|In this past October (2020) the Shifti Community lost Chris "Robotech Master" Meadows to an accident involving an SUV hitting his electric bike and leaving the scene. While we may never know the full story of this event, the administrators of Shifti will work to preserve his account and works here as he'd wish us to. Thank you all for being such excellent people.|
User:Robotech Master/The Taming of the Snow Leopardess
|Paradise story universe|
Author: Chris Meadows
The Taming of the Snow Leopardess
BEEEEEEEEEP! “Mmph.” Scrabbling blindly for the alarm clock, Lee rolled out of bed in a tangle of sheets and blankets, landing on the floor with a loud thump. “Grmph,” the snow leopardess Changed muttered as she disentangled herself and slapped the alarm switch. She eyed the bed thoughtfully and considered crawling back in for another ten, but given that she’d completely denuded it of its coverings (as usual), she’d have to remake it, and by the time she got done she’d be too awake to snooze anyway. So she might as well go in search of the substance that made life before noon worth living, that caffeinated elixir of the deities.
Lee grabbed a robe off the hanger and slipped into it, then left her apartment on the second floor of the mansion’s staff wing and padded down the stairs. It still wasn’t quite 7 yet, so most of the furres and the assorted staff they’d hired were still asleep, but the kitchen staff was busy fixing breakfast and they knew her preferences and her timetable. A steaming muzzle-cup full of strong black coffee awaited her on one corner of the counter as she shuffled in. “Mmm,” she grunted in thanks as she made her way to a small table in the corner. The cook, a matronly middle-aged Changed they’d hired after the diner where she’d worked decided it didn’t want a pig in the kitchen, nodded acknowledgment as she dropped another rasher of bacon into the skillet.
“Muy articulate as usual, mi hermana,” said the other early riser at the table with a grin, a several-months-pregnant melanistic jaguar in a pretty yellow dress, working on a platter of huevos rancheros.
Lee snorted. “Oh, hush up, Connie. I don’t articulate for nobody ‘til I’ve had my coffee.” She slurped it noisily. “Ahhhh. And I see you’re chipper as usual even at this ungodly hour.” Come to think of it, Lee wasn’t sure exactly when Consuela slept anymore, now that their schedules were no longer defined by the desires of a lecher with binoculars. Since jaguars were nocturnal, she might have been up half the night. Lee snorted inwardly. Yeah, right. Snow leopards are nocturnal, too, and look at me.
“If you are not a persona de la mañana, why do you not sleep later?” Consuela smirked.
Of course, she knew the answer—they all did—but Lee said it anyway. “’Cuz I’m doing the work of at least three people, that’s why.” She finished the coffee as the cook set a king-sized platter of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy, grits, and hash browns in front of her, then returned to top off the mug. “Thanks, Martha.”
The cook smiled, returning to her work at the stove. “Bon appetit.”
Lee watched her go, then shook her head. “I still think it’s cannibalism for her to be cooking bacon and sausage,” she muttered, then tucked into her breakfast. “Damned good at it, though.”
“Perhaps you would have less work to do, mi hermana, if you did not drive so many assistants away,” Consuela observed placidly. It was weird, Lee thought, how the words that might have come across with a sneer from someone else were delivered in the neutral tones of one providing a helpful insight. For someone who claimed English as a distant second language, Consuela was really good at that.
“It’s not my fault they don’t have fur!” Lee complained. “I have to keep the garage chilly or I’ll overheat from the coveralls and tail stocking I have to wear to keep the grease out of my pelt.”
“And the ones who say you tried to…how did they put it…bite their heads off?” Consuela asked.
Lee rolled her eyes. “They’re exaggerating. Maybe I growled at them a little, before I fired them.” She scooped up a heaping forkful of biscuit and gravy and chewed it angrily.
Consuela said nothing, but delicately raised an eyebrow. Lee sighed. “All right, they were ogling me. I’ve damn well had enough of that to last a lifetime.”
“Are you certain you are not being…oversensitive?” Consuela asked.
“One of them even tweaked the side mirror on the car we were working on to try to see down my coveralls,” Lee growled. “If I am oversensitive, I’ve got damn good reason.”
“You are an attractive señorita,” Consuela pointed out reasonably. “As am I. And I do not mind so much. It is…like a compliment.” She waved a paw-hand. “Like getting carded to buy beer. I will be more sad when they do not look anymore.”
“I don’t want to be a señorita, attractive or otherwise,” Lee grumped. “It has too much baggage with it. Hell, I don’t even like men. I used to be one and I know what they’re really like.”
Consuela grinned. “Tell that to…what was his name…Joey Buchanan?” Lee’s reaction to Tiffany’s on-screen kiss with Nathan Fillion’s character on One Life to Live the week before had quickly become a thing of legend around the mansion.
“That’s just hormones, dammit,” Lee smoldered.
“Did hormones tack that poster up on your wall, mi hermana?” Consuela asked innocently.
“I had to have some decoration, the place had no character,” Lee grumbled, shoveling more food in.
“As you say.” Consuela no longer attempted to hide her amusement. “Do you want my advice?”
“Would it shut you up if I said no?” Lee asked.
“You have not even really tried being a señorita,” Consuela said. “Try it. Do something ‘girly.’ Even if it is with complete strangers.”
“Hmph. Right. ‘Girly’. Sure.” Lee snorted, finishing her breakfast and guzzling the rest of her coffee. “Maybe if someone adds six more hours to the day so I can get my work done.” She put the mug down. “See you later, Connie.”
“Vaya con Dios!” Consuela said cheerfully as Lee slipped out the back door and crossed the grounds to the insulated Quonset hut set up to house the resort’s vehicle shop.
“‘Do something girly’ my fluffy white tail,” Lee muttered under her breath. “Like what, get pregnant maybe?” There seemed to be a lot of that going around lately, didn’t there? She snorted. Well, at least she wouldn’t have to worry about that, now that the King of the Jungle had been claimed and tamed. And if she still couldn’t say she approved of the particular lion-tamer, at least now she didn’t have to worry about being ambushed by some horny he-cat.
That last thought had only just crossed her mind as she slid open the door to the shop and found an orange tabby cat Changed waiting inside, leaning against the desk where Lee did her paperwork. “Like, morning, most bodacious fluffy grease monkey kitty babe!” Dan greeted her cheerfully.
Lee glowered at him. “What the hell do you want?”
“Like, I heard you were understaffed. Thought I’d, like, see if you wouldn’t mind some help.”
Lee blinked. “You, help with auto work?”
“Hey, I didn’t just, like, surf all day back in Cali, y’know. I messed with hot rods, too. I, like, know my way around a toolbox.”
“But you’ve got a job already,” Lee pointed out. “You’re running the tanning salon, remember?”
Dan snorted. “Oh, please. You think I don’t, like, know a sinecure when I see it? Do you really think Changed need to tan?” He shook his head. “I may be, like, a space cadet, but I’m not stupid.”
Lee blinked. “But you always…oh.” Well, when you got right down to it, Lee wasn’t even sure now why she’d taken Dan’s tanning obsession back in the pit at face value. It had been so ridiculous on the face of it that when you thought about it it had to be a put-on. He was just so good at it nobody had thought twice about tossing the beach bum kitty a catnip mousie so he’d go play in a corner while the grown-ups did the real work—but nobody could really be that spacey, right?
Then Dan flashed her another one of his patented Cheshire-like grins. “Besides, I’m, like, not even sinny yet, so I sure don’t need to be cured.”
Or then again…
“All right, fine. I am short-handed around here, and if you know anything about cars you’ll be welcome.” She crossed the room to the lockers where she kept her coveralls. “At least I know you won’t be trying to ogle me. You already know exactly what I look like.” Which was probably why she didn’t have any compunction about slipping out of her robe in front of him to pull on the coveralls.
But if she’d turned around, she might have been surprised to see Dan was actually self-consciously averting his gaze.
Over the next few days, Dan became a fixture in the garage with Lee. There was still a lot of work to be done, but to Lee’s surprise Dan proved a more than competent assistant. With a little help from a coyote-Changed who came in on weekends when her own garage was closed, they were able to make a significant dent in the work ahead—inspecting and servicing the small fleet of vehicles that the resort had acquired.
In an effort to save money where they could, Lee had insisted on buying good-condition used vehicles for everything except the vans and courtesy cars that would be the resort’s public face. While this had seemed like a good idea at the time, a couple of the utility trucks turned out to need their engines rebuilt. But Lee didn’t really mind being busy. In fact, she liked being busy. It meant she didn’t have time to stop and think about the things that bothered her. Much, anyway.
And after the first few days, Lee had to admit that Dan had gone beyond “more than competent” to downright surprising. Practically all he’d ever done in the habitat pit was laze around sunning himself, but there was nothing lazy about his work in the Quonset hut. He might not have been the virtuoso mechanic Lee was (if she thought so herself), but he learned fast and would ask questions if he didn’t know something rather than forge forward into a mistake. And he worked quietly, too, save for occasionally whistling songs like “Little GTO,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” or “Fun Fun Fun (Until Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away)” under his breath.
And best of all, from Lee’s point of view, he didn’t ogle her. So many of the assistants she’d tried out kept getting distracted from their work whenever she was around—whether because she was furry, attractive, or both. She hated that—it made her feel like a piece of meat, and she’d had her fill of that from Hugh Melton. But Dan kept right on working no matter how near she was. Though sometimes she’d almost swear she caught him watching her from a distance—but when she looked again he was as absorbed in his work as ever.
Though to Lee’s irritation, as much as Dan left his old self outside when he came to work, he left his quiet, hard-working persona inside when he quit for the day. He was every bit the gnarly surf kook whenever any non-mechanics were around, complaining loudly for all to hear about how badly Lee the slave-driver was forever “harshing his mellow,” and spending hours “trying out” each of the new tanning booths that had been ordered for his salon.
Lee found Dan’s act somewhere between amusing and exasperating, but somehow never quite worked up the nerve to take him to task about it—even though she knew she got some odd looks from others on the resort staff, especially the new hires who hadn’t been with them in the pit, every time she and Dan went off to work in the morning. When you got right down to it, Lee told herself, what mattered was he got the work done, and it was looking like she might actually get to have a weekend one of these days. Though what she’d do with it if she had one, she wasn’t entirely sure. She was half afraid she might just end up staring at it in confusion like a dog who finally caught the car he’d been chasing.
It all started innocently, a couple of weeks after Dan had come to work with her. Dan closed the hood of the Jeep Cherokee they’d just finished rebuilding and turned to Lee, wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his coverall. “Whew. Well, that’s that, boss-lady. Last of the red-hot clunkers, like, totally de-clunked.”
Lee nodded. “Good job. Wanna knock off early?”
Dan considered. “I might.”
“Yeah, after the work you put in on this, you deserve it. See you tomorrow, then.” Lee wiped her hand-paws with a greasy rag and looked around for the next job that needed doing. One of the John Deere Gator mini-utilities had started dying, and probably needed its carb cleaned out. It was a nice simple task that would take her the rest of the day, and—
“You’re not coming?” Dan asked quietly.
It was an innocent enough question, but the tone was so un-Dan-like that it all but froze Lee right in her tracks. “Me? Come? Why? There’s still work to be done.”
“There’s always going to be work to be done,” Dan said in that same quiet tone, leaning against the front of the Jeep. “There’s more to life than work, you know.”
“Not for me.” Lee shook her head.
“All work and no play makes Lee a dull girl,” Dan said.
Lee spun on her heel. “I’m not a girl!” she growled at him.
Dan shrugged, unphased by this display of ferocity. “Woman, then.”
Lee snorted. “That’s not much better!”
“You don’t have to try so hard, you know,” Dan said. “Nobody’s going to come up to you and say, ‘You can’t get your hands dirty anymore, girly-girl. Leave your wrenches behind and come play dress-up!’”
Lee glared. “What do you know about it? Unless there’s something you haven’t told us, you’ve never been a girl.”
Dan shrugged. “I’ve never been a dolphin, either, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to swim.”
“And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I dunno. Maybe nothing at all. Maybe this whole thing means nothing at all.” Dan turned away, and started walking for the exit, tail held stiffly in the air.
Lee bit her lip for a moment, then almost against her will called out, “Wait!” Dan stopped, but didn’t turn around, and Lee continued. “No…really…what do you mean?”
Dan looked back over his shoulder. “All you ever do is shut yourself up. You shut yourself up in here with the cars, away from people. Even when you’re outside, you wear that chip on your shoulder like a shield between you and anyone you think might hurt you.”
He chuckled quietly. “Like I’m one to, like, talk about toooootally gnarly crap like that. I think we all came up with these little coping mechanisms, the last few months.” He turned fully to face her. “But I can let mine drop, when I need to. Can you?” Then he spun around again, and waved jauntily over his shoulder. “Anyway, ciao! See you, like, on the flip side, babe!”
Then he was out the door and gone. For a long time Lee stood staring after him, grease rag dangling limply from her hand.
The next morning, Lee was already working in the Quonset hut when Dan came in. As he pulled on his coveralls, Lee busied herself with the Gator’s carburetor, waiting until he approached to look up. “Morning.”
“Hey.” Dan paused, then said hesitantly, “Um…last night I said some, like, really heinous things, and I just, like, wanted to say—”
“Don’t,” Lee said quietly. “Just don’t, okay? Don’t ever be that way with me.”
Dan blinked, then clammed up. Since he seemed to be at a loss for words, Lee guessed the next move was up to her. “I was thinking last night. Thinking a lot.” She looked at the errant carburetor, so she wouldn’t have to look at Dan. “What you said…well, I took a look at my life. Maybe for the first time since this whole thing happened. And I think you may be right. Maybe I am just…hiding.” She bit her lip, waiting to see what Dan would make of this admission.
Dan took his time thinking about that. “That can’t have been easy for you to say,” he said after a while.
Lee glanced at him, then down at the floor. “No. No, it kinda wasn’t. Thing is, it doesn’t make things any easier. I don’t want the rest of my life to be nothing but one garage after another, but…what else is there?”
“Y’know, most Change-trans don’t have that trouble,” Dan pointed out. “They get this whole hormone-high thing going on that kind of eases them into femmeness.”
“Yeah, well maybe I missed out on that part,” Lee said. “Or maybe I was just really good at ignoring it. Or maybe the fact I got snatched three days after I Changed had something to do with it.”
“Ouch.” Dan nodded. “So it looks like we’re gonna have to start from scratch. Got it.”
“I just…don’t want to be a girl,” Lee grumped.
“Really?” Dan asked. “So if someone waved a magic wand and gave you guy parts back, you’d be happy?”
“Damn right I would!” Lee said.
“Really?” Dan asked. “You haven’t kinda got used to it at all? C’mon, actually think about it, don’t give me that knee-jerk reaction.”
“I really hate periods, though. And PMS. And cramps. And…but…well.” Lee trailed off, staring away into nothing. “You know, I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s weird, but…having more up top and less down below just feels normal now. I still don’t want to be a girl…but it’s actually kind of jarring to think about being changed back, too.”
“Maybe it’s not so much the actual being a girl as it is all the crap that comes with it that bugs you?” Dan asked.
“Yeah, maybe,” Lee admitted. “Don’t really see what difference that makes, since they kinda go together.”
“Well, you can’t do anything about being a girl, but maybe there’s better ways to handle the crap than hiding from it,” Dan said. “Lotsa people have already figured out some of those ways. I think maybe you should talk to someone I know who had a…kinda similar problem to you, let’s say.”
“Yeah, who?” Then Lee put two and two together. “Her? No way. No frickin’ way am I gonna unburden my soul to the same person who put those burdens on my soul in the first place.”
“Who else are you gonna find who knows what it’s like to reverse polarity, and also knows exactly what you went through over the last few months? Okay, so she knows about it from the other side of the binoculars, but that’s still as close as you’re gonna get.” He waved a hand, emphasizing the point. “And besides, I know you still don’t wanna let yourself believe this, but she’s not the same person who put you through all that anymore. Give her a chance, babe. You’ve got nothing to lose but your confusion.”
Lee was tempted to say the hell with it and forget the whole thing—but she had asked for Dan’s help. In a moment of weakness, maybe, but she had. And she’d learned from the auto repair biz that you didn’t ask someone for a consultation and then only consider what he said if you already agreed with him.
“All right, dammit,” Lee growled. “Let’s get this over with.”
A few minutes later, Dan led a reluctant Lee into Helena’s office in the staff wing of the mansion. The pregnant cougress Changed was behind her desk, staring intently at the monitor as she chewed on the end of a pencil. She looked up as they entered—without the slightest trace of fear or nervousness that would have betrayed a guilty conscience. Helena’s body language suggested she was comfortable here—that she belonged here rather than anywhere else in the world, and it irritated the hell out of Lee.
Helena had become the resort project’s de facto chief accountant. This had been Trixie’s job, but though the fox had owned her own business before the Change, she’d never had to deal with any accounts the size and complexity of those necessary to manage the finances of a business this size—and it just happened that Hugh Melton had.
In an effort to be useful, Helena had started helping Trixie with the accounts, but Trixie had soon realized that she was out of her depth and, after consulting with the others, turned the task over to Helena. Not without some limitations, of course—Helena had to ask for authorization if she wanted to move money around or create new accounts. And Trixie double-checked Helena’s work as best she could, and occasionally (secretly) had a CPA audit the books. So far, there had been no sign that their erstwhile kidnapper was reverting to her old villainous ways.
Helena smiled at her fellow felines. “Hello Dan, Lee. What can I do for you?”
“Lee needs some help with, like, a little something-something you two got in common. If y’know what I mean.”
Helena cocked her head at Lee, clearly trying to figure out what that might be. Lee sighed. “He means I want girlie lessons.”
“I wouldn’t have, like, said it quite like that, but that’s the, like, gist of it, yah,” Dan said. He waved Lee toward a seat. “I’m, like, gonna leave you two to it. Don’ need to catch, like, heinous kitty cooties ‘r something.”
“You’re already a ‘heinous kitty,’” Lee growled.
“Oops, too late!” Dan waved and slipped out, closing the door behind him.
Lee stared after him for a moment, then turned to look back at Helena. “So. Welcome ‘The Taming of the Screw-Loose,’ Act 2,” she grumbled. “I guess you already know I still don’t like you very much, but Dan said I should talk to you. So what the hell, I’ll try anything once.”
Helena came out from behind her desk and turned the other chair in front of it to face Lee. “I understand. It must have taken a lot of courage to come in here.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Lee growled.
Helena’s eyes widened. “I’m not! At least, I didn’t mean it that way. I just know it’s really rare for you to show your face outside of your garage these days at all, let alone come visit with someone you don’t like.” She smiled. “Actually, it seems to me we’ve been here before, though maybe our positions were reversed a little.”
Lee considered that. “Yeah, and we’re both wearing clothes now.” She glanced at Helena’s cotton blouse, denim skirt, and Furgonomic paw-sandals, then considered her own ratty jeans and sweatshirt. “Yours are nicer, I guess.”
“Thanks,” Helena said. “I like them. They’re comfortable, and the whole thing is still kind of new to me.” She smiled. “And I guess that’s part of what you wanted to talk to me about.”
“How are you so comfortable as a woman?” Lee exploded. “You’ve only had a month out of the pit to get used to it, but you’re as girly as any born woman I’ve ever seen!”
“Well, I read a lot. Changed forums, tips boards, wikis, even a couple of self-help e-books some TG furs have written. I’ve always been a quick study, and I kind of had incentive.” She looked down. “I want to be as little like my ‘old’ self as I possibly can. The more ‘Helena’ I am, the farther away I get from Hugh.”
“Which is kind of the opposite of me,” Lee grumbled. “I want to stay Lee. I don’t want to be Lisa or Leah or Leila or Linda or whatever the hell is on my driver’s license now.”
Helena raised an eyebrow. “You still don’t know? I’m sure Hugh—I’m sure I kept everyone’s purses and wallets and stuff in a closet in my old office. I thought you got it all back.”
Lee rolled her eyes. “If you must know, I’ve never really worked up the nerve to check. Looking at it would kind of have validated the thing. Made it more real somehow.” She glanced at Helena. “Pretty silly when you think about it, but…”
“Why don’t you take a look now?” Helena suggested.
“I guess I might as well.” Lee dug in her hip pocket and pulled out a battered leather wallet, which she flipped open and dug through to pull out her ID card. She examined it for a moment. “Huh. Still Lee.”
“It is kind of a unisex name,” Helena said. “So, see? There’s one thing about being female that you don’t have to worry about anymore. Maybe there are other things you don’t have to be afraid of either.”
Lee squinted closer at the card. “Picture’s different. Huh. So that’s what my ‘ghost’ would look like.” She shoved the card back in her wallet and pocketed it. “I don’t like it.”
“Why? Because it’s not the ‘old’ you?”
“Because it’s a girl, okay?” Lee growled. “I don’t want people to look at me and see a girl.”
“But that’s going to happen whether they see your ghost or not,” Helena pointed out. “It’s kind of hard to miss, especially with the little extra boost we get up top.”
“I know, and that’s the whole problem.”
Helena pursed her lips. “Hmm. Well, it’s a problem that’s not going to go away.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Lee grumbled.
“So you’ve kind of got two choices,” Helena continued. “Lock yourself up in your garage and miss out on the rest of your life…”
“Yeah, Dan’s already pointed out that one’s a non-starter,” Lee said.
“…or get over your fear of being female,” Helena said.
“Who says I’m afraid?” Lee snapped.
“I can see it in your eyes,” Helena said. “I think…you like situations where you’re in control, where you know everything about everything. Like fixing cars. But you don’t know anything about being a woman, and you’re terrified you might make a mistake.”
“That’s completely…” Lee began to retort, then stopped and thought about it a little. “…possible, I guess.”
“So we need to ease you into things and get you over that,” Helena said. “It’s really not as hard as you think.” She got up, and offered Lee her hand.
Lee hesitated a moment, then took it. “What are you thinking?”
“Have you been to Amy’s salon yet?” Helena asked. “After that, we’ll go shopping.”
Lee froze. “What? No! No way! I don’t go in for all that frou-frou crap.”
Helena grasped Lee’s hand in both of hers. “Trust—well, okay, I know you don’t trust me about most things, and probably never will. But at least listen to me on this? Please? This isn’t ‘frou-frou crap’ any more than getting a shave and a haircut is ‘macho crap.’ It’s about looking good, which helps you feel good. Give it a chance.”
“Hmm,” Lee said, trying to marshal her arguments.
“Besides, you do know that when this place opens up in a couple of months they’re going to make you circulate at the parties and mixers, right?” Helena pointed out. “You’re going to need to know how to look nice for that.”
“What?! Nobody ever said anything about that!” Lee insisted, jaw dropping in a panicked expression. “I never signed up for that! I’d know!”
“Maybe you didn’t get the memo.” Helena sighed.
“I don’t want to have to worry about my hair, or makeup, or fancy dresses!” Lee insisted. “I don’t want to flutter my eyelids at handsome men. I just want to fix cars, okay?”
“No one’s saying you have to throw yourself at men,” Helena said. “And no one’s saying you have to give up fixing cars, either. Look, if it helps any, think of this as…just another tool in your toolkit. You wouldn’t try to open an auto shop with only one size of wrench, right?”
“Well, no, I guess not,” Lee admitted.
“So you wouldn’t wear coveralls to a fancy dress party any more than you’d wear a ballroom gown in the garage, right?”
“This is dirty pool,” Lee grumbled.
“I promise, we’ll start out very simple. Just a basic fur-do and shampoo, and a very plain dress.” Helena looked at Lee again, scrutinizing her from top to bottom. “With striking looks like those, we won’t need to do anything fancy, anyway.”
Lee let Helena lead her out of the office. “I want you to know, I’m doing this under protest.”
Helena smiled. “I know. But you’re still doing it. That’s the important thing.”
Lee followed Helena down the hall and out the mansion, trying not to cringe as they walked up the sidewalk toward one of the new buildings that had been erected near the site of the old Changed enclosure. Amy had graduated beautician school just before Changing, but had then discovered that being gifted with a huge bushy tail had been a problem when it came to fitting between the patient chairs in a salon made for humans. She’d spent a year hanging on as a freelance beautician before ending up in Hugh Melton’s greasy clutches.
With the furres planning a resort where each could contribute his own individual talent, Amy had jumped at the chance to design a Changed-suitable salon where either humans or Changed could service either humans or Changed without any problems of spacing. And while it had been built, she had gone back to school, taking some of the Changed-centric courses taught by former pet grooms.
Now, as the group was involved in the run-up to the resort’s grand opening, Amy was taking on a limited number of clients to shake off the rust and try out some of the new techniques she’d learned. She was also training a couple of apprentices—a chinchilla-Changed named Eileen and a human girl, Tara—to help out when things hit full swing.
Maybe she’ll be full up for the day, Lee thought hopefully. Maybe I’ll be too much of a challenge for her to want to take on. Maybe…
“Of course I’ve got an opening!” Amy chirped, clasping her handpaws together as her tail flicked in excitement. “Oh, this is wonderful! You’re so gorgeous, I’ve wanted to get my paws on your fur for the longest time! But I kinda didn’t wanna say anything, ‘cuz…” She trailed off, Lee supposed because she’d realized it wasn’t the best idea to accuse a desired client of bitchiness.
Lee rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I know. I don’t quite believe it either. But know this.” She punctuated her statement by holding up a single finger with the claw at full extension. “If I hear one word of gossip about this…”
Amy swallowed. “Uh…of course!” she squeaked. “My muzzle is sealed!”
“Goooood.” Lee slipped out of her clothes and clambered onto the reclining chair, noticing out of the corner of her eye Helena doing the same for the chair next to her. Amy started to pull out the extensible privacy walls, but Lee waved her off. “Leave the one between us open, ‘kay?”
Amy nodded. “Sure. More room to work that way, too. I’m going to go wash up. I’ll be right back.”
After she left the room, Helena chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Lee asked.
“Was just thinking about what I said before. Here we both are naked again after all.”
Lee snorted. “Neither one of us was gonna get shampooed last time we talked.”
Helena looked over at Lee and smiled. “I like the change.”
Then Amy came back to start the shampooing, and there wasn’t time to say anything else.
The experience wasn’t like Lee had expected. Actually, she wasn’t sure what she had expected. But as Amy had her lie on her chest, then lathered her up with warm, soapy water while carrying on a constant stream of chatter, Lee discovered it was actually rather relaxing. As Amy rubbed the lather into her fur, she kneaded down from Lee’s neck and shoulders to her legs and the tip of her fluffy tail, applying gentle pressure like a massage.
Lee relaxed into this treatment, then felt an odd buzzing in her chest that she was startled to recognize as a purr. She’d never purred before, and was quite surprised to discover she was actually capable of it. Out of the corner of her eye, Lee saw Helena watching her and trying but failing to suppress a giggle at the confused expression Lee supposed she had to be wearing. Lee had half a mind to snap at her over it, but only half, and the fraction was decreasing by the moment. It just felt too good to put up a fuss about anything.
After Amy finished with Lee, Lee dozed a while as she gave the same treatment to Helena, who also began purring. Amy grinned in obvious satisfaction. “Now I think I’ll just let that shampoo set for a while, and let you two kitties talk among yourselves. Back in a few!”
“Mmm,” Lee said as she departed.
“Mmmmmmm,” Helena agreed, eyes half-closed in pleasure.
They lay like that for a while, purring, then Lee said at last, “Okay, I’ll admit that felt good. Didn’t expect that.”
“She really is good at this, isn’t she?” Helena said lazily. “Does it surprise you?”
“Hell yeah,” Lee said. “Probably not a kind thing to say, I guess, but I never thought that girl was good at anything but running off her mouth. If the ones she’s training can do that half as well, she’s gonna do a hell of a business.”
They lay there for a few more minutes, then Helena said. “Dan is really something else, isn’t he?”
Lee glanced over at her. “Hmm?”
“He’s so much more than you take him for.” Helena grinned at her. “When he came into the pit and talked to me, I’m sure you all thought he was bombarding me with ‘totally awesome’ and ‘heinous’ and ‘bodacious’ and ‘gnarly,’ but he talked to me straight, with some good advice. Like I guess he did you.”
“Mmm,” Lee acknowledged.
“Sort of gives it more impact when he drops the act, doesn’t it?”
“I think he really cares a lot about people, but he isn’t really good at being open,” Helena mused. “Maybe we can help him with that. Or maybe you can.”
Lee blinked and glanced over at her. “Huh?”
But then Amy came back in to rinse off the shampoo. “Never mind, tell you later,” Helena said.
Amy next rinsed the shampoo off with warm water, and turned Lee over on her back to work on her chest. Lee was a bit nervous about what was going to come next, but it turned out she didn’t need to be. Amy simply shampooed Lee’s and then Helena’s face, neck, shoulders, lower chest, and legs, then left them with lather sufficient to do their more sensitive areas on their own after she’d left the room.
Lee occupied herself with that for a while, as Helena did likewise, and tried to ignore the little pleasurable sounds coming from the table off to her left. Though she was sure she was making plenty of similar sounds of her own. Not for the first time, Lee contemplated the sizable domes she’d been given by her Change. They would be the envy of many non-Changed females and the desire of many Changed males. Either way, she was glad that the Change also apparently included significantly strengthening the muscles in her lower back.
This time, there wasn’t any conversation before Amy came back and rinsed them off again. And then it was time to shampoo their hair.
“Wow, Lee, I never realized your hair was quite this long,” Amy said as she kneaded shampoo into the snow leopard’s long silvery hair. “You usually wear it up, but I think this would come down past your waist.”
“I didn’t really have much chance to cut it in the pit,” Lee said. “And I somehow just never got around to it since then. Probably should. Might be handy to have it shorter.”
“Oh, no no no, don’t do that!” Amy said, horrified. “I’ll trim off some split ends, but I want you to keep this exactly the way it is! Shortening this would be like cutting up a work of art!”
“Well…okay,” Lee said. “At least for now, I guess.” To tell the truth, she was starting to get a bit curious about exactly how she would look after all this.
Amy considered her hair clinically. “I’m not really going to style it, either, beyond a little conditioner. I want you to wear it loose, perhaps pulled forward over the shoulder. I’d say pick a darker dress so there’s good contrast.”
“I was thinking dark blue,” Helena said.
“Yes! It goes with her eyes!” Amy agreed.
“You two are ganging up on me,” Lee grumped, though she wasn’t really annoyed. She would never have admitted it, but this really just felt right. So right she was starting to wonder why she’d never tried it before. Hormones, she thought wildly. Help, I’m being brainwashed by hormones!
After the shampoo was finished, Helena and Lee got up from the chairs and stepped into the cylindrical full-body blow-driers against one wall of the salon. With a loud whir, the heating elements and fans in the floor started up, blowing away all traces of residual moisture in just a few minutes.
Lee drew the line at having her claws painted. “They’d just get chipped in the garage anyway.”
“Not if you kept them retracted while you worked,” Amy said. “Remember, your fingers aren’t like un-Changed humans’. The claws stay inside.”
“Then what’s the point of painting them? No one will ever even see them!” Lee protested. “If I need to show my claws to someone, I don’t think they’re going to care about how prettily they’re painted.”
“But you’d know they were painted,” Amy insisted, in the tones of one explaining a fundamental fact of life.
“And I’d feel damned silly every time I thought about it,” Lee said. “Maybe another time.”
“It’s okay, Amy, you can paint my claws,” Helena said consolingly.
Lee shook her head. “Yeesh.”
When they were finished, Lee and Helena examined themselves before a full-length mirror. Lee had her hair pulled forward over her left shoulder, and as she turned from left to right to consider her reflection, she had to admit that it was striking. Her fur had never looked brighter, nor her tail fluffier, and the hair really enhanced the effect—especially when she leaned forward slightly to let it spread out. “My God,” Lee said. “My hormones have been totally rewired, but I can tell you right now—the guy I was would fall for the gal I am now in a heartbeat.”
Helena smiled at her. The cougress was also looking gorgeous, though the change wasn’t as pronounced with her—since she’d undoubtedly been visiting Amy’s salon already. She did have the whole healthy glow thing going on from her pregnancy, of course.
“So, what now?” Lee asked as she pulled her jeans, bra, and sweatshirt back on.
“Now,” Helena said triumphantly, “we go shopping!”
And to her surprise, Lee found she was no longer regarding this prospect with quite as much horror as she had before the salon treatment.
Several hours later found Lee and Helena driving back to the mansion from shopping in Branson, the used Dodge Neon resort errand car full of shopping bags from several stores. Lee felt like Helena had dragged her through practically every store in town building up her new wardrobe. But it hadn’t been strictly a one-way process. Helena had listened to Lee’s preferences, and kept their selections on the simple side: some fairly plain bras, panties, dresses, skirts, and blouses, plus a couple of pairs of custom-fitted Furgonomics paw-shoes. She’d overruled Lee a couple of times, but mostly let Lee have her own way.
So now, rather than her jeans and sweatshirt, Lee was wearing a simple dark blue cotton dress from Wal-Mart that Helena had insisted she wear for the rest of the day in order to get used to. Lee had mixed feelings about that dress. It was one thing to think about the possible effects, benefits, or disadvantages to wearing one, then quite another actually to see yourself in it in a mirror, or feel it draped over your body.
It wasn’t custom-fitted and certainly didn’t cost more than $29.95, but the very simplicity worked in its favor. It contrasted with her silvery-white fur and hair and her deep blue eyes remarkably well, and in concealing so much of her body left much more to the imagination. She wondered what Dan would think of it.
But there was something else on her mind—something that had been nagging at Lee all day as Helena took her measurements for clothing, or lectured her on what she’d learned about bra sizes from Wikipedia and the Change forums. She seemed quite oblivious to Lee’s grumpiness and tried her best to ignore Lee’s occasional cutting remarks. In fact, she was showing a lot more confidence than she had only a month before.
Finally, Lee couldn’t take it any more. “Why are you doing this?” Lee asked, glancing across at Helena. “Why are you being so helpful? You know I don’t like you very much.” At least, Lee thought, she was trying not to like Helena. But it was becoming harder to do—the cougar-girl was so relentlessly nice, and almost nothing at all like the eccentric millionaire she had been who had held her a naked prisoner. Especially after the shared experience of the salon makeover, Lee felt that strong dislike dwindling toward her usual background irritation with everyone in general.
Helena thought about that for a while. “You have a right not to like me, after what Hugh—after what I did. So that doesn’t bother me. And after what I did, I owe all of you more than I can ever repay. So when I get a chance to sort of make a down payment on that, it’s something I want to do.”
Lee surprised herself by saying without thinking, “That’s bullshit.”
Helena blinked. “Excuse me?”
Lee grasped for words. “That feeling like you owe us thing. Yeah, you did a bad thing to us. But then we turned around and did the same bad thing to you. That ought to make us even-steven.”
“But what you did to me wasn’t as bad as what I did to you,” Helena protested. “I just kept you, but you kept me safe. If you hadn’t, I’d probably be behind bars right now, maybe even for the rest of my life.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, the thing about feeling like you owe us more than you can ever pay us is that you’ll probably feel that way for the rest of your life.” Lee shrugged. “You should have a life of your own. I’d rather have you help because you want to, not because you think you have to.”
“I do want to,” Helena said. “But…I think I see what you mean.”
Lee removed one hand-paw from the wheel long enough to wave it irritably. “I don’t know why I’m saying this. I should be demanding you be our slave until the end of time. It must be the damn hormones.”
Helena actually giggled a little. “Is that going to be your reason for everything you can’t explain? Hormones?”
“It’s a good catch-all.” Lee turned a corner, and the driveway of the mansion-turned-resort came into view out the windshield ahead. Lee looked down at herself nervously, and slowed the car. “I…don’t know about this,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m ready for the others to see me…”
“…wearing perfectly normal feminine clothing?” Helena asked, smiling. “C’mon, Lee, they’re going to have to see it sooner or later. And there’s not anything wrong with a woman wearing a dress.”
“But I’m not a…” Lee sighed, trailing off. “Oh, forget it. I can’t exactly change it by denying it, can I?”
“Just because you have different body parts and wear different clothing doesn’t mean you have to be a different person underneath,” Helena said.
“But it did for you,” Lee pointed out.
Helena was silent for a long moment. “Yeah, it did,” she said quietly. “But that was at least partly because I wanted it to.”
They drove the rest of the way home in silence, then pulled into place behind the mansion to unload the shopping bags. “Well, here we are.” Lee took a deep breath and then opened the door. “Let’s get this over with.”
As Lee and Helena carried the bags up to Lee’s room, they met Consuela in the hallway. “Hola, mi hermana!” The jaguar paused, and her eyes widened taking in Lee’s appearance. “Oh! You took my advice after all!” She smiled. “Your dress es muy bonita. I like it!”
“Er…thank you,” Lee said.
“I hope I will see you in a dress more often.” Consuela examined her again, and nodded. “It suits you.”
“I’ll…think about it,” Lee said uncomfortably. She stared after Consuela as the pregnant jaguar continued down the hall. “Huh.”
Helena smiled. “See? That wasn’t so bad.”
Lee thought about that for a moment. “Yeah. Still a little nervous about dinner tonight, though.” The ten kidnap victims who had stayed, plus James the human, Helena and a few others, had gotten into the habit of meeting for dinner every evening in the mansion’s dining room to discuss progress on the resort project. Lee sighed, imagining what they’d say to her new look.
Helena chuckled. “I think you might be surprised.”
After helping Lee unload her new purchases, Helena headed off to get ready for dinner, leaving Lee to stew in her room. She thought about skipping dinner, but knew she wouldn’t do any such thing. She wasn’t really afraid of what everyone was going to say—just annoyed. She knew they’d probably all make fun of her a little. (Well, okay, Consuela wouldn’t, Helena wouldn’t, and Dan probably wouldn’t. But there were still the others.) They wouldn’t mean anything by it, of course, but for someone who took herself as seriously as Lee did, it would still sting.
But she couldn’t keep avoiding them or it would give them something worse to tease her about. So, resigning herself, Lee checked her hair, dress, and tail in the mirror then headed downstairs to the fancy main dining room.
The room was set up with a long table. Jack the wolf and Trixie the fox, the de facto leaders of the resort project (as well as a dating couple since getting free) were at the head of the table, with Carl and Amy seated to their right, then James and his sister Gina, a cute German Shepherd Changed who was between her Freshman and Sophomore years at Missouri State University and planning to major in the hospitality industry. She was going to be interning at the resort when it was open. Consuela sat on Gina’s other side. Across the table from them were married sheep Tim and Clarisse, with a baby chair for their lamb Christine. Then Leo and Helena, and then Dan. And then an empty chair for Lee.
As Lee entered the room, Amy stood up and pointed. “Oooh! Look at what Lee’s wearing! That’s pretty! Where’d ya get it? Did they have any more like it? Maybe something in a light brown?”
“Hey, nice look!” Trixie said.
Clarisse nodded. “Good choice of color. Good economy, too. You really don’t have to spend a lot to look nice.”
Dan turned his head to look—and then nearly fell out of his chair. He opened his mouth, but couldn’t seem to find any words to say. Lee took the chair next to him, then reached over and shoved his chin up. “Better keep that closed, something might fly in.”
Leo grinned. “Lookin’ good, Lee! You sure you don’t wanna go out sometime?”
“Leo!” Helena said, rolling her eyes.
Leo winked at her. “Sorry, hon. Force of habit.”
“Keep dreaming, lion-boy,” Lee said, but she still smiled. To Lee’s surprise, further teasing from anyone didn’t materialize. She did get a number of appreciative looks, which were a little strange, but that was the extent of it. Guess I was worried over nothing, she reflected. Except… As dinner was served and they ate, Lee couldn’t help noticing the way Dan kept looking at her sidelong, out of the corner of his eye. Like he wanted to stare, or even just look, but knew it wouldn’t be polite. Almost as if…hmm…naaaah. That would just be silly.
Over the next few days, Lee put in her normal hours in the garage with Dan—and if she was a bit more careful about her fur and hair than she had been before, it wasn’t really noticeable unless you really looked.
What was noticeable was that, for the first time, Lee started knocking off work a little early, justifying it on the basis that they’d managed to get most of the really tough stuff out of the way and could now take it easy a little. Then she would return to her room and experiment with braiding or fastening her hair in different styles from the books Helena had lent her. Nothing too fancy, but it was interesting to see how wearing her hair different ways made her look.
Lee wasn’t entirely sure why, but she seemed a lot more cheerful now. Sometimes she’d even catch herself humming or whistling—though once stopped abruptly after realizing the tune on her lips was “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” It was just the hormones, she told herself. It had to be. Or maybe it was just that she was fighting her body’s natural inclinations less and more of her energy was going the same direction instead of clashing.
Nonetheless, she polled herself very carefully, and was gratified to discover that the thought of having sex with a guy (or, for that matter, a gal) still made her go “Ew!” There was getting comfortable with oneself, and then there was going Too Far, and Lee was happy that she didn’t seem anywhere near crossing that line yet.
After a couple of days, Lee started feeling oddly claustrophobic in her same surroundings, and had the urge to venture out into the world beyond the gates again. Strange as it was, she’d been living near Branson for months but had never yet succumbed to the urge to play tourist. Which was silly. If nothing else, Branson had a really nice classic car museum that looked like a great place in which to spend hours.
So now she waited alone at the stop to catch the next bus into town. She wore a sensible bra and a dark grey dress from Wal-Mart. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, mainly to keep it out of her face. She was a little nervous about the whole thing, but also strangely excited to be going out into the world “incognito”. All the same she’d really have preferred to take one of the resort’s cars, but they’d decided it was best to reserve those for official business—and Lee never had gotten around to buying a car for personal use.
Finally the bus pulled up, the doors slid open, and she climbed aboard. There were about a dozen passengers, including three or four Changed. Lee glanced nervously around, but nobody seemed to be paying her much attention. Changed weren’t all that unusual in Branson these days, given that the bubble now covered most of the town and a significant chunk of the less-developed area north of it. There was always an influx of new furres into new bubble zones, since it was more comfortable to live in the open—and the fact that this one covered as interesting and active a place as Branson didn’t hurt matters either.
Lee sat quietly in her seat as the bus proceeded on its way into downtown Branson. She marveled that nobody saw anything unusual about her sitting here in a dress. She kept expecting someone to angrily point and denounce her for a fake. How dare you pretend to be a real woman? But of course nothing of the sort happened. It was only Lee’s imagination that said there should be something intrinsically different about her, some scarlet letter shaved into the fur on her forehead to prove she hadn’t been born this way.
No, she really was a “natural woman” now, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implied. Well, not all the drawbacks, she reflected wryly. Not in a bubble. Nobody in his right mind was going to try to mug or rape a brawny six-foot-plus feline Changed—not with those fists and feet full of natural mini-switchblades. But still, she was going to have to get used to being perceived as the fairer sex by complete strangers. Then Lee chuckled to herself as that line from The Last Action Hero came to mind: “Who says I’m fair?”
Lee left the bus in front of the auto museum, paid her $11, and spent the next couple of hours wandering the aisles, mooning over classic cars and itching to get her claws under the hoods of some of them. She was especially drawn to the sleek, curvaceous body of a white replica 1957 Porsche 356.
After glancing around to make sure no one was looking, she stepped over the rope and gently draped herself over its hood, propping her chin up with an elbow, her long silvery hair flowing down the incline of the hood, in what she felt certain was a classic glamour pose. She lost herself in daydreaming for a while, imagining what it would have been like to drive such a car…and was only slightly disturbed at how quickly the fantasy shifted to being the girlfriend of the handsome guy (like, say, Nathan Fillion) who owned the car. They could stick their boards in the back seat, and cruise the beach looking for waves…
Lee was jerked rudely out of her reverie by the flashes going off. “Buh?!” she squawked, and nearly fell off the car. A small crowd had gathered around her, half of whom had cameras out—a few humans, a horse and collie Changed, and a trio of short raccoon dogs whose floral print shirts and camera bags half as big as they were would have betrayed their Japanese origin if their species hadn’t already. “Oh…crap,” Lee muttered. Then she caught the word “Feisubukku!” in one of the raccoon dogs’ excited chatter. “Oh crap crap.”
Lee vaulted back over the rope and shoved her way through the crowd, certain that her face was practically glowing through the fur. She headed out of the museum, the appeal of ogling cars suddenly gone. (Though she did note they wanted less than $17,000 for that Porsche replica, and it did go so well with her fur…)
The next bus wasn’t due by for a while, so she wandered aimlessly up the street, ending up at a small strip mall where a replica General Lee was parked in front of a Southern memorabilia shop. There was a small used book store a couple of doors down, and Lee decided it was as good a place as any to get off the streets for a while in case any of those tourists wanted to follow her.
Just inside the shop was a fluffy white cat, which seemed oblivious to the fact that it was being held and stroked by an anthropomorphic basset hound—a bit of an elderly fellow with a lot of gray around the muzzle, Lee noticed. The dog Changed nodded to her. “Afternoon, miss.”
“Hey.” Lee held out a paw to the cat, which sniffed boredly at her, then scratched it under the chin. “Just going to look around a bit.”
Lee moved past him, down the narrow aisles of shelves filled with old paperbacks and hardcovers. Her tail brushed the shelf behind her as she turned to look at the titles on display. Wonder if this is where James got the ones he snuck in to us all those months? she mused. After a while, she picked out a couple of Jules Verne novels and took them back up to the front to pay for them. Then she headed out to catch the bus.
On the way back to the mansion, Lee thought about what had happened that day. The photo incident had been a little embarrassing, but apart from that it had been fun to go out on the town. And there were plenty of other interesting places to visit in Branson—and for that matter in Springfield and the rest of the surrounding area, if she got herself a car. And that Porsche was looking mighty good…
Yes, Lee thought as she stepped off the bus at the mansion and headed inside, she would have to do it again. It felt good to be out and about in public, around people who had no idea who she was but just saw her as a woman. It actually made her feel a little more like a woman, and less like some kind of phony. And, Lee was startled to realize, she was actually starting to enjoy thinking of herself as a woman, now that she knew it didn’t mean she had to stop doing what she loved.
Though she still didn’t want to have sex with anyone just yet. Baby steps, Lee, she thought. Baby steps.
This still didn’t quite prepare her for dinner that night, when an enthusiastic Amy flounced in with her iPad to show everyone the neat new photos she’d found on Facebook…
“Wow, Lee, that looks a lot like you!” Amy said. “Though I know you’d never do anything that girly!”
“Uh, heh, yeah, it does, doesn’t it?” Lee said. “Of course, we snow leppies do tend to look alike. You seen that romance novelist, Portia Henderson? We’re practically twins.” She was glad she’d changed clothes before coming to dinner, and made a mental note to burn that grey dress at the next practical opportunity.
Dan fumbled for his iPhone and pulled up his own Facebook app. “Like yah! And, like, taken just a couple’a miles from here, too! What a co-wink-i-dink, two snow leppies so alike so close togeth—oof!” Lee elbowed him in the gut and he subsided.
Helena raised an eyebrow at Lee, and smiled just a little, but didn’t say anything. Lee rolled her eyes and tried to concentrate on her food. It was weird, but she wasn’t even as embarrassed about this as she’d expected to be.
It had to be the hormones.
After the museum visit, Lee kept a low profile for another couple of days. Then one evening, as she finished up tinkering with a recalcitrant Ford Mustang, Dan came up and asked, “Oh hey, boss lady, I was thinking. Have you ever been to Lambert’s?” Lambert’s was a well-known cafe in Ozark, about half an hour north of the resort. Dan was known to run up there to eat from time to time—he said he really liked their rolls.
“Can’t say I have,” Lee said, wiping her hand-paws off on a grease rag.”
“Wanna go for dinner tonight?”
“Huh, dunno, might be fun to—heeeeey, wait a minute. Hold on just a second there.” Lee turned to eye Dan suspiciously. “It can’t be that you just asked me out on a date?”
“Well, yea—no!” Dan hastily corrected himself as he saw Lee’s expression start to darken. “Um…not a, like, date date. Helena thought it’d be a good idea for you to get some practice being out in public under the Veil. Let other people see you as, like, a woman, instead of a leppy-woman. And, like, Lambert’s is a totally tubular food shack.”
Lee snorted. “Your accent’s slipping.”
Dan shrugged. “It does that sometimes.”
“Hmm.” Lee gave Dan another suspicious look. “Well…all right.” She headed to the lockers to change out of her coveralls. “It’s not like I had any other plans for tonight anyway.”
A few minutes later, the two furres were in the Neon heading north. Lee wasn’t sure how she felt about Helena insisting they take the company car under the pretext of Lee’s socialization counting as “job training,” but on the other hand it was nice to drive. And Lee wasn’t sure she would be willing to trust Dan’s car, a ‘78 Olds ‘88 jalopy he had bought for a few hundred bucks and tinkered on in his spare time.
Lee watched Dan out of the corner of her eye as they drove north, but the little tabby kept his hands behind his head and the seat back, chatting about inconsequential things as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He was the very picture of practiced nonchalance—not the slightest bit nervous, as Lee would have expected him to be if he was trying to put any moves on her. So maybe the story about it being just a suggestion from Helena was true after all. Maybe.
About fifteen minutes into the drive, Dan opened his eyes and glanced around. “Oh. Hey, time to slow up a little, babe.”
Lee glanced over at him. “Huh?” Then she saw the orange and white hazard markers ahead, and the programmable sign reading “NOW LEAVING BRANSON BUBBLE. CHANGED DRIVERS BE CAREFUL!” “Oh.” Lee pulled over in the slow lane and slowed to 40. “Yeah, don’t wanna go into that unawares.” As she passed the sign, she took a deep breath and steeled herself for what she knew was coming.
It was like falling into spiderwebs made of Saran wrap. “Faugh!” Lee grunted, shaking herself and gasping for breath. “Ugh. I hate that feeling. Remind me again why we’re doing this?”
Dan reached up to pat her shoulder. “For awesome food, and for practice. From here on out it’s just our ghosts, babe.”
“Oh yeah, those.” Unlike most of the TG furres that had come before her, Lee didn’t have a lot of experience passing for a “normal” woman. She’d Changed in the Chicago bubble, and had been snatched up the first time she’d ventured out in public after it happened. Then she’d spent the next few months in a cement pit. Of course, if the bubbles kept expanding at their current rate, in just a couple of years that would be academic. The world was going to look like a very different place when the Veil came down completely.
“So, you’ve heard ‘bout Lambert’s, right?” Dan asked.
“Isn’t that where they throw food at you?” Lee asked.
“Yeah. Well, rolls anyway, and throw it to you.” Dan chuckled. “Kinda fun, really. And you always get more food than you can eat, even with a Changed appetite. Yum.”
“Sounds charming,” Lee said dryly. “Maybe I should’ve brought a catcher’s mitt.”
“Oh, they’ve got a really talented pitcher now,” Dan said. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
A couple of minutes later, they pulled off of 65 and into the parking lot of the restaurant. It was already quite full, and a fairly long line was waiting in front. “You sure about this?” Lee asked. “Looks like we could be in for a wait.”
“They always seat small parties faster,” Dan said. He went up to the reservations booth to let them know he had a party of two. “We’re cool,” he said when he came back. “Maybe five, ten minutes.”
Lee nodded, glancing around at the others in the line. It was made up mostly of normal pre-Change humans, with the occasional Changed—a deer, a squirrel, a raccoon, a bobcat. The furres shot knowing glances at Lee and Dan, whereas the humans didn’t even seem to notice them—or when they did, it was with appreciative looks from the men and annoyed looks from the women at Lee, and jealous looks from the men and curious looks from the women at Dan. Nothing to indicate either was anything unusual, except perhaps unusually attractive in Lee’s case.
It was a little weird, Lee reflected, to be stared at for her ghost’s looks rather than because she was a six-foot-plus fluffy snow leopard. She wished she knew more about what her ghost even looked like. She’d seen her license picture, but those rarely did anyone justice. She knew it would have blonde or white hair and pale skin, which would undoubtedly contrast almost as nicely with the dark blue dress she’d chosen to wear tonight as her fur did. And if her female face had the same general looks as her old male one, the Slavic features she’d inherited from a Russian grandmother would lend her an additional exotic touch. When taken together with the lushness of her hair and the shape of…certain other features, this likely meant she was going to stand out in a crowd almost as much as a human as she had as a snow leopard—only without the off-putting presence of fangs and claws.
True to Dan’s prediction, they were soon called into the restaurant proper. The place was furnished in an all-hardwood decor, with miscellaneous articles, signs, and other decor lining the walls. The interior space was filled with rows of rough-hewn but comfortable-looking tables and booths with wide aisles between for food carts to trundle through.
The table where they were seated featured a roll of paper towels for napkins, and a big quart thermos mug filled with plastic-wrapped metal tableware so that waiters didn’t have to keep re-setting the tables. The restaurant was almost entirely full, and the level of chatter was a low roar in the background. “Huh, busy much?” Lee observed.
“Sign of a good kitchen,” Dan observed happily.
“Or a good gimmick,” Lee sniffed. Dan chuckled.
A waitress showed up to take their orders. Dan went with the chicken fried steak, but Lee found the hot beef sandwich more appealing. They both ordered Mountain Dew to drink, and the waitress returned a moment later to set quart travel mugs of it in front of them.
Then, as the waitress left for the second time, a cry of, “Hot rolls!” sounded at the other end of the room. Dan grinned at Lee, then turned and raised his hand. A moment later, a steaming dinner roll arced through the air and smacked into it.
Lee blinked, then turned her gaze on the source of the roll. A cart with several trays of rolls was making its way up the aisle, pushed by a monkey-Changed in a waiter’s uniform. The monkey was whipping off rolls left and right with his disproportionately long arms, sending them flying rapid-fire to all corners of the fairly large room. He made the throws over his shoulder, behind his back, underarm, overarm, and often without even seeming to look for the upraised hands at all. He threw them so fast that he often had as many as three or four in the air at one time, and he never missed. Sometimes his recipient fumbled the catch, but his aim was so true that any missed roll bounced harmlessly off the floor or a chair, never hitting a person or someone’s food.
Lee held up her own hand, and a moment later plucked a steaming roll out of the air herself. “Pretty impressive,” Lee admitted, buttering it. “But you know what monkeys usually throw, right?”
Dan rolled his eyes. “You know I’m, like, trying to eat here, right?
Lee chuckled. “I’ll bet people are gonna be surprised when the bubble gets here in a few months.”
“If he’s smart, his bosses already know about it,” Dan said. “You never know if something might tear a hole early.”
“Like a certain P.O.’d tigress.” Lee smiled, remembering. “That was…really freaky. I’d been in the Chi-town bubble, but never thought I’d actually be around when one formed.”
“Crazy stuff, fer sure,” Dan agreed, biting into his roll.
A few minutes later, another cart made the rounds. This one had trays of battered fried okra. Dan tore off a length of paper towel for the waitress to scoop some onto. “You should try some of this, Lee, it’s really good!” Dan said.
Lee shook her head. “No way. Hate that slimy stuff.”
Dan tossed one of the small tan and green nuggets into the air and caught it in his mouth. “It’s not slimy! Mmm, good!” he said as he chewed.
Lee snorted. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Dan swallowed. “C’mon, try one. Open wide!” He held up another piece of okra and cocked his hand back to throw it.
“Oh you are not—” Lee began—but was interrupted by a deftly thrown fried okra piece landing in her open mouth. “Mmph!” Lee protested, reflexively chewing and swallowing to get it out of the way. “I can’t believe you just did that!” She tried to glower, but ended up chuckling in spite of herself. “But I do have to admit, that is kinda better than I expected.”
“Tol’ja,” Dan said triumphantly. He tossed and caught another piece himself. “Want another?”
“I’ll wait for the next cart, thanks.”
Then the waitress came back with their orders, delivered in big steel frying pans that contained their main dishes and sides. And then more food carts came around as well, offering fried potatoes, macaroni and tomatoes, and sorghum for their rolls. And, of course, the roll cart rolled through a couple more times. The last time, the monkey stopped right by their table and said in quiet tones, “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help noticing—you’re two of the Eleven, aren’t you?” He had a faint but detectable African accent—probably an international student from MSU.
Lee blinked. “Why, um, yes.”
“Thought so. Just wanted to thank you for bringing the bubble. It’s a lot nicer living in Branson now.” It was more or less common knowledge that the kidnapped furres had been somehow responsible, given that the disturbance had originated at their location on the day they had escaped, and even now measurements of the bubble’s circumference still placed the exact center on their property.
“Like, yer totally welcome, dude!” Dan said. “Glad we could do it. Hope you won’t be in heinous trouble when it gets this far.”
“I think it will be good. It is already teaching a valuable lesson about what is under people’s skin.” He chuckled. “Perhaps skin color will stop being such a divisive issue when it’s all covered by fur.”
Lee grinned. “We can hope.”
The monkey nodded and moved on, plucking up a few more rolls to toss and letting fly. “Hot rolls!”
Lee thoughtfully watched him go, then finished her dinner. She was just pushing the emptied frying pan aside when the waitress came up to offer her another plate at no charge. Lee blinked. “Seconds? You do that here?”
“Well, we don’t want anyone to leave hungry,” the waitress said.
Lee grinned, patted her bulging stomach. “No danger of that. If I have another bite, it’ll go right to my tai—ah, hips.”
“I’ll take a box!” Dan said, waving at his half-finished steak. “Gonna need to take the rest of this home.”
The waitress chuckled. “All right, I’ll get you one. Well, you all have a nice evening.”
The drive home was uneventful. Dan dozed in the passenger seat, occasionally emitting a loud snore and startling himself awake. Lee felt like dozing off from the huge meal, but managed to stay awake long enough to get them home. It was easier once they passed back into the bubble and it was possible to breathe freely again.
When they pulled back into the mansion’s driveway, Dan yawned and stretched, reached under the seat for his to-go box, and clambered out of the car when Lee pulled it to a halt. Then he came around to the driver’s side and tapped on the window. Curious, Lee rolled it down.
Dan leaned in close. “Thanks for a great evening, babe. Dinner was fun, and you’re good company.” Then, before Lee could reply, he leaned in closer and gave her a quick, chaste lick-groom on the cheek before quickly running away.
“Hey!” Lee yelped, but the tabby was already gone. Lee blinked, staring after him, a hand to the place on her cheek where Dan had licked . “What was that all about?” She parked the car and went to her room, still rubbing the damp spot on her cheek.
That night, she dreamed of surfboards.
“No! Not just no, but hell no!” Lee growled at the others seated around the table at the weekly state-of-the-resort meeting. Trixie had just made a proposal Lee considered flatly unacceptable. “I am not going to take a ballroom dancing class.”
“Now Lee,” Trixie said, “when we started this thing we all stipulated that some of the things we might have to do in the process might not be the sorts of things we would rather do. But we agreed we would all make sacrifices for the good of the project.”
“And we’re all going to be taking the class,” Carl pointed out. “Even me, with my two left paws.”
“Carl, we all have two left paws,” Amy pointed out, and everyone laughed.
“Even my security staff is going to be taking the course,” James said. “And some of the other staff, too. Gina is really looking forward to it.”
“Why the hell is this even necessary?” Lee exploded.
“Because we’re going to be holding a number of receptions and other functions to woo potential investors,” Helena said. “And many of those will involve dancing. It’s something that gives rich people an excuse to bring and be seen in public with their husbands, wives, misters, mistresses, or other significant others, meaning they’ll be in a good mood and likely to think happy thoughts about us—and also a way to get to know us outside the boardroom.”
“Why do we even need to worry about investors? I thought we had lots of cash,” Lee grumbled.
“Hugh had a lot of money for one person to live on, but when it comes to running a business we’re going to need outside help sooner or later,” Helena said. “And we’re all going to have to pitch in to help get it. Even you, Lee.”
“I can’t say I’m, like, keen on lessons either, babe,” Dan said. “But’cha gotta do some, like, totally heinous bogus crap to get to the, like, tubulosity.”
“That’s not even a word!” Lee grumped.
“And not to put too fine a point on it, but you are one of the more…visually striking of us,” Trixie said. “You’ll have more would-be partners than you can beat off with a monkeywrench.”
“Oh, terrific,” Lee muttered.
“Would you rather be able to say yes gracefully, dance a little, and get it over with?” Helena asked. “Or to be embarrassed that you don’t know how, and have to put up with a dozen offers to teach you every time?”
“I’d rather not dance at all, dammit,” Lee growled. But her resistance was weakening. If she was going to have to go through with it—and Trixie had been right about the agreement—then she supposed it would be better to be prepared ahead of time. “All right, you’ve made your damn point. I’ll take the lessons.”
“Hey, cheer up,” Leo offered. “You might find you enjoy it after all. I know Helena and I are really looking forward to it.”
“It’s been a while since I danced,” Helena admitted. “And I was the other gender at the time. I’m really going to need to blow the dust off.”
“I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” Leo said, putting his arm around her shoulder and giving a gentle squeeze.
“Oh, please,” Lee muttered, though not very loud.
And so a few days later they began meeting for three hours a day in the main ballroom of the mansion under the instruction of Madame Ortiz, a rather impressive Pampas deer Changed from Brazil. With exotic cervine grace, a brisk manner, and a thick yet melodious accent, Mme. Ortiz kept everyone on their toes (those who still had toes, anyway). She spent a great deal of time on the subject of foot placement at first, as a misstep from a Changed hoof could cause injury. Then, over the next couple of weeks, she worked her way into various dance styles.
The classes were large enough that they had to be split into separate morning and evening sessions. The eleven Changed from the enclosure days were there, as were James’s security furres and sister Gina, and other humans and Changed from the resort staff. The classes were filled out by a number of furries and humans from the Branson area, as it represented a sort of community outreach for the resort to become more involved with the local community before it launched.
Although partners rotated for part of the lessons, much of the time they were paired up with one particular person. Most of the pairings among the resort staff were no surprise—the two sheep together, Jack and Trixie, Carl and Amy (who had a section of ballroom all their own due to those immense tails), Leo and Helena—but Lee was mildly intrigued to see Consuela had chosen to pair up with James the human. They seemed quite comfortable with each other. Lee wondered if there was a story behind that. Of course, for all she knew they could be sleeping together—you didn’t tend to hear much gossip from inside a garage, and it had been a while since she’d subjected herself to Amy.
Of course, her own partner hadn’t been entirely unexpected either. As Lee moved through the steps of a waltz with a comfort born of long practice, she looked down at the top of Dan’s head. She’d gotten to know it very well over the last few days. “I’d say ‘eyes up here’ but I wouldn’t want you to get a crick in your neck,” Lee said to the shoulder-height tabby cat.
Dan grinned up at her. “Sorry, babe,” he said. “My elevator paw-shoes haven’t come in from Furgonomics yet.”
“Just don’t dip me and we’ll do fine,” Lee said, remembering what had happened the first time Dan had tried. He’d gotten better since, but the question of weight, leverage, and balance was a tricky one.
To tell the truth, Lee didn’t really mind dancing with Dan too much. She wasn’t exactly the sort to want to rest her head on a taller guy’s shoulder, or to find it reassuring that someone bigger than she was had her in his arms. Given a choice between Dan and, say, the Percheron Changed in the class who was a head taller than she was, she’d take Dan every time.
And Dan had been acting the perfect gentleman, never trying to take advantage and stare at her anatomy (more than conditions forced him to, at least), and not dancing closer than Lee wanted. All in all, Lee was surprised how comfortable she was becoming dancing with Dan.
“Too bad we, like, didn’t get to do this before the Change,” Dan mused. “I was taller and I’ll bet you were shorter. We’d have been, like, the same height.”
“I was also male,” Lee pointed out. “Might have made it a little awkward.”
“Oh yeah,” Dan said. “I keep forgetting.”
“I don’t,” Lee grumbled. “This is all so new to me.”
“Maybe it’s a good new,” Dan suggested. “Bet you never thought you’d end up dancin’ in a mansion.”
“Yeah, that’s not too terribly high on the list of things I would have seen myself doing a year ago,” Lee admitted.
They moved quietly to the music a while longer, then Dan spoke up again. “So, I’ve been wondering…why’d you sign onto the whole resort plan to begin with? You coulda just taken the money and, like, gone back to Chi-Town. Back to fixing cars in your old shop.”
Lee thought about that a moment, then shrugged. “Dunno. After all those months in the pit, getting to know everyone, it just seemed kinda…lonely to go off on my own again. Maybe I was kinda scared a little of the outside world, how much it had changed those few months.” She glanced over at Helena, dancing close to Leo on the other side of the room. “Damn that Hugh. He took so much from us. Not just our freedom, but a whole world. But I guess he kinda took it from himself, too.”
Dan nodded. “Felt a little the same way, I guess. And I thought maybe it’d make up for it some if I could help turn that shared suffering into a way to help other people. We’re stronger together.”
“Uh-huh.” Lee thought about that for a while. She wasn’t exactly a wishy-washy sentimentalist, but she had to admit it did feel right to be doing this. She’d never have put up with things like ballroom dancing lessons if she hadn’t felt it was all going to be worth it in the end. “Anyway, I can always go back to Chicago if it doesn’t work out.”
“Sure do hope it works out, then” Dan said quietly as the song ended in the background. “Be kinda lonely here without you.”
Lee blinked and stared down at him, but before she could reply Madame Ortiz had clapped her hands and called for a rotation in partners. So she spent the next dance thinking about it, instead.
Dan would be…lonely without her? This did seem to be only the latest incident in a pattern that had been developing over the last few days. Asking her out…kissing her on the cheek…confessing to liking her. Was Dan…falling for her?
Surely not! Lee was so shocked by the idea that she nearly stepped on Jack’s toes three times in a row. For crying out loud, she’d been a man until a few months ago. Falling in love wasn’t supposed to work like that!
Lee made up her mind—she would have it out with Dan at the first opportunity. It was ridiculous to think that someone like her had anything to offer him. He’d be better off finding a real girl on whom to lavish his affections.
So why did the thought of seeing him again make her heart start beating faster?
(Well, duh. Hormones.)
Later that night, Lee threw on a sweatshirt and sweatpants and went hunting for Dan. She found him in one of the small communal dens that had been rigged up as a media center, with a 55” TV, surround sound, and several game consoles. He was playing a surfing game, riding the digital waves with skill and panache. Lee sat down on the overstuffed sofa near him and waited for him to finish the level.
“Hey, babe,” Dan said. He offered her the controller. “Wanna try?”
“No thanks,” Lee said. She looked at him, trying to figure out how to begin. “Look, are you…?”
Dan glanced back at her. “Am I…what? Busy? Crazy? A registered organ donor?”
Lee rolled her eyes. “Look, the way you’ve been acting toward me lately—I…it…well, dammit, I used to be a guy!”
“Ah.” Dan tossed the controller aside and flopped back on the couch. “Well, the key word there is ‘used to be’. Nobody would ever take you for one now.” He shrugged. “And I never even knew you when you were a guy. All that matters to me is you’re the you you are right now.”
“But I don’t want or need a boyfriend!” Lee protested.
“Then just think of me as a friend-boy,” Dan said. “Look, I just like you, okay? If I had known you as a guy, you’d have been the kind of guy I’d have liked to hang out and chillax with. Now you’re a gal, you’re the kind of gal I’d like to hang out and chillax with. Just ‘cuz you’re a girl doesn’t change who you are.”
“But I know how guys think!” Lee said frantically. “Admit it, you just want to get into my pants.”
“I don’t think those pants would fit me, Lee.” Dan said mildly. “I’d need a belt or something, and I’d have to roll up the cuffs…”
“You know what I mean!” Lee growled.
Dan shrugged. “Okay, seriously? I wouldn’t mind sex, yeah. It’s good clean fun for two if you do it right. But if you think for one moment that’s all I want, I’m kinda seriously disappointed in you. If I wanted sex, there are thousands of starry-eyed celebrity-worshippers out there who’d be all over me with just one Facebook post. Well…hundreds maybe. At least a dozen. Or I could just go find a hooker downtown.”
Dan shook his head. “No, that’s not what I want. What I want is this funny, talented, more-than-a-little-uptight gal named Lee to share as much of my life as she feels comfortable with. If that means sex, hell yes I’ll take it. If it means I get less than a nun the rest of my life, bring it on. I like you, Lee. That’s all.”
Lee stared at him for a long, long time. “I…I’m not…” Why is everything all blurry? What’s that trickling down my cheek fur? Oh hell, I’m going to have real kitty tear tracks aren’t I? “I…don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of commitment. I’d almost rather you just wanted sex. I know how to deal with that.”
Dan chuckled. “Heh. Nooooo way, babe. Not ready for that veterinary procedure yet.”
Lee snorted. “You’re no Leo, that’s for sure.”
“Thank goddess for that.” Dan reached out to pat Lee on the shoulder. “So don’t worry ‘bout it, babe. This offer doesn’t expire overnight, and I’d never try to force you into anything. We got time. It’s all cool.”
“Huh.” Lee leaned back on the sofa and tried to come to terms with what she felt about that. She tried to figure out how she felt about it, other than “all gooey inside.” She certainly had come a long way in a short time—just a couple of weeks ago she’d have been somewhere between disgusted and outraged at the idea of any man falling in love with her. Now…she was starting to see how the thing could be made to work. Even if she still wasn’t completely sure she wanted it to.
Dan glanced at her, then picked up the controller again. He flipped the console over to its Pandora Internet radio app, and selected a slow music station. “So, meanwhile…wanna dance? Just for fun, this time, not lessons.”
Lee thought about that. Did she want to dance? She wanted to run screaming from the room. She wanted to run cheering through the halls. She wanted to bury her head under her pillow and make it all go away. She wanted…to dance. “Maybe for a song or two. It is kinda fun, and not like I got anything else to do. And you got the music up, so…might as well.”
Dan grinned at her. “Just a song or two. Gotcha.”
Putting all thoughts of obligations and romantic entanglements aside, they danced—just for fun—late into the night.
The Truth About Cats and Dogs
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