Disclaimer: Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings: Sex and love between women
Feedback: Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author's Note: This is a sequel to my Halloween story "Strays," available at the Academy of Bards. It's kind of necessary to read that one to meet Ari and Dale, or else Ari's little ability might seem to come out of nowhere.
Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
Copyright © 2010 Geonn Cannon
Ariadne Willow tried to avoid looking at her reflection in the storefront windows she passed, keeping her eyes forward to prevent an accidental glimpse of herself. Her drab-brown blouse and matching knee-length shorts were too embarrassing for even a Halloween costume, let alone a uniform some people were forced to wear every day. The less said about her knee-length white socks, the better. She made a mental reminder to give the UPS man a hefty year-end tip. Fortunately, she was wearing a baseball cap that could be used to block her face from anyone that might otherwise recognize her.
It was freezing, too cold for snow, but she already regretted wearing the shorts. She bet there were long pants that delivery people could wear in December, but she hadn't thought of that when she bought the costume. Best laid plans and all that...
She checked the address on the white package she was carrying before she pulled open the door of the photography shop. The woman behind the desk was dark-haired, blue-eyed, and shatteringly gorgeous. Ari once again cursed her uniform as she crossed the lobby. Of course I'd meet the woman of my fantasies while dressed like Mr. McFeely. She smiled as she approached the receptionist's desk, and she held up the package.
"Got a delivery here for a Mr. Mason." She glanced at the nametag on the front of the desk and saw the receptionist was named Gina Lansdowne.
"Aw, so it's not a bouquet of flowers for me?"
"Sorry, not this time," Ari said. "Take it up with your boyfriend. Or girlfriend."
"Well, I would, if I had either. Of course, one is more likely than the other." Gina arched an eyebrow and smiled, and Ari once again cursed her bad timing. Damn, damn, damn.
She pushed aside her disappointment and consulted her clipboard. "So, ahem... yeah. Mr. Donald Mason. I would just leave it with you, but he needs to sign for it."
Gina's eyes widened and said, "Someone sent Mr. Mason a gift?"
Ari shrugged. "Tis the season."
Gina shook her head in disbelief as she leaned forward and pressed a button on her phone. "Mr. Mason? There's a package here for you. The delivery girl says you'll have to sign for it."
Girl? Ari thought.
"I'll be right out," came through the intercom, following an exasperated sigh.
Ari put the package down on the counter and crossed her arms, looking down at Gina's workspace. Pictures of Gina and a dog, a black-and-white printed photo of a boat, and a crayon drawing for Aunt Gina. "So no boyfriend, huh?"
"Not even a theoretical one," Gina said. Her eyes were sparkling with mischief.
Ari said, "You know, I look a lot better out of this uniform."
Gina pursed her lips and leaned forward. "I'll bet you do."
A hallway stretched out beyond Gina's station, and Ari heard a door open at the far end. "To be continued," she said, and offered Gina a wink. She picked up the package and stepped toward the hall as Mason appeared.
He frowned at the package in Ari's hands. "What package? I didn't order anything. Who's it from?"
"Omaha Steaks, says on the box. Merry Christmas to someone."
Mason's expression shifted. "Oh... huh." He rubbed a thumb over his top lip and said, "Well, all right. Fine, I'll sign."
"Whoa, wait. I might have the wrong person here. Don't want to screw up on a delivery this big." She looked at her clipboard again. "You are Donald Graham Mason?"
"Yeah, that's me."
Ari slipped a manila envelope from the clipboard and held it out to him. "Mr. Mason, you've been served."
Mason's expression suddenly shifted. He snatched the papers away from her. "Son of a bitch..."
"Maybe if you'd paid your child support, you'd be the kind of person that gets steaks in the mail. Don't shoot the messenger." She looked at Gina and saw she was struggling to keep a straight face. "Bitches Investigations. We're in the book. Keep an eye out for me out of uniform."
"Oh, I'll do that," Gina said. She winked when she was sure Mason was focused on his papers. Ari smiled at her as she left the office, taking off her uniform cap as she stepped back out onto the street. The box she'd been carrying was full of trash from the office to give it weight, so she dumped it into the first receptacle she passed.
Dale was waiting in the parking lot of a nearby strip mall, behind the wheel of her reconditioned taxi cab. Her red hair was hidden under a knit cap, and she had just wiped off the fog from her eyeglasses when Ari opened the passenger door. Dale closed her novel as Ari sat down. "How'd it go? Do you feel the process serving fire in your blood?"
"Well, less dangerous than tracking bad guys, no need to be the wolf, but the wardrobe leaves something to be desired." Ari, frozen from her walk, took the Starbucks cup from Dale's cup holder. She sniffed the contents, wrinkled her nose when she identified it as tea, and returned it without taking a drink.
"Lean times," Dale said. "Girl's gotta made sacrifices to get paid."
"What exactly is your sacrifice? You took the job, I have to wear the strip-o-gram delivery girl outfit, and you get paid half. What exactly is your contribution?"
"It's boring in the car. I should get compensation."
Ari smirked and said, "All right, back to the office." Dale tossed her book onto the dashboard and started the car. As they backed out of the spot, Ari said, "I met someone."
"Just now, on the job. She was the guy's secretary."
Dale chuckled. "You never quit, do you?"
"Beauty must be appreciated no matter what the circumstance."
On the drive back to the office, Ari called their client to let her know Mason received the court summons. They made arrangements for the payment and Ari thanked her for the business.
"Erwin Wentworth and Associates appreciate our business and look forward to using us again in the future."
Dale said, "Did they mention a retainer?"
"I'll bring it up next time they call." Dale pulled into the alley behind their building. The stores on either side of their office extended farther into the alley, so Bitches Investigation was granted a parking area of sorts. Dale parked next to the truck Ari occasionally used to get around town and they went inside through the back entrance. Ari was unbuttoning her uniform blouse as she got out of the car, shrugging out of it as they stepped inside.
"Do you have plans for Christmas?"
Ari shrugged out of the blouse and then shed the shorts. She was in briefs and a white T-shirt, but Dale had seen her naked far too often to bother closing the door for privacy. "Christmas... I'm Wiccan and you're Jewish. Both lapsed, but still..."
Dale said, "I know, I know. But we never do anything for the holidays. I was thinking that we could combine the two holidays and celebrate on Christmas Day as a neutral holiday. Solstikkah, I guess."
Ari took a pair of slacks and a blouse from the wardrobe in her office. Her parents had never really celebrated anything. There was always a special gift in December, but they weren't exactly Christmas-type people. She'd watched Rudolph, and she'd spent the day after Christmas break ended sitting in class and listening to the other kids list all the great stuff they got, and she wondered why she didn't have that. She hadn't missed it since she grew up, but suddenly it was something she really wanted to do. "Why not? Sounds like fun. I did get you a present."
"And I got you one. So it's settled... We'll have it here, Christmas morning."
"I look forward to it."
"We'll--" Dale was interrupted by a knock on the front door. "Hold that thought." She went to the front of the room, through the anteroom to the front entrance. "We have a customer. Cover yourself."
Ari pushed the office door shut as she finished dressing. She took her hair out of the ponytail and ran her fingers through it to make herself look more presentable. Dale had unlocked the door to let in a young woman in swaddled in heavy winter clothes.
"We're so sorry," Dale said. "We used the back entrance and we didn't even see you out there."
Ari said, "Would you like a cup of coffee?"
The woman waved off their concern. "Oh, no, I'm fine. I'm fine. I prefer the cold. Besides, it gave me a chance to think on what I wanted to say."
Ari took the woman's coat and hung it on the coat rack as Dale showed the woman to a chair. "Have a seat."
"Thank you. I'm Shelly Patterson. I've passed your office a lot, and I always loved the name. Bitches." She smiled, but the expression quickly died. "You're private investigators, right? You do cheating spouses and that sort of thing?"
"Yeah," Ari said. "It's not our specialty, but we do our fair share. I'm Ariadne Willow, and this is my associate, Dale Frye."
Shelly nodded. "Well, I'm afraid that I have a job for you. My boyfriend, Jordan. In every other way, he is... the perfect guy. He's funny, smart, well-dressed, cultured. But a week or so back, I ran into him on the subway, and he smelled like perfume. Then I dropped by his apartment to pick up something I'd left there. I let myself in with his key, and I heard a noise in the bathroom. So I called out. No one answered, so I just assumed I'd heard a neighbor or something. But when I left I looked up at his apartment window and I saw a woman looking out. She... she was wearing his robe."
Ari winced. "Sorry."
"I don't want to confront him. I mean, I can't bring myself to say the words in case I'm just jumping to conclusions. So I want to know for sure if he's cheating before I throw everything away. Can you help me?"
"Of course," Ari said. "We just need your boyfriend's information. Home address, his work--"
Shelly held up a hand to stop her and reached into her purse. She withdrew a business card and held it out to Ari. "I've already filled out all his information. Jordan Hawkins. There's his home address, work address, this bar where he likes to hang out. He's at work right now. Usually he spends a half hour in the bar before he heads to his apartment or to my place."
The card also had a picture of Jordan. He was a slender man, looking into the camera as if he hadn't expected to see it there. His eyes were green and his brown hair was cut short. He was a handsome man, Ari had to admit. "So you want us to confirm that he's cheating on you... I assume photographic evidence will suffice?"
"Yes, that would be fine. I don't need any sordid details. I just need to know for sure. Without a doubt. Because as it stands, I'm willing to just ignore the clues and live in bliss. How long could that last? Right?"
Dale nodded. "Everyone deserves someone. No one should be forced to share."
"Well, not without prior knowledge," Ari muttered. Dale shot her a look, and Ari shrugged.
Shelly smiled. "Hell, Jordan is such a prince I'd be willing to try a threesome. If it meant I got to keep him." Her smile faded. "I guess you think I'm pretty pathetic."
"I think you're pretty in love," Ari said. "We'll get on this right away, Ms. Patterson."
"Thank you, Ms. Willow." She looked down at her hands. "No offense, but I really, really hope you fail."
Ari smiled. "So do we, Ms. Patterson. Dale, can you do the financial... voodoo you do so well?"
Dale smirked and walked around the desk to her chair. "Sure, Ari."
Ari took Jordan Hawkins' information into her office and shut the door. She looked down at the man's photo and knew that his girlfriend's suspicions were most likely try. That meant she would have to break Shelly Patterson's heart. And during the holidays, no less. Sometimes her job really sucked.
The day wasn't terribly cold, so Ari decided to do reconnaissance as the wolf. There was a store near Jordan Hawkins' apartment with a public restroom, and they used it so Ari could change. She shed her clothes, folding them carefully before handing them over to Dale. "Okay. You know the drill."
"Yep," Dale said.
Ari had a small camera phone inside a small purse, which she attached to a loose leather collar. Once she was naked, she said, "All right. Here we go."
"Be careful." Dale stepped out of the stall, her face a picture of concern and fear. Ari felt bad making her watch the transformation; Dale knew how much it hurt, and she felt sympathy pains every time it happened in front of her. Ari nodded, quietly reassuring her, and then closed her eyes. She let the change come over her gradually, her skin erupting in goosebumps before it trembled and quaked. Her bones and muscles twisted and reformed, and she hit her knees on the tile before her hips adjusted to their new length. Ari bit off a scream with suddenly sharpened teeth, her hands curling into fists before her fingers became elongated, canine toes complete with claws.
She arched her back and shook her entire body. Where there had once been a five-ten nude woman, there was a large dog with peculiarly lupine features.
Dale knelt in front of her and stroked Ari's hair. "How are you? Did it hurt more than usual?" Ari licked Dale's hand, and Dale smiled. "I should sue you for sexual harassment. You are my boss, you know."
Ari barked and Dale chuckled. "All right, all right. Calm down." She put the collar on, making sure there was enough room to Ari to push it over her head when she got to where she needed to be. She put Ari's folded clothes into a harness and vest, helping Ari get into it. When she was done, she said, "I'll be outside in case you run into any trouble."
Ari chuffed quietly, and Dale led her out of the bathroom. The clerk behind the counter glanced up, but didn't comment about Dale's apparently missing companion as they left the store.
Dale let Ari go at the corner and continued on her to car. Ari didn't like working as the wolf; her canidae mind was spotty at best. Sometimes she could remember her assignment with crystal clarity. Other times, the dog side of her took over and she wandered through side streets and back alleys until she eventually did what she was supposed to do. Retaining the information when she became human again was even harder, like trying to recall a dream. Today felt good, and Ari marched straight to the front door of Jordan's building and began whining.
She didn't have to wait long. Someone came out, looked down at her, and the compassion took hold. "You lost, boy? Huh? Poor thing." The person looked around, looked at the clock on his cell phone, and then guided Ari into the building. She was led directly to a door marked 'landlord,' on which the Good Samaritan knocked.
"What is it this time, Tony?"
"Got a dog here. I think someone must've lost 'im."
The landlord was a beefy man in a dirty button-down shirt. He looked at Ari and frowned. "I don't recognize it."
"Well, he was pawing at the door like he belonged here. Maybe he got away from his owners and beat them home." He said, "Look, it's not a stray. It's wearing this little vest thing. Just hold onto him in case someone comes looking."
"Why can't you do it?"
"I have work in, like, five minutes."
The landlord rolled his eyes. "All right, fine. Fine. But if he pees all over my damn apartment, you're the one I'm coming after."
"Yeah, yeah," Tony said.
Ari let herself be led into the landlord's apartment. It wasn't what she had planned, but she could work with it. The apartment was cramped; the living room only had a couch, an armchair, and a small TV on a milk crate desk. The landlord shut the door and said, "You start barking, I'm gonna throw you out on the sidewalk again. Capice?"
Ari snorted her approval and walked to the couch. She curled up on the floor and rested her head on her forepaws.
"Yeah, you better just behave yourself." He walked to the armchair and groaned as he sat down again. Ari knew she could escape just by making a fuss and acting like she had to be let out, but she was willing to bide her time in case opportunity presented itself.
Halfway through The Price is Right, the landlord fell asleep. Ari got up and moved closer to his chair, eyeing him carefully in case it was just a doze. She barked quietly and the man just made a face, shifting in his seat, and remained asleep. So Ari approached him again. She looked over the end table next to his chair and saw a set of keys on a ring. Each fob was wrapped in masking tape with a number written on it.
Jordan's in Apartment 9, she remembered. She looked at the landlord again and closed her eyes. Her skin shuddered again, and she clenched her teeth to keep from crying out as she shifted from wolf to woman. The harness vest was stretched tight across her breasts, and the collar was close to choking her. She took the keys off the end table and freed key number nine from the rest.
The landlord snorted and lifted his head. Ari froze.
The man looked at her, frowned, and rubbed his eyes. "You're not Angelina Jolie."
"You're not exactly the man of my dreams, either."
He frowned and closed his eyes again. "What are we gonna do? Huh? You gonna be real nice to me?" His chin started to drop toward his chest, and he jerked awake again. He scanned the living room until he spotted the dog sitting on the carpet and staring up at him. "Jesus. Gotta get laid."
Ari ignored the comment and kept her front paws on top of the pilfered key. The landlord sighed, stretched his arms, and then stood up to stumble out of the living room. Ari jumped to her feet, picked up the key in her mouth, and held it there as she ran to the door. She snuffed, yipped, clawed and bumped the door with her head, bouncing from one side of the door to the other in the universally accepted sign language of dogs everywhere.
"For crying out... c'mon." He walked to the door and let her out, then opened the front door of the building. Instead of escorting her outside, as she'd feared he would, the man propped the door open with a stone and retreated back into his apartment. "Knock yourself out, pup."
Ari waited until he was back inside before she turned and ran upstairs. When she made sure that no one was watching, she changed for the fourth time in less than half an hour. She leaned against the door and gasped, her muscles burning and her bones actually sore. Anyone who said bones couldn't be sore had never had their entire skeleton realigned in a matter of seconds. She pushed her hair out of her face and spit the stolen key into her hand. She quickly opened Jordan's apartment and ducked inside before someone came along.
She shed the harness and collar, rubbing her throat and taking a few deep breaths to prove she could. The living room wasn't necessarily what she had expected; the furniture matched, the floor appeared vacuumed, and the messes were kept to a minimum. Either the man of the house had been trained by a good girlfriend in the past, or Shelly Patterson had reason to be concerned. A small Christmas tree stood next to the window, where it could be seen from the street, and a few wrapped presents stood underneath it.
Ari took her clothes from the pack and put them on before she explored the apartment. She started in the bedroom; the well made queen-sized bed putting another mark in Jordan Hawkins' con column. She hadn't seen much to fill up the pro-side of the list yet, but she was ever hopeful. She didn't want to make Shelly's Christmas a bad one. She opened the closet door and felt her spirits plummet.
There weren't many blouses, and fewer skirts, but they were there. Next to the muddy sneakers and heavy work boots, she saw two pair of high heels.
Maybe he's a cross-dresser, Ari thought hopefully. She checked the tags on the blouses and then on the shirts. The women's clothes were too small for the man, and Ari cursed under her breath. "Damn it, I hate this job."
She took her cell phone from the collar purse and snapped a few pictures of the closet. She pictured Shelly in their office, shoulders slumping with relief. "Those are mine,"</i> she would say. "Jordan lets me keep some things there for when I spend the night."
Ari had been cheated on too many times. She would give anything to not be the bearer of this particular bad news.
She walked to the bed and examined the nightstand for any framed photos or evidence of another frequent occupant. No long hairs were on the pillow, no tell-tale scent of perfume, and no jar of face or hand cream on the nightstand. In the bathroom her hopes were crushed again. The medicine cabinet had male and female accoutrements. Oddly, though, she didn't find any condoms or birth control pills.
Maybe he'd been snipped. Most dogs just slept a lot after they got fixed, but men tended to use the opportunity to spread their love far and wide.
She took another photo of the medicine cabinet and put the phone into her pocket. She took another trip through the apartment before she decided she'd found everything she could. She locked the door again and headed downstairs. She dropped the apartment key in front of the landlord's door and continued on out of the building without looking back.
She met up with Dale at the bar Jordan frequented. She dropped into the booth, and Dale immediately grabbed her hand. "Hey. What's up? Are you okay?"
"I feel like I've gone twelve rounds with Derek Jeter."
"Jeter's baseball, not boxing."
Ari nodded and reached back to massage the base of her skull with two fingers. "Yeah. I'm just standing in a boxing ring and he's beating me with a baseball bat."
"Too many changes. Four, in about twenty minutes."
Dale winced. "Jesus, Ari."
"I'll be fine." She looked around. "Any sign of the douche?"
"We've got a few minutes before he could possibly get here from work." She rubbed Ari's knuckles. "I guess you got some bad clues in the apartment."
Ari closed her eyes and said, "A woman definitely lives there. I'm still hoping it's just Shelly's stuff, but happy endings aren't exactly frequent in our line of work."
"Yeah," Dale said. She frowned as Ari started to massage her temple. "You have a headache. Do you need a drink? Want to take a rest and pick it up tomorrow?"
Ari shook her head. "I'm fine. Shelly deserves to know if her boyfriend is cheating on her as soon as possible."
Dale didn't look happy, but she nodded. "But if he doesn't show up by four, we'll assume he's not stopping for a drink tonight and head home."
"Deal," Ari said.
A waitress came over, and Dale ordered a Scotch for Ari. "Just to settle your nerves." Ari agreed and drank while they waited for Jordan to show up.
Ari finished her Scotch and was about to accept defeat when Jordan Hawkins walked into the bar. Dale said, "How do you want to play this?"
"I wolf out and follow him."
"Ari, five times in one day..."
"I'll sleep in tomorrow," Ari said. "He might see you following him, but he won't think twice about a dog."
Dale leaned back in her chair and said, "You'll have to stay in wolf form for at least an hour, or it'll make things worse when you change back."
"I'll spend the night as the wolf," Ari said. "It's fine. I'll be fine." She put her hand on top of Dale's. "I'm not worried as long as I have you looking out for me."
"Flatterer," Dale said.
Ari stretched and said, "The Scotch helped. Thank you. I'm going to head into the alley and change. I'll wait for him to come out and follow him. You?"
"I'll pick up your clothes and try and follow the both of you. If we get separated--"
"The train station," they said together. Dale nodded. "Be careful."
Ari smiled. "Always." She lifted Dale's hand, kissed the knuckles, and slipped out of the booth. She left the bar and followed the sidewalk around to the alley. She took off her jacket and quickly stripped out of the rest of her clothes and gathered them all in her coat. She tied the arms together, forming a bag, and placed it in a cardboard box she'd taken out of the dumpster.
She rolled her shoulders, took a few steadying breaths, and initiated her fifth transformation of the day. This time she couldn't restrain a scream as the pain ripped through her body and her bones broke and reshaped her body.
Ari waited in the alley until Jordan came outside. She stood and stretched, shaking herself before she started following him. She definitely needed a bubble bath and one of Dale's signature massages after the trials she'd put her body through. She weaved between the legs of people on the street, ignoring the people who tried to pet her or stop her to see if she had a tag. Jordan was moving quickly, but not in an evasive manner; he had no reason to think anyone was following him. The crowds were thin enough that Ari didn't have trouble keeping him in her sights.
He stopped in a park, and Ari risked approaching the bench where he was sitting. He smiled when he saw her and hesitantly reached down with one hand. Ari approached and sniffed his hand, pretending to look for food when she mainly wanted to see if he reeked of perfume again. Her canidae nose picked up a myriad of scents, not all of them pleasant, but the only perfume on him was too weak to be important.
"Someone's gonna be looking for you, I bet," he said. He checked her collar but didn't find a tag, and he looked around the park for anyone holding an empty leash. "Do you know where home is?"
Ari yawned and stretched out in front of the bench. Jordan laughed and said, "Well, I guess you know a pushover when you meet one, huh?" He looked around and saw a hot dog stand not far away. He stood up and went over, bought a hot dog, and took it out of the bun as he came back to the bench. He tore up the bun and tossed it toward the duck pond, then sat down and put the hot dog on the bench next to him. "There you go, pal. Eat up."
Her canine mind couldn't pass up the opportunity for free food, so she snatched it up and ate it as if she hadn't had a meal in weeks. Jordan chuckled and rubbed the top of her head as she chewed.
Shelly was right; this guy was perfect. She hated the idea of outing him as a cheater.
After a few minutes, Jordan stood up and stretched. He looked around and then walked to the public restrooms set up across the park. Oh, God, not the public park restroom rendezvous. Come on. The guy has been classy up to this point... She watched him go and looked around the park for anyone who might be going to meet up with him.
Thirty seconds later, the men's room door opened and a woman stepped out.
Ari blinked. At first she thought that the woman had been waiting for Jordan inside, but what could they have done in that amount of time? Then she realized that the woman was wearing Jordan's clothes. Ari tilted her head to the side and watched as the woman walked back to the bench. Her hair was the same color as Jordan's, but longer. There was no doubting she was a woman, but Jordan's clothes hung loose on her slight frame.
Ari stood up when the woman got closer, and the woman crouched in front of her. "Hey, no begging. One hot dog. Anything else is greedy."
What in the fucking hell.
The woman rubbed Ari's neck and bent down to kiss the top of her head. "Stay in the park and stay out of traffic. Your people will find you."
Ari breathed deeply; the woman smelled exactly the same as Jordan. The woman had to be Jordan Hawkins. But that was utterly impossible.
She barked, and Jordan frowned. "Hey, don't be like that. We had fun, but now it's time to end our relationship. See you around, pup."
Jordan stood up and walked away, checking to make sure Ari wasn't following her. Ari was too stunned to even think about it. She watched Jordan go and then looked around the park to see if anyone had noticed the switch. The hot dog vendor was dealing with his customers, and everyone else was too occupied with their own business to care. The switch had been perfectly executed.
When Jordan was out of sight, Ari stood and walked back to the sidewalk. She trotted along the sidewalk, just short of an actual run, eager to get back to the bar as soon as possible. She ducked into the alley and saw Dale was already retrieving the clothes Ari had hidden. She turned at the sound of running paws and frowned when she saw who it was.
Ari hunched down, positioned as if to lunge, and began to shudder.
She was already mid-transformation, and it felt as if every one of her bones was being crushed to powder. The joints screamed as they were forced into new positions, and Ari dropped face-down onto the pavement. Her body twitched and jerked, her hands trembling as she successfully slipped back into her human form, panting and exhausted. Dale was beside her the entire time, stroking Ari's sweaty back before draping her coat over Ari's naked body.
"What the hell? You promised me."
"Had... to tell... you." Ari groaned and closed her eyes. The pain was lingering longer this time; she'd beaten her body to hell and it wasn't going to forgive her soon. "Couldn't risk forgetting it... because I was the wolf for too long..."
Dale said, "Did you find something out?"
Ari nodded. "I know who the woman is."
"So he's definitely cheating on Shelly?"
"No," Ari said. "It's a lot more complex than that."
Ari lounged in the bubble bath, eyes closed. She was in Dale's tub, since her place was closer, and the warm water was doing wonders for her aching body. Dale had promised her a backrub later, and she knew it would be just what the doctor ordered. She was about to doze off when there was a knock on the door. "Come in."
Dale stepped inside with two cups of wine. "I thought you could use this."
"Ambrosia," Ari said, taking the glass from her. "Thank you."
Dale sat on the edge of the tub and sipped her own wine. "So is this a first for you? Someone who switches from one gender to the other?"
"It's a first for anyone, I think," Ari said. "I've only heard about it in theory. Canidae</i> is the most common, of course, leading to the whole werewolf myth. But there's also felidae and caniformia and mustelidae..."
"What were those last two?"
"Werebear and wereweasel."
Dale laughed and said, "You're making those up."
Ari shook her head. "Each classification has subsets. Canidae has foxes, wolves, domestic dogs, jackals, hyenas... But the point is, it's such a varied species that there's a possibility there's a version out there that just shifts from male to female. If a frog can do it..."
"I'm sorry, babe. I've seen you transform into a wolf more times than I care to count, and even I think this is tipping the weird scale."
Ari smiled. "I'm right there with you, babe."
"So what do you want to do? The guy isn't cheating on her, I guess, but Shelly has a right to know the truth."
"But it's not our place to tell her," Ari said. "She hired us to see if he was cheating. We've decided he's not. We explained the evidence that she found. Her boyfriend happens to spend half his time as a woman."
"So do we just tell her that she has nothing to worry about and send her off? Because, I tell ya, I wouldn't want to find that out on my wedding night."
"Jordan has to be the one to tell her."
Dale tapped Ari's arm and motioned for her to lean forward. Ari did as instructed, wrapping her arms around her knees. Dale moved Ari's long hair out of her way and began to massage Ari's shoulders.
"You have to stop these marathons."
Dale worked the weary muscles of Ari's back, trying to soothe them from the ordeal they'd been through that day. No one's body was designed for a multitude of transformations. A human skeleton was so different from canines that the switch was akin to medieval torture. She was lucky she had found someone to help her get over it, someone who was there to chide her for abusing herself. Someone with a huge bathtub.
She closed her eyes.
Three years earlier, she'd spent most of her time on the street as a wolf. People gave wild dogs a wide berth, but a woman on her own was prey. She'd thought she was being smart. But then she discovered that a dog could be even easier prey than a person. The fact was brought home in vivid color by four kids who cornered her on a loading dock. One of them had firecrackers, and they wanted to make a cool boom. Another one had a piece of PVC pipe. It was light enough that it didn't really hurt, but repeated blows started to sting like fire. By the time she realized the danger she was in, it was far too late to transform into a human. She doubted changing from a dog into a naked woman would help her situation much, anyway.
The PVC pipe cracked her on the snout, and Ari yelped in pain as she tried to retreat. The dock was fenced in, and there was no way she could jump the fence without a running start. The boys were closing in on her.
And then, out of the blue, a shouted call: "Hey, you little motherfucker bastards!"
A hail of stones rained down on the boys. Ari was able to duck away without injury since the thrower wasn't focusing on her.
"Hey, you crazy bitch! Ow! Shit!" The boy with the firecrackers grabbed his forehead as blood started flowing down his face. "C'mon, let's get out of here."
The boys scurried off, but Ari remained coiled for a fight. She turned at the sound of approaching footsteps and saw a woman bundled in winter clothes running toward her. Ari barked out of instinct, showing her teeth and raising her hackles. Four boys were too much of a fight, but she could take on a single woman.
The woman stopped and held up her hands in surrender. She was holding a white paper sack and, even from a distance, Ari could smell the contents. It was enough to make her relax her fight posture and allow the newcomer to get closer. She knelt on the pavement and reached into the bag, withdrawing a wrapped hamburger. It was a Big Mac, and Ari hadn't eaten in what felt like ages. She cautiously approached, focused on the meat instead of the soothing words the woman was whispering.
Dale hadn't been stupid. She tossed the patty from the hamburger toward Ari rather than trying to feed her. Ari snatched it out of the air, and Dale had smiled. She sat on the ground with the remains of her hamburger, eating it while Ari worked on the peace offering. Once the burger was gone, Dale tentatively stroked Ari's fur and started looking for any wounds left. Ari's nose was bloody, and she would have bruises from the damn PVC pipe, but she was better than she could have hoped to be.
She had licked Dale's face in gratitude, and Dale took her back to her apartment so she could sleep somewhere warm.
When Ari woke that night, she had shifted back into her human form without waking. She stumbled naked to the kitchen, her mind foggy and her memories disjointed. She assumed she had gone home with someone for a one-night stand so, after getting her water, she stumbled into the bedroom and crawled under the blankets behind Dale.
The screaming had woken the neighbors.
Ari chuckled in the tub, and Dale said, "What?"
"Just remembering my first night in this apartment."
Dale said, "You'd scream, too, if a naked stranger suddenly appeared in your bed. I had no idea what canidae were. You were just some strange naked lady."
"I still am," Ari said.
"Yeah, but I'm used to you."
Ari chuckled. She rested her chin on her knees and looked at the tile wall of Dale's bathtub. "I think I'll talk to Jordan tomorrow. Tell... her? Him? What we know. Tell him that Shelly deserves to know the truth, too."
Dale said, "What do you think he'll do?"
"He seems like a stand-up person. I think he'll do the right thing. It's a question of what Shelly will do that worries me."
"Yeah. Do you want a full massage?"
"No, you did great. Right now I think I'll just steal your spare bed for the night."
Dale gave Ari's shoulders one more squeeze before she retreated. "All right. Need help?" Ari held up her hands, and Dale helped her out of the tub. She let Dale wrap her in a towel. "There you go. Good as gold."
"My pleasure, Ari." She pecked Ari on the cheek. "Sleep well."
Ari watched Dale leave the bathroom, sighed, and rubbed her neck. She'd definitely lucked out when Dale came to her rescue, in more ways than one.
The next morning, Jordan Hawkins was a man. He left his apartment building and started toward work, still adjusting the collar of his jacket with one hand as he walked down the sidewalk. Ari pushed away from the wall and started walking behind him. "Ms. Hawkins?" Jordan kept walking. "Ms. Hawkins, can I have a word with you, please?"
Jordan turned, his brow furrowed with confusion. "Pardon me?"
"Ms. Jordan Hawkins?"
He smiled. "I'm sorry, are you... are you making a joke?"
Ari motioned for him to step closer to the building, out of the flow of pedestrians, and lowered her voice. "My name is Ariadne Willow. I was in the park yesterday when you went into the public restrooms. I was still there a few seconds later when you came out... looking slightly different."
Jordan closed his eyes and said, "Shit. I'm usually more careful."
"Obviously," Ari said. "But you can be forgiven for thinking no one was watching you."
"Where were you?"
"By the bench."
Jordan said, "With the dog?"
"Not with the dog, no."
He stared at her for a moment longer before it clicked. His eyes widened and he said, "Oh. Oh, crap. Well, no wonder." He chuckled and shook his head. "Now I have to start keeping an eye out for animals. Are all the pigeons around here people, too?"
Ari shook her head. "No, the bird people tend to hang out in London and Europe."
"Well, you got me. If you're planning blackmail, I'm afraid you won't be able to get much out of me. If you're casting some kind of circus..."
"None of the above. I'm a private investigator, and I was hired by your girlfriend."
Jordan groaned as if physically pained and moved to the wall. He slumped against the bricks and covered his face with one hand. "She thinks I'm cheating on her. I didn't know if she saw me or not the other day, but I guess she did."
"Yeah. A naked woman in your shower is pretty hard to explain. And even if you do tell the truth, she'll probably accuse you of being a lying bastard."
"Right. It's not exactly something you can bring up on the first date. 'By the way, sometimes I'm a woman. Hope it's cool with you.'"
Ari said, "Can you just... choose?"
"Can you choose to be a person and never become the dog again?" Jordan said.
Ari thought about it. She assumed she could make that decision, to shut off the wolf side of herself, but it would be like cutting off a limb. It was part of her. "I see your point."
Jordan looked down the street, deep in thought. "Well, I guess that's that. I really liked Shelly, too."
"You're just going to end things?"
"It's the kindest option," Jordan said. "In the past, women and men have discovered that, half the time, I'm not what they want. I've been with them all... straight, gay, lesbian. None of them want a half-time lover."
Ari said, "You ever heard of bisexuals? You'd be a godsend."
Jordan laughed. "I haven't found one yet."
"Look, give Shelly a chance. She really likes you, too. This could just be a... thing she has to get used to. Trust me, everyone comes with baggage even if they're just one gender full time. Shelly might surprise you."
"If she even believes me."
"I'll be there if you want. I'll confirm your story to her."
Jordan said, "I appreciate that." He looked at the time on his cell phone and said, "I have to get to work. I should probably get it over with as soon as possible. Are you busy tonight?"
"No. Call Shelly and have her meet you at the bar at your usual time. I'll be there to back you up."
"Okay." He pushed away from the wall with a heavy sigh. "I hope you're right. I hope Shelly looks at this as just a... quirk of my personality. But I think I'm going to need a holiday miracle. Thanks."
Ari nodded and waved goodbye as he walked away. She remembered the women who had cut and run once they knew Ari's true nature. Most of the women she dated never even knew the truth; she waited until things got serious to drop the bomb. By that point, it just made it hurt all the more to have them run out.
She hoped that Jordan and Shelly were able to overcome the hurdle. She genuinely liked both of them. Still, it was a pretty big thing for a person to wrap their mind around. If there were any holiday miracles floating around, Ari hoped Jordan would get one of them.
Shelly stepped into the doorway of the bar and looked until she spotted Ari sitting in a booth. She took off her gloves as she sat, nervously folding them. "Sorry. I wasn't sure I wanted to come. I'm afraid of what you might be planning to tell me."
"Actually, I'm not going to tell you anything. I'm just here to confirm a story."
Shelly frowned, but Jordan suddenly appeared next to their table. "Hey, Shel."
"Jordan! I-I didn't... I didn't want you to--"
"It's okay," he said. "I know why you did it, and I'm sorry I've made you so suspicious." He put his hand on her shoulder and nodded toward a table at the back of the room. "We should talk in private."
Shelly looked at Ari, who nodded that it was okay. She picked up her gloves and followed Jordan across the room to the table.
Dale slipped from the bar and took the seat Shelly had just vacated. She put down a drink in front of Ari and looked across the room. "What do you think?"
"I don't know. I've learned not to be surprised by people and their prejudices. Or by what they'll accept." She shrugged and picked up her drink. "Could go either way."
Dale had a newspaper, and she split the sections with Ari while they waited. Ari did the crossword puzzle, while Dale pretended to read the City section. In reality they were both keeping an eye on Shelly and Jordan's conversation; Dale looking over the top of her paper and Ari using the mirror behind the bar. They both heard Shelly say, "What?!" and then laugh incredulously, but Jordan held her hand and kept speaking.
After a bit more explanation, Shelly looked over at Ari. Ari met her gaze and nodded, and Shelly looked at Jordan again.
"It's not looking good," Dale muttered.
"No," Ari admitted.
Shelly pushed her chair back and stared at Jordan before she stood and stormed across the room. She stopped next to the table and looked at her hands rather than meeting Ari's gaze.
"You... saw this. With your own eyes."
"Yes, I did," Ari said.
Shelly rubbed her forehead, started to say something, and then shook her head rapidly. "I can't do this. I'm sorry. I-I'll mail you the check for what I owe you. Thank you. I'm sorry." She turned and left the bar. Jordan crossed the room slowly, hands in his pockets, head hung.
"Sorry about that," Ari said.
"Better to know early, I guess," he said softly. He swallowed hard and then met Ari's gaze. "Thanks for being here."
"My pleasure," Ari said. "I wish it could have worked out better."
Jordan nodded. "You and me both." He started to walk away, but he returned and said, "I don't suppose you're single."
"For the moment," Ari said.
He looked at Dale and stuck his hands into his pockets. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to get a drink sometime."
Ari smiled. "Only if you wear a dress. But yeah, I'd go out with you."
He nodded. "It won't be any time soon. I just had to hear it after what I just went through. I'll see you around. And I promise, our next date will be more than just a hot dog."
Ari laughed. "Hey, don't knock the basics."
Jordan nodded to Dale before he left the bar. Dale raised an eyebrow at Ari and said, "Really?"
"What? I knew he wasn't really asking. The guy just had his heart broken. But you didn't see him as a woman. The other Jordan Hawkins is hot."
"Still, you'd date a woman who spends half her time as the opposite gender?"
Ari shrugged. "Think of the time we'd save fumbling for a strap-on."
Dale dropped her head to the table to cover her laughter.
The storm blew in later that night, dumping three inches of snow on every horizontal surface. The city took the excuse to shut down a few days early, and the world actually seemed calm for a while. Ari trekked through the storm on foot, not wanting to risk her car in the drifts, and arrived at the office a few minutes after noon on Christmas Day. Their frosted-glass front door was ringed with twinkling lights, and a menorah was lit in the window despite the fact Hanukkah was already over.
A small Yule log with three candles was standing on the table in the waiting area, and Dale's desk was bedecked with a wreath. Ari took off her scarf and hat and said, "Dale? You here?"
"Happy Solstikkah," Dale said, coming out of Ari's office with a plastic pitcher. She was wearing a green Christmas sweater, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. "Feel like some nog?"
"Is it Irish?"
"More liquor than dairy."
"Pour me a tall one," Ari said. She held up a sprig of mistletoe when Dale came near, and they kissed briefly on the lips. "Is there a turkey in there, too?"
"Turkey and ham both," Dale said. "Come on in."
Ari was surprised to see her office transformed into a small dining area. "Wow, you went all out."
"Eh, you know. My Mom used to dominate the holiday season. I wasn't allowed to help, because I was just a kid she knew how to do everything perfectly. So as soon as I got out on my own, I decided I was going to do it all myself. Maybe I went a little overboard; it is just the two of us."
"It's perfect." She squeezed Dale's arm with her free hand and put down the present she was carrying to take off her jacket. "Do you want to exchange presents now or after we eat?"
"Oh, now. For sure."
Ari held up the present and said, "Happy Hanukah. I didn't know if I was supposed to get eight things or--"
"One is fine. I have yours right here." She reached under Ari's desk and pulled out a large box. They exchanged the presents as they sat on either side of the folding table. Ari pushed her plate out of the way to make room for her gift. For a few seconds, the only sound was tearing paper and rustling as they opened the boxes.
Ari found her present first. It was a sterling silver bracelet, and Ari could barely speak to react to it. "Dale, it's... gorgeous."
"Look at the engraving."
Ari turned the bracelet over and read, "'Bless This Woman.'" She blinked and ran her thumb over the letters.
"I figured you couldn't wear it when you were working out in the field, but... maybe around the office, or at home. Out on dates." She smiled. "Maybe with that woman you met serving Mason's papers."
"Who, Gina?" Ari said. She put the bracelet on, admiring how it looked against her skin. "I haven't heard from her. I called, but she never called back. I'm kind of embarrassed about your gift now."
"Shut up, I'm going to love it." She pulled off the lid of the inner box and her smile faded. "Oh, Ari."
Ari said, "Is it rude to buy a new gift just to make up for--"
"No, Ari, it's... amazing." She lifted out the transparent teapot, turning it over carefully in her hands as she examined it. "What made you think of this?"
Ari shrugged. "I like coffee, so you brew coffee every morning. And you drink coffee because it's what we have. But when you go down to the café for lunch, or you get takeout, you always order tea. I don't know. I thought you'd like to have some tea in the office. It's a teaposy blossom..."
"I know; I've seen them." Dale's smile returned, bigger and brighter than before. "Thank you, Ari. This is so amazing, and thoughtful and... it's what I didn't know I wanted until I saw it."
Ari said, "Really? You're not just saying that?"
"No. No, this is fantastic. I'm fighting the urge to go brew a cup right now."
"Don't wait on my account," Ari said. "There are two cups in the box, too. Just in case you want to share. Go on, give it a trial run. I'll wait."
"Really?" Dale was already out of her seat. "I won't take too long."
"I'm just glad you like it."
"I love it." She stopped by Ari's chair and kissed her. "Thank you."
Ari held up her arm. "Thank you for the bracelet. It was really touching."
Dale smiled and said, "I'll be right back." She went out to the main room, still eyeing the teapot like it was a holy artifact.
Ari leaned back and fingered her bracelet, smiling at the sounds of Dale rearranging the refreshment table to make room for the new teapot. She'd never been a big holiday person; Solstice and Christmas and Hanukkah were for people who had close families and lots of friends. She was fine without it. But now that she had Dale in her life it was different.
A few minutes later, Dale came back. The radio on her desk had been turned on, and the faint sounds of Christmas music drifted into the office. Dale rubbed her hands together and said, "All right. Tea is brewing. Let's dig in while we're waiting, hm?"
"Sounds good to me." She picked up her glass of eggnog and said, "Here's to Bitches Investigation."
"Hear, hear," Dale said. They tapped their glasses together.
The music coming from Dale's desk was instrumental - Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Ari guessed. Ari took a sip of her eggnog and looked at her bracelet. Jordan and Shelly's break-up made her realize that she'd been taking Dale for granted. Dale accepted her, every part of her, without question or hesitation. Without Dale she would still be on the streets, or worse.
"Thanks, Dale. For everything you've done for me. For keeping me settled."
Dale said, "Thanks for giving me something to look forward to every day. If it wasn't for this job... I don't know where I'd be, either. We're better together."
"Never doubt it. Happy Hanukkah, Dale."
"Joyous Yule, Ariadne."
Ari took another sip of her eggnog before she put down the cup and picked up her silverware. Outside, the snow continued to fall. If it kept up, there was a chance that they would be trapped in the office over the weekend. From the looks of it, they had enough food. The tea would keep them warm. And if she did have to spend an entire day snowed in at the office, she could hardly think of anyone she would rather be trapped with.
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