The four of them, somewhat later the same evening, settled in the living room—Van and Brennan at either end of the couch, Oblique leaning against Brennan but with one hand twined into Van's and a long leg, as bare as the rest of her, draped over his lap. Miranda curled herself into the chair, watching with interest.
“Well?” Brennan asked. “What kind of mood are you in?”
“A furry wildlife kind of mood,” Oblique said. “Stripes and spots and tails.”
“It's getting harder all the time to come up with new variations on that, but let's see what we can do.”
“There's the extremely simple one,” Van said, and gathered power from Oblique, used it to darken her skin to midnight with a faint shadowing of black-on-black spots, alter the lines of her face to make them more feline, give her green cat's eyes and a black kitty-tail.
Oblique made a purring noise, running her free hand down her body. “I always did like this one, but I'd rather something new for today.”
Not much of a surprise; getting there was half the fun, and even if she wanted to keep the first idea one of them had, there were generally a lot of other changes before she was satisfied.
Brennan, one hand resting lightly on her belly, changed the colour pattern to a dazzling creamy white with mist-grey spots, and added short dense fur along her outer arms and legs, probably down her back too. Miranda made a soft, “Ooh,” of appreciation.
They went through a variety of animals, Van standing briefly at one point to get a book from the shelves so that he could check on the exact markings of the various species of skunk, but Oblique decided she was feeling feline and asked them to go back to cats.
Miranda, through all this, observed and occasionally gave opinions and once or twice voiced suggestions. Van made sure to check frequently that she was handling this okay, but she showed no signs of distress or concern at all—possibly because of Oblique's obvious pleasure and encouragement and control.
“Cats,” Brennan mused. “Well, what big cats are there? Tigers we've done before, lions aren't very striking. Leopards, jaguars, cheetahs. Black leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards.”
“What's a clouded leopard?” Miranda asked.
“Pass me that book, Van? I can't visualize the facial markings clearly enough.”
Van handed him the book, and watched while Oblique's skin and fur shifted to the distinctive oblong splotches, with a longer and bushier tail than most other cats.
“That's really pretty,” Miranda said. “But the white and grey one back at the start was prettier.”
Van glanced at her, worried, picking up a note to her voice that hadn't been there before. Wistful, and trying hard to hide it?
Oblique opened her eyes, green-gold and slit-pupilled though that didn't technically match her current form, to look at Miranda, and said, very quietly, “Your choice, always.” Then, at normal volume, playfully, “I think she's right, that was rather striking, go back to that one so we can fix the details. Pay attention, please, Van.”
Van tried to obey, but concern for Miranda nagged at him. What was wrong?
Much to his surprise, Miranda abandoned the chair and wriggled herself onto the couch, mostly on his lap—Oblique moved her leg to make room. Automatically, Van slid his free arm around her to steady her, and gave her a questioning look.
She rested her head against his chest, angled so she could see Oblique, and said, “I don't like feeling all alone and left out.”
He let go of Oblique so he could hug her. “You aren't alone.”
“When I'm over there and you three are playing over here and I'm not part of it I am. And Oblique's having so much fun and I don't get to.” The unhappiness in her voice made Van cringe inside, not sure whether it were mage instinct or the empathy that had sent him into counselling that made the need to fix it so imperative.
“That's backwards,” he said softly. “This isn't something anyone else has any right to tell you to do. It isn't trying to leave you out, it's just trying not to push you into anything you don't want.”
“As opposed to refusing anything you do want,” Oblique said, white and grey again, and smiled. Her lips were now outlined with black that shaded inwards, a match for the black that circled her turquoise eyes and made tear-stripes; long wavy raven hair made a striking contrast to the white and grey. “It helps if you lose the clothes, though, it's harder with them on.”
“You don't have to, but you can,” Van said firmly, holding her tight, protectively.
For a couple of heartbeats, Miranda stayed very still, almost rigid.
Then she wriggled, and Van let go so she could get up. It didn't take her long to shed her T-shirt and jeans and panties. She hadn't been exaggerating; she had no more curves to her body or fullness to her breasts than a girl who hadn't yet reached puberty. She snuggled back onto Van's lap with no particular sign of modesty, only a shyness he thought was connected more to magic than nakedness.
“Matching kitty?” Oblique mused, her tail twitching.
Miranda shook her head. “Big cats like you like don't fit for me.”
Van smiled, hugging her close again. “There are lots of kinds of cats, not all big wild ones. May I?”
Delicately, he reached for power, and formulated a clear image of a tabby. Skin colour only, go slow and gentle and don't give her a shock...
Miranda made a soft noise, and all the tension drained away; she sagged against him bonelessly, her breathing accelerating.
“Very pretty stripes,” Oblique said, when Van finished.
Miranda opened her eyes. “Stripes?” She held out one arm so she could see. “Oh!”
Both hands were white, though on one it extended farther than the other; her upper arms were soft brown-gold, with fine black stripes circling them, broken on the inside. She looked down, found the white V down her chest, the same brown-gold to either side with the stripes tapering to nothing on her belly, and all the way down to her legs and feet, one white to mid-thigh, the other to mid-calf.
Brennan made a glamour-mirror for her to see her face, the tabby M on her forehead, the black around lips and eyes, the white that covered her lower face. She stared, wide-eyed, and Van held his breath, hoping she wouldn't react badly.
Slowly, she smiled. “Definitely pretty stripes. But that's all?”
“What else do you want?”
“Hm. I think I need a tail and stuff, so I match Oblique.”
Van obligingly reached, and felt her go blissfully limp again.
Oblique laughed, low in her throat. “Feels good, doesn't it?”
“Mmhmm,” Miranda said. “Doesn't hurt like him, feels wonderful...” She pulled herself together again, and inspected her hands, experimenting with the sharp claws that extended when she flexed the muscles near her fingertips. “Hey, neat.” The fur fascinated her; Van had followed Oblique's preferred pattern, and left chest and stomach and the inner surface of her limbs bare, if patterned, skin. It took her a minute to figure out how to control her tail, but she found the right motor controls without much difficulty.
“Happy with that, or more changes?” Van asked. “You can be fussy, I promise not to get annoyed. I'd rather you look exactly how you want to.”
Miranda considered that. “A bit more like a girl, maybe? Not a lot, just some?”
Hm, which meant adding, mostly. He had to do another general shift of overall proportions—if she measured herself, she'd be a fraction of an inch shorter—to give himself the leeway to add small breasts and some curve to her hips and bottom, much as he'd had to for the tail.
“Perfect,” she said happily, and cuddled against him. The low rumbling deep in her throat startled her, but not Van. “Hey!”
“Small cats purr,” Oblique chuckled, and moved so she could give Miranda a kiss that was definitely not sisterly; Miranda returned it enthusiastically. “You look fantastic.”
“And we get to enjoy the view,” Brennan laughed. “Quite a spectacular view it is, too.”
“Definitely,” Van agreed.
Miranda glanced down at her clothes. “Hm, can't wear jeans with a tail.”
“Part of why I wear sarongs and skirts a lot,” Oblique said. “Sarongs are infinitely adaptable. When I wear clothes at all, that is. Even short fur is amazingly warm, and who's to see? But we can find you something.”
“Or make you something,” Van said. “If you want.” With Oblique, he would've simply done it, knowing she wouldn't mind or feel used; with Miranda, he thought it best to ask before drawing on her, every time. At least, until she was more familiar with this.
Van mentally constructed all the details of a pair of worn-soft blue jeans, changed them to shorts, and slit the back middle seam most of the way down, adding crisscrossed lacing along it. Metal buttons and zippers weren't an option, that was too dense for him to create even with Oblique, let alone the risk of hurting Randi; the back lacing should suffice, so he made them solid across the front. The tricky bit would be making sure they were the right size; reflexively, he laid both hands on her waist. That size, though he couldn't have put into concrete terms for anyone else.
Oblique's hand flashed out, cat-quick, to snatch the materializing shorts before they fell, and she handed them to Miranda. “Let's go upstairs for a minute, and we'll see what we can do. Unless you want to do more changes?” Van knew that tone, the languorous way she moved: thoroughly sated and content.
Miranda shook her head. “I like this.” She kept looking at her reflection in Brennan's mirror in wonder, but she wriggled off Van's lap.
“Are you going to make it back anytime soon?” Brennan asked in amusement, watching Oblique stroking her hand down Miranda's hair and back and shoulders.
Oblique smiled. “Maybe.”
As they left, Van heard Miranda giggle, “Black scales, brown skin, white fur... you're like a chameleon,” and Oblique's laughter and a reply he couldn't make out.
Alone with Brennan, Van let himself slump against the back of the couch, eyes closed. “I was not expecting that.”
“I can't say I was, either,” Brennan said. “But all's well, and I'm sure in no time she'll be as bad as Oblique and the rest. You didn't force her, hurt her, or frighten her, and she appears to genuinely like how she looks, although I expect it will take her a little time to get used to it. She more or less matches Oblique, which gives her a role model. Nothing to panic over.”
“I shouldn't have left her out, I should've just let you and Oblique play...”
“Van.” It came out almost as a growl. “Stop it now. Randi is perfectly fine, and has just had an extremely pleasurable, if short, experience. Which will go a long way towards combating any associations she may have picked up from the Vladislav she was with. If she changes her mind and wants you to undo it, I have no doubt at all she'll ask. Enough with the second-guessing.”
Van sighed, nodded, and sat forward. “You make too much sense. What do you figure the odds are they'll both end up in Oblique's bed?”
“High. Which means there's probably no point in sitting around waiting. Willing to let me see what you've done lately on your book?”
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