Window of Opportunity

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Series Currently Unnamed
Preceded by: Escape
Succeeded by: Consolidation
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By JonBuck

It never failed that the moment I cracked open my eyes and looked at the view, that the first glimpse of my own cleavage would send my body rubber-banding back to four legs. But this was one of the most basic skills the magically talented had to master. Telekinesis was fine for some things, but in order to do any detail work one needed real hands. Inside of the so-called Tardis Tree there were several workspaces for mages-in-training to practice and the more experienced to concoct brand new spells. As powerful as Brian-the-raccoon swore I was, I couldn't even shed my fur yet.

My spur-of-the-moment decision had come back to haunt me. Being a doe I could handle. I really didn't know anything about being another species, and the spirit-token had provided all the instincts I needed. Being a female deer just added another layer of abstraction. I really had no idea how to be a doe so I was making it up as I went along. But since I had helped my own transgendered friend get through her own spontaneous change into a human woman, I knew exactly what was ahead of me once we achieved victory and threw the aliens off our planet.

I flinched.

"Come on, Jacie. You can do it," Lucy said. She had golden fur, and at the level of humanity she normally chose in the Tree, hair as well. "Let me show you again. Nothing to it at all. Just don't look with your mundane eyes. Try and just sense what I'm doing. Watch with your inner eyes. Or nose, if you want."

Lucy was a master at this, she flowed from almost-human to animal again with great ease and very little mana-flash. In her pretty anthro form, she jumped neatly off her bench, pawpads smacking on the wood-grained floor. As I activated my second sight (one of a number of terms for it, since nothing had stuck yet) she began to glow.

There were two of her, woman and vixen, seemingly overlapping one another. Her flesh moved smoothly between the two, evolution a million times faster than would 'naturally' happen if humans had come from vulpines. She went from an aesthetically pleasing mix of fox and human, all the way down to a small golden vixen, then right back again. "See how easy it is?"

I'm watching, but I can't quite... I snorted. In this confined space, her vulpine reek was quite sharp. I just can't...

"Face that you have tits and ass?" my other transgendered classmate bluntly added for me. Donna was another doe, and along with Lucy, had several more months experience at this than I did. And they had also chosen their fates, though in their cases the only spirit-tokens available had been female. It was either get ovaries along with paws or hooves, or get killed.

I swallowed, ears drooping. Well, yes. Jesus. Deep sigh. I'll try again. I swear, I'll look at myself in the boobs if it's the last thing I do!

"That's the spirit," Donna said. "Then once you're on two legs, we'll go shopping!" She giggled girlishly. But from the glint in her eyes, she was joking.

Lucy just rolled her blue, slit-pupil eyes. "Oh, please, Donna. I mean, that's totally not cool." she said in her best Valley Girl impression.

'Ladies,' please, our observer-teacher said. The lanky cougaress raised her tawny head and glared at us. Stereotypes aren't funny. Especially when you do them.

"Oh, don't be such a stick in the mud. Humor helps break the tension, Sandy," Donna pointed out, tapping her hoof on the floor. "Try again, Jackie."

Jason, I corrected. After two weeks, the other Resistance members were always trying to feminize my name. That wasn't a line I was prepared to cross yet, though my comrades had already and were very persistent. I'd heard everything from Jacie to Jackie to Jenny. I'm just... one step at a time, okay?

But now I had to envision myself as a human woman. There was a sliding scale between what I liked to call "poles", on a scale of zero to eleven. But since we were "bonded" or whatever with the animal in the spirit-token, a zero was impossible. There would always be something physically nonhuman about us: ears, hands, feet, a little fur, and especially a tail. On the other end of the slider was fully animal--without a fleck of human intelligence. Unfortunately going "all the way to eleven" wasn't that uncommon. Especially if the rescued person didn't have any innate magic talent.

More casualties of war.

I shut my eyes tightly and envisioned that scale. For a moment I could almost feel two of me--a curvaceous redhead on one end, and a large whitetail doe at the other. I had to put my vision somewhere on that scale, and... The change felt like being submerged in club soda. My skin tingled, muscles squirming as bones creaked and shifted. Then I was on my hands and knees, female anatomy dangling. The sensation was almost enough for yet another spring back, but I clamped down on the urge to flee back to four hooves. I still felt a comforting tail-flick.

Sitting down on my well-padded behind, with my legs carefully together, I opened my eyes and had a look in the mirror on the opposite side of the room. A pretty girl with long russet hair, maybe twenty-five years old, looked back in shock and wonder.

"Sandy, are we okay here? There's no risk of detection?" Donna asked nervously.

We're fine, hon, the cat reassured, not opening her eyes. Her long tail lashed back and forth. As long as she stays in the Tree. Wow. She smells pretty human.

I cupped my sizable breasts in my small hands, then jiggled them a little. Then I groped for the words even as I groped myself. I hadn't actually spoken for two weeks. Saying words rather than thinking them took a little doing. After a while, Donna came and put her hand on my shoulder. My own hands were much like hers: Four fingers, black nails, though not quite so thick and hoof-like. I stared up at her, then back at my own reflection. "This is absolutely surreal!" I said, the feminine sound of my own voice adding even more to the feeling.

"More surreal than being a doe?" Donna said questioningly, one ear folded back. The older doe shrugged. "I suppose it is. Fortunately you won't be called on to use it, at least outside. Anything under a four on the scale risks detection in less than ten minutes," she said. "If you were out in the open like that, they'd snatch you up even faster."

"Ugh," I said. My ears flicked. They were still cervine. But I still felt deaf and without a sense of smell. Though the depth perception was nice. My feet were rather strange, like a plantigrade cloven hoof. But my fair skin was quite bare otherwise. The air inside the Tree was perpetually hot and humid. It reeked of a few dozen dirty mammals, though with a human nose it was less like a stab in the nostrils-- nobody spent more time in the Tree than absolutely necessary. Mages tried keeping it clean with magic, but couldn't quite manage air circulation. I stared at my curves and wanted my fur back. "How long do you want me to hold this?"

"As long as you can, but at least ten minutes," Donna said. "Tomorrow, twenty. We're going to push it ten minutes more every day until you hit three hours. That's enough time for most chores around here, and outside you'll hold at about a six, where I am right now. You're going to be on scavenging detail with me come Thursday."

There were no doors in the Tree, and little semblance of privacy. But only fifteen of the "animals" inside actually had any magic talent. The rest spent their time on four legs, though they had been given a crude form of telepathy. The black she-bear who ambled up to the camber's entrance paused to look at me, tilting her head left and right. Meeting. Everyone auditorium. Mandatory, she broadcast before ambling on.

"Oh, good!" I said. A patina of russet fur started growing, but Donna's hand tightened on my shoulder. "What?"

"It hasn't been ten minutes. Come on, let me help you up." She extended her hoof-hand. "Don't be shy. You've been walking around in the nude outdoors for two weeks, Jacie. Besides, I'm sure you're a little curious about what it feels like to be a human woman, just a little bit?" She flared her nostrils, obviously smelling something from me. I had to admit that I was curious, despite myself. "See how the other half lives?"

"For ten minutes," I grumbled, pulling the fur back in. "No more."

"I doubt anybody's going to notice," Lucy said. Then she barked a chuckle. "Yeah, right. Let's get some clothes on you."

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The three of us stood by ourselves in the back of the Auditorium, which was the largest open space inside the Tardis Tree. There were a few other transgendered folks--two female-to-male and another new girl who only had a few more days on me. But they were rather less well adjusted than we three, weren't mages, and not present in the Auditorium. All told, there were nearly fifty of us former-humans, fifteen of which possessed some level of magic talent. The rest were "just" animals, and if they wanted any anthro time, had to ask one of the mages.

There were only a half dozen birds, two of which whose change predated the alien arrival. They roosted on perches near the stage, the barn owl busily cleaning his wing feathers. Get on with it, Barry! he said, emphasizing with a hoot. Some of us are nocturnal!

There were few predators in the Resistance, a handful compared to the plurality of deer and elk, and nothing smaller than a raccoon. The rest were a scattering of North American species, except for a very odd man out. Some kind of oryx with cream-colored fur and long, curving horns. He was really quite a handsome specimen, but he didn't even know his exact species. He also rarely left the Tree and wasn't a mage. Perhaps it was that charismatic uniqueness that made him the de-facto leader of the Resistance. He was rarely out of anthro form. "Settle down, everyone!" Barry bleated, gesticulating. "Settle down!"

I stood with my back against the wall, arms folded under my breasts, wearing a loose, threadbare men's shirt that had seen better days. Wearing clothes also meant doing laundry, but manually, and nobody really had the time to do that. The shirt was stained and saturated with musk from half a dozen deer-people. But it covered me down to below my hips. Lucy and Donna stood, their hips almost touching mine. We were practically joined at the hip as it was.

Nobody else could quite understand what we were going through. And the fact that all three of us were mages made us important.

"Before we begin, an introduction," Barry said, long ears perked forwards. "We haven't had a good meeting for some time, so I wanted to spotlight a newcomer."

Shit, I thought, trying to make myself smaller. I felt fur begin to grow in over my skin, but slowly. He's not going to...

"Way in the back with Lucy and Donna is... uh... Jennifer Tuturo. Say hello to the new doe."

"It's Ja..." I was about to correct him, but Lucy elbowed me in the ribs. I glared at the anthro golden vixen, who shook her head. What are you doing? I said.

Just don't, okay? This isn't about our comfort, 'Jenny'. It's more about theirs, she replied seriously. You think I picked 'Lucy' for myself? Besides, it's not like everybody doesn't know. He's just trying to grease the wheels so people accept us as females faster. So say hello to everyone, Jennifer. And get used to that name. Now that he's been formal about it, it'll stick. I know.

So I smiled weakly and waved, then the cream-colored oryx moved on. "Who has the minutes from the last meeting? Can someone put up the agenda? Brian?"

Fine, fine. I'll take care of it, the tired raccoon-mage said. He was the most skilled mage of the lot of us. He created the animal spirit-token medallions that had saved so many lives, though they certainly weren't comfortable lives by any means. The overlarge raccoon ambled down to the stage, then swelled up to anthro form. Then with a wave of his paw-hand, hologram-like projection appeared on the wall behind the oryx.

It was a rousing speech of the "rah rah go team!" variety you'd hear from a Little League coach, and the oryx-man spoke with great gusto, though precious little substance. Yet he held most of his audience at rapt attention, at least for a while. That meeting felt like it lasted about five hours, though with the way time and space were balled up inside the Tree, I couldn't be sure.

Maybe Barry had been in middle management somewhere before, but if it hadn't been for his obvious charisma and rather powerful voice, one of the cats would have pounced on him and torn his throat out. It was just really strange that nobody said anything. It was like magic, almost. I really couldn't understand why nobody spoke up, and just let him ramble.

But there was an iron hard certainty in his voice: We would win this fight, we would push the aliens off our homeworld, and we would be human again. Though exactly how he clearly hadn't a clue. I had to wonder if anyone really noticed that. But I had only been in this very loose-knit group for a couple weeks, let alone getting used to my own new status as an "animal" and a woman. It was simply too much to absorb at once.

Of course I was back on four legs long before it ended. After nearly an hour of having breasts, I welcomed the return of my unswollen udder. Unfortunately the shirt actually tore in pieces when I changed, but it was on its last legs anyway.

We were the first out of the Auditorium as the meeting finally broke up, long after the last item on the nonsense agenda was supposed to be done with. Did anyone else think that was an utter waste of time? I thought to my friends. All he did was talk! About nothing! The agenda was complete crap, though Brian provided a lot of pretty lights. I mean, Jesus! I haven't been in a more unproductive meeting since... well...

Before the Weirdness started? Lucy said, walking by my side. He's our very own PHB. Pointy-Horned Boss, she grumped.

I don't know about you, but I'm starving. Let's go find some forage, Donna said, slipping onto four legs at the Tardis Tree's front entrance and nosing me on the shoulder.

I'm going hunting, girls, Lucy thought-said, Later, Jenny! She sprinted off through the Tree's "door" before I could correct her.

Now we need to get on with the business of survival, Donna said. We were already falling into the roles our bodies imposed on us as I followed her out the door. There was always a strange twisting sensation, because from outside the large hole in the tree didn't look deeper than a foot or two. Goddamn it! We barely have the time to do anything against the invaders! She stamped her hooves in frustration.

I shared her feelings. Outside the Tree, we had to depend on our instincts. What semblance of humanity there was had to fall by the wayside by sheer necessity. My human mind took a back seat as I followed Donna back out into the "enchanted" forest, where humans rarely came,. We weren't alone. We were soon joined by a couple other does in our little herd. My transgendered friend and I were rather low on the totem pole. I suppose Candice and Rachel didn't consider us real women, and the fact that the telepathy spell could never quite get a hold of them meant we communicated primarily through body language.

The first thing Rachel did was fold her ears back, lower her head, then rear up on her hind legs with forehooves flailing. Bleating in surprise, I lowered my own head in submission and moved backwards a few steps to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Donna. Rachel was Eldest Doe, and outside the Tree, my magic talent didn't hold any water with her. She's really pissy today, I observed to Donna.

Join the club, the other doe replied. We should really spend more time training, Jenny. Or should I call you Jennifer?

Grumble, grind teeth. Jen. Just... Jen. That's fine. At least it sounds a little bit like my real name.

I'm really sorry about that, she replied sincerely, nosing my shoulder then giving me a little lick behind my ear. At least 'Donna' is fairly close to my old self. I know it really screws with your sense of self, but you do look like a 'Jennifer' now. Anyway... we'd better go find something to eat.

Rachel had fawns, a doe and a buck, and when the four of us came near, they sprang out from hiding to suckle on their mother's teats while their mother groomed them clean. The three of us, under her glare, put our noses, ears, and eyes to keeping watch. Candice, higher up than we were, started nibbling on some grasses while Donna and I remained hungry.

We should practice pulling down branches, Donna suggested. If she's going to be obstinate, we need to work on our telekinesis, Jen.

Sounds great to me, Donna, I replied. Anything to get away from the intellectual doldrums of just being an ordinary doe. I think the maple leaves are still succulent enough.

The problem with magic, from what I had gleaned from it, was that nobody really knew what they were doing. Everyone had their own methods. There was no standardization beyond the basic applied telepathy and shapeshifting spells. Worst of all, nobody knew just what it was really capable of.

Jennifer, I thought, trying to shoehorn that overtly female name into my sense of self. Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer. After two weeks I still didn't really think of myself as female, despite the mere physical facts. I watched the bucks with some interest, and now a little regret mixed in. I really didn't know any of them very well, even the one who had rescued me from my precarious perch on my flight to freedom. I can either spend all my time grumbling about it, or I can just accept it, I thought, emphasizing with a hoof-stamp.

Much easier to go with the flow, Donna agreed. We're does--women--and that's not going to change for the foreseeable future. Let's pull some branches, girlfriend. She nuzzled my shoulder with her nose, then licked it affectionately.

We walked a short distance away from Rachel, her fawns, and Candice, not wanting to startle them, and made like we were keeping watch as ordered. What we really did was let our bodies do all the instinctual heavy lifting, keeping watch for danger, while our minds expanded outwards and upwards...

Every mage did magic a little differently, and I was far less experienced than Donna and the others. The teachers were just a few skips ahead of the students, and it wouldn't be long before I was on my own. For this task, which was more or less harvesting food that was otherwise far out of reach for normal deer, was both necessary and telekinetic practice. I envisioned a pair of very strong hands, then started looking for some properly weak branches.

It was tiring work, and very physical. I had to lower them gently to the ground... These are heavier than they look, I told Donna.

Watch it. We're more limited than you think, Donna cautioned, grunting in effort herself as she lowered a few branches to the ground. The other two does got to them first, feasting on our efforts.

This is fun, I replied. High above me, I found a branch full of leaves that would suffice for a meal or two. I grasped it with my "hands" and started pulling, bracing myself by splaying my hooves. I think I... oops!

It was more than I could lift. My magical strength failed me, I lost my grip on the branches... and down they came with a resounding clatter, from thirty feet over my head.

My own reflexes saved me. I sprang away from the point of impact like a coiled spring, and the noise made the other deer scatter as well. Tail flagging, I fled only a short distance before getting a grip on myself. Damn! Sorry, Donna! I "shouted".

At least we're going to eat, she replied distantly. Whoa... wait a second. Where'd Rachel run off to?

Help! Help Rachel! Eleven! Eleven!

The telepathic plea sounded like Candice, who rarely used her implanted ability to begin with. Donna was closer to the direction Rachel had fled than I was. I felt her fleeing before I could gather my hooves beneath me, and I had to go around the fallen branches to boot. Shit, shit, shit! I swore.

This wasn't the first Eleven. We'd already lost two other deer since I'd joined the Resistance. What really bothered me was that if I had kept a grip on those branches, Rachel wouldn't have...

We found her ten minutes later, grazing on grasses with her fawns, who had never shown any sign of human intelligence to begin with. I could tell, just looking at her eyes, that she was just like them now. I mewed in sorrow, nudging around the edges of the elder doe's mind, and finding nothing more in there than a normal deer. Oh... oh no...

Don't beat yourself up, Jen. She's been on the edge for months now, Donna said. I think it's the fawns. And I think she bred with a normal buck last Fall, from what she told me. She's never been very talkative...

None of the non-mages are very talkative, I said, watching the twin fawns nurse. In fact, I think they're not really human any more to begin with.

Donna tilted her head. Oh? What makes you say that?

My ears whirred with thought. It's just a hunch, but it feels to me like none of us are really human any more. I'm bonded to this doe, right? And when I'm like this, she's like eighty percent in control.

If we weren't, we couldn't survive as deer, Donna pointed out.

But if the purpose of the Resistance and these medallions is to save human civilization from the psychobears, how we're going about it is counterproductive. The way things are going there won't be enough of us left to have any effect! I thought, stamping a forehoof in emphasis.

Candice looked at the two of us. She concentrated hard, but her mental voice was thick, almost childlike. You know... wouldn't mind... two legs? Like you can, Jason... Jenny?

That's a good idea, I thought. But my stomachs were growling again. I looked at the feasting Rachel and sighed. Nothing we could do for her, at least until we knew our abilities more thoroughly. Stay with us, Candy. Let's go eat, then head back to the Tree. I have an idea.

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"Thank you! Thank you! ThankyouthankyouTHANKYOU!" Candice hugged so hard that it felt like my breasts were going to emerge from my back. I gathered instantly that she hadn't been anywhere near human for a very long time. She was so hysterically effusive at first I worried if I'd really done the right thing. I'd put her at a Two on the anthropomorphic scale, sitting in the deep Workroom just in case.

As a human, she was a petite brunette, perhaps in her early twenties. She bounced and pranced about in her lightly-furred birthday suit, tail flicking with profound joy.

I was at a comfortable Four, a level that actually had a semblance of human hair, which looked rather odd on a snub-muzzled cervine face. Donna was at her normal Six. We hadn't found Lucy, unfortunately. It took a lot more effort to find prey, though I was sure she could magic something up if the need arose.

Eventually the short woman let me go. "Oh, God. I think I went a little crazy there. Sorry, Jenny."

"How long?" I asked her.

"I've been a doe two long years, I... I think," she replied. "I was one of Brian's first. I have a fawn out there somewhere, believe it or not. Shockingly, I didn't get bred last year. I think I was more myself then. Considering what happened to Rachel..." she grimaced.

"You move like a gymnast," Donna observed.

"I was a gymnast, before it all started. I actually rather like being a deer, believe it or not. I'm so graceful as a doe," Candice explained, executing a rather expert cartwheel across the practice space. "Ta da! Can't do that on four legs, though." Her happy expression turned to distress. "You're not going to change me back right away, are you Jenny?"

I shook my head. "You've earned this human-time, Candice. In fact, everyone needs it. Non-mages especially." I looked at Donna, who was chewing her cud. "Where does Brian live? I need to talk to him."

The doe-woman swallowed. "Follow me."

Outside the Tree we returned to four legs, unwilling to risk detection. Some of us had actually done work outside at Six for several hours without being detected, but there was always a risk. Two of us doing it at one time raised it too much, in my view. Until we knew more about how psychobear sensors actually worked it behooved us to stay hoofed outside the Tree at all times. This time, I made sure to give my cervine mind as little control as I could. Donna did the same.

Rachel's unintelligent fawns were heavily on my mind, among other things. Donna, I have a rather difficult question to ask, I said. About being deer.

I'm sure you'll have a lot of those, and I've only got three months more than you do. But go ahead, she replied.

You said Rachel bred with a normal buck last Fall. Have there ever been any... um... breeding between the does and bucks in our group? What happens to the fawns?

Donna stopped in her tracks, then licked her nose thoughtfully. Honestly, I have no idea. The mothers don't really talk about them. I think that's a cervine habit, actually. Not talking about them keeps them safe.

We'll have to find out. It's very important, I said firmly. Now, where's Brian's place?

The skies had turned to dusk now, which was our naturally active time. On the way we had to stop to eat something, nibbling on a few leaves and grasses here and there. No matter what other purpose we had in mind, eating always came first. The doe in me knew winter was coming, and I had to put on as much fat as possible to prepare. That made me think of yet another problem that needed solving. We were living so much like animals that there was very little time for any experiments into our magical abilities. Animals... animals... we're just animals way too much.

I agree completely, but we really don't have any choice on the matter, Donna said. We have no way to actually store food, the Tree is intended to be a social space and a base of operations, not a grain store. And...

Well, it should be. Are we there yet? There were so many ideas crowding my head now of how to solve all these obvious problems. Now that I saw them so clearly, I had to apply myself to solving them. It didn't matter if I was going to have to step on a certain oryx's hooves.

In fact, I was looking forward to it.

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Brian's den was located just a little deeper into the magically-twisted woods we had begun to call Refuge. Even here, less than a mile in, I had the feeling that the flowers were actually watching us nervously as we walked in. The trees were the same way, projecting a sensation of being watchful, though there was no way Donna or I were going to start pulling down branches. The air smelled different. Full of life and the odors of animals that were yet undiscovered, quite possibly with large, pointy teeth and sharp claws. We walked along a deer trail carpeted in small yellow blossoms. Off to see the wizard, Donna quipped nervously.

There were trees here so huge that their canopies covered entire acres. I had heard of these places even before the aliens arrived. They had swallowed research expeditions whole. Only the birds in the Resistance had gone in farther. There was plenty of deer-smell around, though it didn't make me feel any better about going in.

I think that makes us witches, doesn't it? I replied, nevertheless keeping close. The aliens were too busy to bother with these places, and from what I had heard before my incarceration, there was something that protected these woods. Just as something had protected me from three failed execution attempts by quantum cannon. I paused in my tracks, raising and lowering my head, sniffing carefully after licking my nose to enhance odors. Smell that? Sure doesn't feel much like a refuge.

Somewhere there was a dead carcass, rotting in the wind. It was likely miles away, but enough to put us on edge. Adding to the Oz-like feel of this place were the carpet of yellow flowers that might have been dandelions, but seemed different somehow. Dandelions were a tasty treat, these looked suspicious. Nothing seemed to be eating them, even on the deer trail we were following.

We let the flowers be.

Okay, this is getting a little ridiculous, I said, pausing for another sniff-and-listen. I raised my mental "voice". BRIAN! Where the hell are you? Enough is enough!

The sense of foreboding faded slightly. Hello there, Jenny. Or do you want me to stay with Jason? came the raccoon-mage's glib reply. I couldn't tell where it was coming from. Can this wait? I'm really busy.

I'm afraid it can't, Brian, I replied seriously. We lost Rachel today.

I felt a pulse of genuine sorrow from him. He had an almost fatherly relationship to the rest of us, but wasn't the leadership type. That he left to Barry, since there was nobody else who really wanted that role. She was a sweet girl. What about Candice?

She's fine, I replied. We went back to the Tree and I gave her a Two.

Good! Good thinking. I guess we really do need to talk. I'm about a hundred feet to your left, ladies. The bushes opened on that side, seeming to crawl along the ground on their roots. I don't often get visitors as lovely as yourselves. I hope you don't mind if I treat you two as I would any other woman in my abode. It's the same kind of tree as the Tardis Tree, by the way.

Donna and I looked at each other. It didn't sound like he was coming on to us--we were technically different species. The other doe raised and lowered her ears in a version of a shrug.

The Tardis Tree was a variety of oak, and this one was merely normal-sized. At the base, surrounded by knobby boles was what looked like a shallow indentation that was about the right size to admit a single raccoon. Brian trundled out from some undergrowth on the other side of the tree, a small nylon sack over his shoulders. Blank medallions, he explained. I've been placing traps...

Traps? Donna asked, lowering her wedge-shaped head to his level. How do you make those, anyway?

It's complicated, he replied. The backpack looked like a magically-shrunken version of an LL Bean product. He sighed deeply. My supplies have become depleted lately. I'm down to a couple of doe bonding-medallions and I don't want to have to induct more men into your little clique than necessary. I see how hard the transition is on you, my dears, believe me.

We're fine, I insisted, lifting a hind leg, then turning my head back to nibblegroom there. See? I don't mind the udder at all.

Ha! You'll be swearing at me when you give birth next spring. But I digress. I'm being a terrible host. Come inside.

I looked at the hole in the tree, then back at the raccoon. How are we supposed to fit through there?

Watch and learn, my dear does, the raccoon-mage replied. He ambled over towards the entrance, then stuck his nose into the darkened, oddly distorted space. In a swift motion, as if his body turned to a fluid, he was pulled inside like a spaceship entering a singularity.

Holy shit! Donna swore, jumping away a few feet with tail half-flagged.

When in Rome, I replied. Like him before me, I stuck my nose into the deceptively small opening. There was an instant of disorientation...

And I was flat on my back, four legs... no... hands and feet splayed around me, somehow down to a Six. "Gyah!" I bleated. "You could have warned me about that!" I said.

"Sorry," he apologized, offering his hand. I got up just in time, since Donna quickly occupied the spot I had just left. The half-doe blinked up at the ceiling and tried to regather her wits. Brian helped her up, too. "I'm sorry I don't have anything for you ladies to wear. In fact, I don't have anything for myself, either."

"We're used to it," Donna said. She closed her eyes in concentration, pushing herself all the way down to One. I had never seen her like this before. Unlike myself, she had black hair and a full-figured, somewhat motherly physique. "I hope you don't mind," she said, smiling broadly at the raccoon-mage. "We need to be as human as we can."

He just shrugged, and flowed into the shape he'd used the first time I'd seen him. "I think I see where this is going," he said. "Come in. I think I can offer you something to drink other than water."

I followed Donna's example, then finally got a good look at my surroundings. This wasn't the main Tardis Tree, for certain. The entrance area was maybe the size of the average living room, and there were only two "doors" to other chambers. Lighting was the same. Somehow the tree brought in the sunlight that came in on its leaves, shining out in a number of small embedded globes that weren't glass and weren't wood. When the sun went down, they still emitted light for a few hours.

All in all, it was perhaps the size of a one bedroom apartment, rather than a half dozen McMansions like our home base. What really caught my eye was that the entire space had been somehow squared off, and the walls were covered with bookshelves that looked like they'd grown from the tree itself. In the center was a salvaged metal work table, which was itself covered with a few more books and some in-process medallions cut from branches.

More astonishing was the LCD TV, the X-Box 360, and a pile of games. But it was covered in sawdust, and seemed more like a decoration.

Brian went into the adjoining room, returning with a tray of glasses and some packets of single-serve raspberry Crystal Light. I wondered how something like that would taste after all this time. But this humble abode was the closest to civilization I'd been in ages. "I save these for special occasions. I've also some acorns, if you'd like those. I know how you deer love them."

He set the tray down on the table, which he hastily cleared of his things. "I have a couple more chairs, be right back."

And so it was that the three of us sat around the table, in our shared near-human nudity, to talk about the future. I looked around the space, at the titles and authors on the spines of the books--Rowling, Tolkein, Lackey, Modesitt, Bradley, Clark, Asimov--swirled the foul-tasting, artificially-sweetened drink around in my dirty glass, and looked Brian right in the eye.

"We're drawing the line right here."

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