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Rage Bunny

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Even with the Troubles causing weird chaos in Haven on a near daily basis, sometimes a callout was just a callout, Nathan reflected as he tapped on the door of Sally Oliver, hearing the disconnected rap of his knuckles on the wood as the soft blows failed to register upon him physically.

Something small and fluffy waddled through the grass and whuffled at his ankle, diverting his attention without much concern. There was always something around, and at least the geese were penned today. He'd checked that carefully before he opened the gate, even if it didn't hurt him if he got pecked. In fact, that was why he, in particular, had been nominated by the whole station to take this call, Chief or not.

The turkey under his arm was remarkably sedate as he waited outside the door.

He thought that the ball of fur humping his foot was a large guinea pig, or perhaps some other rodent (he couldn't claim any special expertise) or possibly -- remotely -- a very small, strange dog.

"Hey there," he complained, and toed it away gently, making a note to self to change out of the fur lined boots, next time.

"I'm coming!" called a voice from the other side of the door.

The turkey gave an unexpected twitch and Nathan winced as he heard fabric rip. It was difficult trying to juggle the large bird without applying too much pressure and risking hurting it, but he had a feeling it had taken a slice out of him now.

He held up the turkey at the opening door. "Is this one yours?"

"Oh! Dammit, Harold!" The large bird was... plucked... from his grasp and resoundingly scolded. Sally turned back to him eventually, and said, "Thank you, for returning him, Chief Wuornos. Where was he?"

"Challenging the traffic on Main Street." Nathan eyed around the tall, thin woman to the menagerie in her house beyond, faintly marvelling at the contents. He liked animals... seemed to get along with animals... but... so many animals. And it wasn't a big house. "Everything alright, Sally?" he asked.

"Perfect, now you've returned this silly boy." Aaaand now she was nuzzling the turkey. "Oh, no, no, no, no you don't!" And now the door was closing in Nathan's face as she tried to stop something that looked like a rug with eyes from getting out. "Thank you, Mister Wuornos!"

Nathan gave the closed door a small, hard smile, disengaged his foot from its steamy liaison with the lawn prowling furball, and turned to head back down the path and out of Sally Oliver's yard.

He experienced a moment of disorientation. Then...

The world was abruptly a lot lower. He'd... fallen? Everything seemed to be spinning. Everything was also bigger, and stranger (took some doing, in Haven), and...

Sensation rushed in, itching, prickling, static across his skin, making him shudder and curl up, huddle in around his own body. Coming from a blank, it was far too much. Not only did everything feel but it also felt wrong. His legs, his arms, the curve of his spine. Like he didn't recognise the body that had these sensations. Pain lurked, and the world seemed too big and loud to venture out from his defensive, curled posture.

But he needed to pull himself together and figure out what was going on. He was a police officer and he was fairly sure that whatever he was doing, he was doing it in full view of the occupants of the house (though most of those admittedly wouldn't care) and passersby on the road. He needed to at least reassert some dignity in the face of whatever sort of Trouble this was.

He managed to extricate his head and barrel through the urge to freeze. His vision seemed oddly split and confusing. His skin seemed a mass of prickly pressure points, alive and highly irritated by the intense change in tactile contact whenever he moved even a fraction. Blades of grass from the lawn brushed against him, and he seemed to be bundled up in something soft and clinging that didn't want to let him go. He struggled against it, and started to work his way clear. Looking down to see what was holding him back, he caught sight of his own arms.

Which were now not his arms, but grey-brown and furry.

What the...?

He'd been trying to struggle out of the clinging, oversized fabric of his own clothes.

A huge, hairy face filled his view. Nathan yelped -- and the sound that came out of him was just embarrassing. He tumbled over, legs skittering and scraping to catch him and twist him back upright... whatever upright was now, because his body wasn't certain.

It was Sally's furry lawn-rat that had come up to him, of course, only now it was almost as large as he was, and it looked more like a furry lawn monster.

...Damn it, he was not freaking out over a guinea pig. Nathan's face drew back into a snarl of sorts and his body coiled into a stance that probably qualified as some kind of threatening, and the other creature fled.

There was movement behind him. He twitched and turned, the last of his clothing pile dragging at his back legs, but he managed to kick free. Sally had emerged from the house once again.

"Chief Wuornos?!" she called. "Oh, drat!"

She started to move toward him. Nathan looked behind her, to the overcrowded house with its menagerie penned inside, and made an unpleasant connection.

He turned tail and ran, just as fast as his new legs could take him -- which turned out to be very fast indeed -- and ignored the plaintive cries of Sally Oliver at his back.

***

Running in his new shape was exhilarating but it also exhausted and parched him. Nathan didn't debate overlong before pushing his nose down to lap at a puddle on the ground.

It was hugely embarrassing to sidle his way down Main Street, even if everyone seeing him couldn't know that it was him. He tried not to be seen. He had to constantly fight an irritating instinct to freeze at movement which meant that the cars in his peripheral vision were a truly annoying problem. A few passers-by pointed and stared, and he ran again until he was well out of their sight.

...All right, he'd been assuming he was a cat or a small dog, but those animals wouldn't be so remark-worthy on the street, so that assumption was wrong, and he needed to know the truth. With that in mind, he scrabbled up a doorstep to try and see into the glass panel on the lower half of the door. He stared at his reflection, the long, grey form that looked back at him. His ears were huge and they stuck up straight and twitched with the sense of utter outrage that washed over him.

A rabbit?

He twisted around and caught a glimpse of a white tuft of tail before he lost his balance and fell off the too-narrow ledge of the step.

Noise from above him -- everything seemed to reduce to 'big noise', at least on first perception -- and the door opened, the owner of the shop emerging to investigate the scratching: Jackson Groom, the butcher.

Nathan twitched his nose and fixed on the stains on Mr. Groom's apron. Instincts rose up and overwhelmingly declared that fleeing into traffic was the wiser option. As he pelted across the road, horns blared and wheels squeaked, but they were miles away from hitting him. This form was fast.

Audrey and Duke. He had to find Audrey or Duke, someone who knew about the Troubles, who'd believe this had happened to him. He needed them to fix this, because you couldn't have a Chief of Police with floppy ears and a tail.

It occurred to him that he should have stopped in Sally Oliver's yard for long enough to retrieve his badge. He wasn't sure how he was going to tell them who he was while he was like this without any kind of identification.

Still, that was a worry for later. Right now, the world was a lot bigger and more dangerous than it had been, and probably much of it regarded him as potential prey -- or pie, in the case of Groom, and having a Chief of Police get turned into pie was far worse than getting himself turned into a goddamn rabbit.

So Audrey and Duke it was. Or at least, they loomed in all his instincts as the things most representative of home and safety.

Audrey was out on a call, as he had been himself, and she could be anywhere, but at least he could be certain where Duke would be. The Gull was a big journey for small legs, but Nathan hissed in dissatisfaction through his whiskers and started sprinting with a will, dashing between the legs of startled people on the sidewalk. The world was a tapestry of smells and noise, and the changes in those made him want to freeze or to run, but he was a man, and he was going to stay in control of this. All he had to do was get out of town and across to the shore. Once he was in Duke's hands, Duke could take care of the rest -- contact Audrey, fix this--

A dog barked at him, straining its lead from far too close by, and the shock sent him into an ungainly roll of limbs, head over tufted tail. He came up angry and tried to growl back, and the shriek of noise that came out of his throat was just unearthly. The dog whined and shot to hide behind its owner's ankles. There were a few startled exclamations and laughs from nearby. Nathan shook himself and got his balance back, avoided a couple of incoming feet and hands, and ran on.

He didn't think about it when he left the roads, except that it seemed safer than being in the midst of the people and cars and family pets. After all, it was the natural environment of the creature he'd become, and that should count for something. He should be safer, shouldn't he?

The scent of predator halfway across the scrubland that led over to the Gull froze him up for real, as he tried to figure out where it was coming from.

Perhaps town had been safer after all.

He didn't know what it was -- a fox, a wild dog? -- but it seemed to dwindle slightly, and Nathan took his chance, forcibly overpowering his instincts and darting through the grass as fast as his running legs would take him. The whipping vegetation tickled his fur, but he couldn't take the time to think about feeling just now, or how this Trouble seemed to have supplanted his own, as if just to make everything even more overwhelming to him in this unfamiliar body.

He had to get to Duke. His smaller animal heart pounded fast and loud in his sensitive ears as he ran.

***

Duke was rattling around the kitchens of the Gull, looking over staff shoulders and pretty much thinking that his work was done here and it was time to slope off, when he heard an exclamation from someone by the door.

He was gaining a finely-tuned ear for punters in distress. He stuck his head and shoulders swiftly out over the counter to see around the angle of the wall to the entranceway.

There was an animal in his restaurant.

At first glimpse -- a blur -- he thought it was a small dog, assumed the owner wasn't far behind and, well, there was no real problem he could see yet. Then the creature did a complex series of almost military darts between table legs that were far more planned than anything a dumb animal should come up with, cumulating with a blurry sprint right toward where Duke was. It shot straight into the kitchens at the back, passing within three feet of him, and Duke swore as he realised he had a mutt loose in his kitchens. He grabbed a broom that was leaning against the wall and charged after it.

The kitchen staff were rowdily startled, and Brian had picked up a frying pan, which made the creature visibly wary. It had fallen back into a crouch under a storage shelf, where there wasn't space to easily hit it with anything, but especially not with the big, heavy pan. Its actions were unmistakably intelligent, and its watchful eyes as it twitched and blinked out from its hiding place held calculation as well as fear.

Trouble, thought Duke, with a degree of resignation.

It wasn't a dog, it was -- he squinted. A big rabbit? Skinny, sinewy creature, with huge legs, not a cute bunny. Probably a hare.

It saw him and burst into movement. Duke barely had chance to react before it hurled itself into his arms, using the broom he was wielding as a foothold in its leap to get there. Expecting an attack, Duke automatically grabbed for the thing coming at him, closing his arms around its furry body. It stilled there, in his arms, trembling, heart beating fast under the palms of his hands. Its heartbeat was even visible: moving its sides in little hiccups of motion. Its paws tugged at his collar, like they were trying to wrap over his shoulders.

"Hey. Hey." Duke held it -- couldn't exactly drop it -- feeling ridiculous. "You like me, do you?" Its answer to that question seemed ambiguous, since its whiskers prickled his neck but he was pretty sure its claws dug in on purpose. "Ow."

His staff were staring at him in accusation, like the thing was his fault.

"It's totally not mine." Duke shuffled his feet and looked down again. The hare seemed content in his arms, and neither tried to snuggle or struggle, or even move. "I guess I got this," he sighed, and reversed out of the kitchen. Time to call Nathan and Audrey.

Outside, he discovered quickly that he didn't need to make an effort to keep the animal with him. Once they were in a quieter spot, out by the open door of his truck, he could put it down and it just stayed by his ankle. After a minute or so, it decided to climb up into the seat and perch, stretching its body tall, to watch him from there through startlingly alert, grey-blue eyes.

Duke hung his arms over the door and leaned, watching it right back, while he tried again to get through to Nathan.

It seemed really interested in the cellphone, and batted at it a few times with its paws, aiming for the screen where the words CALLING NATHAN were displayed. Duke slapped its efforts away and it stopped when he moved on to see if he had any better luck getting hold of Audrey.

"Rabbit Troubles?" she asked.

"Or animals in general," Duke suggested. "Strictly speaking, I think this might be a hare, but whatever it is, it shouldn't be sitting in my truck..." He yelped and made a lunge for the creature. "...Or playing with my radio!" It was trying to get onto the police frequencies, Duke would swear. "I get the feeling it would be trying to drive the thing if I handed over the keys." The hare glared at him and tried to take a nip out of his wrist in revenge for being stopped, then it started scratching at the glove compartment.

Duke gave up and let it, honestly curious what it was trying to achieve. It hauled out a Slim Jim packet Nathan had left in there. Duke rolled his eyes. Food. Of course.

But it didn't eat it, just kind of sat with the wrapper displayed in front of it, twitching its stubby white fuzz of a tail like it was trying to make a point and... sort of scowling.

"Excuse me," Duke said to Audrey on the phone. "My bunny's trying to tell me something. What was that again?"

"I said do you want to bring the rabbit over, or do you want me to come there? I'm heading back to the station now."

"I'll bring him over." The hare moved into the passenger seat and dragged with frustration at the seat belt. "Should be safe enough to drive with him in the car. I think this critter knows the highway code."

***

The hare made it clear it preferred to ride on his shoulder, digging its claws into his neck, and man was it disgruntled where Duke removed it from there and carried it into the police station under his arm. He'd swear that all the people staring at him with his strange burden were what made it so twitchy and furtive. He held onto it tighter and nodded amicably to a few known faces among the watching cops, pretending this was a totally day-to-day thing for him to be doing.

The hare tried to wriggle out of Duke's grasp at the door to Audrey's office, but he clung on, swearing, and hauled it inside with him, to plant it on Audrey's desk, where he pushed firm hands on its fuzzy shoulders to keep it there.

It instantly stopped being a dick and kind of fucking melted, little bunny face going right to Audrey's reaching hands and letting her pet it. It didn't even try to nip her. Duke let it go, but went to shut the door because he didn't trust the little shit.

"You're adorable," Audrey was telling it, as its muzzle rubbed against her fingers. "Yes you are. But where did you come from?"

The hare started scrabbling at the papers on her desk, and then she yelped in distress and dragged them out of its reach, complete with rents from claws and stains from grubby bunny paws. When she deprived it of the papers, it made a noise that just -- fuck!

"I didn't know they made a noise like that," Duke said, genuinely shocked. The hare seemed to have shocked itself, but Duke was already plenty convinced that his bunny wasn't a bunny. "I think this is a Troubled person," he told Audrey. "Probably one that knows I know you, and that you fix Troubles."

Audrey frowned at him, and dubiously returned a blank piece of paper to the desk, laying it in front of the frustrated animal. She rolled a pen toward it with her finger. "Let's see if there's something he's trying to say."

They watched the antics of a bunny trying to negotiate the act of writing. Paws seemed to be out -- it couldn't clutch them around the pen. The closest it could get was when it tightened its jaw around the pen, bulging its eyes out, and leaned its head sideways. But it just trailed the ink over the paper in mostly incomprehensible lines, unable to either see well enough or get sufficient precision with its motor control, or both. The hare finally bit down with a crunch, spat out the cracked pen, and slapped the paper off the desk.

Audrey's lips shaped into a round 'O'. "Wow. Your bunny has a temper."

That was hard to argue with. The hare sat hunch-shouldered and shivered with annoyance, making little clicks as its claws tore up the desk even while it was sitting still.

Duke retrieved the sheet of paper and looked at it from all angles, but he couldn't make out anything recognisable amid the squiggles.

Audrey held out her hands. "C'mere, ragebunny," she said, and it did, climbing up her front like it hadn't been fighting Duke all the way into the police station. Her it let cuddle it in her arms like it was a baby. It stuck its head between her breasts, though, so maybe it had ulterior motives.

"Definitely a male," Audrey declared.

Duke had gotten kicked every time he'd made any kind of move to find that out.

The hare shifted and seemed embarrassed. He pulled himself up and took a position more on her shoulder, with a good deal more dignity to it.

"So, what else do we know about him?" Audrey asked.

"Other than that he's pissed?" Duke grimaced. "Well, I'd be pissed if I was suddenly a bunny."

The hares whiskers made a foray up Audrey's neck, and as if in spite of himself, his paws moved gently, and the way he snuffled in made it look almost like he was kissing her, trying to caress her.

Duke stared at him, and abruptly his belly did a funny flip. "Say, where's Nathan?"

"I don't know." Audrey giggled and writhed, trying to push the whiskers away from tickling her neck. "He went out on some calls. Just a bunch of nothing small town routine police stuff."

"I couldn't reach him a while ago, when I tried to phone." Duke pointed at the hare. "This bunny really likes you."

Audrey stopped still and stared down at the hare, which pulled back, suddenly much more animated and excited. "Nathan?" she demanded incredulously.

It definitely looked like the ragebunny was nodding his little head, though his ears were still pulled into straight, fierce lines with the force of his agitation.

Duke imagined Nathan's reaction to being turned into something small and fluffy and relatively helpless, and winced. "He was trying to get to Nathan's office, before," he realised. He walked to the door and opened it again, closely watching the hare.

Which left Audrey in an instant, bolting out. Duke swore, thinking for a moment he'd made a mistake, but when he raced after, he found Nathan's office door had been left ajar and the hare had gone straight in. Duke pushed the door fully open to find the hare poised behind Nathan's desk, where hed climbed up, and was now making efforts to hit keys on Nathan's computer -- mostly, falling all over the keyboard.

Audrey walked in and blinked at the antics. "Nathan?" she asked again.

The hare turned and gave her the sort of look that would have been really out of character for Nathan to direct at Audrey, but then, if this was Nathan, he was having a stupendously bad day. He managed to balance on three paws and slowly and carefully pluck one key on the keyboard with a claw-tip, then another.

Duke massaged his forehead with his fingers. This was going to take a long time. 'Nathan' was squinting at the screen like he had difficulty focusing on the letters -- who knew what his animal eyes were making of the LCD screen? -- and finally he gave up on the screen and focused on hitting the right keys. Duke sidled closer to try and read over the top of him, and Audrey crowded in from the other side of the desk.

SALLLY_OL, said the document on the screen so far.

A small tap at the door behind them, and it was open before they had chance to react. Stan stood in the doorway.

"Uh, ah..." He stuttered to a halt when he saw Duke and Audrey and an animal in Nathan's office. "Where's the Chief?"

"Nathan popped out a moment," Audrey said. "You can tell me. What is it?"

"Oh, well... Miss Oliver's here. The woman with all the... animals..." Stan's eyes fixed on the hare. "She said that you -- well, he -- would want to see her."

***

Duke gingerly held the very restless hare that was now confirmed to be Nathan Wuornos while Sally awkwardly explained how she'd accidentally changed Haven's Police Chief into a small, fuzzy animal.

"It... wasn't on purpose, it just happens. I'll look at someone and not be able to stop it crossing my mind that -- I mean, just for a second, just a fleeting idea, sometimes -- that they remind me of being just like some kind of animal, and then--"

Duke was grinning more broadly with every second. "You thought Nathan looked like a cute, fluffy bunny?"

She shot him a mystified look. "He's a sleek wild hare. He's beautiful."

Audrey raised her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth scrunched in her effort not to laugh.

Duke was getting severely kicked by a Nathan who could undoubtedly hear and understand their conversation no matter what form he'd been stuck in. The form he had been stuck in possessed remarkable muscle strength in its back legs for its comparative size, and being smaller and fluffier seemed to have only made him more belligerent. Duke was feeling that. "Ah--!" He struggled to keep hold of the bundle of Nathany attitude. "Can you undo it? Like, now. Please."

Sally Oliver shook her head. "I've never figured out how to unthink it. But it does wear off on its own."

"How long?" Audrey asked, abruptly less amused.

"It depends. Twenty fours hours was the quickest. Maybe around three days is normal. One time it took a week."

Nathan made that godawful noise again, setting Duke's teeth on edge, and he squirmed out of Duke's grip -- involving a drop of three feet that had Duke's heart in his mouth. On the floor, and apparently just fine, he lunged across to stop right in front of Sally and adopted a posture of challenge.

"I'm sorry," she said, with a helpless shrug. "If I knew the secret, I'd tell you."

Nathan's claws clicked on the floorboards. He skittered around in a circle, and to Duke it looked for one frickin' brilliant moment like he was chasing his own tail. Then Nathan started scratching at the floor with angry strokes and jerky movements, using his back leg, his toes expanding outwards into one fucking enormous splay of foot as he fixed his claws to scratch.

"What's he doing?" Duke asked, unhappily.

"He's writing." Audrey crouched down and craned over to see, undeterred by the clawed, frenetic fuzzball her police braintwin had become. "Nathan, what is it?"

"Why do I feel like I'm in an episode of Lassie?" Duke sighed.

Sally leaned over with vague interest, but mostly embarrassment. She was exuding the intent to be elsewhere as soon as she could get away with it.

Duke edged closer to lean over Audrey's back, but she still had to read the scratches out aloud for him. "It says 'the others?' What does that mean, Nathan?" They watched Nathan scratch a lot of lines underneath 'others' for emphasis, and his eyes glared defiantly at Sally.

"Oh!" Her amusement overcame her embarrassment, and she laughed. "No, no. The other animals are all really animals. I promise." Nathan looked unconvinced. "I wondered why you'd run. You have a suspicious mind, Mister Wuornos."

Nathan stood firm and kept his eye on her, but Sally didn't back down or show any signs of faltering on her assertion. Duke honestly didn't see a lie. It took Nathan a bit longer to subside, and when he did, his ears and tail seemed to droop with his mistake. He shuffled and ducked his head.

"Anyway, I brought these..." Sally reached for a bag and retrieved from it Nathan's familiar clothes, nearly folded. More cautiously, she started to lift out Nathan's gun belt by its leather strap, and Audrey grunted and moved forward to take charge of that.

"Lost your service weapon, officer?" Duke said to the Nathanbunny. The Nathanbunny looked pissed, but Duke was happy to be able to recognise in that look the Nathan he knew. In a manner of speaking.

"I'll take care of it until you're you again," Audrey promised, heading over to lock it in a desk drawer. "Thank you for bringing these things around, Miss Oliver, as well as the... explanation. If you could keep trying... and if you have any ideas..."

"Of course. I'll do my best."

Audrey saw Sally out. Duke stayed in the office, speculatively regarding the hare.

"You're... really Nathan," he said, slowly. Parts of that were awkward, in retrospect.

The lean, furry body twitched but raised its head and stared him right back. Duke scratched his own head and then sort of clung to it as he was caught up by the memory of Nathan's jaw squaring just like that, overlaying his current view.

"Okay, that's just freaky." Duke waved a hand plaintively. "I'm sorry about the, you know, before. Although man, you are one angry bunny. And that is all kinds of wrong. Seriously."

Nathan ducked his head slightly and gave him... Duke thought it was meant to be a measuring look, but most of the expressions Nathan wore seemed to take on a malevolent cast through the hare's eyes.

Or, yeah, that was just Nathan as a bunny. Who squirmed around abruptly and scratched at his ear with a long hind leg.

Duke watched suspiciously. "So... Could be as much as a week, Sally said. That's got to suck. And since we can't leave you alone like that, I supposed you'll be going home with Audrey. Letting her carry you around in a cat box. Resting your little furry head on her bed at night... Milking this for all it's worth..."

Nathan brustled. Duke could actually see the hair covering his shoulders standing more upright. He could hear his phantom retort of, "I'm not you."

It wasn't until Audrey came back and Nathan determinedly bunched his shoulders and repeated his whole bullet-hare act, hurling himself across the room into Duke's arms again, that Duke realised what he'd inadvertently lined himself up for.

***

Up to another week like this was an intolerable thought, and the thought of having to stay with Duke through it wasn't much better. But allowing Duke, or Audrey, to think that he was taking advantage of this situation to get… get petted and fussed over by Audrey, was by far the worst.

So. Duke it was, then.

Audrey's eyebrows climbed her forehead as she walked back in and found him within the blink of a second lodged firmly in Duke's grasp. "What's the matter with him?"

Duke shifting, hefting Nathan awkwardly, and trying now that he knew it actually was him, to be less invasive and pushy about how he held him: sort of supporting his body but not controlling his movements, loose enough that Nathan could jump out if he so wished. "I think it's a guy thing," Duke said. "Look, we... talked, I guess. Nathan's gonna stay with me until he's back to being his much less cute and fluffy but still just as angry self."

If Duke was going to say things like that, he'd better get used to bunny reprisal for it, Nathan thought grimly, and sank a warning tooth into the nearest bit of his flesh -- his wrist -- not hard enough to break flesh but a definite nip.

Audrey's eyebrows remained raised, though more at Nathan than Duke. Nathan's quiver seemed to go through his whole form as she said, with mostly good humour but enough of a warning edge for concern, "Okay, but Wuornos, we will be talking about that choice when you actually can talk again."

"Right," Duke agreed. "You probably have things to do..." He moved Nathan into the cradle of one arm, so he could gesture with the other, jerking his thumb toward the door. "I'll just..."

Audrey rolled her head and walked over to the Chief's desk, where she picked up some of Nathan's papers, skimming her eyes over them, and sighed. "It's probably for the best that you take him, since it seems I have to focus on being stand-in Chief. No offence, Nathan, but even if you do still have your brain, it's not like you can communicate or do reports."

Nathan ground his back teeth, but it looked like he was going to have to get used to being incommunicado for a while, unless he was left with a computer and an hour to spare for each paragraph.

Duke fled, taking Nathan with him.

"Okay, so I get it," Duke said to him, sitting in the front of his truck and taking some time out to untangle Nathan's claws from the wool of his sweater before he could put him down in the passenger seat. "You don't want her to see you like this any more than necessary. But man, you have got to be seriously desperate to protect your manly image if you're willing to come with me."

Nathan thought baleful thoughts as Duke set him down, and shifted in the seat, digging his claws into Duke's leather. He was going to have to listen to this until he changed back, was the most baleful thought of all. He was going to have to listen to Duke, full stop. He was...

"I mean, it's not like she's the kind of woman who's going to dress you up in cute little outfits and put pink bows on your ears," Duke pointed out, his grin enormous.

...He was going to wait until Duke went to sleep tonight, and then make a break back to his own home and stay there until this wore off, and to hell with everything.

"Though they are adorable little fluffy ears."

Screw waiting: Nathan went for the door handle. Duke made a noise of distress and a dive for the lock mechanism, slapping it down a split second before Nathan could get enough purchase to force the handle. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait! Nathan! Nate!" Duke's yelling held a measure of desperation that was truly unexpected. Nathan twitched his ears and picked himself up from the truck's floor, at least as curious to hear the rest of what Duke had to say as he was angry.

Duke watched as he scrambled back onto the seat and sighed. "Nathan... buddy... listen to me, okay? I get that this sucks. All joking aside, I get that this sucks monumentally, and you probably want your own space right now more than anything, and for nobody else to see you like this." It hung on his tongue as though he wanted to say more, but was waiting for some response.

Yes|No questions at least allowed the possibility of communication, and even though Nathan didn't wholly like the assumptions behind the question, he still nodded with the relief of being able to get those thoughts out there. If Duke could understand those things, then he could take him home, could get everything set up and leave him...

"But I do not want you to die," Duke said, snapping the faint hope with gravity and exasperation. "Like this, you're small, and vulnerable... to a bunch of dangers, even from just people, who don't know you're anything other than an animal. So, please, let me do this, because if you charge off and something happens because I was being too much of a dick for you to stay and trust me, I am never going to forgive myself."

Nathan jerked, thoroughly pissed off. Duke had a point, that was the worst thing. After all, the first thing he'd done when he'd been changed was to run to find the people he trusted. Maybe he should have imposed upon Audrey, even if he didn't want her to first-hand witness every detail of his humiliation. Duke was never going to let him forget this had happened, but then Duke already had years of ammunition to torment him with, that was nothing new.

He made a hissing noise in his dissatisfaction that caused Duke to blink and shift uneasily.

"Ground rules," Duke offered. "We need to settle those. I promise not to touch you, or pick you up, unless I have to. I don't fucking pet you, ever. You do your own thing, and you let me know if there's a problem. No cages, no leashes, you're your own hare. I'm not going to promise I won't make the odd cuttingly humorous remark, because hey, this is me, but I'll try to keep the jokes to a minimum, because I know this is not just a funny thing that happened to you. It's shitty and scary and dangerous. Can we make a deal?"

Duke waited for a response. Nathan ducked his head.

"Tell me you're not going to split the moment I let my guard down," Duke insisted. "Come on. Put it there if you agree." He held out his hand for a high five.

Nathan sighed -- it came out as a groaning hiss that vibrated his whiskers -- and flailed one of his forepaws at Duke's palm. It was a more tricky juggling act with the balance of his transformed body than it looked.

"All right." Duke smiled, shedding some of his anxiety. Duke, Nathan thought incredulously, was actually, seriously worried about him. That was... that was just odd.

But oddly compelling, nonetheless. He'd got closer to Duke again since Audrey had come to town, close enough in the sense that he now tolerated his company on a near daily basis, but it was still a long time since he'd spent quite so much time in Duke's company as was now in the offing. Maybe he should just bite the bullet and look at it as an opportunity to see how Duke had changed since they were both eighteen years old.

He shook himself and hunkered down in the crook of the passenger seat's worn hollow, since he couldn't fasten the seatbelt, fighting not to get lost in all the scents that infused the old vehicle.

Duke tipped his chin and gave a nod, then turned to start her up.

***

Nathan spent some time that evening getting to know the rhythms of the Cape Rouge and exploring all the corners of Duke's boat, figuring out what he could reach and what was going to be an annoying problem. Duke's addition of a cat litter tray into the corner of the galley was filed under annoying, but was at once a problem and a solution to a problem. When Nathan finally returned to the living area, Duke had flopped down with a glass of wine on one of the couches.

Nathan took a running jump up to the couch and rolled to a halt against Duke's thigh.

Duke snorted and looked down at him. "Okay, I'm saying nothing." He spread his hands.

Nathan untangled himself and put his body upright again, before giving up and flopping back -- accidentally coming up against Duke's hand in the same moment he rested it down on the couch beside him.

Feeling wasn't quite the same through fur -- wasn't so much like skin contact -- though he could feel it, or at least the pressure of it; Duke's hand against his back, tingling through each tiny hair. Nathan sighed and without quite meaning to, he pushed himself against Duke's hand, squirming harder into the contact.

Duke's fingers twitched reflexively, and dug into his fur and down to the skin, in what could only be described as an illicit stroke.

"Shit!" Duke all but leaped up from the couch as he pulled his hand back. "Sorry! Sorry, man. Nathan!" He looked suitably horrified. "I swear, I swear it's really hard to remember, when you're a fluffy thing, nuzzling beside me, that you're Nathan."

Nathan hissed tiredly, and found himself more frustrated by the loss of the soothing contact than the idea that Duke might in fact have petted him. But he wasn't going to get needy about it. He flopped out on his side as Duke carefully sat back down, and Nathan stretched his limbs, aiming to get some friction against the couch cover and at least enjoy that much of sensation, in this body that was annoying and not his but at least could feel it. It wasn't the same as touching a person, even if that person was Duke. But it was far more than he normally had.

When he blinked his eyes next, dozily for being stoned by touch, Duke was frowning down at him. "I get it..." Duke said slowly. "Your Trouble isn't on right now, is it? So you..." His wince was, Nathan could only suppose, for the idea that Nathan was now a small, fluffy thing that could also feel pain.

Then Duke gave a sideways look of conspiracy and held up his hand, fingers waggling in a question. "I solemnly swear, this will stay forever between us and goes no further than this room on pain of death...

"...Back rub?"

It was frankly embarrassing how fast Nathan found himself perking up and leaping into Duke's lap. But as Duke's fingers worked into his fur, and against the strained and tense muscles of a tired little form that had had a very tiresome day, Nathan started to believe that maybe the next few days might not be so terrible, after all.

END