By Paul Calhoun
Dear readers: I started this in February expecting to be done by Easter. These stories are just getting longer and longer than expected. I thought it'd be short. Anyway, Mike's extended family visits, teaching Jane and Susan not to call their family weird. Here is a PDF with all the stories to date in their proper font, leading and with all the paragraph indentation intact.
"So," Jane said as Mike sat down, "what are you doing for Spring Break?"
"Very little," Mike replied. "It's mostly relaxing the first half and then the full weight of familial duty falls. My grandparents and assorted other relations have decided to come to us this year. Grandpa Ned's place is being redone, so the next best place is here."
"I'm getting carted along to New Zealand on Friday. We're getting back on Thursday," Susan said. "Apparently there's this really important thing that someone has to do. I wasn't paying very close attention."
"I'm doing absolutely nothing," Jane finished. "We're not even visiting my grandparents this year because mom and dad both have to work through the week and it doesn't make any sense to fly out to Florida for a day and a half." She put her head in her hands and her elbows on the table. "I'm going to have a perfectly boring week. At least it's a change of pace."
"I won't." Mike replied. "And if you hang around my house when the family arrives, neither will you."
"I'm sorry you aren't looking forward to your trip," Victor said as Susan recounted her Spring Break plans, "but I can't really be all that sympathetic. When I was your age, I'd have loved to travel the world seeing every major civilization from Babylon to Machu Picchu."
"Quite right," Nora called from her bedroom. "It beats sitting around for days on end."
"Not for an American teenager," Susan replied. "I find that the most sublime experience involves a couch, my butt and unhealthy snacks."
"I'm sure your duff will be well used on the airplane," Victor said. "And on your return."
"Meanwhile," Nora said, emerging and making her way to the living room, "you're both welcome to join us on our family outings. Especially you, Jane."
"Thank you, Mrs. Falkner, but I wouldn't want to intrude."
"You won't be," Victor answered. "We tend to gather quite often now that half of our extended family is retired. We see at least a few on July Fourth and Thanksgiving, most of them on Christmas and Easter and usually all of them sometime around Labor Day for some reason. Maybe because that's when everyone else is off work."
"I'd feel like I'm intruding, anyway."
"So do I," Victor replied. "Six years and I'm still uncomfortable when Mike's blood paternals show up."
"You shouldn't," Nora said. "Jack's parents love you."
"It still makes me uncomfortable. It doesn't help that your father in law number one is Major General Remy Armstrong Grant, the hero of Hong Kong. Oh, and his wife, her honor Judge Grant of the Eighteenth Circuit. One of the only JAG officers ever to become a federal judge."
"Oh? As if I'm any better off. Between my parents always asking when I'm going back to school for my M.D. and your mother-"
"What's wrong with mom?"
"Madame Falkner, cyberneticist, moral theologian, paleoanthropologist and lord knows what else since I last saw her. A woman with more PhD.s than an entire university faculty. At least my dad only has the one."
"Oh yes, Ned Brooks who only performed the first successful in-womb splitting of conjoined twins."
"God. And I thought I had lineage," Susan broke in.
"Am I the only one feeling a bit lower class?" Jane added.
"Sorry, we always have this argument. Who is getting intimidated the most. Trust me; you don't know the half of it."
"Don't think Jack's dad would limit his scorn to you if he ever had any," Nora replied. "Imagine how much hell I'd catch for marrying you."
"True. Anyway, if you two think you can handle it, stick around to the middle of the week - that is, show up at all, Susan. Be warned, they'll all take a strong interest in you, Jane, once they find out about your interest in their collective grandson."
Susan got up, "I'd better go and pack. I guess I'll see you on Thursday, guys. As I recall, this isn't one of the 'back to nature' or New Age trips, so I guess I'll leave Solvezia."
Jane rose, "I'll go help. You never remember everything."
"God this is glorious," Jane said, laying back on her bed, her wolf ears almost touching the floor and her tail curved between her legs. "I actually have a choice when I do my homework."
"How much?" Mike asked, sitting backwards on his chair, his ochre arms terminating in white paws grasping the back as his white-tipped umber tail swayed lazily with unspent momentum.
"A veritable ark. And I'm not quite as free as you are. I have to finish before the relatives arrive."
"Then we may as well do it now, and not bother talking about it for the next few days." Jane reached under her bed and pulled her bag out. "You make sure I don't screw up my calculus and I'll help you with the great American Classic I'm sure you're reading for English. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that our dear Mrs. Brinn lost her imagination years ago and has once again assigned - I shudder to even name it - The Catcher in the Rye."
"I think I'll need more help than you," Mike said, reaching into his own bag and holding the offending miniature hardback in black pads and claws.
"Don't be so sure."
"I read it last night. It took an hour and a half and I don't believe I ever grasped the plot or even point." Mike said.
"You assume it had one," Jane replied. "What's the assignment?"
"To determine whether ol' Holden is still representative of youth today."
"What do you think?" Jane asked.
"I think he's a lazy bastard, even by the standards of our generation." Mike replied.
"Funny thing, isn't it?" Jane said. "Fifty years before this was written, he'd have been dismissed as not understanding the duty of his birthright. Fifty years later and he's seen as a rich dolt who doesn't know a good thing when it hits him over the head. After nearly a century, I doubt there are many people left alive who still identify with the little weed and yet because he's an American Classic, we still read and have to pretend to appreciate about his insignificant angst. Anyone who answers that he is representative is either lying because they think that's the right answer or a throwback. However, just because we don't sympathize doesn't mean we can't understand the time period." Jane sat up and took the book in her own paws, opening it to a point near the beginning. "Let's start with the somewhat underdescribed boarding school..."
"Far be it from me to tell you two to actually do something," Victor said to the video gaming couple, "but it occurs to me that perhaps you should reconsider a certain offer made to you six months ago."
Mike turned, brushing his tail aside with his nose rather than let go of the controller. "What?"
"Since Susan is now joined up, you've lost a major reason not to pad your resume and bank accounts at the expense of your school."
"He's talking about us selling out and showing up to sports events." Jane said.
"I'd forgotten about that," Mike said.
"So had I."
"Now that I've reminded you, I'll let you two talk it over. It may be worth more than you think to accept." Victor straightened up from leaning on the sofa and left.
Jane paused the game and shifted to partially face Mike. "So?"
"Do you want to do it?"
Mike pulled his tail around and hugged it. "I don't know. I mean, it's not like we have an image to keep up."
"And if all three of us go at the same time, we won't have to worry about abandoning each other. And we wouldn't risk much imagewise anyway. No one would know." Susan adjusted her ears. "We'd have to talk Susan into it, but what do you think?"
"Dad's right about the extra income." Mike replied.
"And I could probably use it on college applications." Jane continued.
"We're doing it, aren't we?"
"Not every day, wee man, but it would be an interesting way to pass a couple of days a week." She shrugged. "We'll set the terms and see if they accept. We still need to be able to do our homework and get in some decent downtime. Let's wait for Susan to get back and then we'll see. In the meantime," she said, turning back to the screen and digging her claws into the controller, "I think I was about to kick some ass."
"I'm still not sure why anyone would have a furmeet on a Tuesday." Mike said, pulling his rolling suitcase into Jane's room.
"I told you. It's Spring Break and we're getting a discount at the zoo."
"Did I ever tell you-"
"You, Victor and Mrs. Falkner, Mike." Jane interrupted. "Unless you're in the market for a new mate, I don't think that story is germane to what we're doing right now." She pulled her skirt down and shed her top, revealing the leotard underneath. Mike did likewise. "Why isn't Victor coming with us, anyway?" She asked, bending over to pick up her bodysuit.
"Mom can't get off until tomorrow," Mike said, opening his case. "She had trouble enough as it was, so dad figured he'd work through today as well."
"I'd hoped to spend some time with him." Jane said, turning around so that Mike could zip her up. "It's a good thing my mom is free to go with us today."
"I don't mind getting to know your parents." Mike replied, doing the same so that Jane could help him. "I think you know mine much better than I know yours."
"That's because you don't have a television in your room." Jane said, pulling on her hand and foot paws, then putting her leather vest on. She helped Mike with his newest acquisition, a dress with a split riding skirt so that Jamina would have enough mobility as they traveled the zoo. They carried their heads downstairs and settled themselves in the back seat of Jane's mother's car.
"Is everybody ready?" She asked.
"Yes, Mrs. Hayworth."
"Then lets burn rubber!" As they pulled onto the highway, Jane's mother leaned back and depressed the accelerator, showing a momentary flash of white under her long skirt. That was when Mike noticed the truth of what he thought were long white sleeves on her blouse.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Hayworth." Mike said.
"Are you joining us at the meet?"
The older Ms. Hayworth's eyes glinted merrily in the rear view mirror. "You mean in more than just my presence?" She took one hand off the wheel and passed something from the front seat back to Mike. It was a pair of bunny ears. He leaned forward to get a better look at the chair and saw the hand paws and strap on bunny tail. "I see."
"Modifying footed pajamas is a cheap way to join one's daughter and her boyfriend for a special occasion." She replied in her best Martha Stewart impression. "I thought about getting one of those really nice looking realistic bunny heads and matching paws, but this seemed a better alternative considering."
"I think I'd be embarrassed if I thought anyone would care." Jane said. "Or be able to say a word. Considering I'll be the toughest customer there with the loveliest creature on my arm," Jane put hers around Mike's middle.
"Marry that boy quick," Mrs. Hayworth replied. "I want to have a daughter to teach all my female secrets to before I go senile." She grinned at Mike. "I teach the girl sewing and she turns herself into a shaggy young man. I teach her to cook and she eats like a horse. I don't even want to know what she'd do with makeup lessons. At the very least, you'll clean up nicely."
"Hey, a woman can hope, can't she?" She turned her eyes back to Mike. "You listen to me, kid, and I'll have her eating out of your hand."
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Hayworth." Was all Mike could think to say.
"Pretty and polite." She sniffed. "Definitely worth teaching."
When they pulled into the parking lot, Mike and Jane worked on getting their heads on properly as Mrs. Hayworth carefully applied makeup to add whiskers to her face and highlight her eyes. She then put the white and pink bunny ears on over her long blonde hair and pulled on the handpaws. All three got out and as the two teens were checking each other over for the final time, she strapped the elastic band with the tail on it around her hips and pulled her skirt up over it.
The woman in the ticket booth didn't even bother asking, giving them the group rate for the furmeet as soon as they walked up. Those who had already arrived were gathered next to the first food court, less than a block inside the gate. Most weren't suited, but the profusion of ears, tails and proclamatory T-shirts made them easy to identify even without the handful with more than that on. Among them were a couple of canines, three felines, some bears and an otter. Even as they joined the throng, a bright green husky puppy and a raver-haired lemur followed behind.
More furs trickled in as the clock neared eleven and just as they were about to start their tour, Jamina caught sight of a familiar pair of bouncing fox ears. The ears were quickly followed by blonde hair and a slender of form with a fox tail that waved behind her, pointed straight up and almost touching her back and head. "Hi, Keila." Jamina called.
"Hi yourself!" She called back, catching up as the group moved out.
"You don't live in the area," Wortag said.
"I don't live in any major population zone," Keila countered. "It was a bit of a hike, but I felt like it." She grabbed on to the arm of a rotund man with a large mustache. "Have you ever met Cornelius?"
The span of the tour before lunch was spent with Keila running back and forth down the line of furs introducing them to one another - whether they liked it or not. For the most part by lunchtime they were far more comfortable and familiar with one another, if a little cool towards Keila. In fact, Cornelius was sitting at the table with Jamina, Wortag and Mrs. Hayworth, having struck up an acquaintance with Jane's mother, who found him one of the few people she could talk to without the conversation veering off into either the internal discussion of furry matters, having to worry that she wasn't being fully heard or hearing well through a layer of foam or being dismissed as the fur saw a particular favorite animal.
"A lot of us don't see each other very often, Mrs. Hayworth-" Cornelius said.
"So we tend to be a bit exuberant when we do. I wondered if you were one of the brood. You didn't quite act like it, attire notwithstanding. You're with one of the younger ones, then?"
"She's my daughter," she replied, looking at Jane.
"A very lovely one she is, too," Cornelius replied, looking at Jamina.
Miranda's mouth hung open for only an instant before she recovered. "Yes," she said, still a little startled. "Yes," she repeated, her voice softening as she smiled at Jamina. "She is. Thank you."
Jamina managed to get Miranda alone momentarily outside the gibbon enclosure. "You didn't have to do that, Mrs. Hayworth. We're both used to it."
"I wanted to, dear. And call me mom. I think that even if you and Janie don't eventually work out that I wouldn't mind having you around."
"Isn't that a little quick?" Mike asked. "I mean, we've been going out for awhile, but-"
"My daughter has never been as happy or as well balanced as she is now. I think your parents would agree that you're good for each other." She put her hand on Jamina's back and pushed her towards Wortag. "Go on. I'll be along in a moment."
When they were back in Jane's room cleaning up, Mike said, "You must have had a remarkable childhood. Your mother is amazing."
"Are you referring, dear boy," Jane replied through a mouth full of handpaw, "to what happened at lunch?"
"Yes. I didn't see that coming."
"Few people see my mother coming." Jane said, kicking her feet off. "She's never where or what you expect her to be. I had no idea, for instance, that she'd made that outfit. She was very cute."
"Speaking of erratic relatives, are you going to be over tomorrow?" Mike asked, packing his tail away.
"Oh yes," Jane replied. "Your warnings will avail not. I will weather that storm with you and I will meet the ancestors of your progenitors."
The Sound and the Furries
"Jane!" Nora exclaimed. "How nice to see you looking so..."
"Conventional?" Jane replied.
"Yes." Nora smiled. "A knee-length skirt, nice shoes, a proper blouse and your hair brushed. No visible nonhuman parts."
"Thanks. Mom helped." Jane stepped past Nora and walked into the living room. She sat on the couch and said, "I figured I'd better look a little more presentable for Mike's grandparents."
"Granny Falkner will be disappointed. The rest will appreciate the gesture." Nora sat down next to Jane. "Victor and Mike are still getting ready. You can imagine how rarely either of them wear their fancy pants. Now, I know we've talked about them before, but I think I'd better give you some specific warnings. Let's see. My parents will probably be no trouble. Don't take anything my brother and dad say about medicine too seriously. They'll probably behave, so you'll be able to handle them pretty well.
"As for the General and Her Honor, he'll be fractious and she won't want to talk about it. Most of the war stories will be approximately true. If he starts to bore you, tell him you have to go to the bathroom. He'll get the message. The Honorable Mrs. Grant doesn't talk much. She says that she's had too many biographers bother her over her life to want to discuss any of it and she spent too much of her time in law to be able to talk about anything else. His sister and hers will likely be here. They'll probably be friendly enough but try to keep to whatever they're already talking about. I can't remember what either of them did, but they tended to live in their siblings' shadows and so they get a bit self-conscious if you ask them about their lives. Oh, I forgot. My uncle - dad's brother - might be here. Dad said he wasn't sure. Uncle Leo was a financier somewhere. He likes to talk about business, but like the General, he knows not to bore people too much.
"As for Granny Falkner-"
"I think I'd better pick up when it comes to mom." Victor said, trailing Mike into the room. "Mom makes me look normal nowadays. She used to be better with company, but she's gotten a little less flexible in old age. Don't say anything that might lead to embarrassment if through even the most convoluted reasoning such a conclusion can be reached. Mom has perfect recall and the analytical ability of Sherlock Holmes. Don't try to misdirect or use generalities to deflect a question. Answer completely, and don't be afraid to tell her that something is confidential. It won't stop the question, but she'll let you take her aside and explain why it's something you'd rather not discuss in front of everyone else." He was about to continue when the doorbell rang. "Just think fast and don't get scared."
Jane rose with the others and went to the door. "How serious are they?" She whispered to Mike.
"I wish I could say that they were exaggerating. If anything, they're playing down the dynamic." Victor turned the knob. "Here we go."
"What's everyone standing around for?" A tall man with graying hair asked, standing behind the group. "Are we expecting company?"
Nora turned quickly and enfolded the man in a hug. "David! You know how much I hate it when you do those magic tricks."
"Yeah, sis, but I couldn't help myself." He leaned forward and opened the door wider. "OK, dad, I'm done. You and mom can come up now."
"You come down and help us with the basket," Doctor Ned called back. "You know your mother and I can't carry it alone."
"They brought nosh. Here we go," Nora sighed.
"You know our folks," David said, walking by. "They never trust anyone to bring the food so they always take along far more than necessary. I'll handle it."
"It's going to be like the beginning of the Hobbit for awhile," Mike said. "Ned, Nancy and David at your service."
David returned along with a healthy looking older man and a smaller, rosy-cheeked woman. The two men had large coolers and Nancy was carrying an oversized basket full of candy. "I know, I know," she said, seeing Nora's expression. "But then again there will be quite a few of us." She surveyed their living room. "I'm not sure if we'll all fit, dear."
"Well, we can always get rid of one of the boxes," Ned said.
"Can't we get rid of one of the guests instead?" David asked. He put his cooler down in the kitchen and returned to the living room, followed by his parents. "Isn't there one person too many here?" He looked at Jane. "I thought I knew all three of our branches' relatives, but I don't remember you, I'm afraid."
"This is Jane," Nora said. "She's with Mike."
"Oh? Is it serious?"
"I should hope not!" Ned responded. "Put on your glasses, son. He's fifteen and she can't be a day under seventeen."
"All right." David said. "I just wondered. Pleased to meet you."
"I'm sure she's a very nice girl, since Mike picked her and you two accepted her." Nancy added. "How are you, dear?"
"Doing very well, thank you."
"That's nice. I think we'd better sit down." She did so and her side followed suit. Victor had barely hit the cushion when the doorbell rang again.
"Oin, sir, and Gloin, sir." Mike sighed.
"Don't bother getting up, dear." Nancy said as Jane started to rise. "You're as much a guest as we are, and we shouldn't crowd the hall." She sipped the tea she'd made while she was in the kitchen. "Especially if it's the General. You know how Remy tends to burst into a place. Well, I do anyway."
"Come on, boy!" A voice boomed from down the hall. "I said I'd be here at noon precisely and here I am!"
"And don't call me 'sir'!" Major General Remy Armstrong Grant stormed into the living room. "What's the point in having precision timepieces connected to a central atomic clock if people don't show up at the blasted door when they're supposed to? Hey, kiddo!" He grabbed Mike and Jane could see her boyfriend's eyes pop out as Remy squeezed him. "I'd have brought you something, but those damn suits up in Washington made civilian ownership of assault rifles illegal again. I had to give it back."
"You know we don't approve," Nora said.
"Yeah I know, but I can't get him a cannon!" Remy laughed. "You'll have to join the infantry if you want artillery."
While Remy was talking, a slender woman with iron gray hair slipped past and sat down in an armchair next to Nancy. Nancy turned and said, "Hello, Tina."
"Hi," Judge Tina Grant replied. "I can see from everyone's expression that we arrived second."
"Yes. Dr. Falkner isn't here yet."
"Right." Tina leaned back and closed her eyes.
"Can I get you something?" Victor asked.
"No, thank you." Tina replied.
"Don't worry about the wife." Remy called from the kitchen. "She never could get used to long flights. I, on the other hand, could use something to eat. Thank goodness for your side of the family, aye girl? Where is that brother of yours, anyway, Ned?"
"Leo couldn't make it. Canada's been snowed in."
"Serves him right for leaving the country," Remy shouted back, rummaging through the cooler.
"When are your two siblings getting in?"
"Not until tomorrow. Sam's stuck in Wisconsin with a client and god knows what's got Bernice nailed down in Denver."
Tina yawned and opened her eyes, which focused on Jane with an intensity which transfixed the teen. "Who are you?"
"Jane Hayworth, ma'am. I'm Mike's girlfriend."
"Why did I not see you at Christmas?"
"I was away with my own family."
"They don't celebrate Easter?"
"My parents couldn't get off of work this year."
"I see." Tina closed her eyes and leaned back.
"Sorry about the wife," Remy said, standing behind the couch. "She never could grasp how to ask polite questions. Being grilled by her sometimes reminds me of the job those jaundiced - I mean, the Chinese - did during the battle of Fujian. Bad business, that one was. They'd gotten themselves dug in and -" Remy's narrative was interrupted by another ring at the door. "Finally."
Tina opened her eyes again, "She's here."
"I thought I noticed a fog rolling in," David said.
"Hush!" Nancy hissed. "Be polite. Alice isn't that bad."
"Don't worry," Victor said to a hesitant Nora. "I'll get it."
"I'll go with," Mike added, getting up from next to Jane. "I like Grandma Alice."
Jane was curious, so she got up and silently followed the other two to the door. Even at the very beginning, she wasn't disappointed. Dr. Falkner was a diminutive woman who peered up at Victor through thick lenses which had not been treated with anti-glare. Her straight white hair was cut short and held up with jeweled combs and pins. She handed a thick fuzzy jacket to Victor as she entered, revealing a large iron and jeweled medallion underneath, worn over a blouse, skirt and boots. Her unshod cane clacking on the floor with every step. Despite the walking aid, she was unbent and her first words to Victor were, "So, what's this you've been telling me about my grandson being a crossdresser?"
"Hi, mom," Victor said. "I don't recall telling you that."
"Of course you did." She said, making her way down the hall. "You told me that you finally took him to a con. Bloody about time. I had a flick through the photos and saw Jamina. The carriage was all wrong and she was in a masquerade entry that was both good and romantic. You have skill in neither."
"Oh yes. Now I remember." Victor replied.
"Anyway, I see the grandson in question in front of me." She embraced him lightly and put a minidrive into his hand. "Here. You and your dad should just have a look through this when we're all gone and it might make your act more convincing."
"I don't have the money-"
"Tosh! I designed it with off-the-shelf materials. Just you implement the design and you'll have a cheap and effective neural link to your extraneous appendages." She almost passed Jane before stopping and looking up at her. "And who is this?"
"Mom, this is Jane, she's-"
"Ah. Jane Hayworth. Alias Wortag. I didn't recognize you without the butch feminist garb and the tail. You look better with them. Then again, I suppose it's best to compromise one's lesser principles to fit in with that lot." She waved her cane towards the living room. "Of course, I'm eighty-five, so I get to be as ornery and direct as I like. You still have to worry about being accepted." She rummaged in her purse. "Now I know I had something for you, dear. Where is it? Ah!" She drew out a tiny flat band that looked like a decorative choker. "I don't know if you'll want it, but I analyzed your voice from records and your Wortag persona. This ought to come in handy sometime."
"I didn't know voice changers came that small, Dr. Falkner." Jane said, taking the item.
"They didn't, and please call me Alice."
"Mom, you shouldn't do these things." Victor said.
"What? Show up all those windbags who call themselves applied scientists these days? They ought to be ashamed, being less capable than a little old retired granny." Alice continued her progress towards the living room. "I take it that everyone else who is going to be here is?"
"You know they are."
"Good. I do so hate having to get up and greet people as they arrive. Since I'm the one with the hardest time getting up, I ought to be allowed not to have to."
"Which is exactly what's happening." Victor replied.
"As planned. Hello, all." She said as she entered. "Still caring for the infirm, Nora? Cut up any good babies lately, Ned? Same question to you, Mein Herr." This was aimed at Remy.
"Not in the mood to get along, Alice?" Nancy asked.
"That mood comes all the more seldom as the years pass." She smiled at Mike. "Then again, having a grandson has mellowed me. You didn't know me before Victor finally tied the knot. He was even considerate enough to get me one who was already half grown. I shudder to think what age I'd have been when the youngling became interesting had Victor tried things the old fashioned way."
"You've told us this before," Ned reminded her. "Finally running out of things to say?"
"You wish. Just for the benefit of the newest member of our menagerie. I like her, by the way."
"Oh dear god." Remy said. "That can only mean one thing."
"She's as strange as the boy?" Tina murmured.
"We'll take that as a compliment," Alice responded.
"I'm just glad we've never had to see your son in that cat costume of his," Remy said. "I'm all for freedom, but there are some things that are best kept in the home."
"You didn't escape for lack of my trying, General." Alice said. "If my son's going to be an exhibitionist furry, he shouldn't be ashamed to exhibit in front of family. It's good to have these things out in the open."
"I didn't have as much luck," Ned said to Remy, ignoring Alice. "You weren't here Christmas of thirty-two, were you?"
"You bet your ass I wasn't. The missus and I were skiing up north. Nice place. A lot of those girls about in the skimpy coats. I never know how they keep warm."
"Just don't call them by name," Tina sighed.
"You mean snow bunnies?" Victor said in a tone like his mother's. "Sorry," he continued, grinning at the expressions of those assembled, "but if you're going to refer to being unfortunate enough to see my cat costume, I get to have my own back."
"Go further," Alice said, having eased herself down in a chair and put her feet up on the table. "Put it on and make everyone equal. Remy shouldn't get away with not seeing it."
"Let's not go overboard." Nora replied, handing her a strong smelling drink. "You know that not everyone is comfortable with it."
"Of course I know," Alice said. As Nora passed her going back to her own chair, Alice said almost inaudibly, "You're getting more comfortable with it, as I recall. Badger, was it?"
Nora stiffened, then bent down as if to check Alice's drink. "How?"
"My son always buys from the same group of builders. I saw the one they were making for you in their gallery and it wasn't very hard to corroborate using tidbits from comments made on social media by my son, my grandson and his lady friend."
"You could be on posters for improved internet privacy standards."
"It wouldn't help." Alice said calmly. "Everything I see, I find in public places. Most of the time."
Nora sighed, but didn't pursue the matter further. She was going to be busy enough keeping everyone else in line. On her way to check in on Ned and Nancy, she stopped for a word with Victor and Mike. As long as one of them was with Alice at all times, their influence might keep things from blowing up too far. Just as long as Alice didn't do something with them.
Jane kicked off her shoes and flopped onto her sofa almost immediately after getting back to her own house. "I have another four days of that. No wonder they're all a little warped."
"Hard day at the Falkners'?" Miranda asked.
"Mom, you don't know the half of it." Jane said tiredly. "Between General Grant being hale and military, his wife nailing people with unexpected questions, Dr. Brooks asking his daughter when she's getting her masters and Dr. Falkner invading everyone's privacy with deduction alone, I'm totally beat. Nora - I mean Mrs. Falkner - spent all her time keeping her parents and Mike's paternals from getting carried away and it took both Mike and his father to keep Dr. Falkner from making trouble. I thought our family squabbles were bad."
"Be fair, hon.” Miranda said. "There are fifty percent more of them because of Mike's situation. Were they at least nice to you?"
"Very much so, and very interested as well." Jane said. She undid the choker she'd wrapped around her wrist. "Dr. Falkner even gave me this. A miniature voice changer. This was after she'd told me I looked better with a wolf tail and dressed like a butch feminist and asked Victor how Mike liked crossdressing. Apparently nothing escapes her. It doesn't matter how little you tell her, she learns everything."
"She sounds uncomfortable to be around."
"At least she's fair. She does that to everyone." Jane yawned. "I hope they've calmed down a little by tomorrow."
"Why don't you bring Wortag along?" Miranda asked. "At least that will keep them occupied for awhile."
"Nora's side didn't act like they'd be keen on that. Remy - General Grant - said that he was lucky to have never seen Saliaven."
"Ah, but there's a difference between a son-in-law or a stepson-in-law and a grandchild along with his girlfriend."
"OK, but I doubt they'll be interested. I don't even know how I'll introduce the idea. I can't get a word in with them."
"Hello, Jane. What are you hiding?" Alice asked, answering the door to Jane's ring.
"Hi, Dr. Falkner. Nothing of any importance to you." Jane looked inside. "Am I the second to arrive?"
"You are." Alice replied. "And in answer to your next question, I'm an early riser and a late traveler. Since I'm already in the vicinity, I got here first today."
Mike joined them, helping Jane with the box she'd brought with. "Are we causing trouble today?" He asked.
"No more than usual," Alice replied.
"I was talking to Jane. I'm not sure the others will appreciate this. Or even let you get past the first sentence with it."
"Oho, leave that one to me." Alice said.
"Please don't feel yourself compelled on our account or even for your own amusement," Mike replied.
"Are you trying to take away an old woman's last pleasure?"
"When it involves inflicting something on others, yes." Mike replied.
"I ought to disown you," Alice muttered.
"I have four others living and one dead, grandma Alice. All of whom are less trouble if less interesting." Mike replied, following Jane and the box into his room.
"Actually, mom thought that if it came from you, the elders might be more interested. Indulgence, interest and all that. After all, you're related to them. Victor isn't." Jane said.
"I doubt it," Mike said.
"I hope not!" Alice added.
"If you don't stop pestering the kids," Victor called from the kitchen, "I'm going to put you to work with me and Nora making breakfast for everyone!"
"Blackmail!" Alice hissed. She winked at the teenagers. "Don't worry, kiddo. Kiddoes. Is that a plurable term? Is 'plural' an adverbable word? Damn grammar. Anyway, I'm not totally without tact, no matter what your mother, father, congressman or that damned neurologist may say. I'll set it up so that not only will they agree to see you all prettied up, but ask for it." She left in a clatter of cane and long necklaces.
"I think she'd do well with an ominous cloak." Mike said.
"I used to have one, but it's hell when you can't get up enough speed to blow it out right! Blasted cane!" Alice called up the hall.
"Are there any normal people related to you?" Jane asked.
"Yeah, but they don't get much of a chance to say anything. Grandma Nancy and Grandpa Ned are actually quite nice, as are Leo and Fred - Remy and Tina's brothers. Unfortunately, between Remy, Tina and Alice, we don't really get much out of them. I think Alice grates on the other two the more because she reminds them of their respective superiors in the Feds. I mean, talking to her is like talking to the President. You never know what she knows or is going to say, but you're absolutely sure it's more than you want and nothing welcome. Add in the tendency to plot to make them do something they don't want to and it's exactly like a military or judicial person talking to a political type."
"At the rate you're analyzing your relatives; you'll make a good replacement." Jane laughed.
"I've had a lot of time to think. They've been like this since about ten minutes after Remy was introduced to Alice. Oh, and thanks for the compliment, but I don't think I have the intellect or bloody-mindedness." Mike had his hand on the doorknob when he closed it quietly. "If you want sheer speculation, I think the folks on dad's side knew the folks on dad's side, if you take my meaning. I've never been sure what Grandpa Martin did, but I think he was involved with some of the things that the military used during the wars thirty years ago. The grunts and the scientists never get along.”
“At least Susan will be able to join us this evening.”
“Oh great, ever more people to argue around the dinner table.” Mike said.
“I think she might get along with Alice.”
“If she does, she’ll be in a serious minority.” Mike sat on his bed. “It’s too bad we have to go back to that now.”
“It’s not that bad,” Jane replied.
“It’s tiring. For both of us.” Mike got up and clasped Jane’s hand. “Thanks for toughing it out with me.”
Jane seemed about to say something, but only smiled instead. “Don’t worry about it.”
By the time everyone had arrived and gotten settled, it was close to ten and several of the guests were complaining about the lateness but refusing to eat. This did not include Alice, who had already had a muffin and a bagel by the time everyone else started. When they were all seated, Alice said, “I hear that our youngest are going to get jobs at the school.”
“Oh, doing what?” Leo asked, seeming relieved at the conversation turning away from policy and issues of national importance.
“We haven’t decided to take it and we’d rather not say until the third person in our group is here.” Jane replied. “She’ll be joining us at the restaurant for dinner.”
“Deft,” Mike whispered to Jane.
“Thank you.” She replied.
Lunch was less structured and involved the family members getting up and finding what they could in the kitchen. Mike had cheese slices on crackers while Jane was building a large submarine sandwich. Alice was drinking something clear and strong smelling and chewing on nothing. “You’re going to spoil my fun yet, kiddoes.”
“That’s the idea, Mrs. Falkner,” Jane replied.
“I can spring it on them at dinner but not strongarm them into seeing everything because we’ll be out at a meal shack. Well done.”
“I’ll leave Wortag here overnight and if after a good night’s sleep, they’re still interested, I’m sure Susan can bring Solvezia.” Jane said.
“Bah. It’s a lot more fun my way. I get to see them uncomfortable, not braced by a rest and a think on the subject.”
“You could always buy your own and insist on wearing it through these events.” Jane replied. “I’m sure that would go over just fine from your perspective.”
Alice grumbled to herself but didn’t reply coherently.
Susan was waiting outside when the caravan arrived. “I thought we were meeting at seven.” She said as Mike and Jane escaped their car.
“We were, but things got further out of hand than expected,” Mike replied. “Grandma Alice decided to ask Grandma Tina why if we insisted on keeping capital punishment, it had to be ‘boring.’ It’s the first time in ages I remember her saying more than two sentences at a time.
“Ouch. So she’s actually that bad. I thought it was an exagg-“
“Holy mackerel! Susan Lynne Ch-arrgh.” Alice had gotten out of the car and was staring at Susan, who moved with a fluidity and speed Mike had never seen outside of Solvezia to grab his grandmother.
“Sorry, ma’am, but I was surprised. Your grandson speaks so highly of your intellect, I didn’t think you’d say that name loudly and on a crowded street.” Susan said, stepping back.
“More like you didn’t expect to be recognized.” Alice replied, brushing herself off. “If you’re going to get familiar, help me on to this curb. You kids can take this damp; I prefer to be under something.” She took Susan’s arm and leaned on her as they got under the awning. “I was surprised as well, to be honest, and that isn’t something that happens often these days.” She looked at Mike. “Your Susan is that Susan.”
“I thought you knew everything,” Mike said, grinning.
“When the youngest scion of that House vanished, I assumed they’d left the country, not settled down in the ‘burbs.” She turned back to Susan. “Your mother must have the most elaborate privacy service-. I mean, I figured I couldn’t follow them out of the country, but to double back-.” She took a deep breath. “Well done! How is the old man, anyway?”
“Still dead. We got lucky fifteen years ago and his cybernetics didn’t resurrect him in time, or so mom tells me. I was too young to go to his last funeral.”
“Yes, that was a bit of my and George’s early work. Not to upset you, dear, but I wasn’t putting my full effort into it anyway. I mean-“
“You don’t have to apologize, Mrs. Falkner. We were happy to finally be rid of him.”
“I thought that was a myth,” Mike said. “You mean he actually umm?”
“Yes,” Alice said. “Orders, you see. Don’t tell Remy, but there were one or two I and your grandfather had to take and that job was one of them. Nasty business. He was already a large part machine, so it wasn’t as radical as it sounds. Still, I resigned that day and went freelance. George stayed, but made it very clear to the Department that he wasn’t going to do that again. In a way it was a relief to both of us to build war machines after that. Killing seemed clean.” She looked over Jane’s shoulder. “And here’s everyone else. I think we’d better change the subject. As a matter of fact, it occurs to me that if I want to salvage any of my fun on this trip, I’d better leave you three to talk things over. I’ll just go and have a word with the sawbones.”
“Wow.” Susan said as Alice clattered over to Ned. “No wonder your father never shades the truth. That woman must have known everything he did before he even knew he was going to do it.” She shook her head and took a breath. “So, what does she think we need to talk about?”
“Well…” Jane started.
“It’s a bit…” Mike added.
Susan laughed. “Something that can embarrass you two. Let’s see. He can’t have knocked you up.”
“Susan!” Jane said.
“What? It’s the only thing I can think of that would make you act normal. Come on, before everyone sorts out their umbrellas.”
“Do you remember last Halloween?” Mike said.
“Do I ever! That was there the slippery slope started. I dressed as a bird there and here I am now, a panthrolf.”
“We got a job offer from the sports department,” Jane continued.
“Oh yes. Dancing like idiots to amuse the beer-swilling, pork engorged masses. I remember that quite distinctly. It was hilarious.” Susan said.
“We’re sort of thinking of doing it, actually. If they’re still interested.” Mike said.
“And we want you to join us. That was the big reason we didn’t before. Now that you’re involved, we can all do it and no one will know about it.” Jane finished.
Susan’s expression froze. She stood silent for almost a minute. “I see.” She said. “Yes, that could definitely be the sort of proposition one would be very sideways about and hesitant to make. I mean, the sort of person who would do this would have to have no pride. No commitment to the sort of aloof dignity we’ve scraped together over the years.”
“Susan, we’re geeks.” Jane said.
“Yes, but we’re damn proud geeks. We like having the lunch table to ourselves.” Susan took a very deep breath. “I mean, if word ever got out about this, there’s a serious risk of us becoming popular.”
“The mascot is never popular.” Mike said. “I don’t recall a single instance in current teen media of the mascot being afforded any more consideration than we get now. In fact, they’re often held in disdain. You’re thinking of cheerleaders.”
“Bucko, I try never to think of cheerleaders.” Susan replied. “Fine, so we probably won’t be popular. But we’ll be noticed.”
“Jamina, Wortag and Solvezia will be noticed.” Jane said. “Not us.”
They followed the elders into the restaurant, still talking quietly. “And what’s in it for me?” Susan asked. “I mean, I don’t have a huge amount of pocket money, but the embarrassment to money ratio can’t be that high.”
“The resume filler?” Jane asked.
“Hm.” Susan thought. “It’s true that the family name doesn’t open as many doors as it used to.”
“Imagine how bored you’ll be without us around.” Mike said. “We’ll be off on our job and you’ll be stuck at home.”
“You’d do it without me?”
“Well, we might, now that you have the option of joining us and refuse.” Jane said. “If you want further incentive, you might think about how we’re always complaining that sports budgets are too big and only benefit jocks. Now they’ll benefit us. We’ll also be doing such a brilliant job that we’ll steal the show from the cheerleaders. I’m sure that there are a million and one possibilities to this in terms of embarrassing people we don’t like. We’ll be inside people, too. Able to go places and know people we otherwise wouldn’t and possibly get an in so that we don’t do quite as badly on tests.”
“Prank possibilities, huh?” Susan replied. “I’m thinking about that. I can see a few good ones that we might be able to pull off with this. Like getting people all hot and bothered over the attractive mascots so that their friends will think they’re weird.”
“I’m not sure if I’d have gone with something that exploitive, but yes.” Mike said.
“I’m in.” Susan sat with the other two near the end of the table. Alice settled across from them.
“Excellent,” Alice said. “I’ll work it into conversation.”
“What’s going on?” Susan asked.
“Grandma’s been trying to work out a way to get them to accidentally agree to see us in our suits since they were so uncomfortable about dad.” Mike said. “She has a similar sense of humor to you.”
“That doesn’t make me feel very gung-ho when I’m part of such machinations.” Susan said. “Still, I suppose I’ll be more amused than they will be, so do whatever you want.”
Alice was already whispering to Victor, who rolled his eyes. It wasn’t until the first course was served, however, that Alice acted. “We have more to celebrate than our coming together this evening.”
“You mean the sacrifice of our lord on the cross?” Fred asked.
“Stuff him.” Alice replied. “I mean our youngest getting his first job.”
“Congratulations,” Nancy said. “Doing what?”
“The three of us are going to work for our high school.” Mike said.
“Getting a job at the school with your high school sweetheart and her friend.” Remy said. “How wholesome. Perhaps there’s something to be said for genes triumphing against upbringing after all.”
Alice smiled and opened her mouth but Susan got there first. “We’ll be using our own personal suits to act as mascots at events and sports.”
Ned looked at Alice. “I don’t know how you did it, but I know you did it.”
Tina, who had placidly been working her way through a beef carpaccio, said, “It sounds sensible enough to me. After all, it’s a constructive way of using what the rest of us may consider a strange quirk of personality. With careful wording, it could be an invaluable asset on what has become an extraordinarily competitive college stage, make money and improve the school’s image. I mean, Ned, that enjoying rummaging around inside of people isn’t a very good thing unless you’re a surgeon. Or an undertaker. And killing them en masse isn’t a particularly fun hobby unless you’re a career soldier. Compared to that, owning and enjoying the use of an animal costume is hardly something to chastise our young for, especially if they work out a way to turn it to their advantage.” She went back to her meal.
“Well, if you put it that way-“
“Now that I come to think of it-“
“You know, I wouldn’t mind seeing your routine if you have one planned.”
“It might be fun and we don’t have much planned for tomorrow.”
When the main course was set in front of Tina, she lifted a large amount of spaghetti, hiding her face from everyone except Alice. She winked and whispered,”You’re welcome.”
Alice fumed. “So much for me being clever. Outwitted by someone who rarely says more than six words.”
“Ah,” Jane said, grinning. “But it’s all about being the right six words.”
“Thanks for keeping an eye on Wortag for me,” Jane said, sitting on the end of Mike’s bed. “I hate leaving him anywhere, but carting him back and forth seemed pointless.”
“That’s OK.” Mike replied from his chair in the corner.
“You have no idea what we’re going to do either, do you?” Susan asked.
“None whatsoever,” Mike said. He smiled at Jane. “Remind you of something?”
“Yes, except there aren’t enough people who’d get the references if we try now what we tried then.”
“We could do a soft paw,” Mike said.
“No! I’ve agreed to too much already,” Susan said. “I will not degrade myself to the level of the backup dancers for a third rate variety show.”
“Gymnastics?” Jane asked.
“I may look like I can, but you’re the only one who actually has any skill in that.” Susan said. “Perhaps we should think about what mascots usually do.”
“Jump up and down and act like idiots?” Mike asked.
“That’s not very fair,” Jane said.
“But accurate.” Susan countered. “It’s mostly just exuberance and crowd interaction, right?”
“Then we may as well do what we always do.” Jane said.
“Exactly my point.”
“Most mascots are silent.” Mike said.
“Good,” Jane replied. “That’ll be our special thing. It’s worth a try.”
“You know, I haven’t been this nervous getting suited up since I first met you,” Mike said. “It’s one thing to go out in public and another to do this in front of family.”
“Lucky thing it’s not my extended family.” Susan said. “One of them might take a potshot at you.” She got up and took the box she’d brought with. “I think I’ll change now. I have a feeling I’ll need the time.” She looked down the hall, “Or at least want it.”
Jane held up Jamina’s bodysuit. “We’d better get going ourselves or they’ll come in and bother us while we’re in the middle.” She put her arms around Mike and her face in his shoulder as he pulled the arms up. “You’re so soft, you almost make me want to be fluffy myself.”
Mike pushed the box with Wortag in it out from under his bed. “You’re fuzzy enough for me. I think our relationship can only handle so much fluff.” He bent over so his tail swung up and swept Jane’s jaw. “I definitely like being the bouncy one.”
Jane swatted Mike’s tail as it came up. “Enough!” She laughed. “Or Susan will finish first and walk in on us.”
Mike spun around and kissed Jane’s arm. “I don’t mind, querida! Let her come in. I don’t care who sees us.”
Mike put his hands to his chest. “Low blow, carra mia.”
Jane pulled her bodysuit up and checked to make sure her tail was properly attached. “Mascot now, low blow later.”
Mike put his footpaws on. “I love it when you use double entendres. Say some more! Spotted dick! Extra-!”
Jane put a finger to his lips. “Really, I think we do have to hurry.”
“All right.” The rest of their preparation continued in silence. “Do you think they’ll care that we’re not of the same gender as we are?” Jamina asked, adjusting her muzzle and paws.
“Two girls and a guy walk in,” Wortag replied, “two girls and a guy walk out.” He checked himself in the mirror. “I hadn’t actually thought of that before. A bit late now. I think you can answer that better than me.”
“Grandma Alice knows,” Jamina said.
“Then they all will.”
“Dad can deal with her on the short term. As for the others…” Jamina trailed off. “I don’t think they’ll care if they figure it out. Honestly, I think as long as grandma Tina’s on our side through all of this, we’ll be OK.”
“She is quite persuasive when she feels like talking.” Wortag agreed.
There was a soft, muffled knock at the door. “Are you two decent?” Came Solvezia’s deep purr.
“Never,” Wortag replied. “Come on in.”
Solvezia entered, still tugging at her handpaws. “They don’t feel quite right today.”
Wortag looked at Solvezia’s wrists, having to take some time at it with his vision impaired. “The lines are contiguous, so you should be fine.” He said at last. He reached behind her and gave her zipper a quick pull. “That ought to help, though.”
“Thanks.” Solvezia took a deep breath. “Ready, then?”
“As ready as we can be.” Wortag replied.
“I’m actually starting to feel a bit better about it.” Jamina said.
“Then let’s go.” Solvezia said.
“Wait.” Wortag took his head off and gently removed Jamina’s. Jane put her grey-furred arms around Mike and kissed him, soft but deep. “I think we both needed that.”
“Spare a bit of encouragement for me?” Susan asked, Solvezia’s head under her arm.
“If you insist,” Jane said, grinning as she grabbed Susan and kissed her hard.
“Fwah, yuck!” Susan gasped when Jane pulled back.
“You know you love it rough,” Jane replied, still grinning.
“Maybe you didn’t mean her,” Mike said. “I don’t have much experience, but-“
“No, no!” Susan said, fumbling her head back on. “I think Jane made the point. Loose lips et cetera.”
“They didn’t seem that loose to me-“
The three filed in to the living room, where Mike’s family was sitting according to seniority, meaning that four of them were standing. They watched politely as Wortag, Jamina and Solvezia entered and stood in a row. “We don’t have anything planned,” Wortag said. “We only decided for sure yesterday.”
“That’s all right,” Nancy said. “You’ll probably be a big hit even as you are.”
“Do you think so?” Jamina asked.
“Sure, son.” Remy said. “When I went to school, all we had was a cheap looking lion who would have done better to keep his trap shut.”
“Ummm.” Solvezia said. “Did he just…?”
“It’s rather obvious,” Tina yawned. “All in the behavior. I could have almost predicted it.”
Remy tapped the side of his head. “Nobody asks whether generals have had their implants removed at retirement. Your infra-red profile and voice pattern are transparent to this thing.”
“As if I wouldn’t recognize my own grandson,” Nancy added.
“And I’m a bloody doctor. I know the difference between flesh and prosthetic.” Ned continued.
“Didn’t you once say you liked foxes?” Leo asked.
Wortag put his paws up. “OK, OK, I get it. Nothing can be hidden from any of you. I’m really glad I’m not related to you.”
“I admit I wouldn’t have predicted you, Susan.” Tina said. “But then again, don’t we all have a sexy beast trying to get out?”
Remy looked at her in silent astonishment.
“So you like it?” Jamina asked.
“Yes, yes!” Alice said. “They aren’t running, so they must enjoy it.”
“Why is Mike the only one with clothes on?” Ned asked.
“Jane’s wearing a vest.” Remy said. “A very serviceable one by the look of it.”
“I just like what it adds,” Jamina said. “I think it fleshes out the character.”
“And don’t we all like wearing fluffy gowns that make us feel pretty?” Tina added.
“Are you sure you’re my wife?” Remy asked.
“I’m no one’s wife.” Tina said.
Wortag put his muzzle to Jamina’s ear. “Score one for my mom.”
“Score several,” Jamina replied.
The rest of the afternoon went by in a mixture of good and bad natured argument, much like any other day. About an hour in, the youngest changed back into non-furry clothes and by the time they were out at dinner again, Leo and Fred were actually helping them with their routine. “We may not have won a war or unhooked Siamese twins,” Leo said, “but we were both in sports and we know what the crowd likes.” He winked at Mike. “They might like you a bit too much.”
“Last to arrive, last to leave.” Alice said Saturday afternoon. “I’m sure you’ll all welcome the day off.”
“Don’t try that pleasantry. I might just stay on to teach you not to do that.” Alice looked at Mike, Jane and Susan. “It’s good to know that I’m leaving behind more than one person who can keep up with making the world a more meaningful place. After all, an unexpected event is one with more information, and so all of you are definitely making things interesting. Who knows, Jane? You may end up doing my good work when I’m gone.” With a clatter and a set of clunks, Alice was gone.
“You know, I never saw her car.” Jane said.
“It’s best not to ask how my mother gets places.” Victor said. “When it comes to mom, I don’t even rule out teleportation.”
“Did you ever have a chance?” Susan asked Mike.
“Not once mom fell in love, I didn’t.” Mike said.
“Even before that, you weren’t exactly mundane.” Nora said.
“True. Still, I’ve had more than dad ever did.”
“Yes.” Nora replied, putting her arm around Victor. “After spending a few minutes with your mother, I appreciated how well adjusted you are. Your father must have had a great deal of patience.”
“I don’t think it was patience.” Victor said. “He and mom were very well matched.”
Jane looked up at the sky. “Victor?”
“Does Alice’s cane have an umbrella in it?”
“I think so. She likes to make things efficient. Why?”
Jane shook her head and closed the door. “I will never call my family weird ever again in my entire life.”
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