The treeline broke along the path ahead. Grace sighed with relief; she had walked much further today than she had in a long time, and the day was scarcely half over. A natural hot spring had been mentioned to her during breakfast conversation, and one of the villagers had encouraged her to look into it. Moonsight had concluded breakfast by saying she had some tonics to make. It must have been part of her Great Mother duties, or something. In the meantime, Scent of Pine, who had gotten bored of waiting on Feather Fang, volunteered to watch over Grace for the time being. The Ranger's presence made Grace feel uneasy. That awkward exchange from earlier combined with the utter silence in which Scent of Pine moved through the forest had erected new walls. Guilt over the etymological mistake hadn't eased with time, at least not yet. A whisper from behind broke the silence. "This is an important cultural ritual for Ranier. We bathe together after every meal; it's nice when it's cold like this."
A towel slung over Grace's forearm helps her move through the odd brush that encroached along either side of the path. Oh no. Communal bathing: a terrifying ordeal that only the most dastardly of bastards could have conceived. Okay, may not inherently, but Grace certainly didn't enjoy the idea. As she reached the end of the path and took in the sight of a large, open pond of crystal-clear water within a clearing of trees, she felt her tensions ease. Gentle grasses that gave way to a silted shore, the pit of water with steam that rose into the air to catch a rainbow in the scattered sunlight... such an elegantly simple feature of Earth. Grace took a moment to breathe as Scent of Pine stepped beside her. The empty pool of water seemed inviting and comfortable, and she could feel the warmth from here. "I can see why." She hefted her heavy towel to indicate it. "This'll help with the cold."
"Good. I've already had my midday bath, so I'll wait over here." Scent of Pine took a seat at the base of a nearby tree. The chisel and piece of wood she had been carrying were taken into respective hands. Whittling commenced on an object unknown.
Guilt. "I can't, um."
Scent of Pine merely stared at Grace until words happened.
"I need privacy," Grace managed to choke up. "Please. Sorry. Just, it's-"
"Sure." Scent of Pine was already on her feet. She looked at Grace with what might have been concern for a few moments. "I'll wait along the path. Shout if you need me."
"Yeah," Grace gasped. Guilt. "Thank you." Then she was alone. The humidity and the warmth in the air suddenly make themselves known to Grace with all the weight of her own dread. Was it wrong for her to ask that question? Was it rude, or harmful in some way? She felt like she could cry. She didn't know what she was doing, this wasn't a situation any person should ever be in! This was her best, her most earnest effort in coping that she could muster. The worst part was that she didn't really want to be alone, she felt that she had to be in order to be safe. Nudity was a state of utmost vulnerability, and vulnerability had been violated one too many times before by one too many people. Nobody could be trusted with it, especially an entirely new world of entirely different people that Grace didn't understand yet. Werewolves... werewolves. This couldn't be real. Once again she visited the idea that this was all a hallucination from her own death throes, but she certainly felt alive. She felt too alive, if anything. Speaking of being alive, wasn't there something she should be doing? Right. Bathing. A day spent on the road and inside a tent, and being struck by lightning likely meant it was time.
Slipping into the warmth of the water elicited an involuntary sigh from Grace. No one was around; this was safe. It's okay. It's okay. It's okay. Please believe that it's okay. Just bathe; these people wouldn't care about bodies or gender identity. If she really was a werewolf now, she would be able to fight anyone off easily if she had to. Was this legal in this place? It wasn't legal where she came from. What if cops showed up right now. What if they or some objectionable religious zealots came after her to try to kill her for simply trying to exist. They would have the high ground, but the water would present a natural barrier. Grace's muscles tensed, and she made a fearful sound that she didn't hear. She was ready for anything, from any direction, and she had a plan. Nobody liked to fight a naked person, she knew that from reading Florida Man articles. Their uniforms or gear or fur or whatever would weigh them down substantially, and their boots would fill with water, thus presenting another tactical advantage for escape or resistance. It would be easy to trip them into the water to increase this affect and make a break for it. Hopefully the village would then help, but what if they didn't? What if tripping unwanted guests into the spring was punishable by death? It would be hard to fight off an entire village of werewolves. She would probably be eaten alive, or beheaded, or some other wicked punishment. That's what people would do, the second they got the chance and felt a compelling enough reason to do so, however unreasonable.
Unreasonable...? "Ugh." Fucking broken piece of shit brain. Grace had let it spiral again. She forcefully splashed water into her face and scrubbed it with as much force as she could. Why was she like this? She didn't actually believe that any of this would happen, or even that it was likely. Possible, maybe, but certainly extremely unlikely, given that she was invited here. Why was she like this? As if it were a mystery; as a child, any moment she had could have been interrupted by unexpected violence, verbal or otherwise. One of her material donors' rages at the drop of a hat, followed by a screaming match between each other. Hiding under the bed or under a pile of clothes in her closet had been her only sanctuary. She learned at a young age to prop a folding chair under the doorknob of her door. Her egg donor busted the door in, splitting the wood of the frame and tearing the carpet with the legs of the chair, and then screamed at her as she cowered under the bed. It was her fault. It was always her fault. She tried to call her neighbor once to see if he wanted to play Super Smash Brothers together. That ended in a cop threatening her after she'd accidentally dialed the local police station, so she hung up the phone. An hour later, a gigantic, scary man saying he was there to make an arrest for 'prank calling' 911. Grace had hidden under the table. After the cop was gone, she was beaten for her mistake. All of this had started very early. It was always her fault. It was always her fault. Too many instances, myriad but similar, had stained her early life with the scents of blood and terror. Surviving was an ever-present concern from day one. Grace felt as awful as she usually did, terrified and alone, yet unable to change things or reach out to anyone.
Grace responded with a reflexive yelp as her head whipped toward the source of the sound, then immediately away. It was Scent of Pine.
The tattooed Rougarou's ears pinned back, and her eyes went wide with concerned surprise. What was going on here? That's a lot of scars. "You've, been here for an hour. Your hair's not even wet. Are you okay?"
"Fine," Grace lied with utmost haste. "Yeah."
"...well, can you finish up here soon? A couple of people are waiting."
"Okay, thanks." Something was clearly wrong here, and Grace was clearly lying, but Scent of Pine knew now wasn't the time to investigate. She made her way to the path and disappeared into the woods once more. Faint, indistinct conversation could be heard. Grace could have sworn she'd heard the words, "she needs a minute."
The chronic embarrassment had fucked everything up again. The worst person in the world. It just figured, didn't it? Grace angrily completed her washing, the anger not directed toward Scent of Pine, but toward herself. Thankfully the air around the spring was nearly as warm as the water, so getting out of the water wasn't a shock. If anything, it was pleasant. Upon redressing herself, Grace found that it was her clothes that had more urgently needed to be washed. They didn't smell bad, but they smelled like her. It wasn't a bad thing to her; it's comforting in a way she didn't understand, especially with her newly enhanced sense of smell. Still, to others, that probably equated to bad. She resolved to ask someone at the village how they would address the situation. With a final look over the spring and a mental promise of less dour an experience next time, Grace made her way down the trail. Scent of Pine was close by, conversing with a handful of fellow Rougarou about a place called Ericsburg. Something sounded uncertain, but there was no way Grace was going to nose her way into that subject. Instead, her cheeks burned deeply red as she passed an apologetic look to the strangers. One of them, the big brown werewolf, was one that Grace had seen at the campsite.
"Don't worry about it," he said quietly as he moved ahead with the others.
Scent of Pine had made substantial progress with her whittling. It looked like something, but what that something was was anyone's guess. She clutched the budding creation in her paw and crossed her arms. Anger wasn't the word for what she was feeling; it was more like patient frustration. "You lied to me before. Why?"
It looked like there was no escaping this. Just be honest; Grace felt she owed Scent of Pine that much, if not more. "People aren't supposed to see that."
Ease crept into Scent of Pine's posture. "I understand. ...do you feel better after your bath?"
"Cleaner, but like I weigh a million pounds."
Did the Rougarou not use Imperial measurements? "Uh... I don't know how many... stone? Kilograms? That is?"
"Grace, you've been welcomed into the village. You're safe here, no one's going to hurt you. There's something odd about you and it's, I'm concerned."
Shit. Grace tried to speak, but she couldn't make a sound. She felt cornered despite the obviously genuine worry in Scent of Pine's eyes.
"Look, I'm not trying to force you, but, is- what's going on? Are you trying to get away from someone?"
Shit on a shingle. There was no getting out of this. Grace weighed her options: continue to spook people and face questions anyway, or rip the band-aid off, hair and all? At this point, in the throes of emotional upset, the upheaval of her life and every ounce of familiarity she had ever fought for being torn out from under her, she was ready to burst. "I'm not from here!"
The air in the forest was silent as the words sank in. "I know. Your accent, the word you used for yourself before, naming a state that doesn't exist, not knowing lycanthropes existed, and units of measurement that haven't been used in hundreds of years? Yeah, you're clearly not from around here."
"No, I mean, yes, but. I." Grace closed her eyes as tightly as she could. "I think I'm from another dimension or something, I don't know."
Scent of Pine's mouth slowly fell open. Nonplussed, she watched Grace's tension peak, then ebb, and how she stared at the ground once her eyes opened again. "...you're from another dimension?"
"I'm from another something. Dimension, reality, I wake up and there's fuckin' mythical creatures telling me to gather my shit, then there's a village when Ranier is a town. That spring? It was a parking lot where I parked my car. 1979 Ford LTD. You haven't seen an old car anywhere, have you?"
A car from 1979? Around here? Not a chance. What's a Ford? Scent of Pine's brow furrowed in disbelief as she looked into the forest beyond Grace. "No, I haven't. And I'm sure there's not one in the bottom of the spring, either. Werewolves aren't mythical, by the way, that's more unicorns, which also exist."
Unicorns. ...fucking unicorns? What? "So you believe me?"
"I don't know, Grace. I don't know."
"Why would I lie! Who says that? 'Hi I'm from another dimension nice to meet you. By the way I brought a towel just like Mos Def said to.' I sound nuts, I know, but I don't know what else to call it."
"Can you please take a breath? Moon light my way."
Grace closed her eyes again and took a deep breath with absolutely zero chill. The following breaths came at a slower pace. She was stressed, Scent of Pine was stressed, and she was trying to make the stress go away as quickly as possible. "It's a lot and I don't know how to deal with it."
"Can you...? Do you have proof, maybe?"
"Yeah, I... god dammit." Grace held up her phone, making it clear to Scent of Pine that she was trying to turn it on. "The lightning fucked it."
That is a rather odd style of... phone? There could be pictures on it. "Feather Fang might be able to fix it, you'll see them when they get back from town."
"Wait, you said North Carolina doesn't exist?" A North Carolina driver's license was dug out of Grace's coin purse and presented to Scent of Pine. "Check that. Don't even try to tell me it's fake."
"That's the thing they use to show that it's real. All the new ones have it, ever since that Real ID shit kicked off. Didn't even comp me a new one."
"It says your eyes are brown."
"They are! I mean, they were. Apparently. Are my eyes gonna look like this forever?"
"Yes, that's usually what happens to lycanthropes."
It's a good thing yellow eyes are cool, at least. Grace took her license back and placed it back into her pocket. "I'm not trying to fuck with you. I'm scared, and I'm, really scared, and I don't know where I am."
What would mom do? Scent of Pine gently rested a paw over Grace's upper arm. "You're in the Rougarou village of Ranier, which is in Minnesota, in the United States."
"Existentially, I mean. Am I still on Earth? Am I on some different Earth? Is this a glitch in the matrix, or am I in a coma? Did I get fried by lightning and this is a DMT hallucination or some weird afterlife where people are werewolves and unicorns and bears, oh my?"
Scent of Pine pinched the bridge of her muzzle. This was getting nowhere quickly. It was obvious by Grace's unbridled veracity that she believed this was the truth, but is it? If this were the truth, the anyone would feel the same way in her situation. Talking wasn't likely to provide proof, and Grace had insisted on her device having proof on it, so that seemed like the most effective avenue here. "Well, you're definitely not dead, and you're not hallucinating. I can tell you're not lying, but..."
"You think there's proof on your device?"
"There could be. Uh, do you happen to know the population of International Falls here?"
"I think the sign says 24,000."
Grace's eyes lit up. She pointed at Scent of Pine and eagerly nodded her head. "Bullshit. The sign says 6,700-something, but it's actually more like 5,800."
"...how do you remember that?"
"I like geography."
To Scent of Pine, that was easily the most directly truthful thing Grace had said since they'd met. "Come on. Let's go wait for Feather Fang, okay?"
If that was how it had to be, fine. Grace could bide her time; Scent of Pine will see that this isn't some fabricated story. "Okay. Just, thank you for hearing me, okay? I know it's bonkers, but it's the truth. I don't know what happened to me."
"Yeah. Thank you for trusting me. I know it's hard."
The walk back to the village was arduous, not because of physical activity, but the uncertainty both Rougarou were feeling. This wasn't helped by the fact that Grace hadn't done much walking in a while, and her muscles were atrophied; she felt like she was going to plant her face in the grass if she had to take another step. So much for keeping a secret. She had blabbed at the first press and spewed her molten wildity all over Scent of Pine. The upset they'd established between each other in the morning was long gone by now, replaced by a tense bond of a shared secret. Neither of them knew where it would lead, or how real Grace's interpretation of events really was. Upon reaching the house she would be sharing with Feather Fang, Grace made a beeline for the couch and carefully collapsed into it. Scent of Pine, meanwhile, took her time to inspect the myriad decorations on the wall of the living room. Nary a space above waist height was spared: paper crafts fashioned into floral shapes, photographs with glittered borders, calligraphy that detailed various inspirational sayings, and more. It was a very lightened space, full of bright colors and relentless inspiration. The couch and its decorations were adorned with a very soft fabric and ample padding. It might have been the most comfortable seat Grace had taken in her life. More so than the feel of the room, it smelled of natural wood, woodsmoke and the gentlest of perfumes. Feeling upset or even stressed in this room was a challenge. It wasn't something Grace was at all accustomed to. "What are they like?"
Scent of Pine took a moment to think of her answer. "A force of nature, and very smart. It's hard to put them into words."
Was that supposed to be ominous? That sounded kind of ominous. "Oh."
"Don't worry. If you don't feel comfortable, we can find somewhere else to put you."
"No, it's great. I don't want to stand up for at least a week."
"Are you okay?"
"I haven't gotten exercise like this in a while. Everything hurts." Feet, knees, back, and of course, head. The aromatherapy was helping.
"Well, stay there then. They won't mind."
Grace didn't need to be told twice; she couldn't move if she wanted to. Silence resumed its place in the room, and Grace's mind began to wander once more. Tracing the developments of the day provided such a surreal feeling. She woke up after being struck by lightning while camping, werewolves surrounded her and acted all upset but were possibly actually friendly. She was then interviewed to find out if she was trouble, welcomed to the village for not being troublesome, and treated to breakfast and a place to stay. Then everything went to shit: scary werewolf Ranger lady caught her having a PTSD moment and she blew her secret immediately. On top of all that, tonight she's apparently going to have to watch her body change into something alien and impossible without having any ability to stop it. That was great, that was perfect, it was exactly what Grace wanted to happen to her. 10/10, more than enough water. She had yet to be convinced that this wasn't some odd dream or near-death experience. It was an unbearable thought no matter how she sliced it, and she sought reassurance, even from scary werewolf Ranger lady. "I'm worried about tonight," she said quietly.
The other Rougarou opened her mouth to try to reassure Grace, but she was interrupted by the front door abruptly. A surprised-looking Rougarou with luscious all-white fur steps into the house carrying a few cloth shopping bags of various colors. Their outfit of bright green jeans and a pink button-up shirt was accentuated by a moderate brown belt and what look to be brown sandals with some kind of canvas-like material draped in a quadrasphere shape over their digits. All in all, they had quite a fashionable air to them. "Hi there! Where's the party?" They asked with a jovial tone as they closed the door behind them and set their bags down. "Hello new person."
"We picked up a loner," Scent of Pine explained. "This is Grace. She's a little jumpy. We need your help with a few things."
Jumpy? Grace questioned whether she's jumpy or not, but considering the situation, Scent of Pine was probably right. The contrast between introversion and extroversion in this room was almost comical. "Hi Feather Fang, it's nice to meet you."
"You too, Grace!" The cheer in Feather Fang's voice was unlikely to be dissuaded by anything. "What do you two need?"
"First, can Grace stay here? Mom suggested it, since you're new and had a spare b-"
"Sure, I'm okay with that."
Grace had to prevent herself from heaving a sigh of relief. She has somewhere to stay now. That was a huge step up, and she knew it only too well.
"Good, thank you. Could you fix her phone?" Scent of Pine gestured to Grace.
"I can try, what's wrong with it?"
"It might have been struck by lightning. And rained on. It seems okay, but it's acting like the battery's dead and it's..." No, no, don't blab the big secret to a second person today. For all Grace knew, Feather Fang might notice how unfamiliar the device is in comparison to the technology of this world. Grace offers the phone to the stranger sans case. "It won't turn on. D-don't, worry if you can't get it to work or anything. It'd just be nice if it did."
"I can take a look right now. Scooch over." Once Grace had made room, the resident of the house plopped down onto their couch and retrieved a tool kit from beyond the far arm that Grace hadn't noticed upon entering. The kit is unzipped to display various small tools, presumably for working on electronics. It only took Feather Fang a few moments to remove the battery cover and the battery to look them over. They couldn't help but chuckle in disbelief. "Lithium ion? ...oh, I get it. You favor older technology for the style of it."
Grace had actually continued to use the five year-old phone out of financial necessity. "You got me," she offered, thinking of her 40 year-old car that rested in a parking lot an entire dimension away. She already missed it.
"Hey, as long as it's properly disposed of when you're done with it, I won't judge. ...I've never heard of this brand, Samsung?" Stunned silence greeted Feather Fang's question as they continued to study the phone. "It doesn't look water damaged, and the battery isn't swollen or burst. Has it been dry all day?"
"Yeah, just in my pocket. If it's not that, what do you think is wrong with it?"
"I think the battery's dead. There is a problem? This weird connector at the bottom is the only way to charge it that I can see... so we'll have to get creative!" Feather Fang sounded like they enjoyed getting creative. They procured a spare power bank with a small solar panel on top alongside some wires. The wires were attached to their respective terminals within the phone's USB port on one end, and the power bank on the other end. The phone's screen lit up! To test the device, it's reassembled with its battery, and to everyone's relief, it begins to charge. "Now we just need time, and it should start right up."
This sigh was one that Grace couldn't hold back. "Thank you so much. Oh that's a relief."
"Anytime! I thought it wasn't so important."
"It's just really, really nice for it to work." If all went well, proof of Grace's assertion would be available in the palm of her hand within a few hours. During those few hours, Scent of Pine had awkwardly set up shop in one of the spare seats of the den to let Grace and Feather Fang sort their new rooming situation. Neither of them seemed to notice, being engrossed with each other's presence as well as the logistics at hand. Grace found that she enjoyed Feather Fang's company despite of their apparently boundless energy and bubbliness, as well as their willingness to share their home with a stranger in need. The arrangements were concluded: Grace would sleep in the spare bed, and chores would be shared 50/50 as they needed to be done. There was a mutual lack in interest of changing the decor of the space, as all the fluffy pillows and stuffed animals were surprisingly to Grace's liking. "Is there anything left to figure out?"
"No, I think that's - oh, I like having my grooming supplies on the right side of the sink and cabinet, since it's easier for me to reach. Is that okay?"
"Yeah, totally, like I said, I'll adjust to your needs."
"Nonsense, we both live here, we're in this together."
Feather Fang is quickly proving to be a very sweet person. "Well fair enough." Hang on a minute. "Wait, am I gonna need grooming supplies? Beyond like, a comb, shampoo, lotion, basics?"
"Yeah, probabl- oh! You're new! Ooohhh. Of course, that's why you're here. Yes, you can find those in town. When your fur comes in the first few times, you'll want to brush it to keep it from knotting. And in the summer months you are going to shed all day long. It's a good thing you got here when you did, or there would be fluff bunnies everywhere!"
Fluff bunnies? That's adorable, save for their origin. Grace brought her hands to her forehead to brace herself. It feels warm. "I'm just glad Fall's my favorite season." She looked over to her phone to see that it's 42% charged - that's probably good enough. "Mind if I test the uh?"
Feather Fang passed the phone over to Grace, who immediately began turning it on. Scent of Pine looked up from her whittling to notice a small pile of wood shavings in her lap. The time really flew by. "It's working?" Her attention was zeroed in on the device.
"Looks like it. Password, photos... oh it's all still here. Thank fuck. Okay, lemme, there. There!" Grace held the phone out for Scent of Pine to see. "The population, brown eyes, and the date this was taken. Note that it hasn't been edited."
This was a tense moment. Scent of Pine sat forward with one paw preventing the wood shavings from spilling onto the floor. She studied the picture closely. It featured Grace standing awkwardly next to a sign, taken as a selfie. The color of the marker sign was different: green instead of blue. "Population 6,703. International Falls. What...?" The trees are of the same variety she'd seen around the city before, and Grace's eyes were indeed brown. The oddest thing might be the clear sky behind the sign. It was just as heavily clouded yesterday as it was today. "October 12, 2019."
"Doesn't International Falls have, like, way more people than that?" Feather Fang leaned over to try get a look at the phone.
The tattooed Rougarou stared forward, even as Grace set her phone face-down in her lap. Was that photo real? Was it really real? This could all be a strange game meant to get one of Blackhackles' people close to herself and Moonsight, an act of sabotage or interference. He was a rough individual, sure, but he wasn't lacking in planning. A stranger from another world is certainly a far-fetched idea, and Scent of Pine was reluctant to believe something so outlandish and fantastic, but it's clear that Grace believed this with all her heart. Inner conflict arose as one last check was conceptualized. "Hey, Grace, what moon is tonight?"
Grace's face scrunched up with light indignation. "What? I don't keep track of that, there could be two here for all I know." Oops. She immediately began to pale. "Oh."
Scent of Pine was speechless. The two stared at each other with identical disconcerted gazes. This couldn't be possible, but life always had a way of taking twists and turns that she didn't understand.
"What's going on?"
"I might as well take an ad out in the paper. Or tape my mouth shut, one. Fuck. I'm not from here. Like, I'm not from this world. This dimension or something."
The shifted Rougarou in the room exchange glances. Seeing someone like Scent of Pine so hollowed was enough to concern Feather Fang. A concensus must have been reached. "Give me... just a second," they stated. A second phone is retrieved from Feather Fang's pocket and given a pair of light taps with their claw, then a flurry of taps with both of their thumb pads. Their brow furrowed as they set their phone down. "Samsung doesn't exist. It doesn't look like it ever did."
"Is this dangerous for people to know? Am I gonna get... torched and pitchforked and shit?"
"No, what? No," Feather Fang ensured. "Why would anyone do that?"
"You assume I have a baseline, I barely understand people where I come from, let alone here."
"I have to tell mom and Great Teeth."
"No, Grace, she's right."
Grace's stomach sank. All it would take was one instance of hostile resistance and she'd be ripped apart as quickly as she was given a bed. "I don't..."
"Is it that you don't want anyone to know?" Feather Fang's tone lowered for the first time, as gently as they could likely speak.
"I don't want anyone to take exception and attack me or something."
It was now time for Scent of Pine to feel incredulous. "Who would do that? Why would anyone have a problem with you?"
Grace was stunned. She didn't have an answer outside of silence. A light roll of thunder sounded over the distant forests.
"I didn't mean to... that sounded harsher than I meant it. I'm sorry. I'm going to go tell them unless either of you have a reason that I shouldn't." There were no better reasons. The room was silent. Scent of Pine left her chair and carried her wood shavings to a wastebasket by the door. "I give you my word as a Ranger that no one's going to hurt you, okay? This will let the organizers of the village understand you better so they can help. Stay here and try to relax." With that, she was out, the door gently closing behind her.
That was exactly what Grace was afraid of: a false promise of safety, and being understood. Either of those could provide an opening for a bad actor to do easy harm in this vulnerable state. She didn't have to look at Feather Fang to know they were worried about her. "I am so sorry," her ashen tone professed. That kind werewolf hadn't asked for any of this today.
Feather Fang shook their head. They hardly knew what to say. When in doubt, blurt it out. "None of this is your fault. If it was, you wouldn't be here right now, you'd be trying to undo whatever you did to get here, right?" Resumed eye contact with Grace confirmed this idea. "Can I see the picture, please?"
Grace wished she could turn invisible and never be seen again. The phone's screen lit once more as it was passed over.
After several moments of silence, Feather Fang spoke again. "Brown eyes. It was cloudy all day yesterday, but it was clear for you." They gently set the phone down on the coffee table. "What would help you feel better right now?"
"...an invisibility cloak."
"I don't think I have one of those," Feather Fang said with as much of a smile as they could muster. "Are you feeling warm?"
"It's boiling in here."
Feather Fang reached down to something under the table with their foot... paw? Standy thing. A faint sound of sliding metal can be heard, like something had closed underneath the house. They then stood and approached the front of the house to crack a window open. Cold air gently flowed into the house, carrying with it the faint scents of earth, campfire and food. "Your lycanthropy is settling in. You'll start sweating soon, and you'll feel sick until your first shift. It's uncomfortable, but it'll only last for a few hours."
Gratitude washed over Grace along with the aliferous mercy of cold air. "You're the best. Ugh. I hate that I just, showed up here and there's all this to-do and attention. I don't want attention or anyone to bother over me, it feels like... I haven't earned it." Feather Fang was an easy person to open up to. Perhaps it's also that the stress of the situation had finally boiled over Grace's threshold, or the helplessness having sunk deep into her bones, or even the rightness of Scent of Pine's choice.
A picture is shown to Grace from the screen of Feather Fang's phone. The dark-skinned, white-haired young person with clothes of a familiar style grinned at the viewer from the image. They appeared to be presenting a complicated-looking circuit board. "Contracting lycanthropy turns your whole life upside-down. Everyone here will understand that feeling; and that's why Ranier was founded. Hundreds of years ago, Rougarou wanted a fresh start. They traded and worked for it together, and the Ojibwe people arranged a small plot of land for them in return. The Rougarou have a long history of accepting new lycanthropes and helping them adjust; it's just your turn to adjust now."
Grace had once again misunderstood the situation. Looking back, this all checked out. Everyone had been welcoming after discerning she wasn't a threat, but she wasn't worried about vetting anyone else right now. She felt that life was telling her to shut up and take a chill pill, to let others help her where few had done so before. It was an unfamiliar feeling. "So I couldn't have landed anywhere better, is what you're saying."
Feather Fang slowly sprouted a toothy smile. "I might be biased, but no, I doubt it."
"Would you welcome a hug?"
"Yeah, I'd like that." Without hesitation, Feather Fang wrapped their arms around Grace, and the two shared a reassuring hug. The room settled back into silence marked by two new friends embracing each other. It felt strange for Grace to experience endless fluff pressing against her cheek, but she quickly adjusted. Wow, fluffy people are so cool; she'll be a fluffy person soon, too. Her hugging game was about to reach untold levels of comfort. Two pats on her back brought further ease, and Feather Fang sat back to give their new friend some breathing room. "Better?"
"Much better. Thank you. What was um, that thing you were holding in that picture?"
"Oh, a prototype for a computer that regulates how the village's solar power is distributed among the houses. It was really fun to build!"
Grace managed a smile. Not just anyone could build something like that; she was impressed. Her sentimental moment with a newfound friend was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was time to face the music.