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The Shore Line
by Feech
Feech -- all rights reserved
with thanks to LoveBear

The hall outside my office at Hayden Heath is steeped in hundreds of individual scents, some thick, sweet-sour human smells and some dry, nutmeat reptilian ones, a good many thick and oily furry scents and a few so light they only dust the edges of the upper walls in tiny patches to denote someone's passage.

I travel through a collection of periodically cleaned out scent layers daily, into the office where once again a varnished wooden chair holds many sessions of heated particles of student or faculty pressed into seat and tile from hours of talk or a quick step inside to drop off papers, say "Hi Chris" and leave again. I drop whatever means of memory-keeping and education I may be carrying-- this time, a bag of books with a strap for my mouth-- it would have been heavy for the primate Christopher but it's easily forgettable in my current jaws. It thunks on the desk and I rub a bit of the grizzly-spit from the strap and arrange myself behind the desk as a proper professor, despite the fact that my bulk doesn't fit in the usual captain's chair.

My claws begin ruffling through a moderate stack of large-print papers, some of which I forget the contents of. I set those aside to look at with my glasses and sign what I know I have to sign, engulfing a pen in my pawpads and scribbling the signature that my brain still knows from years of motion with a human hand. I've had my lunch and am moving somewhat slowly, not really focusing on the rest of the afternoon and generally going over the morning's classes in my head and wondering if I forgot anything the students are going to call me on next time. The same material over and over isn't necessarily boring, but I can't always recall just which faces and scents and voices surrounded the last retelling.

A number of occurrences and plans from the morning and on into the coming week are running post-lunchily through my brain, so that an incoming waft of scent tries to integrate itself with my usual classes and the pages in front of me before I snap to and realize that it's a personal scent not added to the pile in months.

I turn my rounded ears to the office door and listen for footsteps, but as usual they are sneakered and quiet. The smell is strong, however. Distinctly down-under and pungent, oddly soft by association. It makes waves over the hall floor and walls, and comes in around the door. Moments later I hear footsteps I have not heard before, and smell cologne, but that stays generally around the next corner from my office and only my student approaches.

She's not really my student, per se. I could call her my client, except that I'm not technically her counselor either. She's just a kid who needed help and I volunteered. This college desperately needs a decent counseling program. The legal department has eager students working on the problem, but it's been a tricky situation ever since the onset of the Martian Flu. Administration ran it by the school's pro legal advisors, and was advised right off the bat, before I ever moved here, to avoid hiring licensed psychologists for the university's use. SCABS is still too often a precursor to suicide, and in light of the population of SCABS students here Hayden Heath could do more harm than good by allowing parents the opportunity to sue. If Hayden Heath were put out of commission over a student, what would happen to those who had been well-adjusted here?

I don't know half the time if I'm doing the "right thing", but volunteers are the only option for a school that has to have someplace to refer distraught or just confused students to. If we're not paid, if we're not trained, then we're supposedly not responsible. The school already has waivers for everyone signing on, especially Norm students since there would be Hell to pay should anyone decide the climate at Hayden Heath caused their SCABS. But waivers do not an ironclad wall of protection make. HHU is a small school, vulnerable in the first place and making its mark by expressly welcoming students and faculty with SCABS. The main reason it's on the map could also bring unwanted attention if someone became desperate to lay blame.

It's in situations like the one of the approaching familiar student that I really begin to question the wisdom of exclusively volunteer counseling. For a young person unable to afford a psychologist, parentless and buying books on work-study, with untold gulfs between her difficulties and those of any peer groups with whom she could have discussion time, I'm it. While any student peer-groups would be glad to lend an ear or a shoulder to a suffering classmate, it's not fair to them to expect acceptance of stories like this one. They're only children themselves, in many respects, and the next thing would be the volunteer faculty offices full of tearful peer-counselors stressed to the limit by not feeling they have done enough.

I could empathize with them, which wouldn't make me much better support. I'd just as soon see a student directly, I guess, because then I know just where the blame lies. Or do I? Who's to blame for problems laid at my feet, or in my lap more likely, when I've only met the student within the confines of tidy Fall, Winter, Spring Semesters? It's the doing and not doing that get to you. The listening and guiding but mainly knowing that all you can do is listen because you can't go back in time and beat the living shit out of whoever did this to your student. And would you want to anyway? Would you have ever met the person if they hadn't gone through all the shit in the first place? And what if the problem is their own, in their own mind...

I sigh. Some say that's what all problems are. That life is what you make of it.

Perhaps that's what I'm trying to do, in my volunteer counseling. Make something. A time, a connection. More than that I cannot do. I just wish the school would do something about professionalizing this thing so that people who really need it could know they were offered the "real" thing, the best. But I'd still be a shoulder. A big old hairy brown one. It's in my nature. "Chris?"

The voice is small, oddly tenored and perhaps almost parrotlike. Laurie's head peeks around the edge of my door. I've told them always to not bother to knock.

I smile. "Haven't seen you in awhile."

She nods, and immediately moves to the chair. I slide the papers and books to one side of my desk and look her over appraisingly. She has grown a bit, in her time at Hayden Heath. She'll never be a big girl, but it's apparent she's eaten better here than she must have in her high school and previous years. She's grown, yes, but she's in that perennial style of hers with the subdued light-colored warm-weather dress with the square neckline and usually-white tennis shoes and ankle socks. I glance down. Yes, white. "Well." I can pick up on a despair about her scent, but I'm not too worried as of yet. She's done remarkably well. I adjust my glasses on my nose so I can get a better look at her. She seems fairly calm. A bit shy, perhaps. Well-groomed, but that's no surprise. I'm quite aware of who's been taking interest in her. "Laurie. What can I do for you?" I reach my paw across the desk, as if to lay it on her hand, but she keeps hers to herself. I nod and lean back.

She glances at nothing on one of my walls. "I-- I'm sorry. Is this a bad time?"

I chuckle. "No, of course not. I'd much rather see you than go over this mess." I scrape a clipboard and two or three carbon sets into a drawer to demonstrate.

The girl looks at me, then. Her intensely black Tasmanian devil eyes seem to want to add more to her expression than they do. Her ears are still and her whiskers twitch a little, but otherwise she looks like a stiff model, pure black with a pure white band on the neckline and pink ears cut off perfectly at the head to black. Her lip quivers, but only just barely. Her nose takes over and flickers a bit, but then her lips have stopped. Never does she complete what her face seems to be trying to say. I move apart from my desk, invitingly. She glances at my lap.

Of course, in the next instant the visiting-chair is empty and Laurie is pressed against the thick fur of my ruff, snuffling into the coarse grizzly chest and clinging powerfully to my shoulders. I just watch her, nose down to her forehead. We wait for some time while she composes herself. "I don't want to go."

"Go where, Laurie?" I touch the thin neckfur with my claw. She's trembling.

"I just don't. I don't want to go anywhere. But-- if-- I stay here I'll die. I can't not go."

I let her cough out a couple of devil wails, something that drives home on yet another day in the world of the Martian Flu just how many races and species overlap that would never have set foot on the same continent in the world we knew before.

"I thought you were going to live with Angelo. Is that what this is about?"

She nods, sniffling. There follows a long moment where she breathes my scent, and seems to consider it uppermost in her mind before she calms slowly and comes back gradually to the topic at hand. Then she stares into my small eyes, her black ones now almost teary although she has not cried in that way.

I wait. My breath makes sounds of holding her on my chest, and she seems to take comfort in her own weight affecting me. She's here, and safe. It's always been the beginning of our best talks. She's shy every time, shy to admit she likes that I don't smell human and that I feel like the world's biggest Teddy bear. They all know it, they all say it, people call me that in the halls, but grown women don't like to admit their problems are best solved by Professor Bear. Not to my face. They're not sure it's respectful. I smile at Laurie.

"Tell me about it."

She sniffs a couple of more intakes of breath. "Angelo. I just-- I just-- I know I love him but sometimes I-- sometimes I--" the girl draws a hand over her face in shame and frustration and watches the tile floor as if it is moving. There is another wail. The speech and the wails never seem to be coming from the same person. Laurie has told me that it seems like that to her too, sometimes.

The small woman in my lap whispers. "Sometimes I hate him."

I grunt a little, repositioning myself, but she just waits for my response. I think. I don't feel anything about her statement one way or the other, but that's when it's especially important to pick my words lest I sound too casual and in that way judgemental. "What makes you feel that way? Is that what's bothering you?"

"Yes." Her lips are crumpled and it makes her sound like a small child. "I want to go and live with him. But he knows I hate him sometimes. He knows it. And I might-- it might-- you know, I know you'll feel I'm overreacting but I might kill-- I might kill him. Hating him. And how am I supposed to know when? I'll hate him, I mean?"

"Why are you afraid that your emotion might hurt Angelo?"

"Kill him," she emphasizes. "I'll-- well, I-- because he... Chris, I brought him with me. He's in the main upstairs hall. Later on he wants to talk with you, because he's only talked to you in email. Is it... Is it okay if I tell you things about him, even though he's here? Is there any rule against me telling you things he should be telling you himself?"

"No." I stroke the thin, black fur some more. "Go ahead. It's about you, even when it's about him. I'm sure Angelo will understand."

"All right. Chris... Angelo, well he drinks. Sometimes." She looks up quickly to make sure she hasn't painted a picture she didn't mean to paint. "Just sometimes. But mostly when I'm not there. I know for a fact he drinks less or hardly even goes out to the bar when I'm visiting him. But... sometimes I hate him. And then-- and then, if I live with him, and he won't know sometime when I'll love him again. What then? He'll only be able to drink. And one of these times he'll be walking home and go into the street and get hit by a car or pass out in the ditch and freeze or go into a coma and--" deep breath-- "it'll be my fault."

I sigh, ever so slightly. This is another time when I have no real idea how a better-qualified counselor would approach the issue. All I can think to do is ask the logical question. "But Laurie, if this is something Angelo does, and has done since before he met you, why would it be your fault? Are you truly the only thing in his life that upsets him?"

"No. But I... I think... I don't know how to say this without bragging but, I think I am something-- most of the time anyway-- good in his life. And then when I take that away it is my fault. And he's asked me to live with him and I want to. But to leave here... to leave everything... to be responsible to Angelo... And if I stay, I'll die. I'll just die without him."

There is a lot of death going around in this child's head. "Laurie, you already feel responsible for one death. I know I've told you that your other relationships are based on those with a parent, and now, you have nothing to go on but that and what's in your soul, or whatever you like to call it." I point at her chest just because that seems like the generic place for a soul. She nods. I feel good about continuing. "You... who you are, not anything else, is important, far more important than what's happened before. But I think you might look at it this way, just for a minute. If you had one relationship, all your life, and you feel responsible for a death in that relationship, then might it make sense that you're afraid, just because of that? That you won't really endanger Angelo at all, but you're afraid because in some ways he reminds you of the other exclusive relationship you had?"

"I know he does," she replies readily. "That's not even... the problem I don't think. I mean, I... I know about my father. The p-people said... he wasn't ever a very healthy man, you know."

I fix my eyes on her. "I agree. He wasn't ever healthy."

Laurie knows me well enough to know I'm not talking about a weak physical condition, although that is what she can take comfort in concerning the man's injury and eventual death. Perhaps a stronger human would have survived having his arm chewed off. Perhaps not. I can't help but feel relieved that the man is dead.

"What makes you so certain you're responsible for Angelo. Isn't he responsible for you, too? What about your 'hating' him? What about that might be his responsibility?"

"Oh, no, you don't understand," she instantly defends her boyfriend. "I didn't know what it was like to be miserable without someone, before. And now that I feel it, I know he's feeling it too, and it scares me. I can't hate him. I can't. I love him. But I do. When you have-- a fear--" the child buries her head in my fur again and keens, muffled by the hairs.

"Shh..." I pet her back some more. At least it's not a comfort that runs out, like words can at times.

"I feel ashamed that I've told you before you're like a huge stuffed toy," she almost giggles after awhile. "But that's the explanation for why I'm here. I guess..." She seems to notice now that she is actually in my lap, as though she wasn't aware of the transition. "I guess it shows." Her ears turn redder than their usual pink. "But when you--" her small, clawed finger points towards the door in some sort of indication-- "you know someone, someone who's like other people but not... I mean, I never had a father like I learned other people have. I never knew there was anything different. And it's still hard to remember. Raymond, who took a trip with me, has grown daughters and introduced me to people, and he never touched me. I never wanted him to. I was fine with traveling with him and feeling like someone was actually interested in seeing me enjoy something. But Angelo...

"Angelo makes me want him to touch me. And that's-- that's just the thing. I never knew I was afraid when no one was trying. But now I'd never want to live without it and sometimes I just still can't stand it. And the only one there is Angelo. He gets both sides of it, and it's all selfish because I want him and then I hate him. And--" Laurie's breath catches again. I flick my ears in anticipation of another wail. Instead, she continues in a crying, low voice: "And when you have-- I have-- a fear, you're afraid of something... Like-- like--" she gasps around trying not to wail before she's made her point. "Like that one... or any one in your brain I supppose... you can't turn it off. It won't turn off."

I nod. "I think I see. Can you tell me more about it?"

"Just a second." Laurie collects herself. I look around the office. Plain walls, save for the shelves all along one with piles and stands of books. The humming computer. A few stains here and there from coffee or black sneaker treads. A single golden hair stuck in a splinter on the front of the desk, probably left from the curly-haired Registrar who came by to go over some sign-up sheets with me. A trace of pipe smoke from a faculty member who comes by some afternoons after he's stood outside to get his poison in. Positioned a bit behind and to one side of the desk, a seven hundred pound grizzly bear in glasses and a Tasmanian devil in a dress, holding each other. It seems suddenly surreal, like my whole life does at times. I'm reminded of other fairy-like moments with species you'd never see sitting anywhere near a bear, going over Theatre or Computers or last week's test. A grizzly in a restaurant full of humans, enjoying the view from a window table. A tiny girl abused for all of her eighteen years, snarling and ripping out a piece of her father. She speaks.

"I can't turn it off. It won't go away. I think it does, for a minute or two, and it's ecstasy, that's what ecstasy means. No fear. It really is. I don't know anything about ecstasy but I'm sure it's only when you have no fear. It's... it's not real. I mean it is for the minute you have it. But you can't turn things off that are so much a part of you. I say I love him. I know I love him, there is no part of me that doesn't love Angelo. Bu then in the next instant I hate him and I mean that too. And that will destroy him. And it'll be my fault."

"Does he know you feel this way?"

She mulls it over, worried and trying to make this session work. "I think so... but not for certain. I know he can see the hatred. Sometimes... Chris, sometimes I do the strangest things at him. And it's all there, it's all real. I know he can feel it. Showing my jaws and gaping and snarling, and I don't want him but some piece of me somewhere wishes it would all turn off and behave. But it doesn't. I know I love Angelo and it still won't behave. So how can he know? I can't show love nearly the way my fear shows hate. I just can't do it. One of these days he'll feel like I must have hated him all along. But it only happens in times, complete times all by themselves, where it takes over and I can't keep it from happening. They say... I mean, there are people who say you can do anything for the person you love. But I can't. And I know I love him. And I'm going... supposed to be going to live with him. But I just know that when I get there it's not going to shut off. It won't go away just because I promised to stay with him. I know it's all me and what I mean one time isn't the same when I mean I hate him. I never lie to him. But what good is that when sometimes the truth isn't about love?"

I let silence take over after this, for a bit. It seems like the words need time to circle down back into Laurie before we talk again. The hum of the computer and the overhead lights runs on unhurriedly. I notice my heart beating. "Can you explain what you mean to me by hate."

Laurie thinks. "I'm not sure it's hate. It's like a n-need to attack him or something. I'm sure it's hate, that is, but I know it-- comes from the other thing. I'm just so... damned afraid, Chris. Why... why can't I shut it off for someone like him?" She lies her cheek on my chest and clings tightly.

"I don't think it's any easier than you make it out to be," I reply honestly. "There may be ways to shut off fear but I don't think it's something so simple as spontaneous choice. Not when someone's been through what you have, or as you say if some other aspect of their selves is compromised that way. I don't... Forgive if I'm overstepping my bounds as a listener here but, I don't believe you dislike Angelo. I am glad he's here with you. I'd like a chance to talk to him. But you use the word hate, rather than dislike. It's that he's your friend that makes it so hard not to say 'yes'. But Laurie, not everyone has the capacity to change their behavior so easily 'just' for a loved one. What you desperately want to do is love him. And I believe you are doing just that. That you won't always be without fear at his or even your whim is a realism I'm glad you can face. I think we can face it with Angelo. I never got the impression from his emails that he has any intention of losing you."

"That's just it. I'm good for him and then I'm horrible. I do all the things I'd do around someone I hate. It just won't go away."

"It might not. But it's not about hate then is it. Unless hate is fear. That's something to consider. If you hate someone, do you fear them? And is your fear what would destroy Angelo? Do you really believe that?"

The girl looks up at me again. "Can you, Chris, can you think of any worse thing? The person you've been so unbelievably nice to is scared out of her wits? Can you think of anything worse than that? If I'm afraid of him, and he's so sweet, how must that make him feel?"

I touch her temple. She tries to give me a little grin. I grumble, not ungently, "Have you asked him?"

"I don't have to."

I nod. "I see."

"Do you? Do you see, Christopher? I don't... I don't mean you're not completely right most of the time..."

"That's perhaps a bit of overcorrection..."

She smiles. "But you know what I mean. Do you see. You can tell me all you want that I'm good for him. And he can be in times where I'm okay and tell me I'm the one to be with him. But then I turn around and pull another fit and I know damn well what I'm doing, but it doesn't stop anyway. I never physically hurt him. But I don't think he's ever pushed me too far. But sometimes I'll hide, or won't go places with him, or suddenly I just get... terrified. Sometimes I don't know what it is that even does it."

"Have you talked to him about it when you're not afraid?"

"And bring it up? But he..." Laurie stops and considers the point. "I don't know. I apologize, afterwards. I tell him... I tell him I love him. But I can't tell him it won't happen again."

"What does he do when you show your upset violently?"

"He's just sad. That's why he drinks. He gets depressed. Imagine living with me, then. He doesn't drink more than every week or two, now. Maybe every week, but sometimes he makes it two. Imagine if he's living with me. How often might I do this kind of thing? How much will he drink, then?"

I clear my throat and suggest, "Perhaps what has to be dealt with here, first, is Angelo's drinking?"

Laurie gazes at me, bewildered. Nothing comes out of her mouth for some time.

I add, "Neither of you can do anything about the terror situation until he's sober. Am I correct?"

She concedes, "Maybe."

After a moment Laurie adds, "You know he's not at all like he's been drinking, most of the time." I notice her careful avoidance of the word 'drunk'. "He's really actually sober, you know."

"I know."

"Goodness... I hadn't realized how much of your time I'm taking. Should we come back a different day?"

"Nonsense. I intend to speak with you and Angelo for as long as you need. I wouldn't feel at all good about your leaving and coming back, especially when he doesn't even live in the state."

Laurie is silent for a time.

"I'm scared, Chris," she says finally. "I've been on so many trips now. More than I'd ever have thought I could take in my life, and a lot of them to Pennsylvania to see him. But it's... it feels cold, in a way. The line. The other states. This is someplace where nothing has happened to me. What will happen when I go, I don't know."

I hug her. "You'll be fine. At least, somehow you'll cope. Look at you so far."

She sighs. "Yeah, look. I find the perfect man and I act like he's done all this to me. Like it's his fault. My brain just won't get the point of who's to be safe and who isn't. I just don't get it."

"Talking about it is the first step. Laurie, I highly suggest you speak to Angelo about this on your way to his home. It'll be good travel talk and you'll have today's session to boost the mood for communicating. I firmly believe you really have to speak openly with him about this. When you can, before he's the enemy, before you feel like you can't speak to him and you have to wait out another panic attack."

"You use blunt terms," Laurie mentions, not clearly opinionated one way or another.

"Sometimes I have to be sure that you know what I mean. We might as well go forward in the time we share."

"You're right." Her paws dig softly into my fur and she rests on my chest. Her scent is exhausted and flowing out in a cooldown of sorts to the corners of the office. I smell more detail about her now, how her arms or her nostrils smell compared to the nape of her neck or her ears. I am suddenly reminded of holding my husband, Rod, although that rarely occurs to me when I am with a student. Perhaps it's this talk of love and reactions. I miss him, as he sleeps at home before his shift at the radio station for the night. Suddenly I want him to be in on this conversation. That can't happen, of course. All meetings such as this one are strictly confidential.

Laurie stirs slightly. "I worry about him, sometimes."

There's a shift in the tone of that. "I take it we're on a different subject?"

She rubs her head on my chest in a nod. "Just about him, sometimes, not anything I'd even do to him. Just him. What he is. I worry about it."

"How so? I know he has SCABS..."

Another nod. "And he was a woman. There are things... I hear things sometimes. How people have hope if they're TG'd, because they could maybe be changed back. It's not like a species thing. But then so many doctors won't touch a SCAB. So many people are unpredictable shifters or might be polymorphs but won't know it until the drugs are applied, when they're out of control. And it's years to go through the process anyway. They certainly won't do it on very young people. But for Angelo... he might have had a chance. So I asked him about it. I asked him how much it meant to him, that kind of possibility."

"TG'd?"

"Mm. Transgendered. Transformed across genders. Whatever. I'm sorry... I'm used to the short versions of everything I read about to do with transformations. I belong to a list-- a computer mailing list. I wrote something for it once. Mainly I like to read."

"Let's talk more about that in a moment. What did Angelo say when you asked him?"

Laurie gives me a considering glance. "He claims... to be completely male." She sighs what may be a small relief-sigh, as though it still comforts her to hear these words. "He says he's sure he wouldn't want to go back. I'm so used to gender dysphorics, you know, people who know what they are inside but don't look it on the outside in terms of gender. He says he's not one. It doesn't matter whether he's changed or not, he's completely male. I... I'm not sure whether to be worried he'll change his mind. I don't know what I'd do if he..."

There is such a long pause that I fill in, "If he changed? Back into a woman?"

"Oh. No, not that at all. Angelo is Angelo. But if he... Chris, can I tell you about something?"

"Sure."

"On that... mailing list. I know a couple of people who are, you know, who were dysphorics. And then they got SCABS and they were good candidates for surgery and they're not now. We've been talking about that a lot on the List lately because there-- there was-- a suicide." She takes a deep breath.

"Someone you knew?"

She shakes her head. "Barely. He was in the community, you know, around the List and stuff like that, but I never talked to him much. Or her. Him or her. He wanted to change. He's a-- he was a lizard and the doctors wouldn't even consider it. Something about unknown species combination and anasthetic shock. Gabriel told me about it. Gabe could have had surgery, too, if he'd stayed a man. But he's morphed now too and no one will be able to do surgery that would make him look feminine. He used to look more like a woman, he says. And his spouse isn't so distraught about it, isn't so bad in terms of the levels... I guess there are levels of dysphoria... isn't so much so but he wouldn't have a chance anyway. He's not a good risk. Some seizure thing. Do you see what I'm saying?"

"That... one of these people took his own life. The lizardmorph. That it was because the doctors he contacted wouldn't risk trying to determine the species he was and what reactions would be to surgery. Right so far?"

She nods. "Do you see? About Angelo? Why I'm frightened sometimes?"

"You're afraid he might harm--" I can't think of a softer way to put it-- "harm himself if he's too desperate to turn into a woman and they won't let him. The medical community, that is."

"Yes." Laurie sniffs all over again into the rumpled fur of my neck. "Do you possibly think that could happen?" She's truly crying now, not with tears but an ongoing mournful whimpering interspersed with soft barking sounds.

"Laurie." I collect my thoughts. "I-- can't tell you what someone else will or won't do. But I believe Angelo is able to decide whether he is dysphoric or not. You are honest with him, and in his helping me out by telling me things about your progress, in emails, he has seemed to me to be equally honest about and towards you. I really can't tell you what he might do or not do. That's up to Angelo. But if he's told you he doesn't consider himself a woman, then I would tentatively suggest you take it at face value. Not everyone who even considers him or herself gender dysphoric would want to have surgery. It's not always a matter of life and death. I'm sure you know that. You're just afraid of the next step, of loss." I close my arms more firmly around the devil-girl. "Angelo may or may not be dysphoric, and either way he won't necessarily want or harm himself over surgery. He's not necessarily the same as the person who did it in your List group.

"Think about it... How long, do you remember, have you been on the mailing List?"

"About since I came here Freshman year."

I nod. "All right. And how many people are on it?"

She thinks. "Probably... I don't know... there were five hundred two years ago. There're probably more."

"And how many, if you see where I'm going with this, suicides have you found out about in conjunction with that List?"

She immediately takes a smile-breath. "Thank you."

"You get the point."

"Yeah."

"I know you're interested in fish stories as well as being a biology major," I say conversationally. "Seen any good ones on your List of late?"

"No," she shrugs, going along with the change in tone. "I want to write one about the Marianas Trench, but I never get past the middle. I write the middle and then I can never work out the beginning."

"Maybe you could start in the middle."

"I don't know... I tried that. You know... I met Gabe because of the List. We didn't know each other until we saw the same college address on each other's mail on the List. It's a worldwide List and we didn't know we went to the same college. I don't know why I'm bringing this up."

"How much do you talk to Gabriel outside of the List?"

"Not much. We pretty much talk all the time in email. I hardly ever visit him but the short times we do talk are nice. He reminds me of you."

"I'll take that as a compliment to both of us. Has it occurred to you that perhaps email is a better medium for you to feel less panicked in? Perhaps you're worried about losing that with Angelo, when you move permanently into his space."

Laurie seems mildly surprised. "That's... a really good thought. Do you-- I mean, maybe it's silly but I just had a thought-- should I maybe ask him to get another computer? So I can talk to him that way even in his own house?"

"That sounds reasonably clever," I answer honestly. "Let's see what Angelo thinks about that."

Laurie's expression quickly shifts to a frown. "He'll just know all the more that I don't like him close sometimes."

"But you could communicate while you were apart, that way."

Laurie seems unready to commit to this, now, but the idea's not lost. She sits up on my legs and lays a paw on my shoulder. "Chris, you don't know what all this means to me."

I readjust my glasses. "I most certainly don't, in a lot of ways. But I hear an attempted thanks in there, so I'd like to thank you in return for feeling like you can come to me."

"Thank you." The Tasmanian devil pats a bit of fur down behind the wire to my glasses. "I... suppose I better go off and get Angelo." She giggles, not amusedly. "Nervous... Now I worry about what you two will say about me."

"But to let him talk alone with me would be nice of you."

"I'm going to. I know. I just feel sort of self-conscious about it."

I pat her hand. "It'll be all right. I feel like we've gotten somewhere, here. How about you?"

"Not sure yet. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate it, though. And Chris... This doesn't mean it goes away. I mean, you won't be disappointed when I write to you saying it's still happening?"

"I won't be disappointed."

Laurie sighs and lays her face near mine for a second, then steps in her very minutely squeaky tennis shoes to the office door. She turns to me, almost swirling her dress, as she slides her hand between the door and the jamb. She shows her tongue just a bit over the black lower lip. "Wish me luck."

"You'll do fine, Laurie. Trust me."

She nods and slips out.

Angelo, ever the groomer, is himself well-groomed. His shirt and slacks are patently unwrinkled, his short hair is entirely in place and his shave appears impeccable, although I may be off since my eyes aren't what they used to be. He moves his lips over his teeth uncomfortably, trying to appear casual and yet proper in my office. His eyes flick from wooden desk to tiles to desk-foot to his shoe to my wrist. He waits for me to speak, aside from the greeting nod and murmur of "hello" he gave when he came in.

"I can tell you're nervous," I offer.

He does smile slightly. "It's just that I don't often find myself the client. I'm used to being the groomer."

I might as well go right into what I think of in association with that. "You're not used to being the client." I lean forward. I am now behind the desk, as Angelo seems most comfortable with a conventional meeting. "You don't, for example, seek counseling in your town?"

"No. I suppose this is about the drinking."

I nod. I'm glad to see he's as straightforward in person as he has been over email.

"I'm sorry," he says, and I can hear a trembling there. He seems likely to say more, but for some time he does not. I prompt him slowly.

"Are you apologizing to me?"

He pauses. "Yes. To you, Chris. I'm sorry for you having to listen to Laurie hurting and knowing I'm part of that, and then having to support me because of her. I know she'd do anything for me."

"It's all right, Angelo." His hand is on the edge of the desk, and I place my paw over it. He presses his thumb up over one of my foretoes, accepting the presence without looking at the paw. He seems distracted, but contact with 'morphs comes naturally for him. "Laurie's chief concern today is that she fears she would not do 'anything' for you. Do you follow?"

"Oh. That."

I wait.

"Of course I follow. That kid..." Suddenly the quietly nervous man is standing up and speaking loudly enough that I lay my ears back. His free hand thrusts out angrily at the door behind him and his eyes are still on me. "That girl, woman, Laurie has-- what he-- God put your ears up, Chris. Listen to me. I'm not mad at you. Can you see this though? That woman, Laurie Brewer of all people, has to go through the rest of her life worrying that she's hurting me because of what he did to her."

"I know." I notice that Angelo's intensity has not changed the pressure of his grip on my paw. He seems to regulate it outside of the conversation. "I know. I've... thought about him uncharitably, to say the least, many a time."

Angelo stands and shivers. He's frowning at me, because he can't think what to say next that will convey all that his scent is already flooding into my nostrils.

"Sit down, please, Angelo."

He sits, abruptly. He growls under his breath. I do the same, if only to show sympathy. He makes eye contact cautiously from under his reddish lashes.

"Now." I rub his hand in what I hope is a comforting way. "You know what she's talking about to me, then, when she says she's unable to do right by you. Angelo, she also feels responsible... for your drinking. At least in part. About how often do you drink?"

"Oh God," he mutters somewhat apologetically, rolling his shoulders in acknowledgment of some inevitable points. "Not often. But too often. I know. I know," he protests, although I haven't said anything.

"For Goodness' sake, I finally quit smoking right before I changed. How was I supposed to know? I'd be damned if I'd go back there, but then what else is left open to me? So yes. I do drink. Not so much now, but a hell of a lot right when I got the disease. Before I made some connections that helped me. But no, you're right, I haven't made a point of getting counseling."

"Angelo, it's not my place to tell you what to do, but I also can't help you in the way you and Laurie may need. Please, for her sake and your own, join a support group. Maybe one for couples with SCABS isssues, as well. It might make a huge difference for her, moving to Pennsylvania when she knows you have steps in place to make this work out."

Angelo looks at me, nearly smiling. He seems to find my eyes behind the glasses after a bit and smiles more certainly. "Chris, you're married."

"Why, yes." I wonder momentarily what this has to do with the conversation.

"Do you ever find that all this... this connecting with people about their problems, makes you feel like it's all you? I don't mean all about you, I mean all you. You're married. And for each connection in which you combine a couple more thoroughly you're cementing that part of yourself which is able to be married. You don't get the point," he finishes, wondering himself whether he's gotten far afield.

"No I... think I understand. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure. I-- do think there is maybe something to all couples, even all people, being the same person or couple over and over. But whether I've seen that in my volunteering, in what I put into it, I don't know."

"Ah." Angelo nods and glances off towards the computer, shifts a bit more comfortably than before in the heavily scented chair. "But if I were you. You were Laurie. Whatever. If you were her, you'd want me to get the counseling."

"Perhaps you can tell me why I wouldn't."

"Because. It's admitting we 'can't' do it ourselves."

"No one lives in a vacuum," I reply automatically.

"Oh, I know. I just think that's why we're all so keen on asserting our independence wherever we feel we can find it. I'm... sort of preaching at you now, aren't I. This was supposed to be about my being honest."

"Saying what you feel is honest," I tell him, my voice hoarse but relaxed in tone.

He looks over his shoulder at the door. He does not stand up, but his throat twitches as he seems to think something over.

"I'll tell you what I feel."

I nod slightly, turning my ears forward.

"I feel sick. The night she heard about the suicide, she had been in one of her moods where she only wanted the living room to herself, didn't want to sleep with me. We... well, we don't actually 'sleep together' in the sex sense of the word. We try to sleep in the same bed whenever she feels comfortable with me, so that she can learn to feel all right with me. The sex thing is something else entirely."

I nod. Angelo has written to me in email about his efforts to build up Laurie's confidence. He's indulged her fascination for fish transformations by offering a Christian fish pin, and has discussed masturbation with her. I did not know they had not yet had conventional intercourse, but I knew she was attempting to practice enjoying touch. For the longest time she's been afraid even of herself.

"Anyway, she was on the computer List with a bunch of her friends and someone came in and broke the news. I think one of the guy's friends was there and had to leave in shock. Laurie stayed on and talked to Gabriel, thank God he was there, but it wasn't enough. So she grabbed up the afghan off the sofa and came in by me and Sable, who also scares her sometimes when he's boisterous, he's a pretty large Poodle, and carried it like a security blanket by her mouth. She just came in the room like a little girl and crawled in with me and sobbed and begged me to tell her if I would ever want to change and eventually told me she was afraid I'd kill myself.

"And do you know why she's afraid I'd kill myself?"

Angelo's soft expression contains blazing eyes. He continues to gesture towards the door when he talks about Laurie, and our warm paw-connection has not changed.

"She's afraid because the last man she was ever with up and died on her because she had to protect herself from him."

I sit quietly. He knows at this point that my lack of disagreement is an agreement of sorts.

"And I'll tell you... I scare myself sometimes. Because I've never ever considered myself to be a violent person. I control my temper fairly well, at least I've always thought I do. But I can hear it sometimes, even though I wasn't there, and I can see flashes of it as though she told me every little detail, but she's been too protective of my sensibilities to tell me every little detail. And I've never felt so near to what killers must feel. Murderous. As if I'd kill him myself and make sure it was worse, as if I want to get to him before she ever did and tell him he won't get off so easy. And the worst of it is...

"She's afraid of me. Who knows. I have clients who never experienced any form of abuse, I know others who don't even have SCABS, whose minds are just as prone to fear as hers is. Just because 'someone else' caused it doesn't mean I'm not to blame. How can someone who terrifies her be good for her? Why can't I find the right kind of setting for her, why can't I never want to touch her when she doesn't want it? Why can't I know what's going to make her upset?"

"In all fairness, Angelo, even she doesn't know sometimes."

"But then it's my responsibility to find out."

"Ah," I say, feeling hopeful. "Then go ahead and do that. Tell her what you just said to me. Ask her to help you find out. You see that if no one like you was there when the fear arose, the situation really would 'be no good', although I don't like the connotations of that phrase. But there you are. You're there and you can help. Ask her to realize when it is that this stuff happens. Recognize it yourself. If there's one thing your profession must entail, Angelo, it's observation. You're probably excellently equipped to deal with a being, a person like Laurie."

I pause for a moment. "I fear I may have overstepped my bounds."

"Chris, if you were a friend rather than a so-called 'counselor', you would in no way be overstepping your bounds by making these suggestions. I consider you a friend of Laurie's, and I've been impressed with some of what you've said in the past. I can make my own decisions. Just because you say something doesn't mean I have to do it. So, thank you. These are things Laurie might not have had the confidence to tell me. Sometimes she... admires so much that someone loves her, she feels like there are no corrections to be made. But there are corrections. We all know I can't go on forever being ineffectually pissed off at the deceased Mr. Brewer."

Angelo spits the word 'deceased'. He seems to hand a human title to the man with a very grudging air.

"I suppose it's hard," I say, trying to think before I speak, because I'm on touchy ground.

"Mm, what?"

"Hard to give up on him a little bit. Because... well, I'm thinking about this now, and I'm seeing that we both tend to feel extremely strongly about that particular example of humankind. And I might be seeing why that is, now, when I'm listening to you. We both appreciate Laurie. She's smart and sweet and attractive, and I have felt honored to work with her and you wish to live with her permanently. And what was the man after all? He was, biologically anyway, her father. There it sits. And he's dead. And no matter how we show affection for his daughter, we can't get the father out of our minds because she is his daughter. What father wouldn't want love and respect for his daughter? We've given him a gift."

I feel a little ill about it, myself. Angelo seems startled, but calm. Aside from his cologne, his scent is overall cooler than Laurie's.

"You're making me a bit sick with that, Chris," he admits. "The very idea. Mm..maybe you're right though. It's... it's troubling, forgive me if I sound hesitant. But it's difficult to forgive. Of course. To let anything about that go. But she has, you know. It's we that haven't. She just enjoys what she has. But we can't help feeling, whenever we share more of ourselves with her, like there's something worse that should have happened to him. And maybe that's why. You may be right, we may be afraid he's still gaining something from our love for his daughter."

I huff slightly. "Any ideas as to what to do about it?"

"Hm. Well, maybe she's not really his daughter. I mean, maybe we have to just deny him that. I think you and I have talked before about what it means to be family."

"That we have." I lean back a bit and flex my paws, and Angelo does the same with his fingers. "Deny the relationship, eh? We cannot deny the man himself, or what happened. But maybe he never gained anything from her at all. Not anything we'd consider really valuable."

"No. Certainly not. No one who valued her would do something like that."

"I feel that you value her, Angelo."

The groomer glances at me uncertainly. "Is that a routine bucking-up?"

I shake my head. "No. I've been trying to think of something to say to inspire you, but I knew it had to be honest. I'm being sincere, even if I am calculating what I say."

"Chris, thanks for that. You know? Thanks for thinking about this so much. I know that's part of what Laurie sees in you, even though she probably thinks it's just that you're a bear." He grins at me.

I grin back, lifting my flews. "Ready-made emotional support."

"I'm glad you're here. She couldn't have come to a better counselor."

"How's it going otherwise? Have you made other progress?"

"Well..." Angelo tilts his head down and I think I detect a mild blush. "Yes. Honestly, yes. She's been letting me... 'TF' her, as she puts it. In the shower. For effect. Fish, you know."

"TF. Fish? Oh, as in..."

"As in 'turning her into one'. Sort of a fantasy."

"Ah yes.

"She seems to have had some fears about occurrences on the List lately. How do you feel about that? We've talked about her reactions to it, about her coming to you. I believe you'd be honest with her, so I'm not concerned at this time about your being maladjusted to your SCABS. Not that I'd blame anyone who was. How do you feel about the List in general? Have you been on it?"

"No. Not really. She just tells me what's been going on. I know one of the other guys on it, since I do make-up at times for the theatre where he works. As for how I feel about it... I don't know. It's a strange feeling to me, the idea of someone wanting to change into something so completely different from what they see themselves to be. Or rather, what others see them to be. Have you talked to many others like Laurie?"

"Only Gabriel, and only briefly, in a different setting. Laurie's interests might be more familiar to me because she's had to share so much about her physical experiences. Can you tell me... Whether you believe she would undertake a transformation, if one became available? Aside from transgender surgeries, what if some technology should arise that would make it possible for her to shift into a different species? Have you thought about the consequences of that?"

"Yes." There is no hesitation. However, he does not continue.

"And..?"

He sighs. "Chris, I don't know what you want me to say. It seems so ridiculous. But I've certainly thought about it. How would I know what to feel? There's no way for me to know what kind of technology it would be or what it might mean for her."

"I don't mean to pressure you. Angelo, if Laurie could shift. If she was handed the opportunity to turn into a fish, what would be your reaction? I know-- you don't know what the technology would be. Can you give me an instant, gut reaction?"

He licks his lip. "Yes, of course. My answer would be Yes, of course."

"That's your first reaction?"

He nods, firmly. "Yes."

"Do you believe she would be happy if she could transform according to her fish-transformation fantasies?"

"I do. Otherwise I would not say yes. I think I could say yes because I believe she would be thrilled. I don't understand it, but I know it of her. She'd truly like to change into a different animal."

"And..." I don't want to toy with the man's emotions, but it might be worth it to get some conversations rolling between him and Laurie, "if it were to kill her?"

He does not react as I would have expected. Instead, he is silent and white for a long time, then replies, "The answer stands."

"Why?"

"Come on Chris, you know why. You know why. If she wanted to do it, I'd want nothing more than for her to do it. Even if it did kill her, yes." There are tears in his eyes. More than I'd expected from a hypothetical question. Sometimes I wonder... I don't realize sometimes what realities others are existing in right alongside me. This is something real to Laurie. Of course Angelo has had to seriously consider it. But it never occurred to me the emotional battle that such a question might set off. I'm sure other questions would affect me more than they would him, but this time I've touched a nerve and I was the one who didn't anticipate there being any pain or any serious thought.

"You're... pondering it now, aren't you," I apologize to him. "You can envision her dying for it."

"Of course I can." He frowns at me and snatches at his eyes to make it appear as though he is not crying. "You don't realize how much that girl wants this kind of thing. And who knows, who really knows, it could happen at any time. They could offer it at any time and then what? And then what."

"Angelo."

He wipes his eyes and folds his hands, controlling his expression in a mild frown. "Chris."

"She's afraid of you, you say. You say you do her no good if you can't make her free of that. She says she's no good to you if she can't free herself of that and never show you fear."

"She's said that to you."

I nod, my glasses slipping down my nose at the motion. I replace them. "She has.

"You see that she believes you love her enough and you believe she loves you enough."

"She's generous. She's like that."

"And you see what you would let her do."

He looks at me, a bit hard. "I wish I didn't have to admit to all this when it'd sound so stupid almost anywhere else. Think about it. A fish. On purpose. For her life."

"And you'd never turn back from 'Yes, of course.'"

"Yes. Of course."

"She's terrified to go to Pennsylvania with you. You know that."

He tightens. "I know."

"I don't mean it that way, Angelo," I assure him hastily. "Listen and think. It might be something to tell her on the way there. She might not be able to overcome these things for you, but she's comfortable enough with you to try. She's spent nights expressing to you, bringing up what she must think are childish fears but doing it anyway because she won't be anything but honest with you. You must be worth a great deal to her for her to love you and stay with you despite fear-- fear of you, perhaps, but most especially fear of your loss. Imagine if she lost you. But she's going with you anyway. And you. You're taking her to your home and you don't know when she might depart from you, either. You might want to think about that."

"Yes." Angelo ponders the desk for awhile. "Yes. Thank you. Thank you, Christopher. I... Well, I can't promise I'll tell her all this on the trip. I just don't know. You've made me shy of her, in a way. Not you exactly, but I'm just overwhelmed by... Well, by what there is to her. I'm not sure what to do from here."

"That's all right. I'm just glad we've spoken."

"As am I," he says sincerely, rising. He reaches to shake my paw with a warm grip. "Thank you. In one way or another, this has been valuable. We appreciate it."

"I do as well, Angelo. This has been a distinctly more interesting afternoon than it would have been alone with my carbon fill-out forms."

He grins. "Glad to hear it. Although I'm not sure whether you're just being polite. I would think carbons would be a bit easier to get along with. Much less mercurial. Say, speaking of afternoons and alone, maybe next time you've got time to spare you should sneak out and go see your spouse. You know, just give some of the counseling time to yourself. I bet they'd hardly miss you as long as no one had a midafternoon crisis."

I smile. "It's a nice thought, but he sleeps days."

"Ah." Angelo nods to me and begins to head out the door. "You could just sort of sleep with him, then." He adds, slightly teasingly. "Warm bodies are nice 'activity' or no 'activity'."

I grin. "I get the point. Thanks. Give Laurie my best. Take care, Angelo."

"I will."

Then he's gone. I glance just briefly at the scattered schoolwork, and get a whiff of the layers of two added people and my emotions of the afternoon settling into the office's collection.

I shrug. Maybe I'll take his suggestion.

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