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
Note: Every year, I'm pleased to be invited to play in the Invitational sandbox. And every year, I hope that my story lives up to the stories it gets posted alongside. Thanks to everyone for reading!
Copyright © 2010 Geonn Cannon
She was naked again. Of course.
Ari straightened, groaning as her bones shifted and her muscles popped. She felt like she'd run a marathon, her body soaked with sweat as she opened her eyes and scanned her surroundings. It was night, and the air was cold enough for her to see her breath. She was on a dead-end street with buildings on either side. The closest building had a security light that shone like a miniature sun so she could see that she was alone on the road. The street ended about a dozen yards ahead of her in an explosion of brush and a collapsed chain link fence. It took her a moment to get her bearings and realize where she was, and another few seconds to work out where she needed to go.
She ran to the end of the street and slipped through an opening in the fence. The ground on the other side was an overgrown baseball field. She crossed the neglected diamond and went to the concrete dugout on the far side of the sandlot. She dropped down into the bunker-like space, kicking aside dry, dead leaves and various debris left behind by high-schoolers.
Under the bench was an olive drab army duffel, but her hopes were crushed as soon as she saw the condition it was in. The material was soaked, the seams ripped out and claw marks revealing that her stash hadn't gone undisturbed by the local wildlife. She sighed and unzipped it anyway, hoping something might be salvageable within the depths.
The two T-shirts and her jeans were all ruined, ripped and soaked with urine of some damn canine looking to mark his territory. Fortunately she stocked each of her stashes with two changes of clothing, for occasions just like this. She dug deeper and withdrew the second pair of pants. At the very bottom of the pile, she found that her army jacket had miraculously survived completely unscathed.
She pulled on the jeans and her jacket, reaching into the pocket to find the cell phone. The battery was almost dead, but she prayed there was enough of a charge left to make one call. She dialed a familiar number and swept her hair out of her face as she looked back out across the baseball field. She wondered how late it was; there were hardly any cars on the road, and the entire world felt empty.
Her call was answered on the sixth ring with a muffled sound that might have been a greeting from the woman on the other end.
Ari said, "Dale. It's me. I need a pick up."
"The baseball field stash."
There was another muffled groan and then a sigh of acceptance. "A'right. It'll be a while. Thirty minutes, mebbe. Got clothes?"
"Barely," Ari said.
"I'll hurry," Dale said, already sounding more awake.
Ari hung up the phone and looked at the clock before sticking it into her pocket. Only a little past four in the morning. She decided to stay in the dugout a while longer before she went out to wait for Dale, and she took the opportunity to take stock of her injuries. Other than the typical lingering soreness after a transformation, she could feel three stinging lines running down her back. Scrapes, not very deep, probably just needed to be washed and bandaged. Her shoulder felt a little more tender than usual, and she rolled it slowly to check the range of motion. She closed her eyes and tried to remember the events of the night like a regular person would try to remember a dream.
She remembered running down the center of a street, loping easily along the pavement. A tall security fence. Crawling underneath it... that would be where the scrapes on her back came from. And... ah, yes. Twal. That was what the Doberman guard dog called himself in her mind, the mocking noise that overwhelmed her thinking as he strutted around the corner of the building and found her in his territory. Twal, twal, twal.
Ari had been told by several people that she was gorgeous in her canidae form. She retained her chestnut-colored hair and blue eyes. She didn't think it was fair that she had to deal with leering males of two different species.
Twal had been torn between his training and his animalistic instincts. Wanting to run her off while but also aroused by her mere presence. Ari let him get close enough to strike, and he had yelped as she pounced on him. After that, training took precedence. Protect the home. The scuffle was where her injured shoulder came from. She squeezed it with her hand as a pair of headlights swept across the dugout.
Ari climbed out into the night, assuming Dale had taken advantage of the empty streets to speed to her rescue. When she realized the new arrival was a police car, she was already exposed and it was far too late for her to run. She muttered a curse under her breath and held her hands out, palm-up, as she cautiously approached the cruiser.
The driver's side door opened and the cop stepped out. The door mounted spotlight rendered whoever it was into a vague silhouette against the slightly brighter night sky and Ari squinted into the light. "I can explain?"
The cop sighed. "Ariadne."
Ari closed her eyes and dropped her hands. "Officer Rios. You're back on the night shift."
The cop shut off the spotlight and Ari blinked away her sudden blindness. Diana Rios stepped forward and said, "It had been just long enough that I got the call and didn't immediately think you were involved. It never even crossed my mind when I heard a security alarm had been tripped and someone was seen fleeing into this field that my old friend might be sneaking around causing trouble again."
"Old friend?" Ari said. "Come on, we're more than that, right?"
Diana ignored her. "You didn't happen to be over by Bird Maintenance about an hour ago, were you?" She nodded toward the dead-end road nearby.
"You know, I was walking down that way not long ago. I saw a couple of dogs roughing each other up. They're probably what caused the alarm to go off."
Diana nodded slowly. "Sure, Ari." She turned on her flashlight and ran it down Ari's baggy army jacket and the ratty jeans. "Interesting outfit."
"You know me. Cutting edge of fashion."
"Interesting time for a walk, too."
Ari sighed. "What do you want me to say, Diana?"
"I want you to reassure me that you're not getting into trouble. But I also don't want you to tell me anymore lies, so I guess I don't want anything." She hesitated and then nodded toward the car. "You need a ride?"
Ari started to answer, but Dale chose that moment to pull into the gravel parking lot of the baseball field. Ari pointed at the car and said, "My chariot awaits."
"It's no use telling you to stay out of trouble, so I'll just ask that you try to keep out of it when I'm on duty."
"I'll do my best, Diana."
"Officer Rios," she corrected. "You gave up first-name privileges when you spent the night under false pretenses."
"My pretenses were good," Ari said. "I just took the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone."
"Yeah, the other bird being that you hacked into my computer and looked at sensitive information. I could have gotten fired for that."
Ari smiled. "Good thing the first bird made you really, really like me."
Even in the darkness, Ari knew that Diana was rolling her eyes and trying not to blush at the same time. "Go. Get in your friend's car. Drive away. Let me forget I ever saw you tonight."
"Thanks, Officer Rios."
Diana got back into her car, and Ari jogged across the field to where Dale had parked. Dale was wearing her horn-rimmed glasses instead of contacts, her red hair tucked under a baseball cap. She was still in her pink pajamas. Her face looked puffy with sleep as she unlocked the door so Ari could climb into the passenger seat.
Ari waited until Diana's car had turned around and left the lot before she spoke. "All right. Tell me what I did tonight." She could feel Dale's spidey-sense tingling, so she said, "I'll remember it all eventually, I just need a little help right now, okay? I'm fine. No more blackouts."
Dale said, "You're sure?"
"Positive," Ari said. The blackouts were the worst part of going canidae. Long stretches where the animal part of her brain completely took over and she wasn't aware of what she was doing or who she really was. They were rare, but troubling.
Dale finally said, "You dropped off a listening device in the offices of Bird Maintenance, the owner and operator being Mr. Anthony Bird." She glanced at Ari's blank expression and elaborated. "Anthony Bird, who fired our client Jessica French for unspecified reasons two weeks ago. We're going to listen in on his search for a replacement and determine whether or not--"
"He fired her because she was pregnant. Right, I remember now." She rubbed her shoulder. "Wish I'd known he had a guard dog."
Dale said, "Did you have a tussle?"
"He was more horny than vicious. A couple of good tackles and he decided I was too much woman for him."
Dale smirked. "A lesson we've all learned in our time."
Ari chuckled and sank down in her seat. "Wake me when we get back to the office."
The fogged glass of their office door had the word BITCHES written in large black letters that arched over the smaller word 'investigations.' Dale turned on the light behind the reception desk and Ari went into her office. She unbuttoned her army jacket and took a spare blouse out of the wardrobe in the far corner. Dale followed her into the office and said, "Need a rubdown?"
"Ah, I'm fine."
"I saw you wincing in the car. Go on, sit on the floor."
Ari sighed and gave in. She dropped the shirt and followed Dale to the couch. She sat cross-legged on the floor, and Dale sat behind her. Ari closed her eyes as Dale began to massage the tight muscles of her shoulders. "You got a trio of nasty scrapes back here."
"Sliding under the fence," Ari said. "It's mainly the usual aches and pains."
Dale worked the muscles with her thumbs and Ari sagged forward. Transforming was a torturous procedure; it was like having her entire skeletal system placed in a vice and squeezed into a different arrangement. Her shoulder blades expanded out and then inward, her ribs contracted, her hips twisted, and every bone in her feet twisted into a longer and thinner arrangement. Her muscles followed the new arrangement like rubber bands tied to chopsticks, pulled right up to the breaking point before they relaxed. The sides of her jaw would break and constrict around her tongue, expanding her lower skull into a snout.
Changing back into a human was the same pain, only in reverse. Her body accepted the new arrangement and almost seemed to resent being forced back to the way it had been born. So every switch left her feeling like she'd gone twenty rounds with a heavyweight boxer. Having a licensed masseuse as her receptionist helped immensely.
"Was Lisa mad?" Ari asked without opening her eyes.
"I don't know," Dale said. "It's a few hours later in Chicago, so she might be up. You could call and ask her."
"Ah, shit," Ari said. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. It actually wasn't your fault."
Ari scoffed. "Sure. The four AM wake-up calls were a big hit with her. She was convinced we were sleeping together."
Dale said, "She would know the signs."
"She was fucking her boss."
Ari winced. "You're kidding."
"When I kid, I make myself look better. If I was kidding, I would have said that I kicked her out because I realized we weren't going anywhere." She worked the muscles of Ari's back and then reached for the end table and applied a dollop of oil. Ari groaned as the oil warmed against her skin, and then Dale's palm worked it into her tired muscles. "I didn't even figure it out myself. I work with a private eye, and I had to be told my girl was sleeping around."
Dale said, "No, that's not the pathetic thing. I told her it wasn't a big deal. I offered to share."
Ari laughed. "You did not."
"I really liked her."
The sadness in Dale's voice hit Ari hard. "I'm sorry, D."
"It's all right. Thanks to you, I know there's always one woman who'll need me in the middle of the night."
"You deserve better than that."
"If we all got what we deserved, we'd all be movie stars." She patted Dale's back and said, "You're all done, unless you want me to bandage up those scrapes."
Ari grunted as she pushed herself up. "No, thanks." She picked up her shirt and pulled it on, buttoning it before she turned to face Dale. "I think I'll just crash on the couch. You go on home."
Dale shook her head. "I'm already up for the day. I'll just leave early this afternoon." She hooked her finger toward her desk. "I'll keep an ear on the listening device to see if Mr. Bird incriminates himself before breakfast."
"Thanks, Dale. And hey, don't worry about Lisa. You deserve someone who'll be happy with you and no one else."
"Thanks. Sleep well, boss."
Dale shut off the light as she left the office, and Ari dropped onto the couch and crossed her arm over her face. She was asleep before Dale got her computer booted up for the day.
"Bitches Investigations," Dale said. "No, I'm sorry, she's not in. Could I take a message?"
Ari was on her side, curled in the fetal position. Her dreams had been disjointed memories, flashes of her rampages as a canidae. Sometimes she worried that she kicked and twitched in her sleep like dogs, but so far no one who shared her bed had complained. She rolled onto her back and stretched. The large clock on the wall behind her desk said that it was nearly eleven in the morning, and she forced herself to sit up and leave the comfort of the couch.
Dale hung up and looked over her shoulder as Ari came out of the office. "Fresh coffee?"
Dale pointed at the break table. Ari crossed the room and poured a cup for herself, drinking half of it before she attempted speech again. "Anything on Bird?"
"He has four male employees. I think I've heard enough male bonding to confirm I'm only interested in women."
Ari smiled. "Let me know if anything changes. Who was on the phone?"
"Potential client." Dale held up the memo slip. "Feeling up to it?"
"What else am I going to do this morning? Sleep?" She took the memo and went into her office. "Can you run down to the dry-cleaners and pick up my things? I'll schedule a meeting for after lunch."
"Will do. Want me to get some lunch for us while I'm out?"
"Get whatever you like. Use my credit card."
Dale pressed a button on the phones and said, "Calls will go straight to your desk."
"Thank you, D."
She sat down and put her feet up on the desk, massaging the bridge of her nose as she tried to arrange her thoughts. She figured she had spent almost five hours as a canidae the night before. She hated those marathon transformations for many reasons, not the least of which she wasn't entirely sure what she'd spent all that time doing. Her mind wasn't always reliable when it came to remembering her activities in the other form. It was better than her first change when she was thirteen, when she'd returned to human form convinced that she'd lost her mind, but fortunately her mother had been there to help her through it.
After that, her world was split between a normal, real life and training with her mother. They roamed the streets at night, the elder wolf teaching the younger how to avoid detection. She taught Ari how to stash clothes in convenient places, in case the transformation ended before she was ready. All that garbage about full moons was just from the movies. A true canidae could transform at will. Changing back to human took a bit more effort and concentration. Usually it was easier to just let it happen naturally.
She opened her eyes and saw that she'd been dozing for nearly fifteen minutes. She dropped her feet from the desk and picked up the phone to call the potential client Dale had spoken to earlier to set up a meeting.
By the time their client arrived, Ari had changed into what she called her respectable businesswoman outfit. A white blouse under a gray vest and a knee-length black skirt. Dale greeted Roberta Sampson, and Ari came out of her office and offered a smile. "Thank you for coming down to see us, Mrs. Sampson. I'm Ariadne Willow, and this is my partner Dale Frye."
Mrs. Sampson smiled and nodded a greeting to Dale. "I'm a bit nervous. I feel ridiculous coming to you like this. I wasn't even going to call anyone, I was just looking in the phone book to see if there was actually a service or if it was just something from the movies. I saw your name, and I thought..." She blinked back tears. "I thought it was something my daughter would get a kick out of."
"Your daughter?" Ari said.
"Rebecca. She turned twenty last month, so I suppose she's entitled to make her own decisions. But I just... I can't help being worried."
Dale gestured for Mrs. Sampson to go into Ari's office and said, "Why don't you just start from the beginning, Mrs. Sampson?"
Mrs. Sampson sat on the couch and withdrew a well-worried handkerchief from her purse. "Rebecca lived at home until she was eighteen, and then she moved into a small apartment so she could work her way through college. Independence, that sort of thing. We were so proud of her, my husband and I. She would come back home to do laundry, and she stayed in touch until... about a year ago. She stopped calling and stopped coming by. Finally I went to her apartment and discovered she had moved out.
"I was panicked until one day, out of the blue, she just showed up at home with another load of laundry. I was livid, as you can imagine. I demanded to know where she had moved, and she refused to tell me. The girl who told me everything growing up wouldn't even tell me where she was sleeping at night. So we argued. Eventually, she told me. She was living with a woman. They were lovers."
She dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief and took a trembling breath. "I don't have a problem with... that sort of relationship. If Rebecca is happy, then I'm happy for her. She's made her own decisions and she can deal with the fallout. If there is fallout, I mean. I just... I don't want her to be hurt. I want to make sure that she's okay. I want to know if this woman is taking advantage of her."
Ari said, "I'm sorry, but... what exactly do you want us to do?"
"Watch them. Observe how they are in public. I know that if I tried to see what they were like, they'd just put on a performance. I want a third party opinion. If you don't find anything, I can relax. I can start to mend my relationship with my daughter and we can get past this. But if she is being hurt..."
"I think we can handle that," Ari said. "Dale will explain our expenses and rates. It shouldn't take us very long to make a determination, once we start observing them."
"I want three days, minimum," Mrs. Sampson said. "Just to be sure."
Ari said, "That's doable. Dale?"
"Step out into the main office and we'll make the proper arrangements." She escorted Mrs. Sampson to the door and turned to Ari. Ari nodded, and Dale closed her door behind her. Ari went to the window and crossed her arms over her chest. She was still lost in thought when Dale came back into the office. "Get everything settled?"
"She gave us a check for five days," Dale said. "She'll write another to cover our expenses. When do you want to start?"
Ari turned around. "Did she tell you where to find Rebecca and this mystery lover?"
Dale held up a notepad, along with a few photographs for visual identification.
"Then let's go for an afternoon walk."
There was an al fresco café a few blocks from the address Mrs. Sampson gave them. They both ordered coffee and took a seat close enough to the sidewalk so they could watch the passersby. Dale had her laptop out, and Ari contented herself with people watching. After a few minutes of silence, Dale said, "I noticed you were pretty caught up in the mother's story."
"She just wants to make sure her daughter is safe," Ari said. "I can respect that."
"Is that all it is?"
Ari sighed and straightened in her seat. "Okay, the story struck a nerve. How much detail do you want?"
"As much as you're willing to give. You know me, little miss nosy."
Ari grinned. "Okay. When I first left home, I lived on the street for a few years. I was nineteen when I met this woman named Evangeline. She saw me in a diner, one of the few times I actually had money for food, and told me that she knew what I was, and she could offer me a place to stay until I found a job and got back on my feet. She looked rich... smelled rich, too. I knew there were strings attached, but I didn't really have a lot of options. I agreed, and she took me home. Big mansion. I had a little guest house out back all to myself."
"And it must have worked out wonderfully, because you're still there now?" Dale said. "I assume you found out what the strings were pretty fast. Sex?"
"I was actually hoping for sex. Evangeline was a beautiful woman, and I figured if the worst thing I had to do was make love to a beautiful woman, then I was on easy street. But it wasn't quiet that simple. You know, I've never actually told anyone this whole story before."
Dale said, "We can leave it there if you want."
"No, it's fine." She shifted in her seat and looked down into her coffee. "Like I said, Evangeline knew what I was. She could smell it or something. She was from the old country and had some sort of sense when it came to this." She cleared her throat. "She wanted me to be the wolf. She would take me for walks, pet me, have me curl up on the couch with her when she watched TV... I was basically her pet. I wore a leash and everything. The only time she wanted me human in her presence was when we were having sex."
Dale grimaced. "Oh, God. Did you..." She touched her throat.
"Yeah, I wore the leash and collar when we were having sex. That was part of the kink, I guess."
"Wait, if that's true, then you must have been in wolf form for..."
"About nineteen, twenty hours a day."
Dale's eyes widened. "Holy shit. How did you not go completely insane?"
Ari shrugged. "I did. A little bit. I started to be less than human even when I wasn't the wolf. I didn't particularly like myself at that time, so I was fine with being... nothing. But eventually I realized how sick it was, and I finally got up the courage and told Evangeline I had to go away. She was fine with it. I think she'd been expecting it. So she gave me some money and wished me well. I used the money to get a PI license, trained with Glory, and rented our office with what was leftover."
Dale whistled and shook her head. "Did you ever see Evangeline again?"
"Once. She was out walking her dog. Well, a dog."
Dale shuddered. "That is some messed up shit."
Ari shrugged again. "I don't judge. Evangeline was a nice enough woman. She treated me very well, gave me a warm place to sleep. And when I had enough, she let me go. There are a lot worse things out there than some bizarre fetishes."
"That's why you agreed to find Rebecca Sampson. You really just want to make sure she's being treated well."
"Yeah." She watched Dale and said, "What?"
"Nothing. Just remembering why I work for you, that's all."
Ari smiled and looked down the street. A blonde girl had just stepped out of the building they were watching. She pulled a pair of sunglasses from the collar of her shirt and slipped them on before she stepped from the entryway and started walking.
"That's our girl, right?" Ari said.
"Rebecca Sampson, in the flesh."
Ari took off her sunglasses and sat them on the table. "All right. You follow her on foot. I'll check out the apartment. Did you get the signs?"
Dale tapped the stack of paper next to her laptop and said, "Ready to go. Are you sure you'll be all right?"
Ari gave her a thumbs-up and dropped a few bills on the table as they stood to leave. She went into the alley while Dale went down the street to fall in behind the departing Rebecca Sampson. All the apartment buildings on the street had fire escapes, and it didn't take Ari long to reach the one for Rebecca's building. She pulled down the ladder and scaled the three flights to the apartment number Mrs. Sampson had given them.
She looked inside to make sure Rebecca's lover wasn't home before she jimmied the latch and stepped inside. The area under the window was a library, and Ari took a moment to examine the books lining the walls all around her. A nice mix of fiction and biographies, and quite a few law books. There was a photo on the table of Rebecca Sampson and an older blonde woman, cheeks pressed together. They were on the pier, the water stretching out behind them. They looked happy, but photos could be misleading.
There was a bedroom, but it was full of clothing. Ari could hardly believe the amount of clothes piled on the floor and stuffed into the open closet, and wondered if there was another half dozen residents in the apartment that she didn't know about. The foldout couch in the living room was still in bed-mode, the sheets and blankets tangled together on the mattress. Ari ignored the sex paraphernalia on the floor next to the bed as she continued her search. She wasn't exactly sure what she hoped to find. Even if there were shackles on the wall and a leather dominatrix mask, the items themselves didn't mean the sex wasn't consensual. Maybe Rebecca really liked being tied up and she just didn't bother mentioning that to her mother.
She just wanted to see if there were big, glaring signs of trouble before she took the next, drastic step. The apartment looked like a place where any nineteen year old would call home. The lover looked to be a bit older, but if she was dating a teenager, all bets could be off when it came to maturity.
Ari gave the apartment another once-over before she went back to the window. She took a shopping bag from the floor beside Rebecca's desk and carried it with her as she left. She scaled the fire escape down to the alley and looked around to make sure she was alone. She moved between two dumpsters and began to undress. She folded her clothes neatly and placed them in the shopping bag. When she was naked, she slid the bag behind a drain pipe, hopefully where it would go unnoticed until Dale came and retrieved it for her.
She rolled her shoulders, closed her eyes, and focused. She had tried to explain the process dozens of times, to Dale and to her mother and to partners... it was very hard to compare to any normal situation. The closest comparison she could make was that it was like forcing yourself to fall asleep. Eyes closed, mind quiet, focusing on relaxation. Only in this case, it was more like seeking a signal. That other part of her that she kept hidden so much of the time.
Much like falling asleep, it was hard to tell when the process began. One minute she was standing between the dumpsters, and the next she was curled in pain. God, how she had hoped it would stop hurting with time. When she was a teenager, going through her first transformations, she'd survived by telling herself that eventually her body would get used to it. No such luck. Her bones had to break and reset with every switch, and that never got less painful.
Her back broke. Her shoulders shifted. The bones of her hands spread and expanded. She arched her back as her flesh rippled and was replaced by a thick hide. Hair burst from her, covering her with a flowing pelt of fur that matched her normal hair color. She dropped to her hands as her knees snapped and turned backward. Her feet became paws. Her teeth retracted and fangs took their place.
Her mind worked different when she was the wolf. She knew her job, however, and it was easier to keep focused during the day. She shook her entire body, stretched, and looked around to make sure no one had wandered into the alley during her transformation. Satisfied she had been unseen, she left the alley and trotted down the sidewalk toward the entrance of Rebecca's building.
She found a shady spot behind a potted plant, curled up with her head on her paws, and looked down the street in the direction Rebecca had gone. Now all she could do was wait and hope Dale followed through on her part of the plan.
A few people stopped as they came out of the building to coo at her, rubbing her head and scratching between her shoulder blades. She didn't mind. Being petted was similar to the massages Dale gave her after a rough transformation, and she welcomed it.
It was almost two hours before she saw Rebecca walking toward her. The blonde from the photo was with her, an arm looped around Rebecca's elbow. The girlfriend was leaning in, looking at the iPhone or iPad or i-whatever the newest thing was that Rebecca had in her hands, smiling at something on the screen. She laughed, and Rebecca tucked the phone into her pocket as they approached the building.
Ari emerged from behind the plant with a timid whimper, lowering her ears against her skull and trying for puppy-dog eyes. She could never pull them off as a person, but maybe actually being a dog would help. Rebecca glanced down and then her eyes widened slightly. "Oh, God, Alicia, look. It's that lady's doggie."
Way to go, Dale.
Rebecca crouched in front of her and rubbed Ari's head. "Hello, Princess. Your mommy is looking all over for you. She's very, very worried."
Alicia was looking back the way they had come, her own cell phone in her hand. "Do you remember the number on her poster?"
"Yeah, I put it on my phone." Rebecca pulled her phone out and handed it over her head to Alicia. Alicia dialed and reached down to pet Ari as well, scratching her ear.
"Hello, Ms. Frye? We just met about an hour ago down on Houston? Yeah, the blondes." Rebecca smiled at the reference and kept petting Ari. "We just got home, and your dog is here. Yeah, she seems just fine. We're on Seventh Street, in a building called the Commodore. If-- Oh, no. Damn..."
Rebecca looked up. "What is it?"
"She just got into a cab heading uptown. She has class in fifteen minutes, and it's going to go late. Um... look, we'd have to take the dog upstairs anyway, so why don't we just keep an eye on her for you tonight. You can come pick her up in the morning. No, it's no problem at all. Well, great."
Rebecca was nuzzling Ari's face now, the one thing Ari hated about people/dog relations. What on earth possessed people to put their mouths next to a dog's? "Hear that, girl? You're gonna stay with us tonight. That'll be fun, huh? Yeah, I think you'll like it."
Alicia finished talking to Dale and handed Rebecca's phone back. "You can go ahead and take her upstairs. I'm going to run down to the store and get some food for the poor thing. She's probably starved to death."
Probably not much chance you're going to get me a Big Mac, I bet.
"I'll see you upstairs," Alicia said.
They kissed each other briefly before they parted. Rebecca guided Ari to the door and into the lobby. Ari's nails clicked on the tile, and she obediently followed Rebecca to the stairs.
"Wow, you're a really good puppy, aren't you? Huh?" She chuckled and continued to lead the way.
When they got to the apartment, Rebecca unlocked the door and guided Ari inside. She paused at the threshold and looked around, brow furrowed as she tried to place what was wrong. Ari watched her, but Rebecca shook off whatever inkling she felt and closed the door. "Sorry about the mess, Princess."
So. Dale told them my name was Princess. I'm definitely firing her.
Ari walked across the apartment while Rebecca tidied up as best she could. She gathered the sex toys off the bed and dumped them into a drawer, then tugged the blankets up over the mattress. Ari wandered through the front room, trying to find a comfortable spot where she could observe without being too obvious about it. She climbed onto an armchair between the living room and the kitchen and sat down while Rebecca went into the kitchen and searched the fridge.
"Looks like Alicia got her wish, Princess," Rebecca said. "She's been going on and on about dogs being substitutes for babies and how we have to take care of a dog to see if we can really adopt a little baby." She walked back into the room and sat on the arm of the chair. She petted Ari and said, "Dogs and babies are completely different. But you know that, huh?"
Ari made a noise in her throat and Rebecca chuckled.
"Yeah." She bent down and kissed Ari's head. "Still, it could be nice. Me and her being mommies. We'll just take care of you tonight, and Alicia will see that we can do it."
Ari put her head down on her paws. Probably not what you'd call definitive evidence, but planning for a baby was enough to make Ari worry she had just wasted her entire night.
Ari looked up with dread when Alicia came back. She'd eaten some hideous things in her canidae form, but fortunately she didn't remember most of them. She only knew that the animal side of her brain had succumbed to hunger by a particularly queasy stomach the following day, and she always tried to avoid looking in the toilet after she threw up. Some things were better left unknown. So she eyed the bag in Alicia's hand and wondered if it was too late to pretend she was already full from eating out of a trash can.
"Hey, babe," Rebecca said. She was sitting on the foldout with her laptop, working on something for school.
"Hey." Alicia bent down and kissed her hello. "I got Chinese for dinner."
Ari's stomach growled. Maybe they'd let the dog have some leftovers.
"And for our lovely houseguest... I thought I'd spoil her a little bit. She's had a rough day, getting lost and spending the night with strangers." She took a package of premium dog food from the sack and held it out for Ari to investigate. Ari had never tried it, but it looked good enough. She was willing to give it a try.
Rebecca said, "Hon, her name is Princess. I think she's used to being spoiled."
"Well, it's a good thing I didn't get the dry dog food, then." She carried the food into the kitchen, making plates for herself and Rebecca before she served up Ari's meal. She sat it on the floor and carried the two bowls of Chinese to the bed. "How's the report?"
Rebecca sighed heavily and took off her glasses.
"That well?" Alicia said. She picked up the laptop and set it aside. "Dinner first. What do you want to watch, 30 Rock or Project Runway?"
"We have an entire season of Project Runway. That's daunting. Cue up Tina Fey."
They settled in and Ari watched as Alicia aimed the remote control at the TV. She scrolled down a menu, and an episode of the sitcom began. She'd heard of that device, thought it was kind of like a VCR, and decided she had to see about getting one. She was still stuck in the first season of Mad Men. She looked down at her dinner, sniffed it warily, and decided that she paid to eat food that smelled worse, so she would be a snob to turn down a free meal.
The three of them ate, Ari keeping on eye on the women. So far they seemed like a normal couple; loving and happy, considerate of each other. They shared their meal and, when Rebecca had a coughing fit, Alicia went into the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of water for her.
They made it through two episodes of the sitcom before Rebecca declared herself full. Alicia carried their cartons into the kitchen and looked down at Ari's plate as she passed. "Do you think we have to take her for a walk or something?"
Ari took that as her cue. She walked to the window and stood on her back legs, pawing at the glass. Rebecca stared at her and said, "What is she doing?"
Alicia went over and pushed the window open. Ari crawled out onto the fire escape.
"Keep an eye on her! If she falls to her death, that girl will kill us both."
Alicia crawled out after her and Ari moved to the stairs. She moved quickly down to the ladder that led to the alley floor. She eased herself onto the rungs, her weight dragging the ladder all the way down to where she could drop easily to the pavement.
"Becca, you gotta come and see this," Alicia said.
Ari moved behind a dumpster and pretended to go about her business. If the girls thought she could take care of herself, hopefully they would leave the window open so she could roam freely once they went to bed. Maybe find a Big Mac to get the taste of dog food out of her mouth. It may have been expensive and fancy, but kibble was kibble. She returned to the ladder, jumped, and scaled the rungs with relative ease.
Rebecca and Alicia were both at the window when she returned. They applauded her, scratched her neck and expressed their amazement at her ability to climb a ladder, and then guided her back into the apartment. "Looks like you're quite the little acrobat. No wonder you got away from your mommy."
Ari let herself be led back to the armchair she'd claimed as her own. Rebecca went back to her laptop, and Alicia busied herself in the kitchen with the dishes from dinner. The whole situation was heartwarmingly domestic. She pretended to sleep while Alicia finished with the dishes and went to take a shower.
In the morning, she would be handed over to Dale. Then they would surreptitiously follow Rebecca and Alicia just to make sure everything was on the up and up. But she doubted they would find anything nefarious to report. Rebecca seemed happy with Alicia. Alicia seemed to truly love Rebecca. Not only would the case be easy, she had the bonus of getting to tell Mrs. Sampson that her daughter really was happy.
Ari didn't realize she had fallen asleep until she realized the apartment had suddenly gotten dark. She lifted her head and looked around, finding the only source of light was coming from the bathroom. Alicia and Rebecca were both in bed, moving underneath the blankets and giggling quietly.
"Not in front of the dog."
"You think we'll traumatize the pup?"
Rebecca laughed. "It's a stranger's dog! It feels weird."
Alicia shifted and pulled the blankets up over their heads. "I just hope she doesn't start howling along with you. We get enough complaints from the neighbors as it is."
More giggling, and then Rebecca began to moan.
Exit, stage right, Ari thought. She looked over her shoulder and saw the window was open just enough for her to slip out. Ari left the chair and crossed the kitchen, climbing outside just as Rebecca started to get very vocal.
Ari climbed down the fire escape to the alley and crouched behind the dumpster. She stifled a cry of pain as she transformed back to her normal state, clutching a drain pipe as she panted and tried to catch her breath. She was dripping with sweat and her eyes refused to focus. She'd pushed it. Hours as a canidae took their toll. She closed her eyes and recited poems in her head, slowly forcing her mental tracks back into human. She liked Emily Dickinson and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
She checked for the bag of her clothes and saw Dale hadn't retrieved it yet. She took it down and put on her blouse and pants, not bothering with underwear. She carried the bag out of the alley and headed to an all-night diner down the street. She spotted Dale's car outside and quickened her pace, nearly running when she got to the door.
Dale was sitting in the booth farthest from the door, sipping coffee and reading a novel. Ari motioned at the woman behind the counter for a cup of coffee and slipped into the booth across from her assistant.
"I figured you might find a way to sneak out, so I left the clothes."
"Thank you," Ari said. She reached across the table and Dale took her hand. She squeezed and suppressed a shudder, but she still grunted.
Dale said, "I knew it." She rubbed the back of Ari's hand. "You pushed it too far. What are the symptoms?"
"Fine, I'm fine," Ari said. The waitress dropped off Ari's coffee. "Could I also get a burger, medium rare, and fries? Thank you." She waited until the woman shuffled off before she turned back to Dale. "I'm fine. It's just been a while since I had one of these marathons."
Dale was always concerned there was a tipping point, a time when Ari would spend too much time as a canidae and be unable to get back. Ari always ridiculed her concerns, unwilling to admit that she feared the exact same thing. She stroked the back of Dale's hand and closed her eyes. The knowledge that she was human, that she was observed and acknowledged as human, calmed her nerves and she soon stopped trembling.
"Have you found anything for Mrs. Sampson?"
"They're boring," Ari said. "They're a boring, in-love couple. Alicia, the girlfriend, wants to get a dog as a test to get a baby."
"That's a good idea," Dale said.
Ari frowned. "No, it's not. A dog isn't a baby."
"Well, the responsibility..."
"Is totally different."
Dale said, "Regardless. So your first blush?"
"I don't think Mrs. Sampson has anything to worry about." She sipped her coffee. "Tomorrow after they give me back to you, we'll split up and follow them. I'll go with Alicia to see how she spends her day. You keep an eye on Rebecca."
"All right. Are you sure you can manage this? I can call the girls and tell them you left their apartment and showed up at my place."
Ari shook her head. "I can manage. I just need an hour or so as myself, a good meal, and I'll be ready to head back."
"If you say so," Dale said.
"And you," Ari added. "You'll stay with me, right?"
Dale smiled. "Yeah, as long as you need me here."
Ari hated sleeping in the wolf form. She was always unsure exactly who she was when she woke up, confused about where she was. She stretched and looked around the apartment, her mind wavering between human and canidae before settling on the correct side. She yawned loudly and clambered off the armchair, moving toward the foldout couch. Rebecca and Alicia were spooning and Ari realized that Rebecca was awake and watching Alicia sleep. Ari started to back away, but Rebecca clicked her tongue and motioned her up onto the mattress.
Ugh, just a normal thing dog owners do, she said. It would only be weird if you were human.
She climbed onto the bed and Rebecca scratched her head. "Hey. Look at my beautiful girlfriend. Isn't she lovely?"
Ari chuffed her response and Rebecca chuckled.
"What do you know, pup? Come here."
Ari reluctantly lay down across Alicia's lower body, resting her paws on the older woman's hip. It's not kinky, she reminded herself. Not kinky at all.
"Hey," Alicia muttered as she woke up. "I said I wasn't into threesomes."
If she could have, Ari would have rolled her eyes.
"That's okay. I don't think she's too impressed with you."
Alicia rolled onto her back and scratched Ari's side. "Snob."
Rebecca looked at the clock. "Babe, I have to get to class. Can you set up the meeting with Dale?"
"Sure. I kind of hate to give the girl up."
Rebecca pushed herself up against the headboard and chewed her bottom lip as she looked at Ari. "You know, I was thinking about it last night. Your idea that we should get a puppy or something. I think... it would be a good thing."
Alicia turned to her. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Rebecca said. "I know you thought that my hesitation was because I didn't want to be tied down to you, or whatever. The whole age difference. But I just really wanted to be sure we were both ready. And I think we are."
Alicia pulled Rebecca to her for a kiss.
"We'll go check out shelters after you get off work." Rebecca said. "Say five?"
"Yeah. Then we can get dinner while we're out, too."
Rebecca nodded. "Okay. I have to go shower before class." She kissed Alicia again before she slipped out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom.
Alicia waited until she heard the water start before she wrapped her arms around Ari's neck and hugged her in an almost violent manner. Ari resisted the urge to yelp and squirm away, willing to submit to the woman's happiness. Alicia chuckled and kissed the side of Ari's head. "Looks like you're my lucky charm, Princess. Thank you."
Ari was grateful that Alicia didn't have a leash, and she obediently followed her down the street to the same diner where she'd met with Dale the night before. Dale was waiting outside and smiled brightly when she spotted Alicia coming toward her. "Hi! Oh, my God, you're such a life safer. I was so worried about her."
"I don't know why," Alicia said. "She is an amazing dog. Quiet and no trouble whatsoever."
Dale crouched in front of Ari and petted her. "Hey, girl. Did you miss me?"
Ari licked Dale's face, and Dale narrowed her eyes at her.
"You have to let me reimburse you," Dale said. "You must have bought food, or taken the time to walk her or... let me give you something."
"No, please. It was a pleasure. And she kind of helped me win a stand-off with my girlfriend or something. I feel like I should pay you for letting me borrow her for the night." She reached down and stroked Ari's back. "Thanks for coming to see us for a little while, Princess. You're a good pup."
"She's definitely one in a million. Thank you again."
Alicia finally let Ari go, possibly only because she was due at work, and Ari followed Dale away from the diner. They went down an alley and Dale waited until the foot traffic died down before she nodded for Ari to go ahead and change. Thirty seconds later, Ari was slumped against the brick wall and Dale had a jacket wrapped around her shoulders.
"It's all right. Just breathe."
Dale pushed Ari's hair out of her face and watched her eyes. "You really spent twenty hours at a time as a canidae when you were with Evangeline?"
"Yeah," Ari said. "I was much younger then."
Dale smirked. "Not that much younger. What was that lick about?"
"Sorry," Dale said. "I couldn't help myself. It was either Princess or Miss Snuggles."
When Ari could stand on her own, Dale opened her backpack and handed out the clean clothes she'd gathered from Ari's apartment. Ari dressed quickly and pushed her hair out of her face. She led Dale out of the alley and looked in the direction Alicia had gone. "Mrs. Sampson paid us for three days, but I really don't think it'll be necessary to follow them that whole time. There's a miniscule chance I caught them on the most loving day of their lives, but... I really don't think you can fake that."
"What do you want to do instead?"
Ari sighed. "Let's try the truth."
The dogs paraded to the front of their cages and peered up at Ari, trying to figure out her scent. She bared her teeth at a few of them, but they were too cute for her to get too angry. She was crouched in front of one cage, letting a Maltese sniff her fingers, when Alicia and Rebecca showed up. They were holding hands, whispering to each other as they scanned the dogs in the cages. Ari stood up and brushed her hands on her jeans as she casually moved toward them.
"...none of the breeds really look like Princess did, though. She was such an unusual dog. Maybe a mixed breed." Rebecca realized Ari was standing nearby and offered a friendly smile. "Hello."
"Hi. My problem is not just taking them all home."
"Tell me about it. I'm Rebecca Sampson, and this is my partner. Alicia."
Alicia and Ari shook hands, and Alicia furrowed her brow. "You look so familiar."
"I just have one of those faces," Ari said. She turned to face the row of cages, a few feet to Rebecca's right. They scanned the puppies for a moment in silence before Ari said, "Rebecca, your mother hired me."
Both women froze before Rebecca slowly turned to face her. "What did you say?"
"My name is Ariadne Willow. I'm a private investigator. Your mother hired me to observe how you and Alicia acted in public because she was concerned about you. She was worried that you hadn't told her anything about your new relationship, and she was afraid you might be in trouble. I only watched you for a day before I decided it wasn't really necessary to prolong the surveillance. It's obvious that the two of you are in love."
Alicia put her hand on Rebecca's shoulder, a move of support rather than control. Rebecca covered Alicia's hand with her own and ducked her chin.
"You're obviously in a consensual relationship... and to be honest, I wish I had someone who cared for me as much as Alicia seems to care for you. I'm going to tell your mother that you're happy, and you're safe. But that will only go so far."
Rebecca shook her head. "Mom... doesn't like the idea that I'm with a woman. Let alone a woman fifteen years older than me."
"Then change Alicia from 'the older woman' to a real person. You can only do that by introducing her. Let your mom get used to the idea of you being in love with Alicia by showing her that it's not just some fling."
Rebecca swallowed and looked over her shoulder at Alicia. Alicia shrugged. "I've been telling you that I really want to meet your mother. Maybe it's time, Bec."
"Yeah, I guess so." She wiped her eyes and looked at Ari again. "Thank you for telling me."
Ari smiled. "I don't like padding my bill. Good luck picking a dog." She stepped past them, but she stopped at the door and turned around. "Could you just do me one favor? Whichever one you pick, don't name it Princess."
Rebecca and Alicia frowned at each other as Ari left the shelter.
"How'd she take it?" Ari asked.
"Pissed at first," Dale said. "But she understood why you did it. Rebecca called her and they're planning a big night out next weekend so she can get to know Alicia. The important thing, for us anyway, is that she agreed to pay us the original amount. All three days of surveillance."
Ari clapped her hands from where she lay on the waiting room couch. "Yay. Almost makes it worth eating dog food."
Dale wrinkled her nose. "The things you do for a paycheck."
"That's nothing. This was actually an easy case. Speaking of slimy things, did you get a chance to listen to any of the stuff we got from Bird Maintenance?"
"I listened to it yesterday. Interesting stuff. He wants to set up interviews, but he told his office manager to be sure they didn't get someone who might 'pull the same shit.'"
"No one who will get pregnant. He actually showed a preference for, his words and not mine, uggos and fatties."
Ari rolled her eyes. "I'm going to enjoy nailing this asshole."
"Some things are better than getting a paycheck. We can focus on that tomorrow. You've had a long day. How's..." She tapped her forehead.
"Settled for the most part. I'm completely me again. For better or for worse."
Dale smiled and turned back to her computer. She typed a few more words and then leaned back in her chair. She looked at the frosted glass of their office door and said, "Can I ask you a personal question? About the thing you told me, about Evangeline?"
"You may ask, I might not answer."
"Fair enough." She hesitated, debating how to phrase her question. "You were a canidae most of the time. How could it have been a fully consensual relationship if you were barely in your right mind?"
"I made the agreement when I was myself. Evangeline probably did take advantage of me, but we both benefited from the arrangement. You could say that I was taking advantage of her by staying in her house and eating her food. And when I was done, I just walked away with a pocketful of her money. If anyone got used in that relationship, I'd say it was her." She pushed herself up and rested her arms on her knees. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Might not answer."
Ari dipped her chin to acknowledge it. "Why were you in a diner in the middle of the night waiting for me to show up? There was a chance I wouldn't be able to get out of the apartment until morning."
"But there was a chance you would. And it's a good thing I was waiting."
"Okay. Why did you stay in the office with me the night before last? I could have locked up. I didn't need you babysitting me."
Dale shrugged. "I was already up. It seemed silly to go all the way home just to come back in an hour."
Ari pursed her lips and said, "And how long has Lisa been gone?"
Dale's fingers froze over the keyboard and she shrugged. "I don't know. Not long."
"How empty does your apartment feel?"
Dale leaned back in her chair and looked down at the floor.
Ari pushed herself up and walked to Dale's desk. "You deserve someone better than that. Someone who will treat you better. We both do." She bent down and kissed Dale's forehead. "You're a good person, Dale. You deserve to be loved."
Dale ducked her chin lower and wiped at her cheeks. "Look who's talking." She squeezed Ari's hand and leaned back in her chair. "Go home. You deserve to sleep in your own bed tonight."
Ari took Dale's hand and pulled her up. "Only if you go, too. Come on, we've both had a lot of long nights. Time to take one night off."
Dale sighed and let herself be pulled up. She put her computer to sleep and took her jacket off the back of her chair. "Since you're dragging me out into the real world, how about we get some dinner?"
"I'm dying for some Chinese."
"Will you buy?"
Ari rolled her eyes and let Dale lead the way out of the office. "Why do I always have to pay just because I'm the boss?"
"Because you sign my paychecks. When I pay for dinner, it's like I'm just reimbursing you."
"Lead the way, Dale."
Ari shut off the office light and locked the door. She followed Dale outside and breathed deep. Dale was right; it would be nice to sleep in her own bed for a change. But first, she had to settle the craving Alicia and Rebecca had given her; she could almost taste the egg drop soup. She zipped up her coat and hurried to catch up with Dale.