Michelle peered at Anthony humorously over a pair of dark sunglasses, who looked back at her over his interlaced digits through the steam rising from his coffee. Both were dressed for the cool weather of mid-Autumn, Michelle in a brown dress with a dark-blue vest over a white blouse and Anthony wearing a black shirt and slacks with a fire-engine red belt and tie. Mitch and Zeke lay curled up under the metal table outside the bookstore, Mitch's hindpaw positioned that it just touched his wife's foot. "Now Tony," she chuckled. "I think that you are just a little jealous that Mitch can beat you consistently at Chess now!"
The least weasel cocked his head to the side. "Only when he's relatively lucid," he replied, taking a sip from his coffee. "I just think he looks a little ridiculous walking around on all fours is all. And jeez, doesn't he ever get cold? That little fuschia vest doesn't seem to do much except keep him close."
The queen tossed her head. "Well, I think he looks very handsome this way," she said defensively, looking down at Mitch affectionately. "And I'll bundle him up if he starts shivering." She lifted her foot and pressed it against her husband's back, illiciting a purr from him as she began to rub him gently. He had recently stopped having his seizures, and he had been having his lucid moments a little more often. However, he had picked up the mildly annoying habit of playing demented when he was perfectly lucid.
Anthony rolled his eyes in disgust, but he sighed, shaking his head a little, and let the issue go. "Anyway," he said, "the reason I insisted on us meeting on short notice is that Shea wouldn't let the issue go. He says he's been making progress with this ferret jill. She was brought in by this fox who came in claiming she was his wife. He seems to have invented some crazy touch therapy technique-"
Michelle raised a digit, interrupting him. "Wait, I thought thouch therapy had been discredited?"
"That's what Shea thought, too," he said. "At first, we were trying to figure out whether the fox was some kind of scam artist, but it turned out he was just a weirdo. According to his psychiatric profile, he tends to go around under fictitious identities and tells some pretty weird-sounding lies about his genetic background, but his criminal record is almost pristine."
"Almost?" Michelle raised her eyebrows.
Anthony chuckled. "Well, he got into an argument with a county commisioner two years ago, and the jerk filed a charge for verbal assault. Apparently, the guy had been fighting the city for more than a decade over his mansion house."
"Wait a minute," Mitch said, raising his head up from his paws. "You mean Jacob really owned that damned house?"
Anthony kicked him under the table. "Shut up, you phony bastard. You're supposed to be demented." He continued to Michelle, "Anyway, he had heard about some of Shea's work, and he wanted to see what could be done. Well, over the next two months, Shea put her through all of the basics, and then she started him up on some anticonvulsant medication, thinking that the most he'd get would be an occasional moment or two here and there where she might be able to say her name. For some reason, it just doesn't work as well on those who are born feral."
"I take it he got farther this time?" Michelle said.
The hob shook his head. "Not at first, no. Results were a little bit better than the usual, but it was just going to be another paper to add to the thousands out there. But one time, this fox insisted on sitting in with us, and while Shea was going through the exercises, he started petting on her in this weird kind of way." He started trying to pantomime the movement. "From what I saw on the video, it seemed to follow this sort of pattern at first, but then it started looking completely random--it turns out not because I tried running some algorithms on it and found it still followed a sort of logic--and that time, she came up all the way and stayed with us for a solid hour. It beat anything Shea had ever seen, and it sure beat anything I'd ever seen."
Michelle's jaw had dropped open, and she just looked at the little least weasel over her latte.
"What's up?" Anthony asked, his whiskers twitching.
Mitch raised his head lazily. "I've been doing that with Zeke for years, buddy."
Anthony's shout caused Zeke to raise up his head and emit an annoyed growl.
~~ *** ~~
Sarah had her arms wrapped tightly around Jacob with her head buried in his arm submissively, and the reynard's paw pet over her as he held her. She had on a lilac gown that covered her legs completely in her present position, and her blouse was a lighter shade of the same color. The fox was in his usual casual attire. He held in the paw that was not holding his jill a gin and tonic, served neat.
Although the little jill was far from completely normal even when she was lucid, she had managed well during introductions. Her voice was extremely shy, and she had a tendency to blush and look away often, a far cry from her boldness as a feral. Devi was going to have some competition for the status of Most Adored.
Devi was playing with their four daughters in the back room. The three who had been born feral were running about boisterously and causing a nuisance for the poor otter jill, and the eldest was trying to get her father to sit still long enough for her to brush out his fur. Each was an odd mixture of feline and musteline, and two of them had inherited their mother's water resistant fur. Zeke and his mate had been having lucid moments a little more often, but he still depended on Mitch to bring him into a state of sensibility. Both could stay up for a solid hour, and they seemed to feed off of each other. It was turning out that Devi could curse like a sailor, though, and Michelle suspected that this was her uncle's influence.
The two masters of the house were in the kitchen, fussing at each other noisily as they tried to get dinner prepared. Amazingly enough, the two were actually excellent cooks, and what looked on the surface like utter chaos was starting to smell very good. It was only their second year of marriage, but they had acted with the comeraderie of a long-wedded couple since crossing the threshold. Nobody had been surprised by the union. Anthony's white winter coat was buzzed to a uniform length over his entire body, which gave him a peculiar gleam. Under his apron, he was in a blue-and-white version of the same outfit he had worn a year and two months earlier, when he had first spoken to Michelle about Shea's work.
Peter Gently sat directly across from the fox, occupying his usual place next to the fireplace. The otter was the only one who actually knew how to build and tend to a fire, so the duty of building and tending to it always seemed to fall on him. To Peter's right sat Michelle, who was starting to show more than just a bit. Mitch was laying on the floor in his usual pretense of animal simplicity, though his right-hind-paw was clenched tightly around Michelle's. Anthony had teased Mitch relentlessly for letting is wife deck him out in pink, feminine Winter wear, and Mitch had responded by biting him.
"You know, Peter" said the fox to the otter, "this gin you brought with you is very good." He took a sip from the drink. Then he shook his finger scoldingly "First, you thrill us with some genuine halvah, and now you have brought out this wonderful Geneva. You must tell me where you got it, you tease."
Peter tapped his fingers together and looked over at the fox slyly. "Now, let us otters have our little secrets," he said slyly. "But let's just say that a certain dolphin bull owed me...a debt." He smiled fiendishly. At that, the room broke out laughing, and the laughter turned to more casual chatter. It was Solstice Eve; there was a thick layer of snow on the ground, and spirits were high.
In time, Anthony and Shea came out holding giant platters filled with gourmet foods intended for all palates, bringing in folding tables to put in front of everyone's seats. They seemed to be at odds over whether Anthony's butternut squash or Shea's overnight marinade would be the star attraction, but it all looked to be a glorious feast all around. Both of them were excellent cooks.
"Allow me to propose a toast," Peter Gently said. The table quieted, and they allowed the eldest member of the gathering to speak. "Firstly," he said, "I would like to thank our hosts, Anthony and Shea, for having us over to celebrate the new season."
His fellow mustelids held each other's hands and gave a bow.
Peter Gently continued, "I would also like to thank all of you for being here and bringing your families with you."
There was some appreciative mumbling.
The hob raised his glass high, and he concluded, "But, in the spirit of the new season and new beginnings, let us please have a drink in honor of the beautiful children who have come to bring their warmth and joy to this house." Several glasses clinked together as the otter completed his toast, and each was empty a moment later.
Just then, there was a knock on the door.
Abruptly, Mitch dropped his pretense. "Umm, that would be Mom, Dad and Aunt Gertie," he mumbled as he got up and went to answer the door. Michelle came with him, and there was a clattering of claws as Zeke sensed something was up and came running. He undid the latch, and there in the snow stood his mother, father and aunt...in matching male lounge suits.
After an awkward silence, Tammy and Gertie both turned to each other and started giggling profusely, and Joel was just grinning widely.
Mitch finally found his voice. "Okayyyy," he said, "before I start wondering-or should I say stop wondering- where the hyena comes from, ah, what gives?"
Mitch's father came up and clapped him on the back. "Well, kiddo, the girls decided that, since you won't dress your gender, neither will they!" He chuckled and gave his son a hug. "Now, where did you hide my grand-cubs?"
With that, the united family came together for dinner on the finest night of the year, and the adults drank long and deeply. The snow piled up outside, soon covering the Earth like a protective blanket, and its purity bore the promise of new life.
Peter Gently, who had never married, and Gertrude Weaver, a widow, would exchange contact information that very night. Weeks later, Peter would receive a call.
Zeke and Devi would continue to conceive a new cub every year another decade. Most of them would turn out to be normal, and the others would go on to become beneficiarieis of the methods worked out between Shea and Jacob. Ironically, Devi would go on to found a chain of luxury hotels, making Zeke, by extension, the wealthiest member of his family. Zeke himself would follow suit with Mitch in keeping up a pretense of feralism, staying home to tend to his many cubs.
Anthony and Shea would adopt several feral-born cubs, of various species, and raise them as their own. Shea would eventually throw Anthony out of his lab, so the little least weasel would eventually realize his potential as a physicist. However, as their brood grew and other researchers took over his work, Shea would eventually come home to serve as a homemaker.
Tammy and Joel would become advocates for more holistic approaches to treating and dealing with feralism, and in time they would mature into respected and deeply beloved family elders.
Mitch and Michelle would have three cubs, each of them inheriting Mitch's gender reversal. Michelle's art would eventually receive moderate acclaim, and Mitch would become a history instructor at a local community college.
And Jacob and Sarah will have their own story.
Thank you for reading, and I hope that brings closure to this thing.