Learning Curve Epilogue

I held up a hand to pause a question, and answered the phone blinking on my desk. “Octavia Whittaker’s office.” I listened patiently. “This isn’t a medical clinic. Octavia’s practice specializes in recreation and personal exploration. We don’t have a waiting list. If you can let me know what days you have in mind for change and reversal, and how many people will be involved, I will do my best to get you in on those days. We can’t guarantee that those days are available, since there is a limit to how many changes Octavia can do in a single day without harming herself, but we do make every effort to be accommodating and to live up to any commitments.”

More listening.

“If you take a look at the website, that’s a common concern and it’s addressed briefly in the FAQ with a link to a more detailed explanation in the section on safety. In short, it’s perfectly safe. I literally could not count the number of times I’ve been in different forms or describe just how diverse they have been. However, if you’re still worried, we do have a list of mental health professionals on the site who are qualified to help you decide whether it would be advisable for you personally… Yes, ma’am. Yes, I’m the same person you spoke to previously. I’m the only one who handles Octavia’s reception and scheduling. Yes, quite likely I did sound different that day, as I just explained. That’s fine. We’ll be here if you decide you want to see her. Have a nice day.” I hung up.

Some days, I missed the simplicity of stocking shelves, although customer service was better when I made my own rules and knew Tavi would back me up unconditionally.

“Sorry, you were saying?” I glanced briefly at the journalist currently seated by my desk, then back to my dual computer monitors. I didn’t really need to look at the schedule, but there was email to check, and the camera that, by default, was set on the front foyer.

“Are you sure this isn’t a bad time?”

I’d already explained that, but not everyone really got it. “In this particular form I can keep track of multiple tasks simultaneously with very little difficulty.” Plus I could see the power LEDs on my inner right arm. Well into the day, they were dropping, but I should be fine until the day ended. If worst came to worst, my USB-C port was now masquerading as a bellybutton, where I could easily reach it. I could, in fact, plug myself in and keep working. Had I been alone, I might have.

Tavi had more than enough control these days that she could have adapted this form to be genuinely androgynous, if not male; while she claimed that she stuck with female because it was less threatening for clients, I was quite sure it was mostly mischief or just her own personal tastes. It made no difference to me at all, at this point. I knew exactly who I was, and gender wasn’t really part of that.

“Your idea, or your boss’?” the journalist asked.

“Mine. It’s a perk of working here. I often request this when I expect a busy day with a lot to juggle. What was it you were asking?”

The journalist looked like he must be approaching retirement age, his hair thinning and his skin weathered. The sleeves of his dressy light-blue shirt were rolled up casually, though the black pants and shoes were neat enough. Because confidentiality was an issue, he was seated with his back to the room while facing me, and I was the one doing the recording—which he would get once I was sure it contained nothing it shouldn’t.

Requests for interviews came in frequently, usually for Tavi directly, but sometimes they were for me. Neither of us cared much for them, but we did agree to some if they looked likely to help with general education and demystification. We were currently busy enough that neither of us felt very inclined to spend personal time on it, but I’d checked with Tavi first, and stipulated conditions before agreeing to an interview here in the office. He’d wanted this enough to go along with it.

I was pretty sure I knew why.

“I asked how long you’ve been working for Ms Whittaker, and what led you into the job.”

“We set up her previous office together, when she was just starting out at the old location, so I’ve been working for her for as long as there’s been a position to fill. We’ve been close friends since we were very small children. She needed someone she could trust so I stepped in.”

“And you take care of scheduling and reception?”

“Among other things. I handle questions, complaints, billing, expenses, government bureaucracy. I make sure clients receive and complete our pre-appointment survey form, to make certain that what they want is within the range that Octavia can provide, and I arrange a preliminary interview so she can discuss the client’s needs with them personally. That’s essential for a positive experience. That allows her time, if necessary, to do some research and possibly practice.”

A pair I was expecting, a married couple in their thirties, opened the outer door and came into view of my foyer camera. They stopped to shake snow off outerwear, wipe foggy glasses, remove winter boots and switch to the offered slippers, and generally compose themselves. I kept an eye on that window, although I did take a brief moment to flip to the cameras on the back door and otherwise monitoring the historic limestone farmhouse and its outbuildings.

Tavi could have upgraded to an office in a state-of-the-art new building somewhere, and we could have bought a condo or something. It wasn’t a surprise that she’d fallen in love with this place. It had more character, she’d said. More personality. It gave her clients more space and more privacy. There was certainly space: this used to be a barn, although now with insulation and plumbing and wiring and separate rooms. From the road, it still passed for one, and you’d never know it was actually bright and clean and comfortable inside.

“How does a morph witch practice?”

“In this case, on me. Something genuinely new might not work as she intends the first time. I’m essentially immune to morph shock when it’s Octavia doing it, so mistakes might be uncomfortable or hilarious or both, but not at all dangerous the way it could be for someone else.”

“That’s an expected part of your job?”

“No. It’s not expected. It’s purely voluntary.” And often fun.

“Mm. Sounds like a challenging job. I hope it pays well.”

He would never have believed me if I told him that Tavi insisted that after expenses were covered, we split the rest evenly. She called it a symbiotic relationship that required both of us for anything to happen. “It pays well enough that I feel appreciated and have no intentions of switching careers. And, as I said, there are perks.”

“And you’re pretty steadily busy, I gather.”

“Yes. Octavia is extremely strong, but she can only do so many changes in a day. Overdoing it will ultimately damage her abilities as badly as chronically underusing them would.” She always tried to make sure she had enough energy left to do anything her family asked for, but he didn’t need to know that. “I’ll be right back. Stay here, please.” I locked my computer before I stood up—if he got offended, too bad, because there was highly confidential information on it. I went to the foyer door to open it from inside, now that the couple had sorted themselves out and were clearly ready. “Hi. Come on in.”

“You’re… oh my,” the woman said.

I smiled at her. It’s not like having a vaguely-female robot as receptionist was something people normally encountered. “I’m Sky. We’ve spoken several times. It’s not at all unusual for me to look different from day to day. Octavia is, after all, strong and creative. Come with me. She’s just taking a moment after her last client to collect herself and go over her notes about what you’re looking for. She’ll be with you shortly.”

I showed them to a comfortable room, spacious but panelled in warm wood, with thick wine-coloured carpet softening the space. Several of Tavi’s inked sketches, advance visualization work for changes she’d been asked to do, hung framed on the walls. The furniture had all been chosen to be inviting and varied enough to accommodate physiological differences. In each room, what looked like a cabinet could open out into a broad three-sided mirror—generally one of the first things anyone wanted, understandably. This room was meant for couples, and actually had two of them.

“Make yourselves comfy. Is there anything I can get you? Water, tea, coffee, anything?”

“I think we’re fine, thanks,” the man said, and looked at his wife.

“Um… water would be great,” she said shyly. “Dry mouth. Nerves, possibly.”

“Sure. I’ll be right back. But please, try to relax. No one knows better than me, Octavia is very gentle and very good at what she does and she loves to help people explore.” I left the door slightly ajar while I went to the kitchen to fill two glasses with ice-cold water; I brought them back, and set them on a small table. “Octavia shouldn’t be long.”

I returned to the reception area and resumed my seat. I glanced at the green LEDs along my arm. Four out of ten. I really should have recharged over lunch, but I’d just had so much to do.

“Clients, obviously,” the journalist said.

“I can’t discuss that.” I unlocked my computer, checked the cameras, scrolled through email subject lines for anything suggesting urgency. “You were asking about the office being consistently busy. We have no trouble filling every spot available. We’re here three or four days a week. One day a week we spend at the Native Friendship Centre in the city proper. Some weeks, by arrangement, we’re in other locations.”

So much to do, just to keep up. I started scanning through emails. Many were looking for standard information, and I could simply copy and paste the usual answers, including the link to the website. That would take very little of my attention while I was talking. At least, while I was in this form. Otherwise, it would be rude.

“Can I ask why the Native Friendship Centre?”

Because of my sister-in-law’s deep involvement with it. “Being able to take on animal traits is, surprisingly enough, rather popular with some people who honour and respect their ancestors who honoured and respected animal spirits. They do excellent work and we like helping with some of that. I’m sure you saw the media reports about the conference on racism a few years back. It was fairly small but it was very well publicized.” Sensationalized, actually, sometimes hysterically. “They were involved with that.”

“The one that stated, in its disclaimer, that all attendees would be changed to a randomly-chosen colour from a range that is not possible naturally in humans? Most expected dye or makeup, not a morph witch.”

“Several of them. She asked her father, grandmother, and a couple others they know to assist. They all had an app that randomly chose a shade, fun ones, and they changed each attendee’s skin to that. It’s a small enough change on its own that they were able to do it, and later undo it, for everyone. They spent the weekend with no one able to tell automatically what anyone’s skin colour normally was. I gather that turned out to be quite an interesting and educational experience.”

“Several claimed they had been changed against their will.”

“Not one of the witches present would ever change anyone without consent. Every individual had to sign acknowledgement of that.” I’d been waiting for the subject of consent.

“No? Ms Whittaker’s never changed you without asking?”

My best friend’s mischievous streak and my household’s dynamics were none of his business, and he’d never understand. Besides, Tavi knew she had general consent. “Never. I trust her absolutely for a reason. And she would never do it to anyone else, either. The ability to do something does not imply the inclination to do so.”

“You know about the case in Vancouver? The morph witch who changed both his roommates without their consent?”

And there it was, out in the open. Every time there was a morph witch in the news, the interview requests started again, whether it was rumours of one helping with a movie or music video, even of an actor agreeing to a long-term inhuman morph for a TV show, or a legal case, or a scientist offering hypotheses for why witches were witches.

“It’s been hard to miss. Why?”

“Any thoughts on a morph witch who pushed his own fantasies on others?”

“The last I heard, charges had been laid but nothing had been decided.”


“Then he is a morph witch accused of misconduct. I have no opinion. I have never been to Vancouver, I have never spoken to him, and I know nothing about him, the case, or the alleged victims other than what is in the media—and I prefer not to depend too heavily on that as a source of unbiased truth.”

“I should take exception to that.”

“You just referred to him as though he were convicted of that misconduct. I have repeatedly seen articles with that same tone. The lives of even the innocent can be ruined that way. And the media simply loves to turn stories about witches into sensationalized circuses.”

He shrugged, with a lopsided grin. “The business is about getting views.”

Silly me, thinking that journalism might be about informing the public about events. “If he turns out to be innocent, then I deplore the circumstances that led to the charges, whether it was malice or misunderstanding. If he did behave inappropriately, then that is appalling and unforgivable, outside of neoarcane syndrome, and even then, only if it occurs by surprise, and that still isn’t always a good excuse. Witches are neither more nor less likely than anyone else to do things they shouldn’t. But both Octavia and I are withholding all judgement until after the courts have determined the truth.” I shrugged. “I’m sure you were hoping for a more dramatic and emphatic response, but I’m afraid that’s all that will be available here.”

He was old enough and professional enough to not make a fuss about being disappointed.

He had other questions—whether we suffered from vandalism or harassment (not much but the security cameras were there for a reason), whether that was why we’d moved to a new location that was designed not to be obvious (we had moved because we could afford to and needed more space and Tavi had fallen in love with the property).

I paused him again to answer the phone, and listened to the young woman on the other end—nervous and hopeful both at once.

“Yes, we do help with themed weddings. We do special rates for eight transformations both ways, which is on average enough for a couple and three on each side, although we’re flexible about details, and we’ll do our best to arrange times that will be convenient—including doing the final reversals post-honeymoon, if that’s what you want. Extreme changes will tire Octavia out more than small ones and she can do fewer in a day, but we can discuss that. And yes, we have many furry clients, and Octavia’s mother and brother are both animalist witches, so she has an excellent source of research for any unfamiliar species anyone requests, but she’s very familiar with many common ones, like felines, wolves, foxes, and so on. So we can probably arrange for your entire party to attend the wedding in their preferred fursonas. If you drop by the website, there’s a form there that you can fill out giving us whatever information you currently have, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible to talk about the details. Wonderful. Congratulations, and we’d love to be part of helping your wedding reflect who you are. Yes, I’m Sky, and I’m the only one you’ll be talking to other than Octavia herself, although I may not always sound the same. Great, I’ll be watching for that. Have a wonderful day.”

“Furries, huh?” the journalist said.

“A popular theme.” Tavi quite liked doing furry events of any kind—she found the people involved frequently very friendly and enthusiastic, with clear and reasonable requests that didn’t change at the last minute. “So are various fantasy and gamer themes. We’ve also done group rates for conventions, theatrical performances, renaissance faires, and other events. People are incredibly diverse and creative, and Octavia believes deeply in encouraging that and helping people to live out fantasies without judgement, assuming no possible harm to anyone.” If he hadn’t looked at the website, and the bit on there about sometimes accepting clients who couldn’t afford the full rates, depending on the situation and at my discretion, then he wasn’t doing his homework and didn’t deserve to have it pointed out. “You were just starting to ask me something about the government, I believe?”

He wanted to know whether I thought government regulations surrounding witches were fair (not ideal but could be much worse), whether I believed in the currently-prevailing theory about the origins of witches (not that or any other theory proposed by someone who had clearly never spent any time around witches).

I had to interrupt once more to answer the phone and reschedule a session.

Given the time, I switched the cameras to the long driveway. The journalist’s car, the current clients’ car, Tavi’s car… and before long, another pulling in.

“Sorry, but it’s time for us to close the office for the day,” I said briskly. “I’ll check the recording for anything that might have confidential information, although I don’t think there was any, and I’ll send it to you. My apologies if you didn’t get what you needed for your story, but all I can do is answer honestly.”

“You’re in a hurry all of a sudden.”

“Frankly, yes. We’ve been talking for quite a while. My husband is here and I would like to see him and our daughter.” I stopped the recording, and locked my computer.

“Your… what?” That finally startled him. “How…?”

“Use your imagination. There are many possibilities. None of them are anyone else’s business.”

I managed to shoo him out the door in the direction of his car.

The cold didn’t particularly bother me in this form, which made it easy to just walk straight over to the car despite the winter evening. The journalist didn’t seem to be in much hurry to actually get his car moving. Whatever; let him see.

Ben wrapped both arms around me for a hug. “Busy day?” he asked.

“Multitasking all afternoon. Interview. He’s just leaving.”

“Hope you didn’t run your batteries down completely, gorgeous.”

“If I’m running low, you can plug me in later.”

He laughed, gave me a quick kiss, and turned back to the car to open the rear door. “C’mon, kiddo, let’s get inside where it’s warm.”

Six-year-old Aria bounced towards me as soon as her father set her on the ground, over to give me a huge hug. “You look pretty like that, Baba.”

I had to return her hug very carefully in this form. “Thanks, love. I can’t go home just yet, a little more work to do. You go in the house with Daddy, and Mummy and I will be there before you can finish your homework, okay?”

Aria looked doubtful. “I have to draw some pictures.”

“I’m sure Mummy will help with that bit, then.”

“And math too.”

“I can probably handle that, even if I’m not Baba,” Ben said. “Let’s go let Wolf and Fox out so they can go to the bathroom.”

“Right. See you inside, Baba. Can we do pony rides later?” She skipped off towards the house and the two rescued dogs, who would inevitably greet her exuberantly. That kid was adorable, and no less dear to me for having genes from the two adults I shared that sprawling old farmhouse, and so much else, with. To Aria, it was simple: she had three equal but distinct parents.

“Two clients Tavi’s just finishing with,” I said, watching the journalist’s car finally pull out and down to the road. “I’ll catch up on the rest in the morning. We shouldn’t be long.”

Ben nodded. “Take your time.”

“Not too bad a day, I hope?” He didn’t actually need to keep doing home care, but he insisted on still working—although at currently reduced hours due to Aria. He’d gone into nursing for a reason, after all, and he had a lot of specialized experience and sympathies at this point.

“Not bad at all. You can tell me about your interview later.”

I still melted from that smile.

He retrieved his own gear from the car and followed Aria to the house.

I went back into the office to wait for Tavi to finish. Always more to do, but oh-so-worth every bit of it.

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