Learning Curve 11

Tavi was asleep already when I checked on her, curled up but not covered. I tucked a pillow under her sore hand to elevate it a little, then fetched a warm fuzzy blanket from the living room to tuck over her.

I made myself a sandwich, heavy on the meat, which turned out to be quite acceptable to my current physiology. Then I went back to figuring out how to actually move properly. From point A to point B, I was getting the hang of, but not complex acrobatic feats like sitting down on the couch and standing up. Using the bathroom wasn’t really all that bad aside from that same set of issues, since I proved to be flexible enough to reach behind and under myself to clean up. There were scales across my eyes like a mask, I discovered in the bathroom mirror, but the skin over my eyelids was shimmery gold without scales, which was very striking; my lips were the same metallic green-black as my scales. I couldn’t fault Tavi’s artistry.

Ben returning after work was giving me butterflies in my stomach. What if it turned out to be too much? What if whatever Tavi had done to my behaviour came across as excessive and he thought it was the real everyday me? What if other awkward accommodation issues came up and he couldn’t handle it?

I just kept repeating to myself that Ben was better than that and he wouldn’t have wanted to come back if he expected it to be bad. I was just going to have to trust him.

I did lie down on the couch for a while, my tail spilling off the edge into coils on the floor but at least the more-or-less-human part of me was comfortably supported. I didn’t exactly sleep, but with music on my phone, which was on the back of the couch and close at hand, I could close my eyes and let myself relax and drowse a bit.

I heard Tavi get up and use the bathroom, then heard her in the kitchen getting herself a drink; when I halfway opened my eyes, she was sitting on the floor, her sketchbook supported by her sore hand, a pencil in the other.

“How is this worth sketching?”

“I’m making the couch one of those old-fashioned fainting couches with one raised arm. That makes it look pretty cool.”

“You should be resting your hand.”

“This is distracting me from it hurting even with the pain meds.”

I sighed, but decided not to argue. Distraction was a good thing. “Any particular position?”

“Nope, you’re good.”

The room was, for a while, quiet except for the music.

My phone trilled, announcing a call from Ben. I brought it down, answered and turned on the speaker, and set it on my chest.

“Heya,” I said. “Done work?”

“Yep. How’s Tavi?”

“Slept for a while. Sore. Keeping busy safely—I’m watching her.”

“Good to hear. I’m about to order the pizza. Any changes? Anything else you want me to pick up?”

“We could use a loaf of bread,” Tavi said.

“Bread? That’s easy enough. I’m going to drop by a pharmacy anyway and pick up more ibuprofen, because I noticed that bottle’s very low, and antibiotic ointment for that cut, because it’s right on the edge and your options are to let me fuss over it, get a doctor to see it, or risk complications.”

“Tavi will be good,” I said. “And we’ll be here. What about Sasquatch?”

“He’s been with my sister for the past few days, while I’ve been doing overtime. She’s fine with keeping him a little longer, and he adores her. She spoils him hopelessly. It’s all good.”

“Okay. I don’t want him to suffer over all this, but I’m not sure how he’d feel about me right now. I’m paying you back for all that, by the way.”

“Don’t worry about it for the moment. I’m going to swing by home, too, and change to real clothes. See you in a few.”

“Keep this one,” Tavi said. “Total polar opposite of Tim. He messaged me again. Says he’s coming over and he’s coming in to look for anything that belongs to him.”

“We might have to look into how to get a restraining order against him. At least that would simplify things if you need to call nine-one-one, because I have no idea whether he’ll respect it or not.”

“Neither do I. And you might be right. Or maybe I can just make his body reflect his spirit, and call it self-defence. As a bonus, keep other women from falling for that pretty smile. I swear, I’m sticking just with women for the foreseeable future. They can be crazy too but the odds of this kind of drama are probably lower.”

“Maybe. Remember Tricia? Decided on the first date that we were going to get married and she’d make sure I never looked at anyone else again, especially guys, and she told me about all this on the third and last date but I got sad messages from her on the anniversary of our first date for the next three years? I think it’s a gamble regardless of gender.”

“Hm. You have a point. Well, I usually have better relationships with women anyway. Ben, on the other hand, is just sweet, and he is so in love with you it’s just adorable. I didn’t mean to give you an excuse to drag him into this, but I‘m not totally sorry.”

“I hope I’m not, in a few days.”

“People weirded out and planning to dump someone don’t show up with pizza.”

“Probably true. You just about done the sketch you’re on?”

“Close. I will be by the time Ben gets here.”

She did wrap up before much longer, and left her sketchbook lying on the end table while she got up and stretched. “All done, milady. Anything I can get you? I need more water.”

“I’m fine. Do I need to watch you in the kitchen?”

“I’ll be good, I promise.”

I sat up, readjusting all that tail thoughtfully. There was just so much of it. The rest of me was my normal size, if proportioned a bit differently, but from about the level of the bottom of a barely-decent micro-miniskirt on down, there seemed to be miles of scaled tail. Probably it wasn’t as bad as it felt like, but even so, there was a lot.

Tavi returned with a fresh glass of water and ice, but she’d barely set it down when the intercom buzzed.

“Make sure it’s Ben, not Tim,” I reminded her.

She nodded, and went to the intercom herself. She was keeping her injured hand cradled close against her body, probably to protect it. That wasn’t a bad approach.

She let Ben in, and hastened to relieve him of as much of his load as she could—which mostly was the stack of three pizzas.

“Be careful,” he told her sternly. He was in blue jeans now, with a black t-shirt that had a red fox print on it.

“I am. Did you really bring a first aid kit?”

“My own just-in-case gear. Y’know, just in case I need to check your hand again.” He let the shoulder strap of the much smaller red nylon bag slide down his arm and left that by the door. “Bread, a few things from the pharmacy, and a couple of sides to go with the pizza. Sexy snake goddesses don’t need moving prey, I hope, but just in case they eat as much as a real snake.”

Tavi actually giggled. “You do know that once I get a grip on this, I’ll be able to do whatever changes I want, right? And we’ve established that I’m easy to bribe and that Sky adapts really fast.”

“You’re wonderfully evil. It’s possible that I’m not above taking you up on that.”

“I’m right here,” I pointed out.

“Reclining in proper regal fashion,” Ben agreed. “Let me wash up and I’ll start cutting the pizza. One medium each seemed like the best approach, since pizza works great as leftovers.”

“It would make more sense for Tavi to sit her cute ass down so she can’t hurt herself and for me to help. I told you I’d figure out moving properly by now. I have.”

“What, and deny us both the chance to serve a sexy snake goddess?” He winked at me. “Humour us.”

Part of me wanted to insist.

Another part of me thought this was much more appropriate.

I gave up. Ben would make sure Tavi survived the kitchen intact.

Not long later, we all had food—my pizza had so much meat on it that all the toppings had to have been doubled, and there were breaded chicken tenders to nibble on as well.

“Okay,” Ben said. “Any chance you can get me caught up on the whole story, here? Not trying to intrude, but just so I’m up to speed.”

I told Ben about being worried about Tavi, coming here, her uncle Glen, the compromise we’d reached.

“Not eating is dangerous,” Ben observed. “Even if your body isn’t in overdrive trying to channel resources in a whole new direction. Like I said, you’re lucky you have a friend who wouldn’t let you risk that.”

“At a cost,” Tavi sighed.

“Not much of one,” I said firmly. “The occasional awkward moment while trying to figure out something new, a bit of practice, a week or so of staying out of everyone else’s sight. You have yet to come up with anything I couldn’t cope with fairly easily, and you’re obviously gaining some control since you were able to handle the whole thing much better this last time. We’re probably past the worst of it. So stop that.”

“Has it occurred to you,” Ben said thoughtfully to Tavi, “that Sky actually would have been utterly miserable and feeling appallingly guilty if he’d just gone on with going to work and getting together with me, and left you to deal with all of this without him? Doesn’t take a genius to spot that you two are closer than most sibling pairs I’ve ever met. I mean, think about it, if it were the other way around. Would you have left?”

“No! Of course not! But no one should have to live out whatever’s inside my head.”

“Everyone has weird stuff inside their heads. Some boring repressed types just try to pretend they don’t. Then they get all inappropriate with my female coworkers or something. Now and then with me instead. But I don’t think the inside of your head is foreign country for Sky, and I think I can prove it.”

“What? How?”

“I did do a class on witch-related medicine, because I made a point of hitting classes based in every fringe or controversial subject I could so I’d have a solid grounding in them. After Sky messaged me about what’s going on, I did more digging. Morph shock happens, obviously.”

“Yes, I know. My dad and grandma are both morph witches. My grandmother specializes in general medical procedures. My dad specializes in gender issues. They’re both really good and really precise. Nothing like the stuff I seem to do instinctively. Although I can probably learn to tone it down.”

“As I understand it, that wouldn’t be a good plan, since it tends to lead to depression and ultimately a gradual weakening of abilities. Probably better to just embrace all the mad creativity. That’ll still make the world better, just like your family, just not the same way. Anyway, morph shock. There’s a very clear pattern as far as what causes it. One is that it happens without consent—self-defence, criminal assault, or those godawful experiments by the military that I hope really are discontinued. Another is that there are mental health factors involved. But the most common reason for low-level, non-traumatic morph shock is a mismatch between what the witch visualizes and the subject is expecting. Not a small difference, but something really fundamental—along the lines of each thinking they mean the same thing by a word, like ‘elf’ or something, but one’s thinking of Tolkien and one’s thinking of Santa. It’s kind of a very sudden form of dysphoria. Usually, if it’s non-traumatic, it’s solved pretty handily by undoing it. The certainty that it can and will be reversed is what keeps it from being traumatic, basically.”

“I can’t undo anything yet,” Tavi argued. “And Sky knows that. And we can’t understand the same thing by anything if neither of us can even predict what’s going to happen each time.”

“I do know you’ll undo it,” I said. “As soon as you can. And I gave you full unconditional consent.” I thought I could see where Ben was going with this.

Ben nodded. “Non-traumatic. And I think the reason that it’s working is because you two are so in tune with each other that nothing coming out of your head feels genuinely alien to Sky, even if it might to anyone else on the planet. It might be unexpected, but the specifics are all things that fall on the side of feeling tolerably comfortable, with nothing so contrary to what and who either of you are that it can trigger morph shock. Too long, didn’t read version? You two have been so close for so long that I really don’t think you could subconsciously invent any form that Sky would find completely incompatible and cause shock.”

“I… oh. I hadn’t thought of it from that direction.” She bit her lower lip, mulling that over.

“You’re tired,” I pointed out. “Aside from a couple of short bouts on your treadmill, you’re sticking with low-energy pastimes and sleeping a lot. I didn’t think of it either, but then, I had no reason to know half of that. That’s why I like hanging out with smart people.” I glanced at Ben. “Should I ask how much time you spent researching morph shock, and why?”

“Worrying about you,” he said reasonably. “Wanting to know exactly what risks were involved and what I could do, if anything. It didn’t take me all that long to conclude that you’ve never been in any danger and that I probably couldn’t do anything, but I was curious anyway. If my boyfriend’s best friend is a morph witch, then it felt relevant.”

“Is that why you’re being so calm about this?”

“What is there to not be calm about? Morph witches exist. Late manifestation generally means high strength, and this is really late. I already knew Tavi is unconventional and artistic and creative. Briefly surprised, sure, but now I have some idea how strong and how creative, so what is there to freak out over? I’d rather appreciate, like any other work of art.”

“Marry him,” Tavi told me.

“After two months?” I said. “Mm… I’ll definitely keep that in mind.”

Ben just grinned. “Don’t need government permission to hang around. So now that I’m done with my little lecture… how are you both dealing with jobs and all, and how have you been staying fed?”

That got us back on track to tell him the rest of what had been going on. Including all three forms, and Tavi handed Ben her phone with the pictures. The cat pictures made him laugh, the robot pictures made his eyebrows go up, and the pony pics made him briefly speechless.

“Okay, now I see why the snake-tail thing is less of a shock,” he chuckled. “But oh man, I so wish I’d seen that one for real.”

“Sky was just bouncing all over and couldn’t sit still,” Tavi giggled. “Huh. Sky? You have any preference on pronouns right now? Male ones feel a bit weird.”

I shrugged. “Not the first time I’ve borrowed female pronouns for a while. Whatever.”

“I can probably more or less do it again once I have some control and time to practice. And I might be willing to, for a good reason.”

“This is going to cost me a lot of pizza over time,” Ben reflected. “But I bet it’ll be worth it. So if she couldn’t stop bouncing last time, what happened this time? I’m not seeing any obvious behavioural change.”

“I keep wanting to tell both of you what to do,” I said drily. “I’m mostly managing to watch everything I say. I’m either doing better than I thought or you both think I’m naturally bossy. Outside of, y’know, situations.”

“Or we’re both so utterly enraptured by you that we’re happy to do anything you say,” Ben retorted. “And not even thinking about whether it’s typical or not.” He grinned at me. “You could get me to do just about anything you wanted right now, y’know.”

“Not until after we eat, please,” Tavi said. “I really don’t mind if you stay and fold the futon out or something, and I have good earbuds. Just don’t disturb my neighbours, they’re actually nice.”

“Food first,” I agreed. “Then I’ll think about it.”

Somehow, Ben hung around, and Tavi showed him her sketches of me over the past few days, which he appeared to genuinely enjoy. When he snuggled up against me, I wrapped an arm around him, and he leaned into it more comfortably than I might have been able to, had our positions been reversed.

When Tavi excused herself to go to bed, she was definitely not faking it to leave Ben and I alone; I’d seen all the signs many times before, telling me that she was exhausted but enjoying herself too much to give in before she had to.

“Just so we’re clear on this,” she said with a yawn. “I’m completely okay with you staying in my apartment overnight, if Sky’s cool with it. And I’m probably going to fall asleep too hard to hear anything, as long as no one’s actually screaming or anything. I’m flexible about after you’re done work tomorrow, too. I mean, you’re already in on all this, so, whatever, come and go whenever. And you’re safe, thanks to Sky being nuts. Right now, g’night.”

“Good night,” Ben said. “And thanks. I didn’t mean to be a long-term intrusion into something basically private, but I’m not going to argue.”

“I don’t think you’re intrusive at all. And trust me, we’ve both had partners who were.” She yawned again, and gave us both a vague wave on her way to the bathroom.

“Whether I sleep here,” Ben said, “is basically up to you. Ditto for whether I come back after work tomorrow. I have three days off after that, because of that extra shift I did last week on top of the overtime. Absolutely no pressure, and if you’d rather I left, I’m not…”

I seized the front of his shirt and dragged him into reach for a fierce kiss. “Oh, shush. Of course I want you here. The only reason I didn’t was because I mistakenly thought you might be rational enough to run for cover immediately.”

“Would that be rational? Sounds more like panic flight from the unfamiliar to me.”

“I’m not sure anyone rational would choose to spend the night in bed with their boyfriend who is currently a very snake-like girlfriend. I’ll try not to boa-constrictor you in my sleep. No promises.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“I haven’t decided yet how I feel about sex as a girl. I sort of want to try just to see, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it.”

“That’s absolutely fair.”

We folded out the futon couch into a bed, and I slithered off to the linen closet to fetch sheets so we could make it quickly.

I really preferred to fall asleep holding Ben, or being held by him, whenever possible.

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