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SUNSET OF FURMANKIND

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 31
Down to Earth

 

Jenni's reaction had been building from the moment that the space plane had undocked from Space Station Sebra and began its return trip down to the Earth. The Adirondack group had said their goodbyes to those they had come to know over the seven weeks they had been in orbit, and once the cabin was full, each of the Furs sat in anticipation of getting the medics' special blend of spice tea to sleep off the drop into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, due to an oversight resulting in a shortage of the sedative drink, the Furs would have to endure the rigors of the flight fully conscious. Unlike the long initial voyage up, the flight would only take an hour and a half to reach the ground, with the landing site targeted for Las Cruces, New Mexico rather than back to Florida. The spaceport in New Mexico was the site of the corporate headquarters for the company that owned the space plane; Cecil Airfield in Jacksonville where they had departed was a secondary launch and landing facility.

When the Branson departed the space station and began its descent, Jenni knew it would get a little bumpy when they hit the atmosphere, but she'd had faith in the space plane's heat shields to protect them while making a slow feathering atmospheric reentry. The material she had read in Jacksonville had explained that the rear half of the wings and the twin tail booms would fold upward to increase drag, keeping the ship stable during descent at a lower velocity than the old space trucks and even the early shuttles. What she did not count on was the round windows of the plane were not lined up in a row like a commercial aircraft, but were all round the tubular fuselage so that passengers could see out in all directions. This might seem like a trivial matter to anyone else, but Jenni was deathly afraid of heights.

The spotted leopard had been near the observation windows while on the space station, but she always maneuvered herself so that the vista was behind her each time. She knew that Sebra would not fall from the sky, but the phobia was so well engrained in her that she would take no chances for the sight to tie her stomach into knots. She had never given the return flight much thought during their stay, fully expecting to be drugged unconscious as they had on the way up.

When the Branson made its descent, there were several among the passengers who gripped their seat arm rests tightly due to the rush of scenery, distance and height. To some, it was a thrilling roller coaster ride from the heavens, but to others, it was a gut-wrenching experience that none of them would wish on anyone but their enemies.

Rose Fleur spent most of the flight communing with a sick bag, and although Jenni kept one clutched in her hands, she managed to keep her last meal in her stomach all the way down to Earth.

When the space plane finally touched down on the long runway at Las Cruces, the feline woman was the first one out the door when the hatch was finally opened for them, swiftly bypassing Marcy, whose task it was to pass out generic winter coats to each passenger before departing.

Jenni just managed to clear the ramp off to the side when her stomach heaved up its churning contents. She fell to her hands and knees onto the tarmac, completely oblivious of the chilly afternoon temperature.

Conversations among the passengers started up in earnest as they each took a long coat from Marcy on the way out the hatch.  The space plane had landed farther out on the runway than where the retrieval bus had safely awaited their arrival, so it would be some minutes before the transport would be there to pick them up. Unlike a commercial airliner, the Branson would need to be towed back to a hangar, so taxiing back to the terminal was not an option here. An aircraft tug would be along later to retrieve the plane.

Dante and Kevin were too wrapped up in an animated discussion about how fun the roller coaster flight had been that neither of them seemed to notice Jenni on the ground at their feet as they departed the ramp. Kevin's nose quivered at the scent of her sickness, but then Dante distracted him by grabbing him by the arm and gesturing up toward the sky where they had just been.

Jon knelt down beside the feline woman and gently pulled her human scalp hair back away from her face. He held out a travel packet with one end opened to expose the tip of a wet napkin. When she didn't respond, he pulled it out for her and calmly wiped the sickness from her mouth and the fur of her chin. She closed her eyes while he worked and then leaned into him when he was done.  Jon folded the napkin, stuffed it back inside its wrapper and then put it into the pocket of his coat as several pairs of feet gathered around them.

Dr. Renwick knelt down beside them and placed a small electronic thermometer into one of her ears. It beeped a moment later, but her temperature was in the normal range for her hybrid physique. He put a hand on her shoulder and she looked up at him with a sorrowful expression.

“Do you need anything more for your stomach?” he asked tentatively.

She shook her head slowly. “I don't think there's anything left to come up,” she gasped, looking down at her hands.

Renwick nodded, but pulled out a small plastic case from his shirt pocket. He extracted two caplets and then placed them in one of her hands. He folded her fingers over them and said in a quiet voice, “Keep these with you, just in case. This ride is over and we're back on the ground, so you may not need them now, but we'll be in the air again soon; if you feel queasy, take these right away.”

Jenni nodded without looking at him. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“I'll take care of her,” Jon told the physician when he placed a hand on the cougar's shoulder. Renwick gave him a look of thanks and then stood up to see if there were any others who needed his assistance.

Jon slid an arm beneath hers and then gently helped her to her feet. “Can you walk, or do you need me to carry you?” he asked her.  Kristen stepped in close and took one of the nurse's hand in both of hers, looking at her in concern.

“The bus is coming,” she told them.

“Help me walk to the bus,” Jenni muttered, resting one hand on her stomach. “Just go slow.”

“May I have your attention, please?” Dr. Aristotle asked from the space plane's open hatch. Since all but the pilots had disembarked, he stood at the top of the ramp so everyone could see him. Most of the group had already turned toward the approaching bus, but now they faced him quietly.

“This will be a full day of travel,” he reminded them, shielding his eyes from the morning sun, “We are currently at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. The Institute's Osprey is now waiting for us at the main terminal to take us all back to the Adirondacks. There will be a refueling stop in St. Louis, but we should not be on the ground there more than about twenty minutes.” He put his hands into the pockets of his coat in the chilly air and looked down at all the anthro-human faces that stared back up at him. “It's going to be a long day, so if you can sleep on a plane, I would advise you to do so as much as possible. It's going to take us about eight and a half hours to get back home from here.”

A brown bear raised his hand and Aristotle's eyes focused upon him.  “Yes, Aaron?”

“Is there any chance you can get us some knockout tea for the flights before we leave?” he asked hopefully.

“Sorry, but we don’t have any more now than we did before we left the space station. We have none to administer or you would have been sedated for the flight we just took.  We have Dramamine for those who may wish it to counteract motion sickness for our remaining flights, but otherwise you will have to sleep on your own along the way.”

The doctor felt the presence of the pilots behind him, so he waved a hand toward the bus that now awaited passengers. “You may begin boarding the bus,” he told the group before turning to the pilots to thank them for a flawless flight.  

*** 

The trip to St. Louis was uneventful. The skies had remained clear for most of the journey and the flight was smooth until they were over mid-Missouri, where they skirted away from the edges of nimbostratus clouds casting rain and snow upon the landscape below. The winter weather band was not forecast to move as far north as St. Louis, so the Osprey traveled in a wide arc to avoid the dangers of icy atmospheric conditions.

Since refueling the tanks would take no more than twenty minutes, none of the passengers were allowed off the plane. They could get out of their seats and stretch if they wished, but with so many of them on the small aircraft, only a few could get up at a time.

Jenni was smiling and joking with her housemates, having slept most of the flight from La Cruces. She was fine as long as she didn't have to look outside the windows while they were in the air.

As soon as the plane had stopped on the tarmac and the overhead seatbelt sign shut off, Cheryl, Ellie and all three of the Fleur sisters got up to visit the lavatory at the back of the plane. Several of the guys wanted to use the facilities as well, but knew the futility of getting in anytime soon when they saw the women lined up for it.

Travis unbuckled his seatbelt and fought his way through those standing up to stretch along the outer aisle and approached the black-uniformed copilot, who was opening the main hatch to allow food trays to be loaded onto the plane for the next leg of its flight. The canine tried to push his way past him to the catering pod that was lining up with the hatch, but Tom Williams barred his way immediately.

“I'm sorry, sir,” the dark-haired man said to the canine, “but you will need to return to your seat.”

“I need out to pee!” Travis complained loudly, gesturing toward those gathered the lavatory. “We'll be in the air again before that line's done!”

Dr. Ramirez looked up from her seat at the back of the cabin and put down her magazine.  “I'm sorry sir,” Williams repeated, “You will have to wait your turn. You are not allowed off the plane until we reach the Institute. This is only a pod to deliver food and beverages while we're being refueled.”

The pod docked, but there was a six-inch gap around the sides of its opening. It was not wide enough to allow egress from the plane, but Travis jumped up to the gap and suddenly reached for his shorts, intending to release his bladder through the opening right then and there.

The copilot grabbed one of Travis' arms and forcibly yanked it up behind the canine. The swiftness of his movements and the determination on his face proved that he was no stranger to unruly passengers, even one blended with the attributes of an animal. The man had him turned around and facing back into the cabin before he'd had a chance to relieve himself.

The copilot shoved him hard against the wall beside the hatch. He leaned forward to put his mouth near one of Travis' erect black ears and spoke to him in a voice meant only for him to hear, now that there were several in the cabin staring at them.

“Sir, you will return to your seat or stand in line with the others awaiting their turn to use the lavatory. You may have the appearance of a dog, but you will not hike your leg inside my plane at a whim!”

Dr. Ramirez stood up and approached the males just as Travis gave Williams an odd smirk. “So you say,” he responded with a sneer.

The Hispanic physician reached in past the copilot and grabbed the collar of the canine's robe with both hands, looking him right in the eye. “If you piss yourself out of spite and stink up this plane,” she snarled at him angrily, “I will toss you outside myself and let you walk back to New York from here —  and looking like you do, how far do you think you would get before some local rancher took a shot at you?”

Dr. Ramirez was not his Wing's physician, but from the look in her eyes, Travis had little doubt that she would exact punishment upon him if he dared what he had been about to do. He averted his eyes from her and looked at the copilot.

“Let me go,” he said defiantly.

What was that?”

“Let me go… please,” Travis grumbled.

Williams stared at him for two heartbeats and then backed off, releasing the canine. “Either return to your seat or take your place in line for the lavatory,” he said in an even voice. Keeping eye contact with the copilot, Travis was tempted to rush for the door again, but the man in black took a side step, barring his way.

“Back to your seat,” Williams said again.

“Sit!” Dr. Ramirez ordered. Gerard looked up from his nearby seat and snickered at the physician's obedience command to the canine.  Travis gave him a dirty look, and then stormed around the aisles to get at the back of the line to the lavatory. Even if his bladder hadn't been quivering, he had no intention of sitting down simply because he was told to do so.  Williams and Ramirez exchanged exasperated looks and then the copilot returned to his job with the cargo pod at the hatch.  

*** 

The Adirondacks were buried in snow. The Osprey had descended through low clouds purely on instrumentation, and when its wheels finally touched down upon the Furmankind Institute's landing pad near the small natural lake, the flight crew immediately began shutting down their systems. It would take some moments for the snow kicked up by the rotor wash to settle down outside before an Institute bus could get close to the isolated landing area to get the passengers.

Wayne Mooreland lifted up his hands in front of him and watched them shake for a moment. “Look at me, Tom,” the man said to his companion. “That last fifty miles was nerve-wracking, and I'm an experienced pilot. I can only imagine how those in the back did on this flight.”

“It's a good thing we didn't have to go any farther,” the copilot replied, ticking off a checklist on a clipboard. “The ice buildup on the wings is getting dangerous. I don't think we're going to be able to fly back to headquarters tomorrow as planned; this place doesn't have a hangar to put our bird in for the night.”

Wayne peered out the forward windows at the wintry landscape outside. The region was covered by a blanket of snow a couple of feet deep in most places, but drifted higher in others. The sky was overcast, and although there was no precipitation at the moment, it looked like the snow could resume at any time. The local weather forecast broadcast to their instruments didn't paint a favorable picture for air travel either.

Someone had used a small thermal dozer to clear off the landing pad, as well as an avenue through the snow back to the central part of the complex. The pilot could see the headlights of an old charter bus moving slowly along the cleared path toward them, but it was still some distance away. He could not tell if the driver was taking his time or if the aged vehicle was having trouble in the frigid environment; the hydrogen-powered bus had to be over thirty years old.

“We'll need to tether the plane to the landing pad rings before the wind picks back up,” the pilot muttered. “We may be here a while.”

Tom handed the clipboard to his partner and then unbuckled his harness. “Yeah, we'll deal with that shortly. Time to deal with our passengers,” he said, standing up to stretch. “Wish me luck.”

“Luck,” Wayne replied with a wave of his hand. “I'll contact headquarters and let them know we're going to be socked in for a day or three before we can make it back to LaGuardia.”

Tom grabbed his coat, moved to the back of the cockpit and unlatched the insulated door of the troop compartment. As soon as the panel opened, he was nearly deafened by the multitude of simultaneous conversations from twenty-four individuals, each trying to be heard over everyone else. At first he thought it was pandemonium, but when he saw the excited expressions on their faces, he knew they were simply glad to be home.  Despite that they had all been cooped up inside the plane all day, no one seemed to be in a hurry to get out into the cold weather.  He couldn't blame them. He wasn't looking forward to getting out in it himself to prep the Osprey for its wintry stay.

He shrugged into his parka and approached the outside hatch. When he peered out through the port glass, he saw three bundled figures step out of the bus with arms laden with thick parcels. A larger, fourth figure got off the bus behind them, his thick arms grasping two large plastic tubs stacked on top of one another.  When the small party reached the hatch, Tom operated the locking mechanism and opened the door. A blast of cold air swept through the troop compartment and Furs suddenly huddled up together in the sudden chill. They might all have their own built-in fur coats now, but none of them had been in a cold environment long enough to have grown a thicker winter pelt.

The four figures trudged inside with their burdens and then Tom closed the door again with a sudden case of the shivers. Every eye in the compartment was watching them as each newcomer set down their bundles and pulled back a thick winter hood.  Director Marcelo Delgado unzipped his coat and then looked out at his audience with a wide smile; just behind him was Sissy Quinn, the orange cat looking equally delighted to see the return of the Adirondack Furs. The third figure was the swift fox, Michael Lynch, and the large grizzly bear who brought up the rear was Hiamovi Avonaco. Like Sissy and Michael, “Avon” was a Fur from the previous Class Fifteen that had not yet been assigned to a colony; he was easily the largest Fur any of them had ever seen, but he appeared friendly enough.

“Welcome home,” Marcelo said cheerily to the returning Furs and medical staff, “and welcome back!”  Numerous voices raised in return greetings, and he grinned widely at the response.  Dr. Aristotle made his way through the crowd to the director, and for many of them, it was the first time they had seen the gruff physician looking pleased.  He and Marcelo clasped hands and put their heads together briefly before the director turned back to the crowd, most of whom had retaken their seats merely out of convenience. Behind them, Tom began pulling out travel bags from a set of lockers mounted to the forward bulkhead and was lining them up by the hatch.

Marcelo rubbed his hands together and then looked around the room. Many changes had taken place in the physical appearance of these volunteers since he had last seen them at Thanksgiving. No one looked distressed, and although their faces were tired from their long day in on the plane, it was refreshing to see them again.

“Now, my friends,” he said in a carrying voice, “I know you're all tired and would like to get back to your Wings, so we'll get this over with as soon as we can.”  He turned to Sissy, who handed him one of the bundles she had carried in. He shook out the garment and held it up for all to see. It was made of a thick, dark green material and was just as tall as he was. It looked similar to a Turkish robe, but included a large hood and split up the back for furry tails.

“We have one of these coats for each of you, and we have different sizes due to your various physiologies.”  Then he turned toward Avon, who opened the lid of the top tub he had brought in. The bear pulled out a large pair of oddly shaped, soft-sided boots.  “We also have boots for your new digitigrade feet so you won't have to walk barefooted though the snow. They probably won't fit exact, but they will be better than bare feet.  You will also find new furman garments and warmer-weather sandals for you back at each of your Wings.”

The director tugged at his sleeve to look at his wristwatch.  “It's going on eleven o'clock, though you probably feel like it's earlier since you've traveled across two time zones on your way here from New Mexico.  For the rest of us, however, it's late.  As each of you get up to leave the plane, come by to get a coat and some boots, and then you can retrieve your travel bags by the door. You're free to go back to your Wings, or if you would prefer a late meal after your journey, the cafeteria is still open around the clock.”

Gerard Nicholas was the first to stand, being nearest the door, and then all three of the Fleur sisters stood up in unison. Jon was on the far side of the troop compartment, so he settled back into his seat and prepared to wait.  However, instead of standing by for everyone to come to them, Sissy and Michael began passing out the robes to those still seated to help speed up the process.

Avon approached Carl and asked the wolf to hold up a foot. The large bear put a measure stick up to the lupine man's digitigrade foot and then turned back to one of the tubs he had brought in. he selected a pair of boots and then handed them to him.  Carl thanked him and then looked at the oddly shaped footwear with a lopsided smirk. When Ellie inquired, the male wolf pointed out the irony of someone covered in fur wearing boots that were fur-lined for insulation. Ellie was still smiling when Avon asked to measure her foot too.

By the time Jon had on boots, a warm coat and had his travel bag in hand, he stepped out of the plane and saw a full-scale snowball fight in progress. He had no way of knowing who started it, but it was clear that despite the late hour, the greater part of the Adirondack Furs were feeling frisky in the snow. Before he'd had a moment to take it all in, a snowball pelted his left shoulder, surprising him.

Jon tried to see who had thrown it, but white spheres were flying to and from every direction, so he merely dropped his travel bag on top of others at the bottom of the ramp and bent low to scoop up a handful of snow.  There was just enough moisture in the consistency of the snow to make it perfect for forming into a compact ball.

Movement from the corner of his eye heralded an incoming snowball and he ducked instinctively. It passed harmlessly between his ears, but he spied who had thrown the frozen missile this time; Aaron grinned widely at him, packing another in his large hand paws. With a smirk of his own, Jon lobbed his at the bear, hitting the furman square in the chest. Jon frowned; he had aimed between the brown bear's eyes, but the permanently extended claws at the tips of his fingers had thrown off his aim.  He scooped up another handful of snow and ran out into the melee, just as another snowball from a different direction smacked into his thigh.

He ran out into the free-for-all, catching glimpses of wide-eyed delight as everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.  All three vixen sisters were ganged up together, attempting to hurl numerous snowballs at Dante, but for all his bulk as a white tiger hybrid, the guy was fast. He had apparently learned that he could get down on all fours with his newly designed legs, but even though he was slightly hampered by the long coat, he managed to outrun each missile the girls threw at him. Dante laughed and cackled as each one missed its intended target.

Kevin and Kristen were exchanging volleys, both looking as if they were having the time of their lives. Jenni was running here and there, trying to get the best of Norman and Gerard, while Cheryl was clinging high up on Whelan's back, cheerfully trying to bring the laughing bear down into a snow drift. Carl and Ellie were the only ones who had not joined in the reindeer games, choosing instead to watch the proceedings from the safety of the bus with most of the medical staff.

Even Travis was successful at hitting just about everyone with snowballs at random. To his credit, he was not trying to hurt anyone and was simply caught up in the moment as the rest of them were.  Jon saw the German Shepherd's eyes lock upon him, so he altered his course to engage him in snowy combat.  Jon and Travis hurled snowballs at one another at the same time, and both frozen orbs hit their marks simultaneously. Jon's snowball struck Travis' left cheek and the canine's snowball hit the cougar in the forehead.

Both of them staggered, but once each realized he was okay, scooped up more snow for return fire.  Jon laughed, enjoying himself, but discovered he didn't have the best of traction with the new boots combined with his height and weight; he slipped in the snow several times, giving Travis an advantage in getting nearer to the large feline. When he got in too close, Jon lunged sideways and tackled the canine into a drift.

Others nearby saw the two of them go down and it was instantly assumed that the two were fighting. They wrestled in the snow, churning up the white powder, with Jon trying to pin down his opponent using his greater weight and the wiry Travis retaliating as best he could.  Finally, the canine managed to scoop handfuls of snow down the back of Jon's shirt, and although the feline had on a coat of fur beneath the robes, it was not yet thick enough to insulate against such a frozen onslaught.  Jon released Travis and rolled away with a yeowl, getting to his feet to shake the snow from his shirt.

Travis got up on his knees, laughing hard at the sight of the cougar dancing around, and suddenly there were others gathering around, laughing with him at Jon's plight. When he had managed to dislodge most of the snow from his garment, the mountain lion slowly realized that the battle around him had ceased so that everyone could watch his frigid gyrations.

Worn out from nearly twenty minutes of play, Jon sank to his knees in the snow, just a few feet from Travis.  He looked over at the canine and simply gave him a panting grin. When Travis realized that the other Fur was not angry at him, he grinned back, his tail wagging a little behind him.  While he was distracted, however, Cheryl snuck up behind him and grabbed his collar.

He looked up just in time to see Jenni smile mischievously and dump two handfuls of snow into the back of his shirt that Cheryl held open. It was Travis' turn to dance and gyrate around to dislodge the freezing cold that suddenly assaulted his back.  Laughter broke out in the crowd and Jon felt a hand grasp his to help him to his feet. It was the orange cat, Sissy.  He grinned up at her and got to his feet as the crowd finally began to disperse amidst chuckles and animated conversations.

Gerard helped Travis up to his feet and even assisted him in getting the last of the snow out of his shirt.  The canine gave the bear a look of surprise, but then thanked him with a smile.

Jon spied the blue bit of cloth he had tied around the handle of his travel bag for identification and picked it up. Sissy wrapped her winter coat around her tighter for warmth and stood next to him.

“Welcome back,” she said to him with bright eyes. “A package came for you a few days ago, so I put it on the dresser in your room.”

Jon looked confused, wondering who would have sent him anything.  “Was it addressed to me or to Brian Barrett?” he whispered into one of her ears.

Sissy blinked. She had almost forgotten that he had arrived at the Institute under a different name. “It was addressed to Jonathan Sunset,” she answered. “I didn't notice who it was from, though.”

The mountain lion nodded, but then his eyes lit up. “I think I know what it is. Thanks for taking it for me.”

The orange cat smiled up at him. “You're welcome, but you do have me curious! It's not really heavy, but it did come in a large box.”

“If it's what I think it is, you'll see it soon enough.”

“Can I watch you open it?”  Sissy begged. “Pleeeeeeease?”

The Felis Wing was the closest building to the landing pad, so Jenni, Kristen and Dante hefted their bags and decided to walk back while the rest of the Furs boarded the old charter bus. Jon saw that his housemates had already gone on ahead of him, the two females walking arm in arm with the male tiger. Still feeling the thrill of the play, Jon stuck out the crook of his arm toward him. “Sure, come along and we'll see what I got.”

“Yay!” Sissy squealed, taking his arm.  They walked together with the snow crunching under foot toward the building.  “I'm glad you're all back,” she said with emotion. “You all look differently than you did when you left, but I recognized each of you as soon as I saw you on the plane.”

“Yeah, we all had two months to bake while we were away,” Jon quipped. He reached up and lightly pinched at his fuller cheeks. “The dough has risen since we were last here!”

Sissy laughed at his antics and held on tight to his arm. They chatted lightly as they trudged through the snow, and soon they arrived at the building. Both stamped their feet at the bottom step under the awning at the Felis Wing, knocking snow from their boots.

When they got inside, they didn't see the others, though there were wet spots on the all-weather rug in the entrance hall. Jon supposed his housemates had either gone to their rooms or to the restroom after a long flight. He felt the need to visit the lavatory himself, so he excused himself from the orange feline to relieve his bladder.

He was back out a few moments later and saw Sissy waiting for him next to the warm fireplace, feeding a few twigs to the flames. She had shed her coat at the recreation pit, but was still in one of the new thicker furman robes she had worn beneath it. Her physique was not suited to the colder climate, so she enjoyed the warmth of the fire.

She looked up as he crossed the room and then joined him at his quarters.  Jon opened the door to let her inside and then she moved in to sit quietly in one of his guest chairs.  There, just as she had promised, was a large box sitting on top of his dresser.  Since he no longer carried a pocket knife, he used one of his claws to slice through the shipping tape keeping the box together and then opened the flaps of the lid.

Sissy watched in interest as he withdrew several bundles wrapped up in powder blue tissue paper and set each one aside.  After the box was emptied, he set it on the floor and then reached for one of the bundles.  He pulled off the tissue paper and then lifted up a folded bundle of cotton denim.

“That looks like a pair of blue jeans,” Sissy remarked, tilting her head to the side.

Jon shook out the bundle and held up the garment. “It is,” he said proudly. “I put in a special order to have some new clothes altered while I was up in orbit.”

“Wow.  Why?”

The cougar looked at him with a lopsided grin. “I'm tired of our furman robes, Sissy,” he explained. “I know why we wear them while our bodies are changing, but I'm tired of looking like I belong to some robed cult.  I want real clothes again!”

The leggings of the denim jeans were much wider than normal to allow his digitigrade feet and legs room to get into them. There was also a large round hole in the back for his tail and a button flap above it to keep the waistband together.

“This looks familiar,” Sissy muttered, “but I can't place where I've seen something like this before.  Are you sure they'll fit you?”

“Marcy helped take my measurements, so I'm hoping they fit.”

“There's only one way to find out,” Sissy suggested. The cougar looked at her for a moment and saw the impish look in her green eyes. Her slit pupils were open and a little rounded in the dim light of the room.

Jon suddenly remembered Marcy's request to let her be the first to see him in his new outfit, but she had not yet returned to the Wing.  Feeling it wasn't important, he dropped the jeans upon the bed. “Okay, let's find out,” he said with a shrug.

Turning his tail to her, he undressed quietly, pulling off the furman robe first and then the shorts. He looked over his shoulder at her and caught her boldly staring at his furry rear. He flicked his tail at her and she jumped, caught off guard.  She chuckled nervously and wrung her hands together in her lap; she seemed embarrassed, but made no move to look away.

Jon gave her a smirk and picked up the jeans. He unbuttoned both the fly and the tail flap and then slid one foot down into a leg opening. He had no trouble getting his newly shaped limb all the way through, so he added the second and then pulled them up into place. He had to work to get the tail through its opening properly, having never done anything like this before. Getting the tail flap re-buttoned took a little extra dexterity with clawed fingertips, but he finally got them on and fastened.  Since he had fur all over, he had requested the fly be button-up instead of zippered and was thankful the clothing manufacturer had done so.

He held up his arms and did a slow turn so the orange feline could examine him from all sides.  She grinned up at him when he turned back to face her. “It's times like these when I miss my human lips,” Sissy told him with half-lidded eyes. “I can't do it anymore, but I'd give you a wolf-whistle if I could!”

Jon grinned at her and then examined himself in the mirror.  “They feel good, standing up at least.”  He grabbed hold of the dresser and then squatted down beside it. “Hmm, it binds a little in the knees when I do this, however,” he muttered. “They need to be a little looser in front of the knees, I think.”

“You have a nice butt, my friend,” Sissy said quietly. “I think those jeans accent it nicely.” Jon gave his rear a little waggle, which made the orange cat giggle.  Then he returned to the other bundles.  He set aside two more pair of jeans and reached for a different package.  He unfolded the tissue wrapping to reveal a long-sleeved flannel shirt made of large red and black squares. He slid his arms into the oversized openings and then pulled it around him.  There was plenty of room for his fur, and despite that it fit over him as another layer, it was not uncomfortable.  He buttoned it up and then tucked the shirt into his jeans.

“Wow, I do wish I could whistle!” Sissy remarked in obvious delight when he turned all the way around again so she could look at him.  “You look great, Jon!”

“Thanks!” the cougar said, pleased with her reaction.  This was similar to the type of clothes he used to wear in the winter on a regular basis when he had lived in Colorado.  All he needed were lace up boots and he would feel right at home, although he knew getting those for his new feet would be next to impossible.

He turned to the full length mirror to take a look at himself, and suddenly he froze. His tail dropped straight to the floor, his ears went back flat against his head and his jaw dropped open. Sissy looked up at him in concern and had the feeling that if his back had not been covered, there would be a raised ridge along his spine. She could smell the sudden change of emotion from the mountain lion and to her it meant sudden shock.

When Jon looked at his reflection in the mirror, it was the image of Henry Parker who looked back at him. Blue denim jeans, plaid flannel shirt of red and black squares… Parker had worn almost the same outfit on the night that Barrett had shot him. It was no wonder that Sissy had thought the denim jeans on a cougar looked familiar. She had probably seen Parker wearing them before he had left on his trip, likely special-made just as his own.

Jon turned his head away with an outthrust hand toward the mirror and stumbled over his feet. He fell to the floor, missing the cushioned mattress of the bed, and Sissy jumped up in astonishment.

“Jon!” She rushed to his side and gripped his arm to roll him over, but he surprised her by pushing her away.

“Leave me alone…” he pleaded in a tone unlike any that Sissy had ever heard come from him. His voice cracked and there was a sense of despair in it.

“Jon,” she whispered, resisting the urge to put a hand on his arm again. “What's wrong?  What happened?”

He was unable to answer. She had no knowledge of his criminal past and he could not tell her that he now resembled the Fur he had murdered in cold blood. Seeing the man's face in his daily reflection was bad enough, but the clothing completed the picture.  His throat constricted and he fought back the terror that welled up inside of him.

Despite his command to leave him alone, Sissy couldn't stand it any longer and put both of her hands on his arm.  “Please, Jon,” she whispered in a frightened voice, “Tell me what's wrong!  Are you sick?  Hurt?  Is it the changes?”  When he still didn't reply, she got up to her feet.  “I'll go get your doctor!” she told him.

Jon finally responded by gently grabbing her wrist. “No,” he said at last. He released her and then rolled over onto his back, pinching the base of his tail. “I don't need the Doc. I'm not hurt.”

The orange feline was about to inquire again when he rolled over onto his hands and knees and then got to his feet. She flinched when he stripped off the flannel shirt with such ferocity that every button popped off all across the room, and she remained mute when he then pulled off the jeans in fury and threw them against a wall. He didn't seem to care that he had just stripped naked in front of her; although his genitals were partially covered by his sheath and fur, Sissy suddenly felt embarrassed that she had looked at him.

With a growl deep in his throat, Jon snatched up his previously discarded furman garments and slipped into them without looking at his companion. It was only after he was dressed again that he grabbed up the new jeans and flannel shirt; he crammed them back into the shipping box with others that were still neatly folded on the dresser.  He cross-folded the flaps of the cardboard box and finally looked at Sissy.

“Please take these to the incinerator behind the Shoppette,” he said in a hoarse voice, setting the package on the mattress beside her. “Burn them!”

She looked at the box in confusion and then back up into his face.  “But… why?” she asked.  “What happened?”

Jon stared at her for a long moment. She began to fidget and dropped her gaze to her lap, preparing to stand up and go. Then, Jon reached out and touched her shoulder very gently with only his claw tips.

“I'm sorry I frightened you,” he answered quietly, “but seeing myself in the mirror with those clothes on brought back a terrible, terrible memory that I had thought was forgotten.  I can't… I just can't wear them now…”

Sissy took his hand in both of hers, looking up at him with tears at the corners of her eyes. “I don't know what you remembered, but maybe it would help if you talked about it,” she whispered. “I won't tell anyone, I promise.”

Jon shook his head. “No… I appreciate the offer, but it's best if I just try to forget it again.  Please… get rid of these for me. I don't even care about the money I spent to have them made. I just want them out of my sight.”

Sissy stood up and suddenly clung to him in a fierce hug. She buried her face in his chest and simply held him for a long moment. When he did not return the embrace, she wiped the moisture from her eyes and then picked up the large box.

“I will keep them for you,” she said quietly, “in case you should change your mind.”  Then, without another word, she turned and walked out of his room.

Jon closed the door behind her quietly and then faced the mirror again. “Not bloody likely,” he told his reflection.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.