|Paradise story universe|
|Works by MatthiasRat on Shifti|
The road up to Mill Mountain Zoo took them through Roanoke and then up through winding switch-backs and finally past the huge Roanoke Star that surmounted Mill Mountain and could be seen for miles around. Rob felt the tip of his tail twitch as he navigated past the star and into the parking lot. He sniffed the air constantly, noting the wild profusion of animal scents awaiting him.
"And here we are," he announced. But the only one to hear him was Audrey who bounced in her seat with her excited grin.
"I want to go see the foxes! Arf!" Rob laughed at her fake fox noise, and idly wondered what noises a Changed fox would make.
"I'm pretty sure they have foxes," he said as he climbed out of his Matrix. Following him into the zoo parking lot were the other members of SOAP. He had to stifle a grin as he glimpsed the huge she-bear CM stuffed into the passenger seat of Trevor's car. He could see the way the seatbelt tucked between her breasts and quickly averted his eyes. Still, it seemed typical that the two fattest would ride together.
Patrick and Brett drove up next, with Nick, Isaac, Randall, and Aaron right on their heels. In the last car rode Cindy and Van. Rob felt a little angry at Patrick still. CM and he could have been meeting with another Changed today. In fact, just the other day, Carter had sent them a message letting them know that he'd survived the election ordeal and was getting together with some Changed to relax. The wolf couldn't have known that Rob and CM had to cancel their plans because of a nosy human.
Still, he knew he'd have a good time with his friends so he tried to let it slide. There'd be other opportunities to meet with Changed.
"Okay!" Rob yelled as they all finished climbing out of the cars. "Nick has the discounts, so everybody give him your money and we'll get going."
Everyone gathered around their short, blonde-haired friend and handed him fives. Rob saw CM try to catch his eye. He smiled back to her and then turned to wrap one arm around Audrey's shoulder. She slipped her arm behind his back, twitching when his tail brushed over her skin. "Something wrong?"
She shook her head. "Just a cold chill. It is a little nippy up here. I'm going to get my jacket."
She wasn't the only one. Cindy had on a thick coat, while Aaron, Randall, and Patrick all sported windbreakers. Of the rest, only CM was brave enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt. Then again, the way CM stretched and lifted her snout into the air, this was probably perfect weather for her. Rob could feel the coolness in the November air, but his fur kept him from needing a jacket.
"That is one huge star," Randall said as he stared at the red, white, and blue star that towered over one side of the parking lot. He and a few others walked over to gawk. The star was actually five concentric stars, the outermost a dark red, the next two white, and the middle two a bright blue. Randall found a sign and grinned. "Wow! This is the largest free-standing star in the world. It stands eighty-eight and a half feet high, and was built in 1949. Now that's impressive."
"I'll say," Aaron said as he stared up to the top.
CM took out her camera and snapped some pictures. She waved one paw and growled, "Everybody get in the picture."
"You're going to have to stand way back to get the star in too," Van pointed out even as he and Cindy found a spot to one side.
CM shrugged her shoulders and turned her head slightly to one side so she could press the viewfinder to her right eye. Rob wondered if anybody else noticed that. As for the skunk, he stood at the back of the group to keep his tail out of the way. He rested his paws on Audrey's shoulders while the bear snapped a few photos.
"That'll have to do," she said. "Let's go see the zoo!"
Nick paid for the tickets at the zoo entrance and then they all filed past the gates onto the stone paths. Enclosures greeted them right away, some with birds and others with various mammals. Nick passed out maps, and Brett immediately stuttered, "Oooh, I want to see the cougars!"
"I thought you might," Trevor replied. "So shall we split up or stick together?"
"We may as well stick together," Van said. "The zoo isn't that big."
"So which way should we go then?" Isaac asked.
Brett raised one finger. "I say we go see the cougars."
CM shifted the weight of the camera strap on her shoulder. If Rob didn't know better, he would have thought she was carrying a purse. He reminded himself yet again that everyone else saw CM as a guy. And her voice was so feminine that he had to do it again every time she opened her mouth. "Why don't we just follow the outside path," she suggested. "We'll see everything in the outer ring, and then we can come back and hit this stuff in the middle."
Brett whined, "But... but the cougars are in the middle."
CM glared at him. "Think of it as saving the best for last."
In the end it took Rob and Van heading off to get the others to stop arguing and follow along. On their right stood several cages with various birds. A Bald Eagle perched up front and CM snagged a couple good pictures of the eagle's profile. A hornbill was up next, followed by a pair of ravens. On the other side of the stone path nestled an enclosure for the Corsac foxes. The other furries all went to see the foxes, while Rob lingered a moment staring at the birds.
CM rumbled behind him and whispered, "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," Rob replied. He gestured at the birds. "You know, I've been wondering. Everybody I've read up on has been a mammal. No birds at all. Have you noticed that?"
"Changed? Yes, I noticed. Statistically speaking, that's odd. Maybe we'll see them in the future." She stepped back and added, "Let's join the others or Patrick'll get suspicious."
"Shut up about that," Rob muttered, but if CM heard him, she didn't give any sign. He waved at the ravens who stared placidly at him with beady eyes and pointed beaks.
Despite the fact that Mill Mountain Zoo had originally been built as a children's zoo, it had expanded over the years and featured a wide variety of exhibits. Set atop the mountain, it provided an idyllic environment that was away from the bustle of Roanoke which lay below. Apart from the birds and the Corsac foxes, there were also red pandas, snow leopards, various Asiatic cattle species, monkeys of several different stripes, a slew of rodents, wolverines, and even an old Siberian Tiger named Ruby.
By the time they'd finished the outer circuit, Rob had completely forgotten that they'd been planning to meet another Changed. Nick and Patrick had been right; this was a fun outing! It was even more interesting for him because of all the fascinating scents that he encountered along the way. After the first few enclosures, he put his map away and focused on the scents that met them coming down the trail. He tried to guess what animal they'd see next from the scents his nose caught. He was more often than not wrong, but any time the species was somewhat local he always knew it. And also, even though he hadn't seen them yet, he knew there were other skunks somewhere in the zoo.
They paused for lunch after finishing the outside ring. A small restaurant did its business near the park entrance and he was pleased to discover it wasn't horrifically overpriced. It still took nearly a half hour for all of them to be served. Rob noticed CM linger at the back of the line before ordering only a small drink and a fish sandwich. Ever since that fateful day in August, he'd never seen the bear order such a small meal.
Nor had anyone else for that matter. "Cutting back on the food, Chris?" Nick asked as he settled into a plastic seat with his burger.
CM tried to squeeze into the bench but the table and seat were too close together. She growled angrily at it, before giving up and sitting with her back to the table. "I'm trying to lose weight. Weather's getting cold."
"And you can't fi... fit right?" Brett asked with a stuttering laugh. CM growled louder and Brett flinched. "So... Sorry!"
"You really have put on a lot of weight since the last time we saw you," Cindy said as she ate her salad. "Is everything okay?"
CM nodded and finished off her fish sandwich in two bites. Rob was amazed it took her two. "Body's just going through changes."
"He's a bear now," Audrey added helpfully.
"Yeah, he looks like one too," Van said in his usual not-quite-under-the-breath way.
Rob felt sorry for her and jumped in. "So, you think we've tortured Brett long enough? Should we go see the cougars or should we wait a little longer?"
He received a quick look of thanks from CM's dark eyes. While Brett spluttered and protested Rob's evil plans, CM disposed of her food and waited outside for everyone to finish, adjusting her shorts from time to time when she didn't think anyone was looking. Rob couldn't help but wonder what was wrong. She seemed surlier than usual. Was she that upset over not getting together with the Changed in Bristol?
He tried to put it out of his mind as they finished their lunch and continued through the interior of the zoo. Brett didn't have long to wait before they found the cougars. CM took a picture of him next to the cage with a cougar just off to one side. Brett had a goofy grin on his face the whole time.
Nearby was a small den of timber wolves. While the others oohed at the pretty lupines, Rob forged ahead and followed his nose to the skunk enclosure. It was in a sunken pit with a high concrete wall. The pit was littered with short grass, stones, and a small moat of water around the edge for them to drink and bathe. At the back he could see the gate for the keepers to collect them. Most of the skunks were sleeping, but there was one milling and snuffling through the short grass. Rob could smell that this one was male.
The real skunk looked up at Rob and sniffed, long frazzled tail lifting high behind him. Dark eyes studied him. He stood on his hind legs and waved his paws at Rob as if beckoning him to come in and enjoy the day. Rob smiled to himself and ran his tongue along the back of his sharp teeth. He'd never really paid attention to skunks before this, and now he sort of was one. After almost three months of mephitdom, he realized he really liked skunks.
"Looking for a relative?" the she-bear's voice grumbled behind him.
Rob chuckled and shook his head. The skunk he'd been watching dropped back to all fours and resumed waddling through the grass. "Not really. You okay? You seem grouchy."
"A little," CM admitted. She leaned against the concrete wall and tapped her claws together. "Just a little frustrated is all."
"I'm frustrated at having to keep everything hidden," Rob replied. "I don't want to just tell everybody, but it'd be easier if we could tell some folks."
"Maybe, maybe not." She sighed. "Here comes the others."
"I can hear them," Rob said, but CM was already moving off to stare at the next exhibit. The skunk waved his claws and watched his distant relative continue to snuffle the grass.
"Ah," Nick exclaimed, "did you find the ones that stink as bad as you do?"
Rob was sorely tempted at that moment to discover with Nick's aid just how bad his spray stank.
CM had to admit it had been a fun day at the zoo. She only wished she could have enjoyed it better. It was now almost three months since she'd changed into a female bear again, and just like the previous time, she experienced a period of a week where she couldn't do anything but think of herself as female.
The cramps had started only a few days after her confrontation with Patrick, and they would persist for another day before her course would reach its end. It was one thing she had observed and written about on the Changed forum. The female Changed cycles didn't always line up with human women. When she'd been a dog this last time, she'd only had three periods — although other canines had mentioned having more, so it didn't seem like a fixed thing.
But as a donkey and as a bear she had four. Once every three months she experienced a week of agony that no man could ever hope to describe. She'd taken all the right pills from her secret stash, and it helped somewhat, but she couldn't escape all the discomfort. She could only endure it.
And so she didn't try to fight her gender identity that day, even with all her friends. She would be CM, and the initials would remind her that she was truly a guy beneath all the fur and fat.
And that was the other thing. Her appetite, only a few days ago utterly insatiable, had completely ceased to exist. That fish sandwich was the only thing she'd eaten in the last two days. With luck, she would work off enough of the pounds that her parents wouldn't freak when they saw her at Christmas.
But she did get irritated having to explain this to the others. Rob probably understood, but she could barely get a word in without Patrick checking up on them all the time. And after they left the skunk enclosure, CM couldn't help but ponder what Rob had said. She barely even noticed the rest of the exhibits and even forgot to take pictures of several.
As they were leaving the reptile house, Cindy asked her, "Are you okay, Chris? You've been spacing the last ten minutes."
She shook her head and laughed. "Yeah, sorry, just thinking about some stuff is all."
She thought fast. "Oh, just wishing Leslie were here."
Cindy nodded knowingly. "She's still at Pizza Hut?"
"Yeah. You know how it goes." CM didn't really want to talk about Leslie either. Hard to think about having a wife when you had menstrual cramps. "How have you and Van been? I haven't seen you lately."
It worked as a distraction long enough. CM tried to be interested in everything she saw, heard, and smelled, but she kept finding her eyes drawn to Rob and then over to Patrick. Their friend seemed to be enjoying himself and he spent a lot of time hanging around Rob. Several times he nearly got a face full of a tail he couldn't see.
After they'd seen all of the interior of the zoo, everybody meandered back to the entrance. When they reached the parking lot, CM surprised everyone including herself when she said, "Hey Trevor, I need to talk with Patrick. You mind taking Brett back?"
"No, I don't mind," Trevor relied with a little laugh. "But does Brett mind?"
"No... no I don't mind," the wanna-be cougar said.
Rob gave him a curious look, then shrugged. "See you all back at 1600J."
Patrick had already started to climb into his car, but he stepped back out. "Okay, come on in and we can talk on the road."
CM made a show of squeezing into Patrick's car, but as soon as the door's were shut she said, "I want to talk with you over by the star. I have to show you something before I lose the nerve."
"What's up, Chris? Is this about last week? I'm sorry I pushed so much like that."
CM grunted and pressed her claws into the fur on her knees. "Just please let me do the talking for a little bit, Patrick. I think I'm crazy for even wanting to tell you, but I'm tired of you being suspicious."
Patrick spread his hands wide in front of his face in exasperation. "I said I was sorry, okay! Jeez!"
CM noted that the other cars were pulling out of the lot. She drummed her claws on her knees a moment more and then climbed back out of the car. "When you're ready to listen," she growled, "I'll be by the star."
CM stalked off to where they'd gathered that morning. The star shone brightly against the overcast sky. She admired the patriotic colors for a minute before she heard Patrick get out of the car and follow her. The she-bear ignored him for a moment as she glanced around the area, looking for anything she might use. She saw a small pile of unmelted snow at the far corner of the star's platform. They always seemed to get some snow at the beginning of November, but it never lasted more than a day or two before melting. It would have to do.
"Okay, sorry I flipped out again," Patrick said as he came over. "What'd you want to talk about?"
CM tapped her claws together, trying to work up the courage to just say what she wanted to say. Now that it came to it, she was getting cold feet. Bears don't have cold feet, she told herself, and wiggled her toes on the pavement. "I was hoping to explain what's going on with Rob and I. We canceled our prior engagement just to hang with you guys. Yes, it was fun to come up here, but I'm still upset."
Patrick grimaced but didn't say anything. He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and huddled his shoulders closer as the wind picked up.
"I don't know how to say this... it's going to sound insane. Something's happened to us that's made us different."
"Different? Other than you getting fat, what's different?"
CM tried not to glare at her friend. Instead she let him suffer in the chilling wind for a few seconds more. It felt wonderful and soothing through her thick fur and it brought many interesting scents to her wide, black nose.
When the wind ebbed, she patted her belly. "You know I changed my furry species to bear at the start of the semester. It wasn't because I was starting to put on weight. And I didn't start putting on weight because I became a bear — no, I suppose that is true, but that's not the point. I gained weight precisely because I changed species, but they happened at the same time."
"Uh, that doesn't make any sense, Chris."
"Grrr, this is so hard to explain. Okay, we're all furry right?"
"Not me, I'm a dragon." At the bear's glare, Patrick's laugh died and he nodded. "Yeah, okay, we're all furry."
"And you know how furry has lots of little subcultures?"
"Yeah. You've seen some of the art done of my character, right?"
Patrick's character had breasts that defied both gravity and common sense. Anyone who actually had breasts would never want watermelons of that size. CM grunted and nodded. "Yes, but there are some furry subcultures that live their furry forms more than others."
"So, what are you two into some lifestyling thing? Why didn't you ask the rest of us? We might be interested too."
CM grunted as a the cramps tightened in her abdomen. She took a deep breath and held up one paw. Patrick frowned but waited. He pulled his arms in tight when the wind picked up again.
The pain lessened after a few seconds, and CM gestured at her body. "This isn't the sort of group you can just invite somebody into. You're either in it or you aren't. And it's out of your control. There aren't a whole lot of us either; just over a thousand in fact. I've been part of it since ‘96, but Rob only joined this year."
Patrick was starting to sound exasperated. "Part of what?"
CM bit her tongue gently and took a deep breath. Walter would probably gore her with his horns if he knew what she was doing. She put any thought of the longhorn lawyer out of her mind. "The reason I'm trying to tell you this against all my instincts is because I don't want you thinking Rob and I are trying to ditch everyone. Ya'll can't understand what we're going through. We were going to Bristol to meet with another person like us. She is also the closest person to us who is like us that we know of. We suspect that there are many more out there that haven't found the rest of us. They're out there wondering if they've gone crazy or if they're completely alone. I know I did for six years."
Patrick opened his mouth to say something more, but CM held out her paw again. "I know I look fat. But all my life I've always been skinny like you. And the real reason is something you cannot see or touch. But you've noticed it. You know the stink that seems to cling to Rob no matter what he does? That's part of it.
"You see..." CM tried to say it but the words didn't want to leave her throat. After so long saying nothing to anyone, and doing everything she could to hide it, how could she just tell this guy? She'd always hoped one day to tell Leslie, but she couldn't do that until she became male again — if she ever became male again.
Patrick's irritation began to fade. "Come on, Chris. What is it?"
CM sighed and nodded. "We're furry."
"No, you don't understand. Rob and I really are furry. He's a skunk and I'm a bear. You and everyone else who's human will see us as humans, but we see each other as we are."
Patrick smiled a little bit. "What? Are you trying to mess with me? Are you serious?"
"Yes, I'm very serious. You were still in New Jersey when it happened, but you can ask Trevor, Nick, and Brett. For two days in August Rob was down sick with a flu. The last day he said he was feeling better, then wouldn't come out of his room until I coaxed him out. Heck, ask to see a pair of his pants when he doesn't have them on. You can't see the tail hole while he's wearing them, but you'll be able to then."
"Do you have a tail hole in your pants?"
CM glowered at him. "My tail isn't big enough for one. And even if it was, I wouldn't take my pants off to show you."
"And so that's why you've gained all the weight, because you're really a bear?"
"How much would you say I weigh?"
Patrick shrugged. "At least two hundred to two-twenty."
CM rubbed one paw over her belly. It jiggled a little as did her breasts. "I weigh three hundred and ten pounds as of this morning. And I've lost ten pounds since last weekend."
"Three hundred pounds!" Patrick stared wide-eyed. "No way!"
"I'm a bear. Bears weigh a lot." CM noted that Patrick kept looking at her breasts. She'd grown used to that, as that was where most people thought her eyes were. Rob had to be careful not to look at her real face as people would might wonder about him. But Patrick wouldn't know that. She grinned. "So, do you believe me?"
Patrick laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "Sure, why not? Sounds ludicrous though. Can you prove any of it? I don't really want to look at Rob's pants."
"I can. How tall am I?"
Patrick rolled his eyes. "I don't know. Five and half feet?"
"That's how tall I was when I was human. Try to pass your hand over the top of my head. No seriously, give it a try."
Patrick took his right hand out of the jacket pocket and from the side waved it into CM's left shoulder. He blinked in confusion and rubbed it back and forth. "What the hell?"
"That's my shoulder. I'm a foot taller as a bear. You're actually staring at my... chest." No need to tell him that she was female as well as a bear. "Lift your hand up and keep pushing to the right — my right, your left. You'll see what I mean."
Patrick did so. The side of his hand slid along CM's shoulder, across to her neck, and then up over the top of her head. He stared dumbfounded. "I can't feel anything! How're you doing this?"
"I'm not. I'm actually a bear. Would you like another demonstration?"
"Come over here." She pointed to the pile of snow next to the concrete mount for the Roanoke Star. Patrick followed her, his eyes bewildered and his jaw hanging. CM wriggled her left shoe free and watched it appear in her paws. Patrick stammered, "What are you doing? You're going to freeze your foot!"
"I'm a grizzly, Patrick. I've got a dense coat of fur. And I've been walking on these paws all day long. The snow's going to feel good. And just so you don't believe I've prepared the snow or something, why don't you put your footprint in there first."
"I'm not taking off my shoes to walk in the snow!"
"Then leave them on. Jeez you're being difficult!"
"Fine! Fine!" Patrick walked a few steps in the snow, leaving normal shoe prints. "Okay, so what, are you going to leave bear tracks?"
"Yes, I am." CM took off her other shoe and set them on the concrete mount. "The field or whatever it is that keeps you from seeing me as I really am doesn't apply to things I leave behind. Watch this."
She stepped into the snow and it did feel very soothing against her rough paw pads. Slowly, she padded through the snow, letting her paws sink into the white slush enough to leave a definite print. Patrick stammered as he watched.
"Oh my... Oh my... you weren't kidding! Holy shit! You're a bear aren't you?"
She rolled her eyes. "That's what I've been saying."
Patrick stumbled back, breathing heavy, his face even whiter than usual. "You're a bear. Holy... and Rob's really a skunk too? Oh shit! That's... that's... so awesome!" He smiled wide and managed to catch himself before tripping over his own feet. He laughed and kept repeatig himself. "Wow, that's so awesome!"
After catching his breath, he managed to creep forward and spread his hand across one of her paw prints. His eyes widened even further when he saw how long her toe claws were. "Dang, you could've taken my head off last week couldn't you?"
"It was very tempting," CM admitted with a growl in her voice. "Rob and I are doing important work for the Changed community. That's what we call ourselves, the Changed. One year you may even join us. But you have to promise not to tell anyone else. At least not yet. This is our secret and it shouldn't be shared except by Changed."
Patrick nodded, still staring at the paw print. "I understand. So I kept you from meeting with another furry like you?"
"Yes. But we'll reschedule now." She started to sweep her prints from the snow. No sense freaking out the zookeepers. "So, you see why Rob and I have to do some things together? We don't want to leave SOAP or anything like that. You guys are our friends and I know I care about you a lot. But, there are times when we just want to be who we are for real. You have to let us do that."
"Yeah, I understand," Patrick admitted. He straightened up and licked his lips. "But since I know now, do you mind if I go with you next time you take your hikes up the Cascade Trail?"
CM glared murder at her friend. For once, she was at a complete loss for words.