Grace couldn't believe what she was hearing. She's a werewolf now? How? What about that whole 'conservation of mass' stuff? The evidence suggesting that this indeed is a completely different world than she was used to was undeniable at this point. This wasn't the town of Ranier, at least the Ranier she'd driven by last night. Light brushing sounds brought her back to reality; Scent of Pine was cleaning up the spilled tea that had rushed over the floor. Grace empathized with that tea. To be something so small and intended to be helpful to someone, only to end up broken, scattered and considered an unsightly mess to be cleaned up by the world. It's a terrible, lonely feeling borne of her many negative experiences in the past. She jumped at the subsequent sound of thunder rolling overhead. It might rain again, and there was no guarantee that her car was still around. If she were to leave, she would have to walk the several miles to International Falls in the rain, in October, on a cold Autumn morning. Then what? The idea that Moonsight's words were true was unfathomable. Why would these people help a stranger like this? Eventually Grace caught her breath and began to ground herself. "Okay. So... you say I'm, like y'all now, but I haven't seen any proof yet. If I didn't get, uh... bitten or catch a werewolf STD, why should I believe this?"
A sigh passed through Moonsight's nostrils. It's a fair question. She had been concerned about Grace's silence, but it seemed that she was merely thinking this over. Anyone would need to. A look was passed over her shoulder toward Great Teeth. "Since this falls under my duties, and you have yours, I think we could continue this at home."
Great Teeth nodded and shuffled his papers back into their prior arrangement. "Sure, as long as everyone agrees. Grace?" He leaned over to ensure clear eye contact with the stranger. "If there's ever anything you need, don't hesitate to come to Moonsight, Scent of Pine and the Rangers, or me. Anything at all, okay?"
The offer sounded genuine, and if indeed true, could be very helpful. Maybe someone here could help Grace return home to her car and her friends... if she could manage to risk telling anyone the truth. "Yeah, thank you," came her characteristically soft-spoken reply.
Moonsight spoke up once more as Great Teeth returned to his stack of paperwork. That odd serenity from before remained intact in spite of the concern it was now weighted with. "What do you think? We're just across the path."
This was all moving too quickly for Grace. She tried to liken the feeling to a familiar sensation, but the closest she could get was hydroplaning. Existential hydroplaning. Traveling too fast for road conditions and fishtailing in a gigantic rear-wheel drive vehicle, and then boom: falling backward into the ditch. Muscles tighten; why did Moonsight want to go to her house all of a sudden? Would Grace be strung up in some odd isekai Blair Witch-style shit? That flip from suspicion to generosity was too quick. Nobody could trust that. "Why?"
"Well... I felt maybe this setting and all the company might have been overwhelming for you. Maybe this felt like more of an interrogation than a discussion."
"So you want uh... what would your house accomplish?"
"Comfort for you. Privacy, ideally."
This was worth a litmus test. Grace got up in a bit of a hurry, grabbing her things along the way. A quick glance was passed to the others in the room, and none had visibly reacted; a splash of concern ebbed through her chest. No one had tried to stop her. The shock of speaking to animal-people hadn't yet worn off, and the two opposing perceptions broke against each other in her mind. "Um. Yes. Okay, thank you."
"Of course. Scent of Pine?"
"Don't worry about the tea. It happens. I'll make some more."
Scent of Pine didn't need words to extend her gratitude. Instead, she guided Moonsight and Grace across the path to one of those houses the latter had seen upon arriving at the village. Moonsight entered first, leaving the door open for the younger Rougarou to enter. The two exchanged an awkward series of movements, unable to decide who would enter first. In the end, Grace yielded to Scent of Pine; it only made sense for the resident to enter first. The house's interior was well constructed. Small planters hung below the windows on either side of the entryway, mirrored by another set along the back wall of the central room. This room formed a T shape with doors at either end; the left one is closed, and the right one smelled like a well kept kitchen. A skylight allowed only more light into the scenery of green and polished red-brown. Cedar, by the smell of the room, made vibrant by an acceptably mild level of humidity and warmth in the air. A table of similar make lay in the middle of the room with a couch behind it, and a chair along either side, upholstered in a forest green sort of color. Grace started slightly at the sound of Scent of Pine's voice ending the reverie of the moment. "Make yourself at home," she said, softly closing the front door. "Mom won't be long."
'Make yourself at home.' Grace always felt that was an odd phrase. She never knew how to make herself at home when she was at her own home, so she translates this invitation to, 'have a seat.' She did so, resting at one end of the couch with her backpack at her feet. It felt so strange to sit on a couch after so many days on the road, let alone being transported to some other universe and talking to people that, by her own expectation, shouldn't actually exist. It was a miracle that they could even converse. Eat your heart out, Alice in Wonderland. "Uh... your name's cool," Grace said as Scent of Pine resumed her cool person standing technique. Moonsight was right, this environment did feel more conducive to discussion.
"Thanks. It's my communal name. ...wanna hear how I got it?"
Communal name? An oxymoron. "Yeah."
The grin that sprouted suggested eagerness to tell the apparent tale. "Ranier wasn't as big when mom and I got here, but it grew after that. We didn't have a good crop that year, and everyone got hungry. There wasn't a lot we could scavenge, but I was still new and I wanted to prove myself, so I went foraging for about a week. I came back with nearly enough food to last the winter, and that gave enough energy for us to trade for the rest, back when Ericsburg was less... like it is now."
A proud Moonsight had appeared in the kitchen doorway unbeknownst to the others. "You came back with pine needles woven into your fur."
"It's a great way to disguise your scent in the wild. Anyway, the village gave me that name for it. In the villages, if you do something helpful for the community, you get a name for it."
"That must have been a lot of food," Grace remarked with a hint of a smile.
"My shoulder hurts just thinking about it."
Grace wasn't sure what to say at this point. Moonsight had gone back into the kitchen, and the recognizable scent of hot water was wafting through the doorway. That... shouldn't happen, the sudden changing of one's physiology to facilitate a sense of smell like that. "Y'all got a mirror?"
Scent of Pine pointed to the closed door to Grace's right with a fiercely clawed finger. "Into the bedroom, door on the right."
"Thanks." The bedroom of the house featured more matching, sensible furniture. Two beds - one for each of the residents - lay across from each other with a night stand in the middle, tastefully set below the window. One lone item lay atop the night stand: what looks like a human family photo. A shorter woman around Grace's age with long, dark hair, a tall guy leaning over to stand with her with shoulder-length blond hair, and an enthusiastic little girl that appeared to be mid-jump, each hand held by what one could presume was a parent. Their clothes were all over the place. The woman looked like a librarian, the man looked like he rode a motorcycle with that jacket of his, and the child, well, looked like a child. Roiling emotions of sadness, regret, and bitterness rose through Grace's chest as she stared at the picture. Something deeply hurt, threatening to overwhelm the balm of looking upon a happy family. There wasn't time for this now - it was time to see if her eyes really were yellow. The house's washroom looked very much like a washroom. Tile, some wallpaper up top, and a horizontal window near the ceiling. A toilet, a shower and a sink... and a mirror. Grace braced herself for what she might see as she turned to her right and stepped toward the sink to look into the mirror above the sink.
As always, there was no recognition of Grace's own face. She had never been able to identify it as her own, and she had long hoped that it was a more universal feeling than she feared. Freckles, some early wrinkles, a few gray hairs in the tumbling mass of brown, glasses, a fair chin and nose... skin darker on the left side of her face than the right from all her driving in the sun. There was only one thing that stood out. Familiar, unfamiliar eyes, a lupine yellow in color. All the breath in Grace's lungs tumbled out on its own volition. No. There was no way. Why? How? This wasn't possible. "Fuck," a single strangled word formed from the last of her stored breath. This visual was not something that could be believed, thoroughly rejected by the one beholding it. No. No. Bullshit. She knew what was going on, she was probably lying on the floor of the forest in a coma after being struck by lightning. This all had to be imaginary. If it was imaginary, then... Grace made her way back to the living room. Moonsight was now sitting at the other end of the couch with a covered cup of tea on the table in front of her, and Scent of Pine had occupied the adjacent chair. The former glanced at her daughter, then at Grace, having just put two and two together.
"There's no easy way for this to happen. I know. Here," Moonsight announced with a pat on the other side of the couch. "Where are you from?"
The why of the question wasn't something Grace wanted to know. She was distraught, but with her legs growing weaker by the second, she resumed her previous seat. "Boone. Uh... North Carolina."
That's an odd answer. Scent of Pine raised an eyebrow and watched Grace, choosing to let Moonsight continue.
"That's Southeast of here, isn't it?"
"It can be difficult, being far from home like this."
"I don't want to talk about where I'm from," Grace said defensively and a little too quickly. The atmosphere in the room became still. This line of questioning brushed a little too close to what she was trying to hide.
"I understand, Grace. When... when this happens to people, sometimes they worry that they won't be the same. That they'll be a completely different person. It's important to help a person remember that they're still themselves, even if their body is different than it used to be. You're still you. That won't change."
Another wave of regret echoed through Grace's stomach. The evidence was adding up: Moonsight might be trying to help. "You know what this is like?"
"Around 30 years ago, I was surprised with it, too. I was terrified at first, but I can honestly say that it was the best path my life could have taken at the time. It took me some time and moving here to realize that."
Oh no, Moonsight had tried to relate to Grace and she'd shut it down. That hurt. "Oh. ...where are y'all from?"
"Minneapolis, South of here, at the other end of the state."
"It feels like a world apart," Scent of Pine added, "but moving here was good for me, too."
That fucking wording. Do they know? They have to know. "How did you deal with turning into a... a monster?"
Scent of Pine rocketed from her chair. "Whoa!"
Moonsight, equally surprised by Grace and her daughter both, held her paws out to try to calm the situation. "Easy! I don't think - it's clear she's not used to this."
"A monster? After we brought her into our house, she's gonna call us that? Really?"
Grace froze. Shit. Judging by Scent of Pine's reaction, likely justified, 'monster' was not the term to use for people like this. She felt like a monster for having said it, especially out of ignorance. After she'd already been so hesitant with them, too! Her limbs all pulled closer to her body, burning shame and regret overtaking her. As all eyes fell on her, she knew it was time to take responsibility. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. I didn't...! Know werewolves existed! And it's, i-it's not an excuse, not trying to, just, what can I do to fix it. I'm sorry. Please."
One could cut the tension in the air with a cake. Scent of Pine crossed her arms and glared at Grace. She smelled like anger.
"You show your neck," Moonsight whispered.
"You show your neck." Moonsight raised her head up and gestured toward her neck, giving a small nod of her head.
Without further hesitation, Grace did as instructed. The intent of the gesture immediately hit her like a train - it's a gesture of vulnerability. Trust. Opening oneself to judgment of another party. She held her head aloft, even while Moonsight's came back down, eyes locked with Scent of Pine's. The tattooed Rougarou stepped forward with confidence and lowered her head toward Grace's neck, showing her teeth. One would have expected sparks to shower in contest between Scent of Pine's anger and Grace's fear. That ferocity, that confidence, - Grace wouldn't forget it anytime soon. She wasn't about to die, wasn't she? Those fangs could tear her trachea without a second thought. The moment felt like it lasted forever, but over the course of Scent of Pine's observation, the Rougarou raised herself back up and resumed her previous seat. "I accept. The moon shines pale light on our mistakes, Grace."
The tension in the room fell away. What in the big butter jesus fuck just happened? Everything's fine now? Moonsight quietly offered an explanation to soothe Grace's nerves. "When one of us angers another, if the person regrets the offense, they show their neck after an apology. It's a show of conviction, common among lycanthropic shifters. Since you did that, and you meant your apology, you're forgiven as long as you've learned from the experience. I'm sorry you had to learn it this way. You didn't know."
It felt like cold electricity was coursing through Grace's body. This was beyond pins and needles, this was something far more intense than she could handle on top of everything else. She'd fucked up, badly, but at least things could be okay now. Her glasses were removed and held by the arm with a trembling hand. Pain rippled through the heartbeats she can hear in her ears. "I've misjudged this whole thing." Her voice cracked as her eyes well up. "I don't understand what's happening and I'm sorry. Fuck."
Looks were exchanged between Moonsight and Scent of Pine: worry and temporarily reluctant pity, respectively. The former, wishing to respect her daughter's feelings, said nothing. She moved closer to Grace and gently touched her guest's arm to show that she's there. Seeing that Grace didn't object to the comforting gesture, she opened her arms, and the embrace was quickly accepted. All was silent now. Minutes went by in seconds. Warmth and comfort like this was entirely alien; Grace had never felt this way before. What's more, Moonsight could tell. It was abundantly clear that this person wrestled with some trauma of her own. "You need time. We have time before tonight. Do you have somewhere to stay?"
Moonsight exhaled upon hearing this news. Was there really a friend in International Falls? Something might have happened with that friend. The hug hadn't begun to taper off yet, so she had time to think. This village existed for people like Grace. What kind of place, though, could Boone be if not all of its people had heard of lycanthropes, or even the archaic terms that unfavorably described them? Scent of Pine's recent words reverberated through her head. Her mistakes had been cast in the palest light, many years ago, and she wasn't keen to make them again. "Where can we put her?"
Scent of Pine's anger was gradually steaming off. "Feather Fang has an empty bed. They're in town right now, I'll catch them on the way back."
"What a wonderful idea. Here, Grace?"
"Yeah?" A meek answer from over Moonsight's shoulder.
"To answer your question, I dealt with it by settling in. Talking with the others, spending some time on my own and with my daughter. But first, I ate breakfast."
"...is that okay?"
"Yes. Here, sip your tea first. Slowly."
Lacking a better idea and loath to cause more trouble with refusal, Grace parted with Moonsight's embrace. Time alone sounds like a great idea, but where would she go? The city never agreed with her, but given International Falls' small size, it may do for some information gathering. Maybe after breakfast. She had no idea whether she was ready for an undertaking like that or not, but as ever in life, she would never be ready. That's not how life works. For now she sipped her tea and did her best to remain in the moment. The everlong war of a traumatized mind. Lemon ginger... the flavors danced their own circles in Grace's mouth, opposed but synchronized. Tea was never a daily factor for her, but she liked to think she could recognize interesting culinary textures when she happened upon them. Warmth, spice, sweetness and tart, all in one cup. This was the shit. As instructed, she took small sips. She felt undeserving of this consideration and welcome, and she sought to offer an olive branch. "When I was a kid, uh... I had really bad stomach issues from stress. One time it was so bad, everyone thought my appendix had burst. Sipping on lemon ginger tea or caffeine-free Pepsi was how I got it to settle, most often."
Scent of Pine gave Moonsight a look of muted frustration and stood up to excuse herself. "I have rounds. Later." With a sigh, she disappeared from the house without hesitation.
The two remaining Rougarou cast their gazes to the closed front door. A regretful melancholy hung in the air. "She'll be okay," Moonsight said with a sigh. "Really. This is all very important to her; she knows you didn't know.
Grace had never minded upsetting terrible people, but Scent of Pine didn't seem like a terrible person. Instead, burning regret lived in her. "I hope so. I feel fucking awful and like I don't even have room to feel that way." Another silent sip of tea flowed. It helped her stomach, but it didn't extinguish the flame of anticipation. "What happens tonight?"
"Your first shift, under the peak of this month's moon."
"Already?! Oh, please no."
"Easy," assured Moonsight. "While you finish your tea, can you tell me what you're afraid of?"
Grace was afraid of people finding out she wasn't from this world. "Is it gonna hurt?"
"Only if you fight it. If you let it happen, it feels like... hmm. It's hard to describe. After you've had a long, difficult day, and you disrobe for a bath, except you feel it inside and out."
That wasn't what she'd expected to hear. It's too bad she knew she was going to fight it. "And, I'll still be, you know...?"
"Of course. You'll be you, again, that won't change. Some of your instincts may get more urgent, and you'll have more energy than usual as the day goes on, but that's it." Moonsight wondered how she could drive the point home. "You see me, you see my daughter, you see the others. This is who we are. Harmonious, together. You'll feel it, too."
Grace's eyes drifted back into the teacup. She finished her last sip, and feeling like she'd had enough conversation for now, set it upon its plate and stood up. It was time for breakfast. Moonsight was on the same page. A light, chilling breeze wafted through the village outside when the door was opened once again. The nearby table was adorned with decorations of pine make, leaves and branches, even small ornamental woodcarvings. In spite of the elements, it set quite a welcome stage for a communal gathering. Rougarou in all shapes, sizes and colors were amid food, drink and conversation, helping themselves to the contents of various containers in a harmonic dance of enjoyment. It all seemed to move in slow motion as Grace approached, followed by Moonsight. It was immediately apparent that all the food she could see was made of plants, and the various scents confirmed this, easily discernible in contrast with the cool air. Before she knew it, she had gathered some food and taken a place beside the elder Rougarou. Bread a bowl of something Moonsight called 'cassoulet' - a hearty vegetable stew - would be Grace's breakfast today, alongside a glass of water. The adjacent fire had kept all the food nice and warm. The atmosphere, the warm food and the balmy fire managed to keep the cold at bay in the face of the cloudy October morning. At least, one would assume it's still October.
Moonsight paid occasional glances to watch the new arrival to the village eat. She tried not to make herself too obvious, but she couldn't help feeling intrigued. Her own meal was much lighter; a smaller bowl of cassoulet and some tea was her breakfast. Grace had outpaced her as if she hadn't eaten in days, and as the stranger sat down, Moonsight shared a smile of approval. This is the first step to self-acceptance. The two ate their meal in silence. Two people amid a sea of many, spirits rose and warmed to the light of a new day. Emotions poured out of Grace whether she knew it or not; tangles of tension, heights of hope, weights of worry, and Moonsight could feel every bit of it. This was someone very much confused by life's twists and turns. She had been there hereself, some time ago, and closed her eyes for a moment of luminous remembrance. Decades of life rushed back over the course of mere moments. Each one was appreciated for what it was.
"This is good. I didn't realize how hungry I was."
"Hearth Hand is a great cook. He's sitting two seats over if you want to meet him."
Oh no, a normal social situation with a stranger. Shivers ran up Grace's spine. A sense of gratitude overcame her rampant anxiety, however, and she turned to address this reportedly talented cook with all the courage she could muster. "Excuse me, uh, this is really good. Thank you for making it for everyone."
"Hey, happy to. Welcome to Ranier." Hearth Hand returned to his breakfast without another word, not out of hostility, but out of preparation for the day.
The anxiety increased. Was Hearth Hand upset? Grace couldn't help but feel that she'd done something wrong, and she wanted to flee that feeling. If she ran for long enough, could she outrun this supposed lycanthropy? The image of her changed eyes flashed through her mind and made her stomach drop again. She moved to speak, but Moonsight spoke up at the same time.
"About your question," Moonsight began, "oh, I'm sorry, you go ahead."
"Nah I was - that's, I was gonna ask that."
A smile bloomed over the elder's face. "I'm relieved that we're reaching the same page. To adjust to my change, I spent time alone, meditating and taking stock of how different my body had become. My body temperature, my senses, my relationship with myself, it all changed. I adjusted to my change by confronting my fear and realizing that I was capable of making things work."
Grace could tell when someone was speaking with the weight of experience. Her own fears were all but dulled, but even she could see that Moonsight had found peace with with her situation. "I'll try that. Thank you," she responded quietly.
"Of course. I have a question for you, but you don't have to answer it."
"Uh, sure." Grace braced for impact.
"I notice that you're afraid to interact with people. You're stressed, and anyone would be, but it seems like more than that. Is there anything the village could do to accommodate you?"
This was proof to Grace that she had indeed misread this entire situation. Horrible surges of guilt rocked her existence in this moment; an honest answer would do Moonsight's gesture of empathy well. "Don't hurt me," meek words whispered.
One would get the impression that Moonsight's calm wasn't easily upset, but her words and dismayed expression displayed inner tumult that serenity had previously masked. "To fear love, but not a monster... what horrors have you known?"
"The same as anyone has, I guess. Life is like that."
"Life is a lot of things. Change is inevitable. After tonight, you'll always know it, and soon you won't have that fear anymore." A sigh, closed eyes, and letting go: the elder's peace was restored. "Everything is going to be okay."