma. He first Changed in 1996." Linda's eyes widened at that news, and she stared at him more closely. The bull continued, "And every year thereafter he has continued to change. In 1997, he changed genders for the first time, and has spent four of the last five years as a woman. He married in 2000, the last time he was male. He is a Doctoral student in Mathematical Statistics at Virginia Tech, and currently works at Target."

Walter sat down even as Angus returned with menus in his paws. "Now that we know everyone's names, let us order our food and begin."

Christopher, Rob, and Carter all ordered platters heavy on the meat, while Walter and Linda both ordered salads and bread. Angus apologized, "It'll be a little late, one of my cooks called off sick today."

After the groundhog left, Rob raised a paw. "Okay, this is great to finally see others like ourselves, but we have a lot of questions. First off, how many of us are there?"

Walter actually smiled and he exchanged a quick glance with Linda. The ewe chuckled like a grandmother and shook her head. "Ironic that you should ask that question, since you are here for that very reason. No, don't ask me to explain. At present, we know of just over a thousand others like us. Fifty of them have joined us in the last five weeks. We are small, but we find more Changed all the time."

Christopher laid his paws on the table, careful not to crack the lacquer with his claws. "So do you know why this is happening?"

"That we have no idea. All we know is that every August 17th, since at least 1987, the Change strikes. Our network has at least one person from every year since 1987, but most of them changed more recently. You are one of the earlier Changed I've run across lately."

Christopher growled, remembering something Walter had said when introducing him. "You said I was an enigma. Don't you change every year too?"

Walter shook his head. "I changed the one time into what you see now. That is it. In fact, for most of us, we change only once. You are not the only one to have changed more than once, but so far, you are the only one to have changed seven times. And, if memory serves me correctly, you are also the earliest example of a gender switch. There are a handful of others, and at least two among those who changed five weeks ago that we've found."

Linda spoke up, her voice kindly, even if she bleated some of her vowels. "We all see you as a woman, dearie. But everyone else sees you as a man. So that other Changed know that, you should go by your initials, CM. It's what the others who've gender switched do."

Christopher shook his head, trying to fathom everything he was hearing. "‘CM?' So if I call myself ‘CM,' everyone changed like us will know I'm really a guy?"

She smiled. "That's right. And don't feel bad. You aren't alone like this. When you go onto the network, you'll be able to talk with others like yourself."

"You probably know more than they do about being a woman," Walter pointed out. "You should share tips with them when you return home. Now I know I don't have the answers to all your questions. None of us do. Only in the last two years have we even had anything like a cohesive organization. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done before we can do anything more than trade stories and suggestions on how to hide our presence."

Rob shifted in his seat, long tail dancing behind him. "Okay, so you can't answer all our questions. Fine. But then why make us drive six hours up here and lose our weekend if you can't really tell us anything?"

Carter nodded, his ears rising again, golden eyes glancing between Rob and the bull. "And I've been on the forums for a month now. You definitely haven't said anything I don't already know!"

Walter gestured to the bear and skunk. "I say it for their benefit. CM especially, as he has been Changed for six years and has not been in touch with anyone. You were alone for a week. Imagine what CM has been through."

The wolf lowered his ears again, and glanced at Christopher. "Hey, that must have been rough, CM. I'm glad you finally found us."

"Me too," the bruin replied. He tapped his thumb claws together. "So why are we here, Mr. Lundh?"

"You three are here because you may have the right skill set we need to solve a certain problem. CM, you know math and statistics. Mr. Hallman, you are a programmer and network administrator. Mr. Ryan, you can interpret demographics data. Or at least that is how it appears. Mrs. Blayless will be testing each of you with prepared questions to see how well you know your fields."

"Will you at least tell us what you want us to do?" Rob asked.

Walter turned to the ewe and said, "Whenever you're ready."

"Hey!" Rob snapped, tail sticking out straight. "Answer my question!"

The longhorn regarded him with an expression of perfect bovine placidity. "Calm yourself, Mr. Hallman. If your skills are sufficient, I will tell you. We are keeping this particular job secret for now, because we do not want most Changed to know about it. Not yet. Not until we have some answers. And before I tell you, you will give Mrs. Blayless some answers, and they better be right."

Rob chittered angrily, but he did still his tail. He drummed his claws on the lacquer, nose and whiskers twitching.

Linda lifted a satchel into her lap and took out a legal pad and some pencils. These she slid down the table. "CM, I'd like to start with you. First, can you tell me what a Binomial distribution is?"

"Certainly," the bear nodded. "It's the probability of obtaining <math>x</math> successes in <math>n</math> independent trials for which <math>p</math> is the probability of success in a single trial. I can write out the formula if you'd like."

"Yes, please do. And for all questions I ask."

Christopher grabbed a pencil, rolled it against his fingers until it was snug between his thumb and finger pads. He quickly sketched the formula on the legal pad:

<math>f(x) = \frac{n!}{x!(n-x)!}p^{x}q^{n-x}</math>

"And here <math>q</math> is the probability of not having a success in a single trial," Christopher explained as he turned the pad so that Linda could see it.

The ewe adjusted her glasses, her dark eyes scanning the page. "Very good. Now what is the Bell Curve?"

"Ah, that's more properly termed the Normal distribution. It's sometimes called the Gaussian distribution too. It's the most commonly used distribution for continuous random variables, and it shows up in many real-life situations. I personally think people try to fit everything to a Normal distribution, even things that shouldn't, but that's just me. Let me write the equation." Taking back the legal pad, he added to the bottom:

<math>f(x) =ce^{-\frac{1}{2}((x-a)/b)^{2}}</math>

"The <math>a, b, \mbox{ and } c</math> are just parameters, but you would take them so that the integral of the function over the whole real line is equal to 1."

"Very good. Now if I have a set of observed data, and I want to compare them with an expected probability distribution, what should I do?"

The ewe watched him carefully, studying him to see if he would stumble in his answer. But this was what Christopher did for his research. He smiled, revealing more of his fangs than he intended, and replied, "If the number of tests is small, I'd use a Multinomial distribution. If not, I'd use the <math>\chi^{2}</math> test."

Linda tried and failed to hide her smile. "And what is that?"

Both Rob and Carter's eyes glazed over as Christopher used up two more sheets of paper in his explanation. She asked him two more related questions, but seemed satisfied that he knew what he was talking about. After he prepared to write down yet another formula, she waved one hoof-like hand and bleated, "Thank you, dearie. I know what you are saying is correct, but I don't understand it anymore."

Christopher flushed a little and nodded, then leaned back in his seat. It groaned from his weight, but didn't break.

The ewe turned to Rob and began asking him questions. She began with basic programming constructs, before moving on to parallel processing and advanced networking theory. Christopher tried to follow them, but soon realized that he only understood one word in five. He finally gave up and glanced at Carter. The wolf looked back at him and shrugged his shoulders. With nothing else to do, Christopher started taking pictures with his Polaroid and doing his best not to be a nuisance about it.

"You do know your networks, don't you?" Linda said, smiling broadly at Rob.

The skunk grinned. "Yes I do. Thank you, ma'am."

She turned to the wolf, but all their ears turned towards the door as they heard the groundhog returning. A moment later, Angus came through bearing a large tray in one paw. Over his other shoulder he carried a stand. "Here we have lunch," Angus declared. He set the stand down, and the tray atop the stand. "First, two salads for the ruminants." Walter gave him a cold stare, but said nothing. "And now for the carnivores. Oh sorry, carnivore and omnivores."

Christopher had two salmon fillets, while Rob salivated over a chicken pasta blend. Carter licked his chops as Angus set his lambchop down. He blinked and then looked at Linda. "You know, this is kind of ironic. I hope it doesn't upset you to see me eating this."

The ewe waved her hand. "Not at all, dearie." She then bowed her head in prayer. Christopher did the same, and a moment later Rob joined him. Walter grunted but didn't join them. Carter put his fork and knife down and waited for them to finish. When she looked up again, Christopher and Rob crossed themselves, but the ewe did not. She smiled to the wolf, eyes unafraid of her natural predator. "Now, while we eat, you can answer a few questions."

By the time they'd finished their meal, Carter had satisfied Linda that he knew the field of demographics. She'd asked him about population clusters, cities and rural areas, and while he stumbled a few times on details, he knew the theories and the practices without hesitation. Carter looked a little guilty every time he stuffed a bit of his lambchop down his gullet, but he still ate it all, and gnawed on the bone when it was all that was left.

Walter pushed his plate away and licked a bit of dressing from his nose. "Well, if Mrs. Blayless is satisfied, then I am satisfied. You three are the people we need to tackle this important problem. Simply put, gentlemen, we need you to tell us how many of us there are. And we need you to tell us how quickly we're growing. All we know is that every August 17th, more humans become Changed. Mrs. Blayless and others have looked over the numbers, but none of us so far have the right skill set to make sense out of them. What makes this job even more difficult is that we know that there are more Changed out there than are in our network. CM, you are a good example of that."

"Right," Christopher agreed. "You said earlier that you seem to have more people in the later years. Most populations grow according to the Golden Mean."

"The what?" Carter asked.

"You know, the Fibonacci sequence? 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 , 21, etc...?"

"So what does that mean?"

"If the Changed population grows by the Fibonacci sequence, then the population increases by roughly 1.61 each year. 1.61803 etc... is the Golden Mean. Do you have the numbers for the Changed network broken down by the year they first changed?"

"Yes, we do." Walter nodded and then scratched at the base of his left horn. "But you have to contend with the fact that the numbers are incomplete. That's where you come in, Mr. Ryan. As a demographics expert, you can examine the data and postulate what the true population is, based on the models that CM creates."

"And how do I fit in?" Rob asked.

Walter flicked his ear and lowered his hand to the table. "You will coordinate the data transfer between the two. Your server must be secure, and only these two must ever access it. Further, to help crunch the models, you will need to write any codes that they ask you."

Carter wagged his tail. "Are we being paid for this work?"

"No, but you will receive recognition from the Changed network. This will not be an easy job. I expect it to take you at least a year, as you will only be able to work on this in your spare time. Nobody else must know that you are doing this, not even other Changed."

"Why not?" Rob asked. "That seems silly."

"Given how few of us there are, we must exercise the utmost caution when it comes to revealing anything. It may not be as important as I say to keep this hidden. But you need to practice keeping things hidden if you want to survive. Several of our number have been placed in mental institutions and shot full of drugs to help them overcome their animal delusions. I know this from first hand experience, as I've served as legal counsel to have some of them released. I do not want to see this happen to any of you."

Rob's tail drooped, and he and Christopher exchanged unsettled glances. Walter continued as if the interruption had never taken place. "I did not bring the data with me today. Tomorrow, we will meet here for breakfast. I expect your decision then. Today, I think the three of you should get to know each other better. Mrs. Blayless and I have business of our own to take care of, and Mr. McArdle will need to run his restaurant. You may stay here in this room if you like, but if I know your instincts, you will probably want to get out of here soon."

Walter and Linda rose. The ewe collected her pad and pencils, and smiled at them. "Good luck, dearies. We'll see you tomorrow." And with that, Christopher, Rob, and the wolf were left alone to ponder.

Separator k.png

Rob scowled at the doors even after Walter and Linda had left. "I'm getting tired of his secrets. Who does he think he is?"

The wolf panted a moment and then slurped his tongue back into his muzzle. "Walter? Oh, I did a little reading on him after I got on the network. He's only been in the Changed community for three years, but he's a big shot. He's been a lawyer for years, and a partner in his firm for the last ten. He has connections everywhere."

"Is he running the show?" Chris asked. Rob glanced at her, and tried to imagine thinking of her as CM. He supposed using initials was a good way to tell other Changed that the gender they saw was not the gender everyone else saw. Just one more thing to get used to.

Carter shook his head and drummed his claws on the lacquer. "Walter? Nah. But he has a lot of clout with those that do. He's done a ton of free legal work for the Changed community. Because he's a lawyer, he can get information that a lot of other folks can't, which is probably why he was the one who organized this meeting."

"And why he asked us to solve this population problem," Rob said. It started to make some sense. He spread his paws on the table. "So now what do we do? I don't want to just sit here all day long."

Carter jerked one paw behind him. "There's a really nice park just up the road. Probably a good way to relax out in the fresh air. I've got enough room in my jeep for all of us."

"Sounds good to me." Rob turned to the bear. "What about you, CM?"

CM frowned and rattled her claws together. "I'm not sure I like being called that, but I understand it. It is a convenient way to do it. Just don't do that at SOAP, okay?"

"Soap?" Carter asked, golden eyes perplexed.

"Society of Anthropomorphics," Rob replied. "It's the furry club at Virginia Tech."

"Ah, furries," Rob replied, a weird grin on his jowls. He stood up and pushed the chair under the table. "Never heard about them until this happened to me. Were you furries before you Changed?"

"I was," Rob said.

"I'd been aware of it, and somewhat interested," CM replied. She stood up, and despite the metal supports, her chair still creaked. "Once I changed I joined it full-time. So where are we going?"

"A place called White Oak Park," Carter replied, opening the door for them. "I stopped by there yesterday to run around."

Rob and CM followed the wolf into the dining area. An elderly couple sat at one table, but they were the only customers at that hour. Angus waved to them as they left, but the groundhog was too busy seeing to the couple to say anything to his fellow Changed.

Outside, Carter turned into the parking lot. Walter's Sedan was gone, but behind it sat a bright red jeep with the top down. Apart from a little dirt on the underside, it looked like it had been recently washed. Rob grinned as he admired it. "Very nice! What year is this?"

"It's a 2000 TJ, 5 speed manual. I'd saved every penny for two years to buy this baby. Good thing I did too. It's got enough room for big Changed like you, CM."

The bruin ambled over and ran her paw along the back rim. "I'll take the back seat. All of it." Rob and Carter laughed.

The wolf jumped into his seat, his foot paws adroitly missing the seats. "I'd say hop in, but with your claws, I'd rather you didn't." Rob and CM both opened their doors and climbed in. Rob adjusted his seat a bit to make it more comfortable for his tail. Carter grimaced at that, his own tail bunched behind him. "Yeah, one day they have to put holes in for our tails."

"We'll manage," Rob replied. He rested one paw on the door, and leaned back into his tail. "I hope you don't mind the extra fur, cause you're going to get some."

"I sweep it out every week," Carter replied, but he still grimaced. "I hate shedding. It's the worst part about all of this."

CM growled and laugh. "Ain't that the truth!" She sat behind the wolf, and did her best to attach one of the seat belts, but couldn't get it to go around her waist. "Your seat belts aren't long enough."

"Just hold on tight. Nobody wears seat belts in a jeep anyway." Carter started the engine, and pulled out of the parking lot. He turned right onto Lincoln Way and drove past several other stores, a car repair place, and a landscaping business with stacks of precut stones piled everywhere. They weren't on Lincoln Way for a full minute before he said, "Brace yourselves, I'm going to take that turn."

That turn happened to be a nearly 180 degree turn to the right and up the hill face. Rob and CM both grabbed one of the metal supports for the top cover and held on as Carter swung the wheel around. The tires squealed and then the jeep jarred forward, pushing bear and skunk back in their seats.

They crested the hill, and continued to go up for a time before diving back down again. They did this several times, before Carter turned to the left through an open gate with a sign reading "Welcome to White Oak Park. Dogs welcome!"

"And here we are," Carter replied, grinning from ear to ear. The wolf panted a bit and then said, "They have a dog enclosure up there to the right, but there's plenty of places for us down this way." He took the left fork, and then just after the road turned left again to follow a copse of woods, he pulled into the parking area. "Well, now that was fun!" Carter killed the engine and hopped back out. "Come on, there's a great place over in the shade we can relax." Without waiting, the wolf ran across the street and up the grassy hill toward a large oak whose branches stretched a good twenty feet on either side.

Rob followed him, but waited for CM to get out of the jeep first. "He seems a bit bouncy to me," CM said under her breath. "Maybe he should have been a kangaroo."

The skunk grinned and shrugged. "I don't think this change tried to reflect our personality. And don't you say anything about the way I smell."

CM laughed, "I wouldn't dream of it!"

Together, they walked over to the tree where Carter already stretched out on his belly. His tail wagged and he panted, golden eyes eager as they approached. Rob and CM laid down nearby, the bear stretching and digging divots in the grass with her claws. Rob laid on his side and enjoyed the feel of the soft grass as well as the sweet scents of other animals and the fresh air. Carter gestured with one paw at the both of them, "Hey, if you don't mind me asking, but are you two an item?"

CM growled and Rob felt his tail shoot out straight. "A what?" Rob stammered. "No! I have a girlfriend, and CM's married. Walter mentioned that. Can't you see her ring?"

Carter blinked, glancing at the bear's left paw, and then nodded. "Ah, sorry. I forgot that. Just you two seem to stick so close together, hard not to think that. Besides, you said you were furries before, and I read that there were lots of gays in furry."

CM continued to growl, "I am straight! And so is Rob. Besides, a lot of furs think their gay when thy're not just to fit in. Same way most furs start out being foxes to fit in."

Rob waved his paws, "Woah, woah. Get off the Soapbox, CM. It was an honest mistake. Carter's sorry, isn't he?"

The wolf stared at the bear's huge claws and fangs, probably the first time he'd really looked at any part of CM's body other than her breasts. "Definitely sorry, CM. What's that they say? When you assume you make an ass out of you and me?"

"Just you," CM continued to growl, but the anger was leaving her voice. She laid on her back, claws crossed over her chest, and stared up at the leaves.

Rob grimaced when he saw Carter staring again at CM's feminine attributes. "Hey, Carter." The wolf snapped his head around. "So do you think it will really take a year to solve this population problem?"

Carter nodded. "It could. When we take polls, we know what the distribution is, or at least, we have a good estimate. Here, we don't have any idea what the distribution is. If everyone is clumped together in cities, that doesn't mean the Change is an urban problem. It could mean that we haven't had any luck finding Changed in rural areas. Also, is it distinctly American? Or North American, because I know we have a few Canucks in our network too. How does it spread? Is the distribution truly random, or does it spread like a disease? We just don't know any of these things. All we know is that we don't have the full sample. That's going to make it hard to make good projections."

"So how do we do it then?"

The wolf sketched his paws through the grass. "We'll need to make several models. CM suggested Fibonacci growth. We have a few models that try to fit the data that way. Then we try some other exponential rates, doubling, tripling, etc.. Or we try additive or multiplicative growth. There's lots of ways this could work out, and we're going to have to try as many as we can until we find the best fit."

"So it's not just a matter of finding the right one?"

"We don't even know how big our sample size is yet. If we have only one percent of the total Changed population, we could have several models that fit the data. But every time we find somebody new, we'll have another data point, and our models will get better."

CM grumbled, "There goes my expected graduation date."

Rob tried not to laugh. "So anyway, how long have you been working for Gallup?"

They talked for an hour or so, before CM grew bored and wandered over toward the dog run. Rob watched her go, decided she needed some time to herself, and kept Carter talking. The wolf enjoyed talking about himself, though Rob had a few stories he was more than willing to share. Pretty soon they had a contest to see who had the craziest story about their youth. Naturally, nobody won.

Rob finally got tired of just sitting there in the park, climbed to his feet and stretched. "How's it walking digitgrade like that?" he asked, pointing at the lupine paws Carter had for feet.

"Took a little getting used to. Now it just seems natural." Carter shrugged and stood up. He didn't stand straight on his legs, with his ankle a little behind him, and the knee a little ahead of him. "My legs don't like standing still for long though, that much I've noticed. Hey, where'd CM go?"

Rob hooked one paw over his shoulder. "Over to the dog park. Let's go join her. And try to stop staring at her breasts please. It really upsets her."

Carter wagged his tail and lowered his ears. "Sorry about that. And sorry for thinking you two were together. It's just, well, hard not to. You know, two months ago I would've thought all this furry stuff kinda gross, but now... this Change is weird!"

"You don't need to tell me," Rob said. "It's worse for CM. She changes every year into a different shape, and she's mostly been female. It's been very hard on her marriage, because her wife doesn't know, and she can't tell her."

Carter lowered his tail and followed Rob as he started for the dog run. "I can't imagine what that must be like. Why did the first really good looking Changed have to be a guy?"

The skunk wanted to do one or two things to the wolf, spray him or slug him. He opted to do neither. Instead, he hissed and flicked his tail meaningfully. "Chris has been my friend for a few years, and she's been a big help to me as I've adjusted to this. You're a wolf. Stop being an ass!"

Carter nodded and waved his paws, "All right! All right!" He rolled his eyes. "I'm new to this too, you know.

Rob sighed and made his way to the dog run. A long chain-link fence enclosed a field where people could bring their dogs to run and play off the leash. He could smell at least a dozen or more dogs, and he heard quite a few barking back and forth. When he crested the rise, he saw CM leaning against a tree inside the enclosure talking with a couple. Bumping their legs was an old Rottweiler. Rob smiled when he saw it.

After going through the main gate, Rob had to fend off several big dogs who ran over to sniff at him. One of them ran up to his tail to sniff, and then ran away fast. Rob petted them and laughed as he made his way across the field. It was a little muddy, but as long as he stayed near the fence, he wouldn't leave any tracks.

Carter followed him in, and he panted, eyes bright as he saw the dogs. He barked at them, and they barked back, looking very confused. Carter laughed.

CM waved to them as they approached. The couple with the Rottweiler moved on, the dog happily padding after them. She pointed with one claw at the dog and said to Rob, "Doesn't he look a little like me, well, me from a few years ago."

Rob glanced at the dog's black and mahogany markings and nodded. "Yeah, looks a little like you did."

"You've been a Rottweiler?" Carter asked.

"First time I changed," CM replied. "And two years ago. And if I change according to the pattern of the last four years, I'll be a Rottweiler again two years from now." She stretched and rubbed her back against the tree. The branches shook. "Oh, that feels good."

"So anyway," Rob said. "I'm starting to get hungry, which means you have to be starved, CM. What do you say we try to find someplace to grab some dinner."

"What time is it?"

Carter glanced at his watch. "Almost five-thirty."

CM nodded and rubbed her paws together. She straightened out her shirt, and brushed the fallen bark from her pants. "If nobody minds, I'd really like to go to Pizza Hut. Leslie works there, so we almost never have Pizza."

"Do you know where one is?" Rob asked.

"Sure, we passed one on Route 30 coming over here."

Carter nodded. "I remember seeing it too. Okay, I'll pay the bill if you get the tip."

"Thank you," CM replied, smiling.

The wolf nodded, paws in his pockets. "Just didn't want there to be any hard feelings. Sorry I was acting like a jerk. Besides, I'm the only one here with a real job."

Rob decided it was okay to bat him in the back of the head for that one.

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It was still light out when they arrived at the hotel. Carter was staying at the same Holiday Inn, but he drove them back to McArdle's after they'd had their pizzas — Christopher had an entire large to himself — and then bid them good night. After getting their room, Christopher — he was not ready to think of himself as CM just yet — cranked the AC all the way up and collapsed on the bed.

"We didn't do anything today. Why do I feel so tired?"

"It always works that way," Rob replied. He set his one bag on the second bed, and then took a peek in the bathroom. "I think I'm going to take a shower, then groom my fur. What are you going to do?"

Christopher sat up and shrugged. "I'll read some, and then write in my journal I think. Enjoy your shower. I hope they have enough hot water."

"That'd be nice," Rob sighed as he stripped the invisible shoes from his feet. He grabbed his shampoo and dog brush, and waved once to the bear before disappearing inside the bathroom. Christopher listened to the sound of the shower starting and clothes dropping to the floor for a minute before shaking his head and going through his luggage.

He found his journal first, so stretched out his fingers and grabbed a pencil. He tapped the eraser to his nose a few times while he collected his thoughts. With a smile and a long pleased rumble in his chest, he began to write.

Sept 21, 2002

Today has been a very interesting day. Rob and I drove up from Blacksburg to this suburb of Pittsburgh called Irwin. It looks like a decent place, reminds me a bit of downtown Christiansburg, though built up a bit more. We finally met Walter Lundh at this restaurant called McArdle's. Angus McArdle, the owner, is a groundhog of all things! He redid the backroom of his establishment for Changed like us to meet. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Walter Lundh is a huge longhorn bull. He must be very aware of how big his horns are to keep them from skewering anything and anyone! Apparently, he's an important lawyer from Cleveland, and because of his connections, has become important in the Changed community. It was nice to finally meet him, but he doesn't seem to be the friendliest of people. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">With him he brought a sheep named Linda Blayless. She was very nice, and seemed to know quite a bit about our fields. I think she studied them enough to see if we knew what we were talking about. It was fun answering her math questions, but I'm also glad I passed her test. I'm a little intimidated by this project they want us to tackle, but it would be really nice to know more about how many of us there are, and how many more we can expect to join us in the coming years. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">I forgot to ask a few questions. For instance, have any Changed gone back to being human? I think they would have mentioned it if it were possible, but still, it would be nice to know. I do wonder if there is anyway I'll know when I'm going to stop changing every year. I got the impression that at some point I'm going to be stuck in whatever body I'm in. That's rather frightening to think about. As long as I keep changing, I have a chance to be male again. But if I'm stuck being female... what will I do then? How could I continue being married if both Leslie and I are women? I'm not going to be a Lesbian! But could I be a woman? I don't want to think about it. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">But since I'm a woman now, and it looks like I'll be meeting more Changed as time passes, I need to get used to going by CM. At least when I'm around other Changed. It does make sense as an easy way to tell the difference between the way they see me and the way humans see me. I rather hope I get the chance to meet others who've switched genders. Rob tries to understand, and does a good job most of the time. That Carter... he came so close to getting his snout smacked off. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">I guess I cannot blame him though. He's new to this too, and this is the first time he'd been around other Changed. I got the impression that he liked it as much as we did. I know I felt completely comfortable in a group for the first time in years! I'll drive up here myself next time if that's what it takes. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Walter and Carter both talked about a Changed network online. Maybe Rob and I can find more Changed in the Southwest Virginia area after we get back. It's certainly worth trying. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">But first, we have to decide whether we want to tackle this huge population project. I know it will set back my graduation date. I was pushing it as it was to make it in December next year. This just means I'll have to work at Target longer. I won't mind staying in the Blacksburg area another year, but Leslie won't be too happy about having to stay at Pizza Hut. She's already worked there for I don't know how many years. Longer than we've been married at any rate. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">I think both Rob and Carter are willing to give this a go. It's important work, and I for one would love the chance to do something to help the Changed community, a community that I didn't even know existed two months ago. How I wish I'd found it five years ago when I'd first become a woman! <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Well, I think I've said everything I can think of for now. No matter what happens tomorrow, we have a six hour drive back. I'm glad we stopped at the New River Gorge on the way up, but I'll be just as happy to get back as soon as we can tomorrow. I did snap several nice pictures of the gorge, and I have quite a few Polaroids of the other Changed now. I'll have to get a group shot tomorrow before we break up. I'll definitely tack that one in my journal! <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Lord, I do not know where all this will lead. I pray for the safe return of Walter, Linda, Carter, Rob and myself tomorrow. And I pray that we will be able to meet everyone's expectations with this population problem. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. </div> Christopher closed his journal and took out his book. He leaned against the headboard which creaked from his weight, and began to read as he listened to the skunk enjoy his shower. A smile crossed his muzzle, and for once, he didn't even pay attention to the pair of weights on his chest.

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Some foul voice roused him from sleep. "Come on, Rob. Time to get up."

The skunk lifted his snout and gazed blearily at the amorphous brown blob that had fiendishly turned on the light. He worked his tongue loose and managed to rasp, "I thought bears hated getting up."

"Give me another two months. Now come on. Walter wanted us there by eight."

Slowly, the bear took shape before his eyes. Rob glared and bared his fangs, but not in an overly menacing way. Besides, if he did spray, he'd just spray himself. He'd actually have to get out of bed to be effective with that! CM just laughed at him.

"Get up, silly. Don't make me go momma bear on your tail."

At that, Rob laughed and finally waved one paw over his pillow. "All right, CM, you win!" In a low voice he muttered, "You already are a momma bear."

"I heard that."

CM had already dressed in a blue t-shirt and shorts, and while the skunk slowly roused himself, proceeded to pack her things away. She refilled the Polaroid and set it on the nightstand. "You better not take any pictures of me like this," Rob warned her.

"Don't be silly. I wouldn't do that even if you asked me." CM zipped her luggage up and hoisted it on her shoulder. "If you don't mind, I'm going to put this in the trunk and see what sort of continental breakfast this place has." She eyed him and grinned, showing off her long fangs. "Maybe you'll be dressed when I get back."

Rob was really glad just then that he'd not yet climbed out from under the sheet. After the bear took his keys and left the hotel room, he slipped out of bed and sauntered into the bathroom, his change of clothes under his arm. The shower last night had freshened his fur, but he'd left a ton of black and white hairs all over the sink and his bed. CM would yell at him if he didn't clean them up, and probably Walter too if the bull ever found out.

And since he was paying for the room, he probably would.

Rob took a few minutes to brush his fur again before putting on his t-shirt and shorts. His shorts were once cargo pants he'd cut off at the knees; he liked them because he had pockets for every one of his gadgets. Cell-phone, Swiss army knife, watch, wallet, keys, and even his PDA all had a unique pocket.

By the time he'd cleaned up his fur and packed the rest of his things away, CM returned with a half-finished coffee cup dwarfed in her paw. Rob slung his pack over his back, and almost pinched his tail between them. "Did you get enough to eat?"

CM shook her head. "I figured I should leave some food for the other guests." Rob stared at her, and then she started to chuckle. "Just kidding, yes I had enough for now."

"Good. Just give me my keys and we can be off."

She tossed him the keys, then slurped up the rest of her coffee. "I saw Carter over at the breakfast. He's already headed over." CM laughed and shook her head. "He's much nicer when he's trying to be a gentleman. He still doesn't seem to really get that I'm a guy."

Rob rolled his eyes and the two of them left the room and finished stowing their things in the car. They checked out and drove back to McArdle's. The parking lot only had five cars in it, Carter's jeep, Walter's sedan, and three others with Pennsylvania plates. Angus waited for them at the doorway. The groundhog rubbed his paws together and grimaced. "Good of you to finally make it. I'm not normally open this early, you know." He locked the doors after them and ushered them into the backroom.

Walter, Linda, and Carter were sitting where they had been yesterday. The longhorn had three stacks of papers each an inch thick in front of him. Linda smiled at them as they entered, but the bull did not. "I'm glad you could join us finally. You're only a few minutes late. I hope you ate before you came. McArdle's doesn't serve breakfast."

CM nodded and sat down carefully. "I had enough. Is that the population information?"

"Yes. Will you do it?"

Carter tapped one paw on the table, ears erect. "I have one question. You said we'd receive recognition for our work. What sort of recognition?"

The bull tapped the papers with one hoof-like hand. "When you have your results, you'll be flown to DC to present those results before several high-ranking Changed, including Congressman Sandrick and at least one of the first three."

"Congressman Sandrick?" CM asked.

Typical CM, thinking of the politician first. Rob wanted to know the real mystery, so he asked, "First three?"

"Congressman Phillip Sandrick of South Carolina, dearie," the ewe explained. She smiled, the spectacles on the end of her nose briefly reflecting the lamplight. "He changed this year in the middle of a news conference he was attending. Walter and others have already briefed him on the Changed."

"About time we had somebody in government on our side," Walter said with a loud bovine grunt. "And as for the first three, I refer to the first three individuals known to have changed. Because of their extensive experience in the early years they help lead our organization."

CM nodded and raised her paw. "I for one am willing to take on this task. I just hope you will answer a few of my questions before we leave."

Walter nodded. "We can only take a few. Mr. McArdle needs us to leave by nine-thirty so he can lock up." The bull glanced between the skunk and bear a moment. "He normally attends early morning Mass on Sundays so he can have the restaurant open in time for lunch, but because we're here, he's going to a slightly later Mass."

"Be sure to thank him for his courtesy," Linda suggested.

"We will," Rob replied, hoping that CM wouldn't want to attend Mass with the groundhog. They had a six hour drive ahead of them, and he wanted to get back to Blacksburg as soon as possible. "And I know I want to help solve this population problem too."

"Good." Walter turned to the black wolf and tapped his hoof-like nails on the lacquer. "Well, Mr. Ryan?"

Carter shrugged, his ears folding back against his head. "I guess I'm the best person for this, so yeah, I'll do it too."

"Excellent. You'll each need these packets. Mrs. Blayless."

The ewe took the packets and handed them out to each of them. "You'll find all the relevant information for each known member of our organization. Location, age, ethnicity before they changed, the year of their change, what they've changed into, marital status, children, as much detail as everyone provided without giving up their names. We do have to trust you with this information, but we also are tying to protect their privacy. The Changed organization is very clear about that, dearies. We have stayed hidden for years now, and unless we must reveal ourselves, we will continue to hide."

CM nodded at that, flipping through the first few pages. "This is going to take forever to go through."

"Yeah, couldn't you have put this in a spreadsheet?" Carter asked.

"That's your first task, dearie." Linda smiled and flicked her black ears around. "The three of you need to build the project database. Once its built, we can populate the database for you. The hardcopies are for you in the meantime, and for you to know what sort of information is available."

Rob leafed through the pages, using his claws to turn each one over. "Okay, so they decide on the database and I build the server, right?" Walter and Linda both nodded. "Right. Do you think you can foot the bill for that? I'm going to need to buy some new equipment for this. If you want a dedicated server, I need a dedicated machine."

Walter grunted and then nodded. "My email address is located at the front of the packet. Let me know what you want to buy, and I'll answer your request in one business day. Assuming your request is reasonable and not an excuse for a new expensive toy, I will reimburse you the expense."

Rob flicked his tail in annoyance, but he knew he shouldn't. He was lucky to get any new toys at all for this! "Thank you. And where is this Changed network you all keep talking about?"

Linda took her briefcase out and slipped both the skunk and the bear a pair of papers held together with a paper clip. "The first page is a list of instructions. The second page has the web address and password. We never give that information out except to somebody we've seen with our own eyes."

Walter leaned forward and tapped the table hard. "Don't share that with anyone. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. If you can memorize the address and password, do it. Do not share it with anyone except other Changed you've met face to face. Do not log on from a public computer, ever. Delete all Internet cookies on a daily basis. We do not want to leave any footprints for humans to follow."

"Either with our paws or with our computers it seems," Rob said as he read through the other rules. "I had one question though. Would it be all right if I told my girlfriend what happened?"

"Don't tell anyone," Walter snapped, thundering in his throat. "Not your girlfriend, not your parents, not your wife, not your children, not your priest. Nobody. The only people who should ever know about this are other Changed."

"Woah," Rob stammered, holding up his paws. "I just want her to draw me as a skunk. She's a furry artist, and I want to have a picture of my fursona I can share with others."

The longhorn still grumbled, but Linda smiled and nodded. "That would be fine, dearie. Just be careful with how you tell her."

CM raised her paw, and after the bull noticed her, asked, "I've been changing every year. When will it finally stop?"

"I don't know," Walter replied, the anger in his voice melting away almost instantly. Soon, his whole body reflected the passivity that one normally would expect from cows. "As I said, I know of a few who've changed multiple times, but never seven. You may be on your last change now. Or it could be your next one. Or you could still be changing every year ten years from now. We just don't know."

CM frowned, but eventually nodded. Rob knew she hoped that this was not her final form. Rob hoped she'd change again too, preferably something male for her sake. But that one question did not seem to satisfy her, and after her momentary pause, the bruin asked, "Has anyone ever become human again?"

Walter shook his head. "No. That has never happened. But we have such a small population sample, I cannot tell you that it will never happen."

Linda got up from her seat and settled in next to CM. She put one arm around the bear's shoulder — her arm only reached as far as the middle of CM's back — and patted her on the arm. "Don't think about it, dearie. You will only hurt yourself if you think about being human again. You are a lovely bear this year, and maybe next year you'll be a handsome bear."

"Rat," CM said with a faint growl. "If I change again, I'll probably be a rat. It's what happened last time I was a bear."

The ewe nodded, ears flicking back, and smiled. "A handsome rat then. Just don't lose hope. I'll pray that your wife will change too, that way you can be together again."

CM turned and smiled to the ewe. Twisting in her chair, the bear hugged the ewe gently. "Thank you, Mrs. Blayless. I just wish I could be with her now."

"Call me Linda, dearie," the ewe replied as she hugged tight, her snout resting against CM's cheek fur and vice versa.

"Thank you, Linda! I'll pray for your husband to change too."

"Oh, Ernest has been in heaven for some time now. But you can pray for my children and grandchildren. I would love to be able to make some blankets for them with my wool, but I've not found anybody competent enough to trust with a pair of shears!"

CM laughed loudly at that, still hugging the elderly ewe. Rob chuckled lightly, while Carter just shook his head and tried not to stare at the two women. Walter stared at his watch.

When they finally broke apart, CM brushed tears out of her eyes with her palms. "Oh, all right. I'm better now. It's just so wonderful to finally meet others like me. I've been this way for six years now, and I never found anybody until Rob!"

"And I would like to reiterate my suggestion from earlier to you, CM." Walter put his empty folders into his briefcase and studied her with dark eyes. "Please take the time to discuss on the Changed forum the many tricks and techniques you have learned to live as a woman while everyone thinks you are a man. There are a few who would greatly benefit from your expertise."

"Of course," CM replied, nodding her head. "I'll happily provide what I know. There is one last thing I'd like to ask though."

"What's that?"

CM held up her Polaroid and smiled. "Could all of you stand together so I can get a group picture? And Angus too. I want at least a few pictures with all of us Changed together."

Rob just laughed.

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The ride back was uneventful. Rob talked about the sort of system he wanted to set up, while Christopher glanced through the stack of papers. After reading through the first hundred members of the organization, the bear felt sleepy and so napped for most of the way through West Virginia. When he woke, Rob assured him that yes he did snore very loudly and no, the skunk was not stupid enough to wake up a three hundred pound bear. Christopher laughed, but still felt guilty that he'd snored so loudly the whole time.

It was late in the afternoon when they reached Route 460 again. Once they crossed the border into Virginia, Christopher sighed and put all the papers back in a pile and let them rest between his legs and his paunch. "So," he said, "what did you think of them?"

"Somebody needs to pull the cattle prod out of Walter's ass," the skunk replied. "He may have connections out the wazoo, but he's way too serious. I bet he was military. A couple times I thought he was going to tell me to get down and give him twenty."

Christopher laughed. "You too, huh? I think he made a lot of sense though. We should be hiding this."

"You only say that because you've been this way for six years," Rob pointed out. Christopher gave him a withering look. They'd had this argument before, and there was no way the skunk was going to win it. Rob glanced once at him, and rolled his eyes. "Anyway. Carter's a bit full of himself, but okay. I liked Linda. She reminds me of my grandma if she knew anything about math or computers."

"I really liked Linda," Christopher agreed. "I hope she finds somebody who can shear her and spin her wool properly. That would be so wonderful to make blankets for her grandkids with her own wool!"

"Angus seemed nice too. Wish he'd stuck around more, but I guess he had a restaurant to run."

"Yeah, I guess. He made good food though."

"Very good food!"

Christopher patted the end of his papers. "Now we just have to worry about this. Leslie had to work tonight, so I'm going to go over this stuff before bed."

"You're not going to check out the Changed network?"

The bear grinned. "I'm doing that first!"

Forty-five minutes later, Christopher climbed out of Rob's matrix and stretched. It felt so good to be home again. He collected his things, promised Rob he'd see him on Friday at the latest, and then returned to his apartment. Crystal ran over to greet him, and he petted the Cairn Terrier, allowing the dog to lick his snout and nose as he laughed.

After setting all his things down, he took a minute to get Crystal her food. She waited somewhat patiently, sniffed at her food when he set it down, and then walked back to her beanbag. She'd eat it eventually.

He took a few minutes to unpack his things. He put the feminine products in his closet, and cleared a space next to his old journals for the stack of data on the Changed population. He sucked in his breath and ran his claws through his tummy fur. That was going to be a lot of work.

He closed his closet and sat at his computer. He rubbed his paws together as it powered up. He rumbled to himself and once he had a browser open, typed in the webpage name. A password prompt lit up, and he typed the twenty digit password, being careful to use caps and lowercase where needed. He couldn't remember seeing a more convoluted password, but at least they hadn't put any special characters in it.

As the page loaded, he drummed his claws on his desk. "Come on, come on!" And then the screen flashed to an introduction page. To one side appeared a vixen dressed in a casual dress that exposed only the barest hint of her midriff. The introduction page made it clear that this was a private forum. Not only was it password protected, but there was another question asking for a one word description of the picture.

Christopher typed "Fox" and hit enter. The screen flashed and he came to a forum page. A banner with the words "Changed Forums" ran across the top. Christopher saw forums for species specific questions, gatherings, general advice, furs in the news — which had almost no threads — and introductions.

At the top he saw a registration button. Christopher clicked that, and filled out the rather extensive intro form. He recognized most of the information from the data that Walter had given him. It took him nearly ten minutes to fill out the form, at which point he could barely contain his excitement.

When he finally had his account registered and authenticated, he jumped onto the introductions board and started a new thread. He took a deep breath, and for subject header wrote, "Name's Chris! Been Changing since 96!" Christopher smiled, and then clicked his tongue against the back of his long teeth. Amongst other Changed, her name was CM. She took out the "Chris" and put "CM" in its place.

As the female bear typed out her message, a smile crept across her muzzle. She was definitely not quite alone anymore.

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