Deepriver moved into our house a couple of days after our first night together, and since then it was as if shi had always been a part of our family. Every night we shared a bed together, River snuggled up between my sister and I.
Today, a week after I had first set eyes on hir, shi was going to meet my -- and Grey's -- parents.
"Pass the butter, please?" I noticed when River passed me the large dish that held the butter to me that shi seemed somewhat shaky. The end of hir tail, which I could just see behind hir, was switching madly to and fro, like an agitated metronome, a lot like mine does when I'm anxious. "Is everything all right?" I asked, buttering my toast then peering at hir with a concerned frown.
River smiled wanly at me, shrugging. "I'm just nervous about meeting your parents, I guess. I'm worried about what they might think of me." Shi took another bite of hir bacon and eggs and chewed slowly.
"Ah. I see. I don't think you'll have too much to worry about. Trailblazer is pretty easy-going, and heck knows shi's been wanting me to find myself a partner for some time. Skywatcher, on the other hand...." I looked over to Greytail who rolled hir eyes dramatically. "Shi can be a little tetchy, sometimes."
"When did you say they were arriving, Grey?" River asked, before taking another bite. "About twelve-ish, wasn't it?"
Grey nodded, digging a large spoonful of cornflakes out of hir bowl. "Give or take a few minutes, but if I know Father, shi'll be precisely on time." Shi looked up to the clock, which said 9:28am. "I should say we'll have enough time to do some stocking up of the pantry before then."
"I'll do it, if you write up a list," volunteered River, smiling at us. Since shi'd moved in, shi'd tried to make hirself as useful as possible. As the crowds in the supermarket tended to be rather extreme towards lunchtime, I said I'd accompany hir. I had some letters to post anyway, so it wasn't really going out of my way.
"Thanks, Sandy," shi said. Shi polished off the rest of hir breakfast, then got up to put hir plates and cutlery in the dishwasher. I finished mine, then went to have a quick shower before going out.
When we got back from the supermarket both River and I were exhausted. "I had no idea it was so busy, even on a Sunday," I complained as I dumped several bags of groceries on the kitchen floor for Grey to sort through. "It was like New York on a good day."
Grey had just come in from being in the garden, and now shi took off hir gardening gloves and began taking items out of the bags, opening up various cupboards and placing the items inside. "Hmm, I know what you mean."
"What are we having for lunch?" asked River, going into the kitchen to help Grey put the groceries away. "It's nearly twelve now."
"I was actually thinking of a barbecue," Grey said, moving to open the fridge. Out of it shi took a couple of large plastic bags filled with what must have been marinated meat. "There's enough steak for all of us. Of course we'll have a salad. River, if you would like to make a start on that? I'll just finish up here then start the barbecue. And Sandy, if you could do the garlic bread? I'll handle the rest of the food."
We all went about our business quickly. Every now and then I shot a quick glance at the clock, which continued its merciless progression toward midday.
I had just put the freshly made garlic bread into the oven to heat when I heard a vehicle pull up outside. Grey was in the back garden, so shi might not have heard it. Casting a look out of the kitchen window I saw a distinctively patterned chakat get out of the far side of the PTV, then a rather drab brown one from the near side. "Gods...right on time, too!" Turning to River I muttered, "Go tell Grey that they've arrived." I then made a beeline for the door.
"Mum! Dad! It's so great to see you!" I ran out the front door to greet my parents with a big hug. After I had hugged each of them I stood back and regarded them. They were getting older, I felt. Mum's midnight black fur, over which were scattered hundreds of tiny white star-like spots, was now showing slight traces of grey. Dad's was normally a deep cocoa brown, but it was now sporting a few grey hairs.
"It's very nice to see you too, dear," Skywatcher said, smiling faintly. "Now where's that sister of yours? Shi's not out gardening again, is shi?"
From behind me I heard a voice yell, "I'm here! Don't worry, I'm here." Grey hurried down the path to embrace our guests. As shi passed me I caught a slight whiff of burned fur. "Come in, come in," shi was saying, gently herding our parents into the house. "Have a look around while I finish preparing lunch."
Before I went in after them, Grey stopped me and whispered into my ear, "I told River to mind the barbecue. I figure we should get some of Skywatcher's comments out of the way now, rather than have them all lumped up." I nodded, then went in through the door as Grey scooted around the back.
I could hear Mother's voice in the lounge as I came in. "Hmm...not bad, I suppose. I think the television would look better in that corner, though." Shi turned when I walked into the room. "For propriety's sake, Mother, just lay off the critical comments, will you? We don't go bad-mouthing your tastes when we visit you, so why should you do so here?"
I paused to view hir reaction, then I added, "As well as that, I have something that I want to show you when we go out into the garden to have lunch. Anyway, if I may show you the rest of our humble abode?"
The tour of the house didn't take very long, though I'm sure it was to Mum. I could see hir trying not to make a criticism of every room shi looked at. "Well, Mum," I thought silently as I watched hir jaw jut out. "You're going to be in for quite a shock in a few minutes."
We went out into the garden afterward, to see a table rigged up in the middle of the lawn, with plates and cutlery set out, even a tablecloth. The barbecue was sizzling away, with Grey keeping a careful watch on it. River was nowhere to be seen.
"If you would all seat yourselves, I'll serve up the meat," Grey announced, putting the last few pieces of steak onto a heating pad and bringing it to the table. Shi passed out a steak to each person, noticing Skywatcher eyeing the extra place set.
After we had all taken some salad and bread, we sat expectantly. Well...Mum sat with hir tail twitching in extreme curiosity, rather than expectation. Taking a nervous breath I said, "Mum, Dad," I said, looking at them both, "There's someone I'd like you to meet."
As if on cue, River stepped out from around a hydrangea bush, strolling slowly toward the table. Shi stopped when shi got to hir place, then said in a surprisingly level voice, "Greetings to you, Skywatcher, and you, Trailblazer. I am Deepriver, daughter of Longmuzzle and Earthtender."
Skywatcher's jaw worked soundlessly, while Trailblazer merely raised an eyebrow. "A pleasure to meet you," shi said, getting up to go give River a hug. "I assume that you and Sandy have formed a Companionship, correct?" shi asked, looking into River's eyes.
"We have, yes," River replied, meeting 'Blazer's gaze. "I made the offer last week, and shi accepted." Shi gestured for 'Blazer to go back to hir place at the table, sitting down at hir own, tail curling about hir feet.
Looking at Mum I could see that shi was still trying to formulate some sort of reply. "Mother, if you're going to say something, spit it out, instead of sitting there looking like a dumbstruck chicken." I gave hir one of my most withering looks to reinforce my statement. "If you don't approve, fine, but just keep your mouth shut if you can't say anything nice. Shi's my Companion, and that's that." At that point I started attacking my lunch with fervour, the knife and fork scraping loudly on the plate. Everyone else took that as their cue to begin eating.
Lunch was a reasonably quiet affair, probably because Skywatcher didn't deign to say anything. Dad was polite as always, asking River about hir background, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and so on. I was pleased to see River so open, though shi was a little guarded when talking about hir family. 'Blazer seemed to sense it was an uncomfortable subject, so shi didn't push the issue.
When we had finished we had dessert, which was a massive pavlova, fruit and ice cream, then Grey and River started clearing up while I took Mum and Dad into the lounge for a talk.
"Right," I said once my parents had reclined themselves comfortably on the couches. "Opinion time. Get any good or bad things out in the open." I stared at Mum while I said that.
"Shi's a nice girl," remarked Dad, as if shi were commenting on the weather. "Perhaps a little on the distrustful side, but that's to be expected after meeting people for the first time." Shi paused for a few moments, then added, "I believe that shi would be a good mate for you and, as far as I'm concerned, shi's very welcome in this family."
I nodded, a smile creeping across my face, then I looked at Mum, my smile disappearing to be replaced by a frown. "And you? I just know you're bursting with opinions."
Mum blinked at the implied accusation. "Well...shi's a bit on the shy side, and I think you could have hooked up with someone of a better colour -- you know I'm not too fond of red. Then there's the fact that you've known hir for barely a week, and already you've declared yourselves Companions." Shi drew breath as if to say more but I interrupted hir, putting a hand up to forestall any protests.
"At least you're honest," I said shortly. I moved myself into a more comfortable position then took a deep breath. "I'd might as well tell you how we got together.... Um, it was just over a week ago, when our botany class went to the beach to plant erosion-preventative grasses, that I first saw hir. I'd forgotten to put a top on that day, and shi was the only other 'taur not wearing anything. Kerisa told me shi was relatively new to the school, and that shi was terribly shy. We eventually managed to corner hir, and shi told us everything. We became tentative friends, and then the next night Grey and I went to get some pizza, and found hir working in the shop. We invited hir to have dinner with us, shi asked to stay the night, and...shi made the offer."
I sat quietly, studying my parents' reactions. Dad seemed rather calm about it all, a quality I had always found endearing. Mum just looked at me, totally silent. "I see," shi said after a minute or so.
Quiet footfalls alerted me to someone's presence, and I looked up to see River standing at the doorway, looking a little uncertain about interrupting. I waved hir in, smiling fondly when shi lay down beside me, leaning against my shoulder.
The room filled with silence again, until it was broken by a heavy sigh from Mum. Shi got to hir feet, and wandered over to us. To my surprise shi then put out hir arms and said, "Welcome to the family, dear."
River smiled then got up to be embraced by Mum. "Thank you, Skywatcher. I can't tell you how much hearing you say that means to me." Shi pulled away, slightly embarrassed.
"You've really got to overcome that shyness of yours," Mum said critically, hir eyes getting the hooded appearance they got when shi frowned.
"I know, I know. I've never been very social; that's why I took the job at the pizza parlour, to try and get used to people, maybe even get to know some of them. I think Sandy has helped me a lot with that, but some attitudes are so ingrained that it's hard to override them." Shi lay back down, and resumed hir previous position, purring softly.
"I'm sure you'll overcome your inhibitions eventually, dear." Mum went and sat back down leaning on hir mate's shoulder. I smiled, feeling much better about the whole thing.
A couple of minutes later Grey came in, raising an eyebrow at the scene before hir. "I was going to suggest a stroll around the park to work off our lunch, but it seems you're otherwise occupied."
"No, no," I said, shaking my head. "That's fine. We can all go out as a family. Don't you agree?" The last statement was directed at our parents, who had started licking and kissing each other.
"Hmm? Oh, right." Trailblazer chuckled, gave Mum one more lick, then got to hir feet, helping 'Watcher up as well, then both followed Grey out of the room after nuzzling hir.
I rolled my eyes, glancing at River with a wry grin. "Welcome to the family." We went out a few seconds after the others, who were already several feet ahead of us, closing the front door behind us.
We all strolled down the street, waving to people, 'taurs and bipeds alike, out walking or working in their gardens, or lying on porches in the shade. A couple of times we stopped to have a chat with a friend from school, and once to study an information board, but eventually we got to the park.
The park was a massive twenty hectare expanse of native and exotic bush, with wide trails meandering through the dense foliage. Today there were quite a lot of visitors, but we managed to avoid the majority of them.
After about twenty minutes of quiet, contemplative walking we came across the lake that lay at the centre of the park's beauty. Across the narrowest section of the lake was a wooden bridge, painted red. We padded onto the bridge, which was currently empty of people, and rested against the railings, peering down at the water, upon which several small boats were being rowed about.
"It's been so long since we've been here," Skywatcher murmured, purring softly as shi leaned against hir mate. "I'd forgotten how peaceful it was here. Actually...." Shi looked thoughtful for a moment as shi delved into hir memories. "Would you like to see where 'Blazer and I first declared ourselves lifemates? I think I remember where it was."
Grey raised an eyebrow and shot a glance at me. I grinned and nodded before replying, "Sure! I didn't know that particular snippet of history."
Mother looked a trifle smug. "There are some things that you will never know...until we decide to tell you. But anyway, if you'll all follow me.... The park's changed a little in layout but I think I can find my way." Shi led the way off the other end of the bridge, moving onto another path that wound up into the hillier section of the park, where the waterfalls had their beginnings. River linked arms with me as we walked, purring very softly, so only I could hear.
After a few minutes we stopped at a small clearing overshadowed by massive totara trees, a few metres off the main path. "Well, here we are," announced Skywatcher, gesturing around with an arm. "This is where we formally declared our lifemateship, one night under the stars. Well, it was under the stars then...the trees have grown somewhat," shi added with a slight blush, looking up to where the branches merged together to form a 'roof'. Trailblazer came up beside hir, and nuzzled hir cheek, putting an arm around hir.
"Interesting," I murmured. Looking around, I could see why they had chosen this place. My attention was drawn back to River when shi asked, "What's this mean?"
We all looked to where River was standing next to a trunk, pointing at an engraving. It was a rather badly-carved circle, with two arrowheads pointing anticlockwise. Inside the circle were the initials TB and SW.
"Oh...I'd forgotten about that," Trailblazer said, staring intently at it. "My carving skills weren't the best then.... I don't think they've improved in the past...oh, thirty odd years." Shi put out a hand to feel the rough bark, and the grooves that formed the initials. "Of course it's gotten a bit bigger, since the tree itself has grown."
I noticed Grey looking at me with a grin on hir face, and I stepped over to ask about it. "I was just thinking that the living room wall would look good with a set of carved initials like this one...don't you think?"
"Yeah, right!" I gave hir a sisterly punch on the arm, frowning at hir for a few seconds before breaking into a smile. "The novelty of it would wear off very quickly I think. Just think...we'd have to buy a painting to cover it up! That would go against all our undecorative morals."
We both started sniggering, drawing the others' attention. "Nothing," Grey said when questioned. "We were just...discussing some alterations to the house."
Before we could get wholly involved in talk about renovations, River asked, "Did you two make love here?" We all stared at hir, then starting chuckling. That was the last thing we thought we'd ever hear from hir. "What?" shi insisted.
"We did, yes," Mum answered, still chuckling. "I didn't think you'd have the guts to ask that question." Shi went over to give River a hug. "The fact that you did seems to strongly suggest that you're ready to frequent the disco scene."
"Heaven forbid!" I said, putting a hand to my forehead in an overly dramatic fashion. "I have this terrible image of hir in flairs, boogieing the night away."
River blushed furiously, the inside of hir ears going a bright pink. "So, I'm not the most tactful person...but it was a serious question. Sandy and I didn't wait...though we did move to hir bedroom."
"I hope there weren't any passers-by while you were occupied," I said, raising an eyebrow at 'Blazer this time. "Making love in a park is a great way to earn a free visit to a jail cell."
"Well...there was one person," murmured Dad quietly, looking up into the overhanging branches, as if to avoid my gaze. "It was one of those nights when they have the light displays all around the park; you know, those fluorescent lights perched up in the branches, underwater, behind the waterfalls, et cetera. Anyway, there happened to be a white light about...." Shi paused while shi glanced around, then pointed at a fork in the main branches of one of the trees. "There. Obviously the place is much higher." Shi shrugged, then continued.
"We had been occupied, as Sandwalker said, for a few minutes, and we were so engrossed in our lovemaking that we failed to notice someone coming up the path." Dad stopped then, looking a little ill at ease, so Mum stepped in.
"There we were, quite obviously going hard at it, and this person came past, then just stopped. Luckily I'd turned my head in that direction, and I quickly alerted 'Blazer to the threat of being discovered. We just stayed perfectly still, not moving a muscle. I think we managed to pass ourselves off as a lifelike erotic statue. The guy even turned to look at us. He probably thought that the park authorities had decided to invest in erotic statuary."
Dad took over again, grinning wryly. "We had to stay like that for about two full minutes before the man moved on. It was all we could do not to break out in giggles at his expression. I don't know what we would have done if he had come up to examine us in further detail."
"Asked him to join in?" I suggested with an innocent look on my face, before Grey nudged me hard in the upper ribs. "Ow!" I nudged hir back then quickly dodged away.
We spent only a few more minutes in that spot before moving on again to continue our tour of the park. We stopped by a coffee house that stood on the northern edge of the lake, purchased a few confections for afternoon tea, then sat at a table to watch flocks of ducks swimming around on the smooth surface of the lake. Some came out of the water to waddle up to us, quacking idly at us as if they expected us to feed them. I smiled to myself and fed them some of the Boston Bun I had bought.
One of the ducks seemed not to be interested in our food, instead intent on trying to nip pieces out of us. After Trailblazer and I had been bitten twice, we decided we had better vacate the area. That didn't deter the persistent duck at all, who continued to chase after us, much to the amusement of some of the park visitors we passed.
Eventually we managed to evade the duck, and we continued on our tour, heading out of the bush area into the zoological section, which consisted of nearly two hundred avian species, some of which -- namely the cockatoos and parrots -- could talk. We walked slowly around the bird cages, peering in and trying to identify the birds listed on the info plaques.
"Hello, cutie! Come back for more?" At that statement from a wide-eyed sulphur-crested cockatoo we broke into giggles and chuckles. The bird just looked at us, cocking his head sideways in curiosity. "You're mad," it said then. That did it; we cracked up, tears of laughter dampening our facial fur as we leaned weakly against the cage. Somebody must have had a wicked sense of humour to teach the bird those phrases.
We quickly moved on before the cockatoo could say anything else, and went to see the rest of the birds, before winding our way back into the bush via another trail.
For the rest of the afternoon we sort of dawdled our way through the remainder of the park, stopping at the playground to watch children of various species play, and the botanical dell where hundreds, probably thousands, of plants warred with our visual and olfactory senses. Some of the flowers were garishly coloured in oranges, purples and reds, while others were more subdued whites and pinks. Some had no discernible smell, other had more perfume than the entire Chanel range.
"My gods! What is that awful stench?" Skywatcher was in what appeared to be a miniature jungle, trying to block hir nose. I wandered closer, noticing the same terrible smell. The others came over to investigate, and we soon presented quite an odd group, our hands covering our noses in an attempt to tone down the disgusting aroma.
"Ah! I see!" After a few seconds searching I'd stepped around a tree and found a large red flower, about a metre in diameter, sitting at its base. On its massive petals were white polka-dots. Buzzing around like planes at Auckland Airport were swarms of flies.
"What is it?" inquired Trailblazer, peering with curiosity at the plant. Shi inadvertently took hir hand away from hir nose to touch the flower, and shi flinched back from the smell again.
I thought for a moment, delving into my botanical knowledge. We'd discussed this briefly in a class not long ago.... "The 'Stinking Corpse Lily', I think. 'Rafflesia arnoldii' is its botanical name. Usually only found in Indonesia." I looked around for an info plaque, and found it nearby. "Yep. That's it, all right."
"Ugh. Pretty, but...insidious-looking," muttered River, walking away into cleaner air. We followed hir example, leaving the plant to its business of attracting pollinatory flies, and investigated the rest of the dell.
When we finally exited the dell it was late afternoon. "My goodness," exclaimed River. "I had no idea it had gotten so late."
Neither had we. Looking up at the sky we could just see the beginnings of the sun's colourful leaving, the white clouds floating by reflecting pale pinks and oranges. "Perhaps we'd better start back," Grey said, looking at me. "By the time we get home, clean up, get tea ready...."
"True..." I murmured thoughtfully. "Besides, they shut the park at six on Saturdays, don't they?"
Grey nodded. "That they do, and if my watch is correct --" Shi peered at the watch shi wore on hir right wrist. "-- then we'd better get out in the next five minutes, or we'll be staying the night."
That idea didn't really appeal to us, so we made all haste to the main gate, which was just about to be closed for the night. The two humans pushing the massive iron gates shut stopped and stared at us as we tore up to them. "Sorry! We lost track of the time!" I called breathlessly as I ran past. They grinned, watching us run down the street, and resumed pushing the gates, which locked together with a resounding 'clang'.
It was nigh on sundown when we returned to our house. All that walking had worked up an immense appetite, but none of us could be bothered with the effort of cooking, so we ordered takeaways. Grey went out to pick up our order while the rest of us just chatted idly.
"Tea's up!" called Grey when shi came in about half an hour later. It was almost a mad rush to the kitchen table, upon which Grey was setting out several parcels wrapped in newspaper. Opening them we found massive amounts of chips, crisply battered fish, potato (even a few paua1) fritters, sausages, all covered with liberal amounts of salt. From another bag that shi was carrying Grey produced five 2L bottles of Coke. "One for each of us," shi said with a wry smile.
I went to the pantry to fetch the tomato sauce, and came back to find everyone already hoeing into the food. "Hey!" I protested. "Let me have some too!" I nudged Dad aside so I could grab a handful of steaming chips.
In a surprisingly short time the food had disappeared and we were all feeling quite stuffed, even for chakats. Leaning back on my haunches I sighed contentedly, glancing at the clock. 7:57pm, it read. "Time for Coronation Street2, people!" I said eagerly. There was another mad rush to the lounge, leaving River behind to clean up the mess we had left. The program wasn't one shi liked much, but shi was quite happy to make use of the time to neaten up.
Being a Saturday, Coro St was on for two hours, and when it was over we were all yawning widely. "Time for bed, I think," I murmured tiredly. Mum and Dad, and Grey, agreed. "Guest room for you two, and Grey, River and I will take my room."
"All right, dears. Good night." Each of our parents gave Grey and I a hug, then went out of the room to give River one too, as shi had spent the remainder of the time at the kitchen table.
When the guest room door had closed, I turned off all the lights and led my sister and Companion to my room, closing the door behind us. I had a nice large mattress, and we lay down upon it, River sandwiched between me and Grey. River purred contentedly as our bodies pressed together warmly. "Goodnight, love," I said to hir. "Goodnight, Grey."
"Goodnight, Sandy. Goodnight, Grey."