A royal banquet was fast approaching, and a hunched-over crimson-robed figure was busily stirring up concoctions and potions in preparation. Although she didn't normally like large gatherings, the court alchemist couldn't help but make preparations, particularly when the royal tailor promised her enough payment to make it all worthwhile.
"Just a little more red... No, now a little more blue... Oh, bother," she said, trying to zero in on just the right shade of purple which was to be used to dye a garment for Duke Thomas. A knock came on the door; Pascal paid no mind to it, consternatedly concentrating on the bubbling vile.
The knock came again. With a sigh of annoyance, she pulled off her yellow latex gloves and clear work-spectacles (as it was too hot to be in her latex-skinned form, and she was still a little too hot in other ways as well), and shouted, "Come in!"
The door slowly opened, and a grinning tiger stuck his head in.
"What's got you grinning so bloody awful, Scratch?"
The tiger stepped in completely through the wooden-doored portcullis, and mock-curtseyed in a purple-and-pink cloth garb. "You like it?"
Pascal sighed. "Yes, it's nice. Listen, I'm really busy right now, and--"
"Nuh uh uh," Scratch intoned, waving his left index finger at the vividly-colored porcupine and approaching her. "I simply cannot leave without giving you..." He reached behind his back. "This!" he said, pulling out a single red rose, which he offered to her.
Pascal smiled, and took the rose in her paw, drew it to her nose and took a deep breath. "Thank you, Scratch." She sighed. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Tsk, tsk, it's too hot for tea. But I was thinking we could go down to the Mule for a quick drink? Oh, but too bad, you're busyn," he chided, mockingly.
Pascal rolled her eyes at the tiger. "Since you said it so nicely, I'll join you. Let me just shut down for now." She waddled back over to her experiment, and began to close a valve on a burner.
Scratch placed his paw on the back of hers. "Let me help you, my dear."
Pascal giggled softly. "If you insist. Do you know how to stop a boil?" she asked him sarcastically.
Scratch placed a paw to his chest, as if wounded. "My dear! You mistake me for a lout of some sort! Now you just sit over there and be a good girl," he chided with a smile.
The alchemist chirred and complied, taking a seat on a nearby stool watching her knight in soft pink-and-purple armor do the incredibly complicated task of shutting off the singular gas valve powering the flame. He walked back over to Pascal and took her hand-like paw in his. "This way, my dear."
She stood and walked alongside him, until they arrived at the entrance to the Mule.
"After you," said the tiger, gesturing the porcupine in ahead of him.
"Meep," said the crimson-robed porcupine, as she gracefully stepped inside and took a quick look around.
Half of the tables in the room were empty, as were the stools at the bar. Pascal took a quick glance around to see who was there; nobody she recognized, save a few members of the Court, but there was a beaver at the bar who was looking icily at her out of the corner of its eye. She looked at the beaver quizzically, until she noticed that Scratch was beckoning her to follow him to a table. The alchemist followed, never quite taking her eyes off the beaver, who never quite took his eyes off her.
The two sat down, and a server was with them shortly. "What will it be?" the otter casually asked them.
"I will have an ale," said Scratch, "and friend Pascal will have a gin with tonic water and a twist of lime."
"Very good," said the otter, who walked off.
"Ooh, it's as though you read my mind!" cooed the porcupine.
The tiger raised an eyebrow, grinning. "A good thief always knows his victim," he rrowled.
Pascal smiled, and nervously but slowly looked towards the bar.
"Is something wrong?"
She shivered a little. "No... You see that beaver over there? He was giving me the coldest look as we were coming in."
"You haven't met the new Michael yet? He doesn't seem to be very trusting."
"That's Michaeln?!" she said, swallowing nervously. "No wonder... He... I... Urf. It's a long story."
"You mean about the..." he trailed off, glancing at the gold-and-silver striated ruby-inset ring on Pascal's right middle finger.
"You... You heard about that?" she said, a disdainful look growing on her face.
"Hey, don't worry, it's all right Pascal. I don't know why he'd be so angry about such a little thing... It's not like it was permanentn or anything. And he needs to be a little more open-minded if he's going to be living around here, yaknow?"
Pascal sighed deeply. "I know, but that still doesn't make me feel any better. I deeply offended him the first thing when we met. I don't think you've heard the whole story, but I kept on going on as though nothing had happened, and I probably came off as rather arrogant for not realizing that not everyone would want to be like that. Heh, which reminds me, I never didn get my breast pump back from him..." She sighed again, a tear developing in the corner of her eye.
Scratch gently stroked the side of her muzzle with the back of his paw. "Hey, it's okay. You were just trying to help him out--"
"Your drinks," interrupted the otter.
"Yes. Thank you," said Scratch, motioning the chocolate-furred waiter off.
Pascal rested her chin on her zebra-striped palms, her elbows propping her head up, and sighed, closing her eyes. Scratch gently stroked her muzzle, to which she grunted softly and laid her head on the table, covering her face with her zebra-quilled arms.
Scratch sighed. "Come on, Pascal. It's not the end of the world."
"And you look drunk even though you haven't had a drop of your drink."
"Sir, does the lady need anything?"
"No, she's fine, she's just... not had enough to drink."
Pascal looked up over the backs of her arms and glared at the tiger in time to see the back of the otter-server walk off again. She sighed, and propped her chin up on her right paw.
"He's gone now, you know," said the tiger. "Michael, that is. I fear our otter friend may be back to bother us yet."
Pascal giggled in spite of herself, and sniffed, clearing her nose. "Thank you, Scratch. Heh. I fear I do need this drink after all," she said, removing her paw from her chin and picking up the lead-crystal goblet. She took a sip.
"Is it to your liking?"
She nodded, and continued to sip at her warm, bubbly drink.
Four drinks later, Scratch was carefully carrying the robe-clad alchemist back up to her lab.
She slowly opened her eyes and saw the faint outline of a tiger smiling at her. She closed her eyes, then suddenly awoke and sat up with a start, the blanket falling down to her waist.
"Calm down, everything's fine," gently rumbled the tiger. "You just had a bit too much to drink is all." He gently placed a goblet with a familiar sweet smell under her nose. "Drink this, it'll make you feel better."
Pascal took a sip, and then pushed it away. "My no-sleep potion?"
Scratch nodded. "This does wonders for a hangover as well."
She smiled. "I had no idea it could be used for so many..." She yawned. "So many things. You, on the other paw, had an ale sitting by you all night, but I don't think I saw you take so much as a sip."
He smiled, and gently stroked her left cheek while putting the wooden goblet into her clumsy right hand. "You know, you're beautiful when you sleep."
The colorful porcupine smiled, and with eyes tiredly closed she downed the rest of the drink. She put the goblet on her nightstand and stood up, stretching, the blanket falling to the floor. Mid-stretch she looked down.
"And you wear it well."
She smiled, and sat down on her bed. "Did anything else happen while I was asleep?"
The tiger grinned. "Welll... No. And you did that yourself; all I did was watch."
"I must have been reallyn out of it," she said with a smile. "You, however, must have been really uncomfortable, sitting there and watching me the whole time."
Scratch smiled wryly.
"Or did you read my mind again and know I was about to wake up?" she asked.
"That's for me to know and you to not worry your pretty colorful self about. But you slept rather well; it's morning now."
"Morning? Oh my, so that'sn why there's that big patch of sunlight on my western wall. I must not have been sleeping well lately, what with the... by the gods, my experiment!"
Uncaring of her nudity, she rushed over to her lab bench to examine the fabric dye she was perfecting the afternoon before. "Damnit, it's solid! I'll have to heat it up all over again..."
Scratch smiled as he watched her nakedly retrieve a flint from a drawer in the lab bench, open the valve on the burner, and strike the flint with a knife, creating a spark which ignited the gas with a pleasant light-blue flame.
The tiger grinned and pulled the porcupine's robe off the hook by her bed and carried it over to the bench, offering it to her. She shook her head. "No thanks, it's not like you haven't seen me naked at this point, and I'm rather heated -- ahemn -- hot at the moment anyway." She smiled as the tiger deeply smelled the air with a grin and placed his paw on hers in front of the slowly-melting dye concoction.
And the vessel began to crack.
The first cracks went unnoticed to two who would much rather keep their eyes on each other than on the one's important experiment. The subsequent larger cracks, however, made a sound audible to both.
"Shit! It must have gotten heated unevenly!" said the porcupine, whose first reaction was to reach over to the apparatus and shut off the valve.
The tiger's first reaction, as he had less experience with such things, was to deftly pick up the glass vessel to remove it from the heat source and to quickly cool it off on the stone-cold table. The final change in temperature stressed the vessel, and it shattered the instant Scratch put it down, coating his paw with the tepid contents. "Gah!" he yelped.
"Gods, are you alright Scratch?" asked the concerned porcupine.
"Yeah, but I think I just dyed my paw. This isn't... permanent,n is it?" he asked, looking at the porcupine's artificial (yet quite permanent) coloring.
She shook her head. "It might stain the fur that's there, but it'll eventually go back to the natural color when new fur grows in. There's a sink over there," she said, pointing to the west wall, "if you want to try to get some of the dye off while I clean up here." She sighed.
Scratch nodded and began to walk towards the sink, but suddenly stopped in his tracks. "Pascal...?"
"It's... Uh... Come look at this."
The porcupine padded over to look. "What is it?"
"The color... it's spreading," he said, quite correctly, for it was, although quite slowly. The purple splotch was slowly working its way up through the orange-yellow fur on his arm. It reached one of the black stripes, and it appeared to actually suck out the pigment, leaving it a light-pink, before it worked on the next patch of orange-yellow with more momentum.
"What in..." said the stunned rodent, who then became utterly speechless, joining her feline friend. Together out of morbid curiosity, they watched the purple lurch past a stripe leaving it pink and then spread through orange-yellow turning it purple, until the spreading dye went under Scratch's pink sleeve when suddenly the dye seemed to pull all the pigment out of the tiger's clothing, leaving it completely-pink and giving itself such momentum that the rest of his body was immediately changed in color to match his arm!
"Take your clothes off!" blurted the porcupine.
Nervously, the tiger replied, "Heh, I... I thought you'd never ask." Shakily, he proceeded to unbutton his now-white tunic and slid it off his now-purple torso, where it was once white. "I'm... I'm purplen!" he said, and paused. "Cool."
Pascal's eyes widened. "You mean... you're not mad?"
The tiger chuckle-purred softly. "You're not the only one around here who loves colors, friend Pascal."
She smiled, and gave a deep sigh of relief. "Let's get you washed off." With a nod, he reached for her paw, but she withdrew suddenly. "I'm already purple enoughn, thank you."
"Oh yeah, sorry," said the smiling tiger.
She led him to her private bath which was behind the south wall of her laboratory-quarters and looked away as the tiger stripped nude and climbed into the bathtub. She heard the drainplug be inserted and the water start to flow.
"Ooh, heated water? I'll have to bathe here more often!" purred the tiger.
"Being the alchemist has certain advantages. I managed to work out a water heater which uses the same gas that powers my chemistry flames." She looked back over to the tiger, who was relaxing quite happily in some extremely-purple water. "It looks like you'll need to take several baths to get all the dye off. But I think this water will be perfectn for what I needed for Duke Thomas's clothing! Let me get this water, okay?"
Scratch smiled. "So your experiment wasn't a complete failure after all."
Pascal chirred, and plodded back into her lab, taking the largest leather waterskin she could find. She brought it back into the bathroom and attached it to a small faucet on the bottom side of the bathtub.
"What's that faucet for? In case of emergencies?" chided the tiger.
"Yes, and stop doing that!"
"Reading my mind!" chirred the porcupine, who opened the faucet, filling the leather skin until it could hold no more. She closed the faucet. "You may now drain the rest... I got more than enough from this."
Scratch smiled, drained the bathtub, and began to fill it up again for his second in a series of baths while the porcupine lifted up the waterskin by a sturdy strap, lugging the throbbing mass into the lab and propping it up in a corner. Returning to the bathroom, she looked at Scratch's still-purple body in the now light-pink water.
"This is interesting," said the porcupine.
"The dye seems to have also taken pigment from your black skin, but only the purple, and has left it... green."
"Ooh, d'you have a mirror?"
Pascal nodded, grinning, and retrieved her hand-mirror from by the bathroom sink, handing it to the tiger.
"Ooh," he said, admiring the contrast of his nose against the rest of his face. "But you're sure this isn't permanent, right? I mean, your coloring..."
"Oh, yes, but I didn't dye myself from the outside. I did it from the insiden."
She paused to think a while, then began to speak slowly. "I can't really explain it, but there's... something about the underlying traits of someone which determines what they are, how they're shaped, what gender they have, how they're colored, that sort of thing. Magic seems to be able to change those underlying traits -- hence how Nasoj's spells were able to so drastically affect everyone here. I'm an alchemist, not a mage, but I dabble in the magics, and with some help from Magus I figured out the way to at least change someone's underlying colors."
"Ah," he said. "I think I understand."
"No," he grinned, "but as long as it works for you and doesn't make me like this forever.... How long do you think it'll last?"
"Oh, probably a week or two for the new skin underneath to make it look black, maybe a month for your fur to go back to the way it was. It'll slowly appear to fade as the roots of the fur push the old fur out."
"You seem to have experience with this."
"Hey, my potion-spells weren't instantaneous. They only changed my underlying characteristics; it still took time for them to show up.
"Anyway. I'm rather hungry... after you finish in there, I'd like to go to the Mule for some breakfast. Care to join me, O Purple One?"
Scratch grinned. "Of course."
The colorful pair of porcupine and tiger entered the Mule hand-in-paw, and they proceeded to sit down at a table, when suddenly they heard an uprorious squeak-like laughter come from the bar. They both turned to see Michael barely able to stay on his stool. He stopped laughing and shouted, "Hey, Scratch, I see you've met Pascal! When are you going to learn that not everyone is as messed-up as you are, bitch?"
Scratch growled at the beaver, and sat Pascal down at the table. "I'll deal with him."
Pascal whimpered, as the tiger casually walked over to the right of the beaver and propped himself up on his elbow, casually facing the large-tailed rodent with a glare.
"Hi there," said Scratch.
"Hi," said Michael, making a quite unsuccessful attempt at suppressing his laughter.
Scratch stared at Michael for a while, while Michael kept on guffawing at Scratch's coloring.
"Do you have a problem with the way I look?"
"Oh," the beaver smirked, the smell of whiskey strong on his breath, "not at all. I could stare at you all day!"
"Do you have a problem with Pascal?"
"No, nothing whatsoever. She only turned me into a latex likeness of herself for a few days and insulted my intelligence in the process."
"I see. Care to explain?"
Michael made an attempt to sober up. "Listen, you... you... you purple pussycat!" He chuckled drunkly at his own joke. "I dunno what kind of weird herb you and Pascal have been smoking, but not everyone in their right mind wants to look so... so..." He trailed off, and burst into laughter again.
Scratch growled. "You could at least try to be a bit more open-minded. Mayhaps be accepting of the Keepers. After all, you are one now. In fact, you've been one longer than I have."
Michael snorted. "And yet I only finally finished changing a few days ago, when you had changed before you'd even woken up for the first time here! Has it occurred to you that maybe I wasn't meant to be one of you furry freaks?"
"Has it occurred to you that some of us aren't in denial about it happening? Has it occurred to you that some of us can approach things with an open mind?"
"No, I'm just a stupid farmboy, remember?" the beaver said disdainfully, and took another sip of his whiskey.
"Listen, when you've finished letting the contents of the bottle do the thinking, remember you can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding." He sighed. "I should know," he muttered to himself.
"Fft," said the beaver with a smirk.
Scratch growled, and walked back to the table where Pascal was sitting idly, whimsically drawing patterns in the dirt on the tabletop with a claw. He sat down.
"So?" she asked. "Does he still hate me?"
Scratch reached across the table and gently stroked the side of her muzzle. She smiled, contrary to the look in her eyes.
Upon returning to the lab, Pascal said, "You know, the most frustrating part about this heat is that it's not even a real one."
"Hm?" asked Scratch.
"No, it's more of my body responding to me not getting pregnant during my realn heat two seasons ago."
Scratch looked at her quizzically, then suddenly grinned with understanding. "Oh, that heat. I thought you were referring to the weather!"
She smiled. "You're too polite."
"What's wrong?" she asked.
The purple-and-pink tiger gently scritched her muzzle. "Nothing, I... I just wish I could help you. I know it must be very uncomfortable and all, and... well..."
"Hey, don't worry about me! I've had to put up with this for the last seven years, ever since Nasoj turned me into something which hasn a periodic heat. I'll be fine."
Scratch smiled. "You're sure about this."
She nodded. "Yeah. I'm not ready to have a pup anyway."
"But... don't you worry about running out of time?"
"Ha! No, I've got all the time in the world, and then some."
"Oh, everyone knows that during the Battle of the Three Gates I happened to be in the crossfire of the animal and gender spells. What hasn't occurred to anyone, except me, is that I was also just on the fringe of the infant spell."
"It just barely youthened me to the middle of adulthood, and just as with those affected totally by that spell, I'm at this age until I die, which is probably a far ways off."
"Oh, I... I see."
"It's not such a bad thing, mind you. I'd be an old crone by now if it weren't for that. I was thirty when the battle happened; I turn thirty-seven this June."
Scratch's eyes widened, his jaw dropping. "Thirty-seven? You certainly don't seem it!"
"Ironic, isn't it. When I was a boy of nineteen, everyone thought I was a man of twenty-five. Quite often they thought I was a womann of twenty-five; I've never really been all that masculine. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same."
Scratch nodded. "They certainly do." They stared at each other for a while. "Well, you certainly wear that twenty-five-year-old body well."
She smiled. "Thanks."
"Just out of curiosity, would you have made yourself such a splotchy porcupine -- a 'splotchypine,' I guess you could call yourself -- if you didn't have your youthful figure?"
She hmmed. "I really don't know. Probably not. Physical age would have made me jaded, and really, I don't think this coloring would look all that good on something not young and sexy. You know, breasts sagging down to my knees and all that."
Scratch giggled. "I can't help but imagine you as a wrinkled, shriveled-up old prune still splotchy-colored. You're right, not a pleasant sight."
"Heeey, you're not supposed to agreen with me!" she chided, standing up on the very tips of her toes to fuzzle the purple fur atop Scratch's head.
The tiger smiled, and bending over, gently placed his lips to the porcupine's zebra-striped nose, kissing it gently. She closed her eyes, chirred softly... He put his lips to the top of her muzzle. "I have to go...."
She sighed, looking up at him. "Why?"
"There's something I've got to do. I'm sorry. I... I'll... I'll see you later, okay?"
She smiled weakly. "Okay. I've... got to get that dye to Thomas's garment-maker anyway. Banquet coming up and all that."
Scratch gently kissed her between the eyes, and walked out the door.
Pascal sat down, tears welling up in her eyes.
Heated cold, dark light... Icy-blue candle flames... Distant laughter echoing nearby, a tremble in the world's soul...
Concentrate, think of more pleasant things...
Thinking of Scratch, only see dichotomy, tearing of the universe... a tiger, a shadow, a demon... Clear the mind.
Darkness. Fades to solid red. Pull away, see infinite tesselation of stripes, horizontal and vertical of red, overlapping horizontal and vertical of black... Like the plaid dress of the people from the Northwest, past the Lutins...
It brings itself into a form, not foreign... A rodent, like herself, but somewhat larger, more plump, less defense...
The form, warm, soft, colored in the pattern, vague, pleasant, warm, soft...
To fill the void.
She opened her eyes slowly, breaking from the meditative trance. With an empty stare, she stood up, and walked towards the shelf, where she took down an empty flask and three small bottles of a fine powder, one red, one black, and one inbetween.
The beaver looked up from his plate of assorted vegetables to see a female porcupine, with brown fur and blonde quills, wearing a crimson robe.
"I'm sorry, we definitely got off on the wrong foot. Twice."
Michael smirked. "You can say that again."
"Listen, I really am sorry for the way I've treated you. I realize that not everyone is fine with being... different."
A cynical stare.
"And I was wondering if we could... That is to say... I, er... Would you like to try to try again? Maybe get some dinner together?"
"Don't you have some more people to change the appearances of?"
"And where didn your strange colors go, anyway?"
She pointed to the ring on her left middle finger. "I was only trying to..." She sighed deeply. "Oh, what's the use. Goodbye," she said, turning around, and as she walked away Michael could see her blonde quills bob up and down.
Michael sighed, and after contemplating for a few seconds and taking a final bite from a carrot, left a variety of coinage on the bar and walked out to follow her. As soon as he had exited he turned right to see Pascal, back in her splotchy-striped coloring, with her back to the wall, crying with her head between her arms.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She sighed, and cleared her nose. "Sorry for what? For not being interested in the impossibly natural? No, it was my fault for expecting too much. 'Oh, look, here's a newcomer,' I said. 'Maybe he'd be interested,' I said. He comes into my lab and I fuck up, and push my interests on him too hard, and scare him off after offending him. And now you're a beaver, the closest thing to another fucking porcupine around here, and..." She sighed again, looking upwards at the stars with tears in her eyes.
The beaver gently sat down a few feet to her right, propping himself up by the tail against the wall. He took a deep breath, and let it out, watching the light from the Mule glance upon the condensation from his breath in the early-spring night air.
"It's a beautiful night," he said.
She only continued to sniffle.
He looked over at her. "It's not too late, you know."
"Heh. You're just saying that." She dug around in the pockets of her robe, eventually pulling out a handkercheif, in which she blew her nose.
"No, I... I mean that. I overreacted, and I'm sorry."
"And earlier today? In the bar?"
"I was drunk. To tell the truth, I didn't know-- no, I didn't caren what I was saying. I'm still dealing with my new... form... you know."
"Didn't you have to... deal with it?"
She shook her head. "No, I was here when all hell broke loose. I was in my lab, in the cellar at the time, and I was so deeply-engrossed in an experiment that I didn't notice that one minute I was a man and the next I was a female rodent. And when I was 'revived,' when the porcupine spell was partially-reversed leaving me the half-woman half-porcupine I am now, I didn't care. It seemed right, and I had no problem accepting it. I never felt what it was like to have to come to grips with it."
"Oh, some people had trouble accepting they were stuck like that forever, but after, oh, a month, nobody cared. Was just part of life. Even Bryan took being an animal over being separated from the Keep. For most of us, it's always been home."
"You've always lived here?"
"Heh, no. I'm from the East, actually. But I had heard of the Keep, and I aspired to live here, I didn't care what I did, just as long as it was heren. So I studied alchemy, and when I felt I was good enough I packed my things and came. Then I found out how much I really had to learn.
"The alchemist at the time, his name was M'koy, took me under his wing. Oh, and at the time my name wasn't Pascal. I changed it, by advice from a friend. Seemed to fit me better. And I soon surpassed M'koy in his ability, which only made him all the more proud of me, and he knew he couldn't keep on going forever.
"One day, he came up to me, and said, 'Pascal, one of these days you'll have to take over for me you know. I'm not going to be at it forever.'
"That night, I was asleep on my bed in the lab, and I heard a horrible crash of glass. I woke up with a start and turned on the gas torch to see M'koy grabbing at his arm and staggering around, looking for something. I asked him if he'd cut himself, and he said that no, he was having a pain, was looking for the willow-bark extract, and then... then..."
"Then what?" asked the beaver.
"Then he collapsed on the floor, dead." The porcupine wiped her nose, sniffing; tears began to stream from her eyes.
"I'm... I'm very sorry."
"Don't be... we all... we all die, someday." She sighed deeply.
The beaver sat, speechless, for many minutes, before finally breaking the silence. "I'm sure he'd be proud of you."
"Oh, I don't know..."
"Why wouldn't he be?"
The porcupine shrugged. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this, you never asked or anything..."
"Hey, it's okay. I know what it's like, keeping something inside."
She looked over to him quizzically, still sniffing.
"I don't want you to have to hear about it right now though. Maybe some other time, when you're feeling more together and I'm the one sitting outside and feeling lonely. Eh?" He smiled, comically raising an eyebrow. She laughed slightly through her tears.
"Thank you, Michael." She sighed. "It's getting late, and I didn't get half the things done today that I was meaning to. Spent all day working on something stupid..."
"What was it?"
"Oh, nothing. Just a little project which I felt like doing..." She sighed. "Maybe I'll show it to you sometime, if you're interested."
"I'd like that. Maybe tomorrow. It's gotten kinda late, and I need to be up early... You know, new job and all that."
Pascal nodded. "Yeah."
Both of the rodents stood up and stretched, looking at each other.
"So," said Pascal, "now that we've gotten off the wrong foot..." She extended her paw towards the beaver. "My name's Pascal. You must be Michael."
Michael smiled and took her paw in his, and kissed it carefully. "A pleasure to meet you."
Pascal smiled. "Good night."
"Sweet dreams, friend Pascal."
"You sure look like the cat who just ate the mouse today."
"Hey, if anyone's a cat around here it's youn. I'd be the mouse."
"Good point. Your speciality, I suppose. So what doesn have you so cheerful today?"
"Oh, nothing... I just made up with Michael last night is all. I think we're going to be good friends, maybe more."
"Oh. I... see.... So what happened?"
"Well, I felt like trying to start things off anew with him, and so I came up to him in the Mule, had even used my ring to look 'normal' for him, and I lost my nerve, and well..."
"So anyway, he actually came up to men, and we talked a while, and made up. Everything's forgiven, it seems."
"So it would seem."
"Hey, I'm real hungry... want to join me for breakfast?"
"Um... yeah. Sure."
Uncharacteristically sitting at the bar, Pascal was gnawing away on a large carrot while Scratch idly mulled over his omlette. The usual late-breakfast crowd, a literal menagerie, was in the Mule, with the wide variety of smells and flavors and sounds which were ever-present in the diversity of the setting.
"I, uh... nevermind. I've got to go do my... thing in the... you know."
Pascal smiled. "You'll be right back."
Scratch smiled. "Exactly." The tiger, clad in a green silk shirt and brown trousers (only adding to his already difficult-to-look-at coloring), hurriedly shuffled off in the general direction of the mens' room.
Pascal idly munched on the carrot, waiting for Scratch to return, when she suddenly realized she was being spoken to from the side. Waking up from her reverie, she looked over to see the Reverend Doctor Channing.
"Hello? You awake?"
"Oh, hello. We haven't spoken in a while, what's up?"
"Oh, nothing," he said, gently nibbling on a cracker of some sort. "Say, are you ready for the banquet?"
She shook her head. "Sorry, I wasn't planning on taking much part in it. I've mostly been helping others prepare their things."
"Yeah, uh, I saw Scratch's special regal coloring." He snickered. "I hope you didn't make that permanentn, Pascal."
"Oh, no, of course not. It was just an accident where some of my dye got out of control. He should be back to normal -- well, normal for Scratch, anyway -- in a few weeks."
"Oh, good. So what else has been going on in your life recently?"
"Not much, you? Writing guild keeping you busy?"
"Yes, as usual. We're having a poetry contest at month's end to celebrate the 'true' coming of the Spring. The five most inspirational sonnets will be presented."
"Oh, this is new. I suppose you have to judge, with Matthias away. Have you decided which ones?"
"Well, it's such a tough choice, and officially nobody is supposed to know this, but off the record, I think--"
"No, don't tell me. I'll try to make it to the reading and find out for myself; it'll be a surprise."
"Oh, yes, of course! Speaking of which, will I recognize you right away, or will your appearance be a surprise as well?"
"Now, now, Channing, that would be cheating if I were to tell you."
The goose beakishly smiled, and nodded. "Very well, very well."
Immediately after the poem selected as the most inspirational was read, Channing immediately went down to the audience and approached a female, purple-furred, pink-skinned kangaroo with porcupine-like quills. "You know, Pascal, you're not fooling anyone with that disguise."
A voice came from behind him. "Oh, sorry, were you talking to me?" Channing quickly turned around and saw a quite ordinary-looking lizard grinning at him. The lizard closed its eyes and turned a clear amber, then reformed into the likeness of a female porcupine, which then darkened, swirling with the characteristic colors of the (somewhat nude) court alchemist, who opened her eyes with a grin when the change was complete.
"Wait, Pascal? But you're... Okay, who was I talking--"
"You mean me?" Channing whipped around to look at where the kangaroo was standing, to see a familiar beaver, though his fur and skin were still purple and pink, respectively.
"Michael?! But you're... you're..."
"Purple? Yes, Pascal was nice enough to lend me one of her fine rings. This is just another form!"
"And you're both naked?"
Pascal grinned, and nodded. "Special occasion."
Channing furtively glanced at the two. "I feel dizzy, I think I'll just lie down for a moment," he said, gently collapsing on the green grass. Pascal and Michael looked at each other and shrugged, then burst out in rodent laughter.
From the corner of the audience, a purple-furred tiger sighed.
"You said you had something to show me, Pascal?"
"Yes," said the porcupine, leading the beaver inside. "Remember that thing I said I was working on that night?"
"I think I have it to the point that it's usable."
"Well, in the last week or so you've seemed to enjoy experimenting with different colors with my ring. How would you like something a bit more... lasting?"
"I've been working on a way to make custom color-change pills. Much more refined than the crude ones I used on myself; I think I've worked out how to do just about anythingn, as far as color is concerned."
"Oh, I... I see."
"Is something wrong?"
"Well, it's fun to mess with the morph ring and all, but I--"
"If you're worried about it being permanent, don't worry. I can always change your colors back, you know."
"I... well... okay."
"What I've come up with I think is perfectn for you. You could say it was inspired. I don't really know how to describe it, but if it works, it'll definitely be a good example of what my new technique is capable of."
"Well, I guess..." The beaver sniffed at the air. "Do things smell different in here?"
"How do you mean?"
"It used to be... sweeter."
"Hm? Oh, my lab used to reek of pheremones, but it's had time to air out now."
"Ah. I'm surprised they didn't really affect me, seeing as how this is supposed to be the my time of the year too and all..."
Pascal shrugged. "It's been your first couple weeks as a beaver. Your new form probably isn't sexually-mature yet; these things take time. Stay right here." The vividly-colored porcupine walked over to a rack which was holding a test-tube which contained three very small rock-like pills, one red, one black and one cream-yellow. She carefully filled the tube up with water, and handed it to Michael. "Quaff this."
"Gee, I dunno, I mean... You're suren you can fix it if I don't like it?"
"Positive. It'll be at least a month before I can undo it, though, but you can borrow one of my rings in the meantime."
"Well, okay... bottoms up, I guess," he said, swallowing the vessel's contents in a single gulp.
"It'll take a couple weeks before the new fur and skin have grown in all the way; in the meantime, your new coloring will slowly fade in. I really do think it'll fit you very well."
"And you can't tell me what it'll be?"
"Even if I could find words to describe it, I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise! And hey, it might not even work." She kissed him on the nose. He blushed under his fur.
"Thank you for being my proverbial guinea pig, Michael."
"Thank you for considering me first. I just hope I don't regret this," he said with a grin. He yawned, and looked at his timepiece. "Oh my, I'm late for the Chewing Stick Support Group. Care to join me? We'd love to have you there."
Pascal shook her head. "No, I don't like that sort of thing. I mean, I gnaw on hard vegetables and Jon's occasional discarded antler; what more do I need?"
Michael grinned. "You really don't know? The 'support group' is more of a front for a social occasion! Charles just named it that so he could get some funding for snacks."
"Ohhh... all this time I thought the head of the Writing Guild was honestn!" she said with a smile. "Maybe I will join you this one time, see if it's good enough to justify it being a funded event."
He nodded, and gently took her paw in his. "Shall we?"
The two naked rodents walked out of the lab and turned right, heading towards the meeting hall. A not-quite-right-colored tiger turned left from the adjoining hallway just in time to see that he missed the alchemist, and sighed.
"My, my, this is a special occasion," squeaked Matthias. "The enigmatic court alchemist has decided to show up to our mothly rodent bash!"
Cheers and clinking of wineglasses filled the room, and the sounds of munching on various vegetables ensued. Pascal smiled. "These folks will use anything as an excuse to celebrate, won't they?" she asked rhetorically from the doorway.
Matthias walked from his seat towards the newcomers, and quietly muttered to the both of them, "Did you realize that you're both... well... naked?"
The porcupine and the beaver looked at each other, and then back at the rat.
"No," said Pascal, "I hadn't really noticed."
The beaver grinned. "Just two weeks ago I was too modest to be seen in the open not dressed like a human. I wonder what changed, hmm?" he intoned, and carefully nibbled on the ear of Pascal, who giggled.
"Just as long as you were aware of this," smiled the rat. "There's no strict dress code around here, as you well know; it's just kind of odd to see the two most modest Keepers as naked as furred animals can be." He patted Michael on the shoulder. "Good luck, you two," he said, walking back towards his position at the head of the table.
"This isn't as naked as In can be," muttered Pascal.
"I think he meant withoutn shaving your fur off. Which would probably look rather interesting on you, wouldn't it. What I wonder is what he meant when he said 'Good luck, you two.'"
Pascal grinned. "Rats have a very short heat cycle, unlike both of us whose cycles are generally two weeks every six months. Maybe he just doesn't realize that a male rodent and a female rodent can be together all the time and still just be friends."
Michael smiled. "Maybe. Shall we sit down? They always have plenty of food in a great selection... Carrots, celery, various cheeses, and it looks like this week there's even crackers and ale."
"Ale is unusual?"
"Yeah, usually it's just the white wine. Seems the Mule has a hard time getting rid of it normally, so they're more than glad to donate it to us."
Pascal smiled. "I could definitely learn to like this."
Michael led her to a not-so-crowded part of the table, and tapped a rat on the shoulder. "Would you mind moving down a bit? My friend and I need a bit of extra space."
The two sat down and began to make conversation, the beaver slowly introducing the porcupine to the rodent population of the Keep whom she'd never gotten around to meeting.
In his quarters, a beaver held a porcupine close as they drifted off to sleep. Next door, a tiger lay on his bed, tearfully staring at a rose.
A nervous knock on the door. It opens.
A silent glare from the opener.
An pleading raise of the eyebrows from the knocker.
A sigh. "What do you want?"
"I... I want to apologize for how I've been acting lately."
"I... I don't know what came over me. No, I do. I just..." A sigh. "I just let him get to me."
The door closes.
The one who knocked begins to tremble, sits down by the closed door, facing the hallway. She loses it, buries her face between her crimson-robed arms, begins to try.
She feels a tap on the shoulder, and grunts, but looks up slightly anyway, to see a rose being held in front of her.
"You woke me up. I had to get my clothes on," said the slightly-purple tiger.
Holding the rose in both paws with the head just below her nose, Pascal slowly plodded alongside Scratch.
"You know, you can't just keep going back and forth between us."
"I'm sorry, I just... I couldn't..." She trailed off with a deep sigh.
Scratch twiddled his fingers. "So what went wrong between you two?"
Pascal stopped, and thought for a moment. "Nothing..."
They looked at each other for a while.
"No which?" he asked.
"No, nothing happened between us," she said with a slight growl.
"That was the problem. I wasn't ready for... something... to happen between us."
"Beavers mate for life. I couldn't... wouldn't do that to him."
"And why not?"
"Because he's still getting used to his form. I don't know what's going on in his mind, why he was suddenly so... open with me. Maybe the same thing that happened to me, that I realized that he was the closest thing to a porcupine around here."
She sighed, paused a moment. "I wasn't ready to have an eternal bond with him. He's just confused, still coming to terms with what he's become, I know he'sn not ready for a commitment... He might suddenly realize that I'm notn the sort of person he wants to spend the rest of his life with. And it felt like we were going too fast, too fast..."
Scratch sighed. "So, have you broken up with him?"
"That's the other thing. I see him as a very close friend, but nothing more. Not a boyfriend, certainly not a lover. Just a fellow large rodent, a confidant, someone to snuggle with... but not someone who I'd... want to have his pup. You know..."
They started walking again. Scratch carefully put his arm around her robed shoulders. "I think I do, yeah. Do you know what sort of person you... would?"
Pascal shrugged. "I don't know... he'd have to be understanding, and tolerant at least... Probably someone else who loves colors and textures..."
Scratch smiled. "They are a big part of your life, aren't they."
Pascal nodded. "Yeah. I couldn't live without them. But I guess in a couple weeks we'll see if Michael can."
Scratch stopped walking, and quickly turned to face Pascal. "You didn't...?"
She nodded and smiled. "I did."
Scratch tried his hardest to suppress a laugh of surprise. "Does he..."
"Know? Yeah, he asked for it, sorta. I dunno, guess he wanted to try to get me closer to him or something. Whatever it is, he'll definitely need to learn to like it."
"I didn't think he'd go for something so... so... permanentn!"
"He didn't. He agreed to it on the condition I'd turn his colors back a month after his color change is complete if he didn't like it. I... uh..."
"Heh. I, erm, don't know how to... remove patterns."
Scratch grinned. "What did you do to him?"
"Well, if he were to look real close in the mirror, by now he'd see that the roots of some of his fur is red."
"And in a week?"
"He'll be, uh, plaid."
"Plaid?!" he barely didn't shout with explosive force. "Hee hee, I've gotn to see this!"
Pascal nodded, with a nervous smile. "Red-and-black plaid, with cream-yellow skin."
Scratch broke out in a howling laughter. "Wow! He'll... he'll..." He couldn't control the laughter; it echoed through the halls. "Pascal, my dear, you are a genius. Or insane. Maybe both! Oh man oh man oh MAN!"
"Keep it down, there's women and children sleeping here!" shouted a voice from behind a door.
Scratch did his best to control his laughter. "Let's go... hehe... outside to talk about this."
The two held hands and ran towards the general idea of outside as quickly as they could.
"By the Gods, I sure hope he doesn't mindn! When he finds out you can't undo it," he said, voice cracking under the strain of humor.
"Oh, I'll figure out a way to at least TRY to reverse it. And if not, he can always keep dyeing his fur black."
"But what about his SKIN?"
"What about it? The nose-pad skin takes dye well. Er... I've experimented with this," she said, smiling.
"I bet you have. Man, he's going to be the laughing stock of the loggers..." He trailed off, suddenly sobering up. "How much do you know about my... pact?"
"You hadn't heard? I thought everybody knew!"
"I... I don't listen to gossip. What pact is this?" she asked, concern in her eyes.
"First, let me say that if it weren't for the pact, I wouldn't be here to tell you about it. When I first came to the Keep, I was very badly wounded... almost dead. The Lightbringer did her fullest to convince the goddess Akkala to revive me. It... took a lot of convincing.
"In order to live, I agreed to be under Her service for a period of five years. I swore that during this time, I would never have any unholy pleasure -- sex, alcohol, tobacco, that sort of thing -- and that I would do my utmost to serve Her.
"But then I met you, and everything about you tore at my soul. Your look, your sound, your smelln... Bryan told me that it was just because you were in heat, that it was your pheremones. It triggered something in me, Pascal; it filled me with a love I'd never felt.
"You're not in heat now, and yet I still love you. Whenever I'm near you, I feel so much better, like there's nothing in the world that could bring me down. When you... left... I felt like you'd torn out my heart. And this morning, when you came back to me, I almost couldn't take the shock of it again.
"I've been afraid to tell you this before, Pascal, but I love you. I needn you! And I need to know that you feel the same way..." He sighed. "Please don't rip my heart out again..."
Pascal gently nuzzled Scratch and wrapped her arms around him, resting her head against his chest.
They embraced for what seemed like an eternity.
"You never did tell me if you broke up with him or not, you know."
"Are you STILL dwelling on that, Scratch?" she said, nibbling on a foreclaw. "And when's a damn waiter when you need one? I'm starving!"
"Well, did you?"
"Yes. I told him how I felt, and that we should just be friends. He was a bit disappointed, but he'll live."
"Even after his new fur and skin grows in?"
"We'll see," she said with a grin. "Oh, there's a free waiter. Waiter!" she shouted, standing on her haunches on the chair.
"I don't think he heard you over the lunchtime crowd. Now I know why we only eat here later in the afternoon."
Pascal nodded. "It really is more pleasant when half the tables are empty, isn't it. Waiter! Oh, good, I think he saw--no, drat! Now there's two of them, just standing there and talking!" She put on her spectacles. "One of them's that damn otter..." she trailed off, suddenly realizing Scratch was no longer sitting at the table with her. "Oh, poop," she said to nobody, resignedly propping her chin up on her paws.
A few moments later, Scratch returned to the table with a mug filled with a frothy amber liquid and a glass filled with gin and tonic. He sat the gin and tonic down in front of his colorful friend, and put the ale in front of him.
"I thought you couldn't drink alcohol. So why do you always get an ale?"
"To test myself. Make sure I can live without it. Now I'm pretty sure I can. He picked the mug up and put it to his lips, and began to drink it.
"Scratch! What the fuck are you doing?!"
He swallowed. "Ahh, that was good. Try some!" he said, shoving the mug under her nose.
Surprised, she took a sip and swallowed it. Her look of shock turned to that of one suddenly let in on a joke. "Sparkling apple juice?"
"Sure, why not. Tastes better than silly ol' ale anyway. And sure gave youn a scare," he said with a grin.
"Dear, don't do that. You've probably taken a few years off of my life!"
"And since when do youn worry about dying of old age?"
"Good point," she said. She reached behind her neck and plucked out a black quill. "Here's one of mine in exchange."
She rolled her eyes, giggling. "Silly."
"Hey, isn't that your friend over there?" Scratch suddenly asked, pointing towards the entrance of the Mule. Pascal looked over to see a familiar beaver walking down the stairs, glancing furtively for an open seat.
"Michael!" she shouted, waving. Michael suddenly turned towards the two, and with a smile, waved back, waddling over to them.
"Mind if I sit here?" asked the beaver.
Pascal gestured to a free chair at the table. "By all means."
The beaver sat down. "Heya, Scratch. How's tricks?"
"Good," he said, producing a small trinket from his shirt pocket, which he handed back to the bedazzled Michael.
"That's just an expression, Scratch. Speaking of which, it's lucky for you that Duke Thomas was in a good mood when you ran into him and decided to idly show off."
"Hey, the most I took from him was his royal seal! Though I must say that the seal wasn't too happy about it, so I took him out for fish later. Was the least I could do."
Pascal looked quizzically at Scratch. "I didn't know there were any seals on the court...."
Michael smiled smugly at her. "Think about it."
"About what? Duke Thomas doesn't have any--oh." She rolled her eyes. "That was just barely better than some of the puns I've heard from Channing." She began to gnaw again on one of her jet-black foreclaws. "We'd better get a waiter soon... the table's starting to look mighty tasty to me."
"Me too," said Michael.
Pascal looked at Michael. "Mind if I see something?"
She leaned very close to him and blew gently, parting his rich, brown fur. "Ooh, your roots are coming along nicely."
Scratch bit his tongue, grinning like a maniac. Suddenly, he stood up and growlingly shouted, "Waiter!" Immediately three separate waiters came.
"Thank you, my friends and I would like to have some breakfast..."
"You told me you'd be able to undo this!"
"I said not for at least a month after your new skin and fur grew in. It's only been a week!"
"But look at me! I'm... I'm the laughing stock of the logging industry!"
"Give it time, I'm sure you'll get used to it."
"Get used to it?! To THISn?!"
"Sure, why not? I think you look rather cute."
"Of course you would! You MADE me like this!"
"Hey, Pascal. Hey, Michael. Ooh, nice colors!"
"See? Scratch likes them."
"Scratch doesn't have to LIVE with them! I shouldn't have ever trusted you!"
"Come on, Michael, it's not THAT bad. I didn't mind being purple!"
"But she didn't do that to you on purposen! And still, it was just temporary!"
"Well, I think they fit you very well. She's made you look very... woodsman-like."
The beaver whimpered. "This morning, I went to work, and Lindsey was wearing a shirt colored just like my fur, just to make fun of me!"
"How do you know he was making fun of you? Maybe he liked the look of it," said Scratch.
"Noooo, no no no. Couldn't have been that."
"Well," said Pascal, "I think it makes you look veryn sexy."
Michael growled at her. Scratch tried to stifle a nasal chuckle unsuccessfully.
"Is something FUNNY, Scratch?" growled the beaver.
The tiger continued to giggle. "No, no, it's just... a growl, coming from that cute yellow nose..."
The beaver sighed, and stormed out of the lab, slamming the door behind him and almost catching his scaley yellow tail in it.
Pascal and Scratch stared at each other, trying to repress their giggles for a few moments.
Outside, a beaver heard an uproarious laughter coming from the alchemist's lab. He stomped off to his room.
"Michael, I'm really sorry about this happening."
"I didn't think it'd cause anything like...this to happen."
"I'll see what I can do about reversing it as soon as I can."
"I really am sorry. I... hope you get better soon."
"Pascal!" shouted an enthusiastic tiger. "Guess what?"
"We can get married!"
"The Lightbringer, she said that we can get married! Apparently Akkala's 'no sex' command only refers to that not in true love, that of an unwed couple... but if we get married, we can love forever and ever and nothing will get in our way! Or at least, that's what she thought was probably the case, tho she said she'd have to confirm it, which'll take a while. But she said we probably can!"
"Oh, uh... that's... great."
"Hey, don't get toon cheerful!"
"Scratch, I'm sorry. I just visited Michael in the infirmary. Seems he had a bit of a freak accident. He was cutting down a tree and was a bit distracted -- apparently, some of the other loggers had started wearing that soft plaid material as well, and he thought they were making fun of him -- and he didn't notice the tree falling down the wrong way."
"Oh my! Was he hurt badly?"
"No, just a broken leg and rib, and a sore tail, and a mortally-wounded ego." She sighed.
"Oh, no no no, don't start beating yourself up over THIS now! This time he askedn for this--"
"Only after I insisted! AND lied about being able to undo it!"
"Now, maybe that's not true. What were the exact words you used?"
"Oh, please, Scratch. Yes, I said that it would be at least 'a month before I can undo it,' I know exactly what you're getting at, and it doesn't help. Loopholes are not fair play. I don't operate like that."
"I see. So are you going to fix it?"
"If I can think of a way to, yes. I've never undone a coloring before. Hell, he's only the second coloring I've donen! I can give him my spare morph ring, but it's not one which holds up the illusion in the subconscious, and so he'd have to maintain it himself, which is probably hard to do when concentrating on logging..." She sighed again.
"Couldn't you just dye his fur every two weeks? That dye lasted very well on me..."
"That dye was a fluke. It actually replaced the color of the skin and fur that was there. I wouldn't know how to do it again, certainly not for a natural color like brown. If you hadn't noticed, all my colors tend to have a Magic basis."
"Why not a magical brown then?"
"It just doesn't workn that way. I can't explain it... It's like... like picking your own pocket."
"Magic and alchemy are both arts of tweaking nature, and the two together are doubly so. I don't know HOW to create mundanity!"
"Oh. Then, it sounds like Michael will just have to live like that forever."
She nodded, and sighed. "There's no way to keep the old coloring, you can only replace it with new... If I could only make more mundane colors, I could just change his skin to black with brown-on-brown plaid fur, but..."
"You can create black, though, can't you? I mean, both on him and on you," said the tiger, gently tracing one of the zebra-stripes on her nose.
She sighed. "You're right."
"Oh, it's youn."
"I think I have the answer."
"Oh, please, prayn tell, what isn it?" he spat.
"First, I need to tell you something that you're not going to like. I can't make your fur brown again."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"But I can make your skin black again. It'll be a darker black, not the very dark brown it was before, but it'll look almost the same."
"And my fur?"
"I can tryn to make it all black. No guarantees, though, but I'm pretty sure that--"
"All black? I'll look like a swamprat!"
"It's all I can do. Unless you'd prefer to be all-red, or pink, or-- I know, how about black skin and white fur? That'd look good without being too--"
"Enough! I'm tired of these gamesn at my expense. Leave me as I am, even my skin; I've had it with your potions and preparations, your chiding and inept hindsightedness. I would rather stay like this than to risk something worse."
"I... see. I can guarantee that your skin would be--"
"Black? It'd be the wrong black, as you said. Would it be the same black as my black fur?"
"Then no. I have no desire to look like a very neatly bloodied swamprat, either."
"Are you sure? No changes?"
"I see. Please, tell me if you change your mind... You know where to find me..." She took a deep breath, and turned to leave.
"Thanks for trying," he said, forcing the words out. "I... I know your heart was in the right place."
Pascal sighed, letting her crimson robe slide down her back, revealing more of her cascading black-and-white layers of quills. "Was it? Was I really trying to help you, or was that my rationalization for wanting to make the closest thing to another porcupine here have the same desires as me?"
"I don't know, Pascal," he said. "For a while, I was willing to have the same desires as the closest thing to another beaver, just to fill in the void. Doesn't that make me just as much to blame?"
She sighed, and pulled her robe all the way back up. She looked over her shoulder at him. "It was a love that wasn't meant to be, Michael."
"Then here's to intimate friendship," he replied coldly.
She sighed, and quietly left.