SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
©2011 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter 11 - Decisions, Decisions
The small digital clock on the nightstand beside Kristen’s bed woke her up with a start. She reached out into the darkness and fumbled around for several buzzing moments before her fingers closed around the clock and she managed to silence the alarm.
Too early, the botanist thought to herself lethargically. It took her a moment to remember where she was, and when the information floated up to her consciousness, she groaned aloud. Due to the conversation of the night before, Kristen had not slept well, but she wanted to get up and use the coed shower before either of the men awoke. Before Barrett’s shocking revelation, the shared restroom was the only thing about coming to the Institute that had bothered her. Now she had something new for concern. However, if she could get showered and dressed before either of the guys was awake, she felt that she could get used to an earlier wakeup.
She turned on a lamp, slipped out of her nightgown and put on a thin pale yellow cotton robe. Tying the belt as she slid her feet into a pair of matching slippers, Kristen looked into the large mirror and almost chuckled at the reflection of her hair fluffed all around her head like the mane of a male lion. She opened the top drawer of her dresser and pulled out her shower kit. From the small bag she plucked out a brush and began grooming her fur.
Grooming my fur? She blinked in amusement. Did I really just think that?
She laughed aloud and felt good for doing it. The previous day had been a strange first day at the Institute, so she hoped the second would be better. Marcy had told them that today they would have physical examinations, so perhaps that would give them something else to occupy their minds.
Although she hoped she would see no one else on the way to the shower, she felt more presentable with her long black hair brushed into a better semblance of order. Giving herself a brief smile in the mirror, she picked up her shower kit and turned to leave the room. The smile disappeared instantly when she remembered the large chair she had scooted up against the door in lieu of not having a lock during the night.
She sighed in frustration and wondered if she would have to do this every night. She rolled up the sleeves of her robe and then put her back into moving the seat aside so she could get out. The chair was made of solid material and was heavy, but she managed to slide it out of the way back to its original place beside one of the nightstands.
There was no one out in the saloon area, which was still dark except for a couple of dim orange night lights along the walls. The skylight overhead showed no glow of the morning sun, as it was too early even for old Sol to be awake.
With her shower kit in hand, Kristen padded across the carpet toward the linen closet. She selected a soft towel and a wash cloth, and then headed for the restroom. Just as she reached the door, Jenni came out, nearly running into her in the darkness of the saloon.
“Oh!” Kristen exclaimed, startled. “Good morning, Jenni.”
“Hi, Kristen,” Jenni replied, running a comb through her wet hair. Without preamble, she leaned in close to the dark-haired woman’s ear and said in a low voice, “Watch yourself in there,” she warned.
Kristen’s eyes narrowed. “Is it Brian?” she asked.
Jenni shook her head. “No one is in there now,” she replied, “but earlier when I was in the shower, Dante slid the shower curtain aside and took my picture! He was gone by the time I finished and got dressed.”
“Probably in his room doing unspeakable things while looking at your picture,” Kristen remarked with a scowl. Jenni’s expression was one of amusement, and that puzzled her. “Did you scream at him?” the botanist asked.
“I didn’t scream,” Jenni replied with a chuckle. “He did surprise me, but I don’t mind that he saw me.”
“You… don’t mind?” Kristen repeated.
“No, so long as they don’t touch, I don’t mind if the guys see me. I just warned you because I thought it might upset you.”
“Thanks, it would. What are you, anyway, an exhibitionist?” Kristen asked before thinking.
Jenni laughed. “Not consciously,” she answered, “but I grew up in an open-minded family that sometimes spent its summers on clothing-optional beaches.”
Kristen drew back in wide eyed surprise. “You were a nudist?” she gasped. “I could never do that!”
Jenni shrugged, something that Kristen could barely see in the light coming from the open restroom door. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, so it feels natural to me,” she admitted. “I know it’s not something everyone’s comfortable with, but you should try it sometime. It’s such a sense of freedom.”
Kristen hung her head and gnawed on her lower lip. “Not for someone who looks like me,” she mumbled. “That’s for people who are confident in how they look.”
Jenni put a hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “That’s not true,” she told her quietly. “People of all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds can be found on clothing-optional beaches. They’re just regular people, and because everyone is either wearing little or nothing at all, no one really even cares what anyone else looks like. Once you get used to it, it feels natural and doesn’t feel naughty.”
Kristen shook her head. “We aren’t at a nudist camp,” she countered, “so I have no intention of baring myself to anyone but my reflection in a mirror!”
Jenni smiled in the darkness. “That’s okay, you don’t have to,” she answered. “There’s no one else in the restroom right now, so if you need to go, now’s your chance.”
“Thanks, I will.”
Without another comment, Jenni patted her on the shoulder and then disappeared into the darkness. Kristen sighed quietly and then went in through the door. Only one of the ceiling lights was switched on, so she did not have to worry about her eyes adjusting much to the brightness.
She walked to the shower farthest from the door and then slid aside the vinyl curtain. There was plenty of room inside the cubicle, with a wooden seat across a back corner and a similar shelf higher up across another corner. She opened her bag, pulled out a pair of unopened shampoo and conditioner bottles, a container of scented soap and a razor, setting them all on the shelf, but leaving the other items in the bag. She set the bag on the bench seat in the middle of the restroom and then looked around briefly to make sure no one else was around. She pushed off the slippers with her toes under the bench and then slid off her undergarments, stuffing them into the pocket of her robe. She stepped back into the shower stall, removed the robe and then hung both it and her towel on a hook just outside the curtain.
When the warm spray came out of the shower head, she was pleased to discover steady water pressure and soon she was lost in thought as she cleaned up and shaved her legs.
By the time she was finished, she was smiling and ready to face the day. However, when she extended a hand out of the curtain to retrieve her towel, she heard a noise that made her freeze. Water was running elsewhere in the restroom.
Jenni had already showered, so she hoped it was Marcy. Kristen quietly pulled the towel inside the stall and quickly dried off, keeping an eye on the curtain. When she had dried sufficiently, she wrapped the towel around her hair and then retrieved her robe from the outside hook. She heard someone shuffle, so she picked up her conditioner bottle, holding it over her head in readiness.
Just as quietly as she could, she pulled the curtain back, but there was no one there with a camera in her face. The sound of water came from her right, so she eased around the corner and saw what she had dreaded, a bare-chested male form wearing only athletic shorts. A small groan escaped her throat and the man began to turn in her direction at the sound.
The feeling of terror washed over her so quickly that she had flung the weighty bottle before she had even realized it had left her hand. Despite that it was merely a gut reaction, her aim was true in the dim light. The flat bottom end of the plastic bottle hit the man in the temple and the force of the blow knocked him back against the sink. His fingers were wet with hand soap and he lost his grip on the counter, dropping to his knees.
A mumbled curse escaped his lips as soon as the man’s dazed brain could function again, and when he looked up at the short woman standing near the showers, his eyes were wide in bewilderment.
“I know you hate me,” Barrett managed to say, “but a sneak attack wasn’t very sporting.”
Kristen opened and closed her mouth rapidly, and then put her hands up to her chest to hold her robe closed. “I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed. “I thought it was Dante!”
Barrett scowled back at her and reached up to grab a handful of his rust-colored hair. “Does this look like Dante’s head to you?” he complained loudly.
“I’m sorry, Brian!” she repeated. “I really am!” She wanted to run over to make sure he was okay, but her state of undress kept her rooted to the spot.
Barrett grumbled something beneath his breath and he struggled to get back up to his feet. He was still somewhat dazed from the impact of the large, economy sized bottle that had struck him.
“What… what are you doing in here?” Kristen asked with a gulp.
The broad-shouldered man put his hands under the running water in the sink for a moment to wash off the soap. When he had rubbed them clean, he let his palms fill up before splashing the cool liquid on his face. He reached over to a hand towel nearby on the counter, and it was not until after he had patted his face dry that he finally looked back over at her.
“I start and end each day with exercise,” he explained in a calmer voice. “I had to adjust the elliptical trainer and got grease on my fingers, so I came in here to wash it off.”
“Oh…” the woman replied.
“Do you want to explain why you thought I was Dante and hit me with this brick?” Barrett asked, bending over to pick up the bottle of conditioner. Not wanting to approach her, he merely set it on the counter.
“I ran into Jenni on the way in here,” Kristen replied in a small voice. “She said that Dante had taken her picture while she was in the shower and wanted to warn me in case he did the same to me.”
Barrett felt his abused temple gingerly and blinked rapidly several times. “Somehow I can’t say I am surprised that he would do that,” he remarked.
“Didn’t you hear me in the shower?” she asked.
“Yes, and you have a lovely singing voice,” Barrett answered. “I wasn’t going to bother you. All I needed was to wash off my hands, but since our sole restroom was closer than the kitchen sink, I didn’t think anything of it.”
Kristen approached him tentatively, still clutching her robe together with one hand. With the other, she reached out toward his temple. “I’m really sorry I hit you,” she apologized again. “Does it hurt?”
The man raised an eyebrow at her, but even that action was tender. “Enough to put me on my guard every time I’m in here from now on,” he replied in a lighter tone. Her fingers gently brushed his hair back into place and she gave him a wan smile.
“I don’t really hate you,” she said quietly. “I don’t approve of what you did, but I think I can also understand you a little. You made a mistake and will now be paying the price for it the rest of your life. You don’t need me beating up on you too.”
Barrett looked down at her and chuckled in spite of himself. “I’ve heard that the small ones put up the biggest fights,” he said. “Now I have firsthand experience.” A bit of color crept into Kristen’s cheeks, but Barrett didn’t give her much time to be further embarrassed. “I didn’t finish my usual exercise routine, but I think I’m done for now. I’m hot and sweaty and am in need of my shower. I’m going back to my room to get my soap and razor, so that should give you enough time to get dressed where you won’t have to worry about me watching.”
“Thank you,” the woman said quietly, suddenly unable to meet his eyes.
“May I use your shampoo and conditioner?” Barrett asked before he turned to go. “My lawyer provided me with a few clothes when I was taken from the prison, but I didn’t get anything like shower supplies beyond a bar of soap when I left.”
“Sure, if you don’t mind smelling like wild strawberries. I will leave them here on the counter for you.”
“I appreciate it.” Without waiting for further conversation, he slipped past her and then out the door.
By the time Barrett had showered, shaved and was dressed, the saloon was illuminated in the soft glow of morning sun through the skylight overhead. The rich aroma of coffee filled the air and all three of his roommates were sitting at the round table at the center of the pit.
Although Kristen had shown him a small amount of kindness concerning his situation earlier, he did not expect it from the others, so he left his room dressed in jeans, boots and a white tee shirt and walked to the kitchen without acknowledging any of them. He found fresh coffee on the warmer and a clean cup in the cabinet, so he helped himself to the aromatic brew and flavored it with a spoonful of sugar. He also found a bowl of fresh fruit that had not been there the night before, so he snagged a banana on the way out the door and then headed for the exit to take in some morning air.
“Feeling stuck up now that you’ve had some sleep?” Dante called across the room.
Barrett stopped in front of the video screen and turned to look back at the other man. “Stuck up?” he repeated incredulously. “I figured you would have a better start to your day if you didn’t have to bother with me first thing in the morning.”
“Come on over and join us, big guy,” Dante replied.
“Really…” Barrett remarked with a raised eyebrow.
The red-haired man shook his head in genuine surprise and took his breakfast down into the pit. He sat in the remaining chair between Dante and Kristen and then took a quiet sip from his cup. Dante scratched his pencil-thin mustache and gave the older man a crooked smile. He was wearing the same pants from the night before, but clad in a fresh blue shirt. When Barrett looked across the table at Jenni, she gave him an uneasy smile and brushed imaginary crumbs from her lavender blouse, but at least Kristen’s expression was openly friendly. A little color flushed her cheeks at the memory of what she had done to him earlier. She was dressed in a pale yellow blouse and a matching set of slacks.
“I hear that you’ve had an exciting morning already,” Dante remarked with a grin, glancing briefly at Kristen.
“I think we all have,” Barrett responded in amusement, pulling on one sleeve of his tee shirt. It felt as if it was a size smaller than he normally wore, and it was fitting like a second skin.
“What do you mean?” Jenni asked quietly.
“From what I heard, he caught you in the shower with his camera, and then Kristen clocked me in the head with a bottle while I was washing my hands, thinking it was him in there to do the same to her.” Dante looked surprised, but Jenni suddenly chuckled as Kristen took a quick sip from her own cup of coffee averting her eyes.
“You know about that?” Dante croaked.
In reply, Barrett simply asked, “How did the picture come out?”
Dante swallowed and gave Jenni a lopsided smirk. “Well, to tell the truth, the battery in my prepaid cell ran out on the bus yesterday and I don’t have a charger. I only pretended to take her picture to see what she would do!”
“Sneak!” Jenni replied. “You just wanted to see me naked in the shower!”
“Well, yeah,” Dante admitted with a sly grin. “Who wouldn’t?”
“Listen, you,” the blonde woman said, pointing a finger at him, “With a shared restroom, I know you’re going to see me occasionally, but you’d better keep those long fingers of yours to yourself!”
“Don’t even try to sneak a peek at me!” Kristen warned him. “You’ll get what he got this morning!” She looked over at Barrett and gave him another embarrassed smile.
Dante held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, I’ll behave myself,” he said with little conviction, though it was clear that no one believed him. He cocked an eyebrow at Kristen and pursed his lips. “You hit him in the head with a bottle?” he asked.
“A full bottle of conditioner, economy size,” Jon replied, tapping his temple where it had struck him.
“What was everyone doing up so early this morning anyway?” Kristen asked, peering into the depths of her coffee. “I just wanted to take a shower before everyone else was up and about, but it seems like I was the last one awake.”
“I couldn’t get comfortable,” Dante answered. “New place, new bed and all that, y’know.”
“Due to the hospital shifts I usually had to pull, I’ve always been an early riser,” Jenni replied. “My body hasn’t adjusted to my new schedule yet.”
“What about you?” Dante asked the older man. “Why were you up before the sun came up, plotting your escape?”
Barrett peeled his banana quietly. Instead of answering the question, he looked askance at the other man. “I appreciate you inviting me to sit in with you,” he said in a calm voice, “but after last night, I’m surprised you’re letting me near you.”
“We talked about it while you were in the shower,” Dante admitted. “None of us were really comfortable last night knowing there was a killer in the house, so I had intended to go see the director first this morning to see about getting you moved out.”
“What changed your mind?” Barrett asked just before biting into his breakfast. He pointedly did not look at any of them, simply sitting there with his ears on the conversation.
“Jenni reminded us that you’re the one who is here to stay. If any of us wish to leave, we can, but you can’t,” Dante informed him.
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Barrett replied after swallowing; he’d said as much to them last night. He peeled the banana a little more, but still did not meet anyone’s eyes.
“None of us want to leave,” Kristen added, “so we all decided to try to make this work.”
Barrett looked over at her. “Really.”
“Yeah, really,” Dante confirmed.
Barrett turned his attention to the blonde nurse, who had not spoken since the conversation had turned serious. “You’re going to give me a chance?” he asked her.
Her powder blue eyes met his for only a moment before she looked away. “We don’t have much of a choice,” she said quietly. “You said that you would give us the same promise you gave to Marcelo if we gave you a chance in return. Did you mean what you said?”
“Look at me,” Barrett said. “All of you.” When each of them returned his gaze one at a time, he nodded. “I swear that you will have no trouble from me as a result of my crime. I have nothing left but what’s ahead of me, and there’s nothing you can say or do that will ever equal what Parker did to me. All I ask is that you give me the opportunity to be just another volunteer going through the program just as you are.”
“What about your attitude against Furs?” Jenni asked soberly.
“What of it? You know where I stand and how I believe,” Barrett replied in an even tone. “I think I made that perfectly clear last night. You may hear me grumble about it from time to time, but no one at this institution is in potential danger from me because of it.”
“You still think you’re going to be mindless when this is all over?” Dante asked.
“More than ever.”
“What happens when we get to the end and you’re still you?”
“If that should be the case, then I would be greatly pleased to have been proven wrong,” Barrett replied truthfully. “It would be more than I could hope for. However, I seriously doubt it will turn out that way.”
“Brian,” Kristen asked tentatively, “may I ask you a personal question?”
The broad-shouldered man tugged at another tight sleeve. “What is it?”
“Why do you have such a dim view on life?” she asked. “You have killed, were caught and sentenced to die, but yet you were given another chance at life. Shouldn’t you be happy that you’re still here — even here?”
Without pausing to consider his response, Barrett picked up his coffee cup and replied, “I’ll get back to you on that after we’ve started the process.”
The dark-haired woman shook her head. “When we first met yesterday, you told me that you wanted to be my friend since I would be the transterrestrial botanist in the colony who would determine if the local plant life was poisonous or edible.”
“I was being flippant, but I also felt it was a good idea to start making friends, especially those who might have a direct impact on my life.”
“Fair enough, but ever since we found out who you really are, you seem to be trying to avoid forming any further relationships. Is that such a good idea?” Kristen asked.
“The three of you looked like you were going to lynch me last night,” Barrett replied dryly. “Relationships between a lynch mob and the condemned don’t usually last long.”
“I think Brian’s just trying to get a jump on us and start thinking like a feline,” Dante quipped with a grin.
“What do you mean by that?” Jenni asked. Barrett looked over at him with a raised eyebrow.
Dante chuckled and said, “Cats, as we shall all become, do not tend to form lifelong relationships. They might congregate around others, but they’re independent and are often aloof. I’ve already adopted some feline attributes myself.”
Thankfully moving the conversation away from Barrett’s situation, Jenni gave Dante a mischievous look. “…and what attributes have you adopted?” she asked.
Dante’s smile widened. “Cats aren’t necessarily governed by the same mating rituals that humans follow,” he said in a mock whisper. “The males can and will mate indiscriminately with any willing female.” He punctuated his remark by waggling his eyebrows at both Jenni and Kristen, adding a leering grin for emphasis.
Jenni merely smiled back at him, certain that he was nothing more than a lot of hot wind, but Kristen shuddered and shrunk into her seat, crossing her arms across her chest. She had read stories about men with attitudes such as what Dante professed and she was concerned that he might try to force himself upon her some night. Of course, she had no real evidence that she could voice on this, but he made her feel dirty anytime he leered at her. She had not felt comfortable around him since their first meeting the night before.
Barrett merely shook his head in amazement at Dante’s verbal dalliance. “You all know that I’m destined to take on the form of a mountain lion,” Barrett said, breaking the mood, “but none of you have mentioned what you have chosen for yourselves.”
Anxious to change the topic again, Kristen sat up straight in her seat, but Dante jumped into the conversation ahead of her.
“I want one of the Great Cats,” the dark-haired man responded quickly, “possibly a tiger or a lion, but I haven’t made up my mind.”
Barrett looked over at him. “I thought you had to choose before you even signed up,” he remarked.
Jenni shook her head. “You only have to let them know which of the four races you want to be,” she explained, “Felis, Canis, Ursis or Vulps.” On the table was the folder than Marcy had left for them; Jenni tapped its cover. “Since we’re all in the Felis Wing, we all have obviously chosen feline, but we still have to choose between the cats that are available to us.”
“What if you wanted to bring your own animal DNA,” Dante asked, “like that of your favorite housecat?”
“Not allowed,” Jenni replied. “That was covered in the information you were given to read. It’s because the material they use here has been thoroughly checked out against disease or abnormalities.”
“So what do you think you will choose?” he asked her in interest.
The blonde nurse opened the folder and flipped through the pages idly. “Spotted leopard,” she announced after a moment, stopping at a related photograph. “I’ve always thought they were beautiful creatures. I also considered a snow leopard, but I think a standard leopard will camouflage better on wild terrains.”
“What about you?” Barrett asked Kristen, looking over at her in simple curiosity.
“Well,” she replied hesitantly, “since I’m not very tall, I thought I would go with a smaller feline, something like a lynx, bobcat or ocelot, if they are available. I haven’t decided yet.”
“There was a lynx in the cafeteria,” Dante reminded her.
“Oh? I hadn’t noticed,” Kristen replied.
“That’s because you were too busy ogling the males,” Barrett teased.
“I was not!” she responded defensively, but her reply was diluted when she exchanged guilty looks with Jenni.
Dante pulled the folder toward him and began flipping through the samples. Each page contained an image of each of the felines available with another photo alongside of past volunteers who made the transition to show a sample of what the result might look like. All three of his housemates looked on curiously as he turned the pages, but finally he stopped at one and stared at it for a long moment.
“Bengal tiger, a white one,” Dante announced with a finger on the photograph before him. “That’s it — that’s what I want to be when I grow up.”
“Well,” Jenni said with a mischievous glint in her eyes, “if you don’t make it to the colony, you can always join an act in Las Vegas.” The dark-haired man grinned at her and raised both hands in the air, fingers curled down like claws.
Kristen pulled the folder over to her side of the round table and took a quiet sip of her coffee while browsing the pages. “I’m still undecided,” she murmured.
“Just a reminder of what the Doc told us last night,” Barrett said aloud, “the process is irreversible. Once it’s started, none of you will ever be human again, so you had better be sure before you take that injection of modified DNA.”
“That’s true,” Kristen remarked, still looking through the photographs, “but I still have a couple days before I have to make up my mind.” After several minutes, she pushed away the folder and then peered into her coffee cup. “I need a refill,” she said, standing up. “Anyone else?”
“I’ve had enough,” Dante replied. “I get too jittery if I get too much caffeine at one sitting.”
“No thanks, I’m still nursing this one,” Jenni said. She stretched languidly, fully aware of Dante’s eyes on her form as she did so.
Barrett stood up and looked over at Kristen. “I could use a refill, but I need to doctor it up.” He gestured toward the kitchen and then followed the shorter woman up out of the pit. As they walked, Kristen looked aside at him.
“Brian…” she started. When he returned her gaze, she closed her mouth and looked down at her feet.
It was not until they had crossed the room and entered the kitchen before she looked up again. Barrett gave her the time she needed, so he took the cup from her hand and placed it beside his on the counter. He picked up the coffee pot, refilled both cups, and then returned the near-empty glass container to the warmer.
“Did you want to ask me something?” he queried, reaching for a spoon on the counter beside the sugar bowl. He dipped a spoonful of sugar into the cup and then began stirring it lightly.
“You said you would be getting a new identity soon,” she said quietly, taking her cup to the refrigerator to add a splash of milk.
“That’s right. For volunteers, it’s an option, but for a criminal sentencing, it is mandatory,” Barrett replied with a nod. “I believe the anonymity is to protect me from further retaliation from the victim’s family and friends. Of course, that’s the standard rule for someone sentenced to become a Fur. Neither Rebecca nor hers and Parker’s families know I’m still alive, so if by some chance I ever do meet up with any of them again in my altered form, the new identity will protect me.”
“Do you know what your new name will be?” Kristen asked, leaning back against the counter opposite of him.
“Not yet,” Barrett replied. “I assume I was supposed to have the new identity given to me before I got here, but I made the decision to accept this fate only the day before my execution and I was whisked away too quickly to get the information set up first.”
“Will you keep your first name, or will they change it all?”
“Since the Institute works with the Witness Relocation Program, I assume everything will change – first name, last name, background information, education and all that. I’ll probably have to memorize my new personal history in case I get into a conversation with anyone and they ask me about my childhood or something.”
“I’m surprised they allow you to tell us about it,” Kristen mused. “I thought the purpose of a new identity was to hide you from anyone who knew you by the old one.”
“You weren’t ever supposed to know, but I don’t guess it matters here at this point,” he responded with a shrug. “Whether my name is Brian or Mephibosheth, I’m never going to be allowed to rejoin human society, so whatever they call me will only have an impact on those I’ll be living with from now on.”
Kristen studied the interior of her coffee cup so she would not have to look at him. “I hope you don’t think me petty,” she said quietly, “but I hope they do change your first name.”
Barrett looked at her with a raised eyebrow that she did not see. “Any specific reason?”
“Yes,” the botanist replied in a voice barely above a whisper. “Brian was the name of my Ex, and he is one of the reasons why I’m here.”
“Ex-boyfriend,” Kristen clarified, still studying the swirls of milk in her untouched coffee.
Barrett did not respond right away. “Do you need to talk about it?” he asked quietly.
“No, but thanks for asking,” Kristen answered, looking up at him with moist eyes. “Like you, I have people to leave behind. My life as a Fur is the best chance I have for a new beginning.”
Barrett nodded quietly. “If it will help, you are welcome to call me Del until my new name is ready.”
“Del?” Kristen grabbed a nearby paper napkin and dabbed at her eyes.
“My middle name is Delano,” he explained with casual smile.
“Your folks didn’t like you very much, did they?” Dante asked from the doorway. Kristen jerked her head up and Barrett suddenly looked annoyed. Standing behind the other man was Jenni, who looked embarrassed at having been caught eavesdropping.
“How much did you hear?” Kristen demanded.
Dante shrugged his shoulders. “Everything after Delano here poured coffee into your cups,” he admitted. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear us walking across the room behind you.”
“The floor’s carpeted…” Kristen reminded him.
Dante only smiled back at her, but before she could say anything more, he looked at Barrett and asked, “Mephibosheth?”
“He was a fugitive from King David in Old Testament Biblical times,” Barrett explained. “I just pulled the name out of memory to make a point.”
“That’s not a name I would have just pulled out of the air,” Dante remarked.
Kristen set her coffee down on the counter and crossed her arms. “Now that you know why both Brian and myself are here,” she said grumpily, “why did you two join the program?”
“New worlds are being opened up for settlement and only Furs are allowed to tame the new lands,” Dante answered in sudden animation. “Volunteers are rewarded a payment of one million dollars after serving five years starting up a new colony! The money is to be awarded at the end of that time, and then those veterans are given the option of staying with the colony they helped start or immigrating to one of the other Fur colonies of their choice!”
Kristen shook her head and muttered something about his greed, but then looked past him at Jenni. “What about you?” she asked. “You’re so beautiful! Why would you want to trade that for a permanent fur coat?”
Jenni smiled at the compliment. “I have always gotten along well with animals, but I also like the Great Outdoors,” she replied. “A colony will always need doctors and nurses, but I’m also a survivalist and a naturalist, and the chance to explore a new world was just as inviting as the bonus.”
“A naturalist?” Barrett asked.
Jenni spread open the top of her blouse so they could all see that she had no tan lines beneath her bra straps. “I’m outdoors a lot, as you can see.”
Without asking for permission, Dante leaned in close and peered down into her blouse top, pulling the bra strap a little further out with a finger. When Jenni did nothing but smile back at him, he brazenly gazed down into her cleavage.
“Did you say you were a naturalist or a naturist?” he asked in awe.
“What’s the difference?” Kristen asked, holding her arms close across her own chest.
Dante laughed again, stepping back from the blonde nurse. “A naturalist is outdoors a lot,” he told her. “A naturist is a nudist!”
Already knowing that Jenni had spent her youth on clothing-optional beaches, Kristen just rolled her eyes at Dante’s exclamation. Barrett simply shook his head and watched the interplay quietly.
Jenni chuckled and grinned at them all. “You can say I’m a bit of both.”
Dante looked surprised at her revelation, but then he leaned in close and waggled his eyebrows at her. “I’ll have to watch you more closely.”
“Here, I have something for you,” she told the dark-haired man. She stepped back and then pulled both arms through the sleeves of her blouse until they were fully inside the garment. She writhed around for a moment and then triumphantly pushed her arms back out through the sleeves. In one hand, she held out her bra and then she tossed it at Dante. Without missing a beat, the young man snared the undergarment from the air and then tucked it inside his shirt with a smirk.
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