Hold and Presage
Chapter 5: Spine

By Ashes-Onik

Feather Fang hesitated to answer the door. They turned to appraise Grace's condition, noting the dread on the woman's face. They were right; beads of sweat were starting to form on her cheeks and forehead. Memories of their own transformation and its prelude flashed through their mind. Hours spent in darkness, their bedroom tossed in a panic, the fear they'd felt in the face of their mattress placed against the window to block all the glow of the moon. Feather Fang had spent as long as they could avoiding it, but eventually they had to give in to make the pain stop. The experience was anything unlike they'd ever felt, and like anyone, they fought it tooth and claw. Grace would likely do the same; the scent of her sweat was gut-wrenching in its familiarity. The moment passed in slow motion even as Feather Fang finally spoke. "You can trust them. Promise."

There was nothing for it. Grace was backed against the wall as she had been several times in her life. Come what may. Even so, she wished she had a time machine so she could fast-forward through the coming encounter so she could be sure of how it would end. Trust was a hard sell, and Grace was a shrewd negotiator when she had to be, but this wasn't a pawn shop. Fixed prices and taxes appeared to be the name of this game, a toll taken by a mysterious ferryman that had shepherded her here. It was time. The door was given a long look as Feather Fang rose to answer it. Scent of Pine, Great Teeth, and Moonsight entered the den and took their respective places. Great Teeth and Moonsight sat down in the spare chairs, Feather Fang resumed their spot on the couch, and Scent of Pine stood behind her mother with her arms crossed in worry. "Hey there Feather Fang. Thank you for housing our newest addition here," began Great Teeth.

"Happily! The village did the same for me, and we're already making friends."

"That's great news. You love to see it." Great Teeth looked like he'd stepped outside of his comfort zone with this situation, but he wasn't daunted. "I understand there's a picture? Could you show us, Grace?"

Grace unlocked her phone and gently slid it across the table. "Note the timestamp."

A look of grave concern was etched into Moonsight's face. Her paw rested over her stomach as she watched Grace's every moment. She reluctantly joined Great Teeth in examining the subject of the hour: the photo of Grace's selfie in front of the International Falls marker sign, one of several such pictures that she'd taken along her route. "Your eyes..."

A hint of pain and regret moved through Grace's chest every time someone verbalized the observation. She noticed that Moonsight had brought her paw to cover her mouth. Her eyes were wet.

"We don't want to make this hard on you, Grace," Great Teeth said as he reclined in his chair, having already had enough of the obviously painful picture. "The reason we're here is so that we can all understand each other. This situation is... well, it's very new."

"Yeah, it is. What does this mean, for me? For here?"

No one in the room jumped to answer the question. Each person felt this to be understandable of the other. The silence was nauseating. Great Teeth offered to break the silence for everyone's sake. "That's beyond us, I'm afraid. As for you staying here and being part of the village? Nothing's changed, you're still welcome to stay."

"Thank you. I..."

"What's wrong?"

"How have I earned this?"

Feather Fang shifted their weight. "I explained Ranier to her; she needs time to see it."

"You don't have to earn anything," Moonsight quietly insisted, her voice steady. "You should never have had to."

That was certainly news to Grace, who regarded her past with nothing short of bitterness in this matter. She hadn't been good enough for her parents, for her work, for strangers, even for her friends at times. Learning to trust people was still a new lesson for her. Her mouth opened to speak, but nothing came out, so she stayed silent. Speaking against these people's welcome was the wrong move in all cases; Grace didn't feel she needed emotional validation that badly. They care, even if she didn't understand why yet. Empathizing with others was always enough for her, but her experiences had taught her that others rarely felt the same way. It was the cold, unfortunate way of the world, and with most people. She wasn't often confronted with exceptions to this, but she was nearly always grateful when it happened. This particular matter was her white whale, however; she was used to having to go far out of her way to prove that she was worthwhile. She didn't know how to do things any other way.

Great Teeth surveyed the room to gather what he could of his peers' opinions on the matter. "I don't see any reason not to trust Grace, but for the sake of asking, is anyone unsure?"

"I don't know what to think," Scent of Pine murmured, "but I believe that she believes what she's saying. The picture is strong evidence, but is it conclusive?"

Grace felt very small in this moment.

"I didn't mean to make you feel bad. This doesn't feel like something we should leave with room for error, that's all."

"No, I get it. I do. If I was from here and someone told me they came from another dimension, I'd be just a little skeptical, too."

Moonsight ached for Grace in this moment. The emotion in the air was thick. "I have a solution," she began. "I've developed the ability to use telepathy. All I would need to do is touch your p-, excuse me, hand, while you focused on your memories of coming here. I could then share them with the others."

Grace's brow furrowed in thought. Telepathy? Really? What is this, a Pokémon game? Moonsight's face painted a very sincere picture - she looked like she was in great pain in offering this. That was the last thing Grace wanted to accomplish, especially to someone that had been kind to her. She felt ashamed of making light of the idea. "I... I think the picture and the word are enough. I know what happened and it was hard enough to tell y'all about it to begin with. The truth is the truth, nothing I say or don't say's gonna change it." Another distant bout of thunder passed over the village.

"Oh... I understand." Moonsight withdrew her paw and sat back in her chair, looking to the others.

Feather Fang clapped their paws against their legs. "That's good enough for me."

"Me, too. I respect your choice, Grace."

Great Teeth took a breath and looked over to Scent of Pine. "I think I'm coming around."

"I want to believe it. I believe her, but I don't know if I believe the situation. It's just so..."

Grace wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. "Fucked?"

Scent of Pine blinked. "I... that's one word for it."

"She's burning up." Feather Fang ducked into the kitchen to scoop some ice into a paper bag, which was hastily brought to Grace's forehead.

"Owwww." The initial surge of cold against hot skin swept through Grace, and she thought it would give her an instant headache. Thankfully that drop was left out of the ocean for the time being. "I don't feel good," she whined, the feeling of vulnerability returning to her. There was too much attention on her, and she hated it.

Scent of Pine passed Grace an apologetic look. "Let's give them some space. ...that includes you, mom."

Moonsight was the last to stand. "Please reach out if either of you need anything," she pleaded. "I'll see you tonight Grace. Remember, don't fight it, and it won't hurt. You'll feel better by moonrise."

"Rest easy. You're part of this village." Great Teeth followed the others out of the room, which left Feather Fang's residence quiet once more. One could hear a pin drop, and probably its echoes, with the advanced sense of hearing the occupants possessed. A faint creak was heard as the wind outside began to pick up. Grace shivered, the thunder returning memories to her that she didn't care to remember; now was the worst time to revisit what had happened to her last night. Her attention was mercifully refocused by Feather Fang tapped their desk three times to reveal a screen that folded out of the table. It was activated, already set to the local weather.

"...and with pockets of low pressure moving Southwest, we might count on light rain in the area tonight. Our estimates are two inches in Minneapolis, one inch in Duluth, and less than one inch in the North end of the state. Back to you, Edmund."

Grace froze, staring at the TV with eyes widened in amazement. "What the hell!"

Feather Fang moved the bag of ice upward so the water would trickle onto Grace's scalp. "What?"

"That lady, was she a? A mouse?!"

"Yeah! At least I think she is, I wasn't really paying attention."

"There's mouse people here?"

"Well, yeah, why wouldn't there- ohhhh." Feather Fang's bewilderment was only tempered by their interest. "They have to have mice where you came from, though. You know what they're called."

"Little squeaky things on four legs, eating your dry food? Yeah, there's mice where I came from, not mice like that. What..." Grace had to take a moment to breathe; excitement required exertion. "What else is here?"

Feather Fang adjusted themself on the couch to face Grace directly. They studied the bewildered, sweaty face before them as their ears pulled back. "Well, there's a lot, um, oh! Hares, deer, I met an iguana one time, he was really nice. Crows, tigers, bears, skunks, wolves that don't shift like we do..." The named species continued, but Grace didn't hear them. All she heard was emptiness while Feather Fang's mouth kept moving. How were they making sounds with a mouth that wasn't built for talking? That was probably a weird thought. Oh no; was that specieist? Was specieism a thing here? She would give a queendom for life to simply slow down for one day, just one day. That would buy her enough time to decompress with a few bottles of liquor. Oh, how Grace hoped they had liquor in this dimension. "Grace? ...moon to Grace? Is anyone home?"


"What sort of people do you have where you come from?"

Holy shit, what a question. "There's uh... well there's all those animals, I think, but they aren't what most consider 'people.' They don't talk or have, uh, sapient... any of that. It's just humans in different colors and ethnic groups, but scientists think dolphins, some of the apes, whales and squids could match or exceed us." Grace's stomach felt as if it was falling through the couch below her. She wasn't part of humanity's 'us' anymore. No, now humanity was a 'them,' or was it? What if she still considered herself human? She was, in her mind, regardless of the color of her eyes; people had differently colored eyes. "Them, I mean. I think. I don't know. What makes y'all, us, different from humans when it comes right down to it?"

Feather Fang liked that question. They managed a half-hearted smile in an effort to encourage Grace. "Some different features inside and out. Our organs are a little different; we have bigger lungs, sharper noses and ears, we're taller on average. Besides that and the fact that we sometimes look very different, not much." A pause passed to let the sentiment sink in. "What do you feel like?"

"Um... I guess I, well, I don't know. I always had trouble relating to people. Most people's minds don't work like mine does, and I've never felt connected to my body." Grace pinched the bridge of her nose and rolled her eyes. "Just what I need, another headache. I'll open a headache museum."

"Let me know how that goes," Feather Fang joked in kind. "This is a question we have to answer for ourselves. Not everyone's bodies reflect what's inside, you know? Take me, for example. I woke up this morning feeling one gender, and tomorrow I might feel another. I feel different at different times."

A fellow not-cisgender person! How fortuitous was that? This person would understand exactly how Grace felt. "Is that the same thing?"

"No, it's different, but when you go from feeling like one thing to feeling like you're something different, it can feel similar. Especially if someone feels uncomfortable with themself because of it."

As sensible as this sounded, Grace felt too drained to mentally dive further into existential questions. There would be time for that later. "I don't know what I am, I guess. I never have, I just know I'm a woman-shaped something."

Feather Fang smiled. "Hey, that's a good start! This is a lot to adjust to, I know, but that's why we're here. Is the ice helping?"

"I love this shit. I'm gonna start an ice farm and plant it on top of my head."

"I can't tell if you're joking or not!"

"We're in Minnesota, it's the perfect place for an ice farm, but I don't think it'd fit on me." Grace fell silent for a moment and raised her hand to gently assume ice pack duty. "Thank you, um... for everything, Feather Fang. I'm not used to this, but it feels nice."

"Of course, Grace. You'll get through this, I promise. Just remember what Moonsight said and you'll be fine."

Those words were impossible to forget; Grace would remember. 'Don't fight it, and it won't hurt.' The idea that such an event wouldn't hurt either physically or emotionally was beyond her. She felt sicker by the minute. What would it be like to see one's entire form become something wrong and unknown? It wasn't fair that there would be no stopping it - a theme for this entire series of events. If she had known that this would be the result of her camping trip, would she have done something differently? Would this have happened anyway? Futility was all this was. None of those thoughts mattered in the face of here and now. 'The world happens to us and the best we can do is find a way through it,' Grace had said to one of the friends along her journey. They were probably wondering where she is. Maybe this world was like Narnia, and time was stood still where she'd come from. She felt somehow more vulnerable in this moment, sitting on the couch while she sweat profusely, watching whatever Feather Fang had on the TV. It was now that she realized that she didn't have a long-term plan. She should make one. A home base had been established in this house, in this village, perhaps with these people, but its duration was uncertain. The smart thing would be to keep moving and to anticipate problems before they arise, as always. This world likely had its own system of documentation, given Scent of Pine's reaction to her driver's license. Social documents would need to be sorted, which could raise all kinds of red flags to people, but life isn't easy without a green card. She would need some sort of banking and a source of income next. Grace wondered if she would be here long enough for any of these mundanities to become relevant.

In the haze of detached, fevered thoughts, the sun outside found its way below the trees. Orange, purple and yellow had briefly brushed over the village, hindered by the cloud that were its bedclothes. Nausea had grown in Grace alongside an iron dread that rocked her stomach as time wore on. No matter how cool the house's air got, she couldn't find relief from the heat blooming within her slowly changing body. Sweat, mucus and tears mixed silently on her face. It would happen soon. The last thing she had, herself, would be torn away from her in a violent transformation. What would come after? Being a big, scary m-, werewolf? She didn't have the energy for that. She didn't feel like she would ever have energy again. Would she still have her mind, her last bastion of self? Would it survive an onslaught of strife and theft of her most integral elements? It amounted to little more than existential assault. Shaking fingers grasped at the blanket Grace had been covered in after discarding her clothes; it was far too hot in here to wear them. This would ensure that her clothes would survive, if nothing else. The door that opened to reveal Moonsight carrying a bucket of cold water and an accompanying cloth did nothing to bring Grace relief from her stupor.

"Is she lucid?"

"Yeah, the whole time," Feather Fang answered. "I worry she'll fight it."

"That's why I'm here." Moonsight dipped the cloth into cold water and used it to carefully wipe Grace's face clean. "You're doing well, Grace. How are you feeling?"

"Death... would be mercy," shivering words rose from the gap in the blanket's cover.

"Mercy is yours to give tonight. We're here with you, it'll feel better soon." Grace's lip curled in rueful anguish of the sentiment, and a throaty growl of frustration rose to oppose it further. "Feather Fang, it's starting. Look."

"Oh, her teeth... hang on." The light scraping of furniture being moved away from the couch to give Grace room caused her to hastily cover her ears and moan.

"Fuuuuck." It was so loud. It was all so loud. Her mind burned white hot, thoughts unintelligible and boiled. Motion began to ripple through her body unbidden. The blanket contorted over Grace as her legs rose to drape themselves over the arm of the couch, quickly withdrawn as she curled up in agony. Pain. A pain of heat and electricity, far worse than her spine had ever thrust upon her. Repeated whimpers announced its arrival.

Moonsight and Feather Fang knelt at either end of the couch to watch Grace closely. Fighting the changes could bring unpredictability, but they were ready. They'd been through this before. "Grace," Moonsight assured, "you're still here. This is natural, and it's almost over. Let it happen."

The shapes of claws poked into the blanket as a darkened nose poked out of it. "Hwrrr! Hrrh! Hrh!" Grace wanted to trust Moonsight, she wanted to listen, and she tried. She just wanted this to stop, but she feared if this was allowed to begin, that it would never end. Crying began anew as her body grew and contorted beneath the blanket. Hiding felt safer, which made it easier to trust. Having this degree of separation was a boon until the itching started. Grace's claws reached all around to scratch at the fur as it appeared over her body, and she found herself entangled in the blanket. A reflexive movement nearly cast it off of her, but an ever-perceptive Moonsight quickly replaced the blanket to keep Grace covered. It was obvious that it was helping ease the transformation.

"That's it, you're doing great! Almost there!"

Moonsight was grateful for Feather Fang's ready encouragement. "Almost there," she echoed in a whisper.

"Hhhsuhuwrrurrgh," Grace's garbled reply. Fear, anger, and a rejection of distractions warped its delivery into something harsher than she'd meant, but her company didn't appear to be fazed. Was it really almost over? This felt like it had been happening for hours. An odd sensation of cool ebbed over her now furred body. She sighed in relief; that must be a good sign. Losing herself in this moment felt better and better, even while her brain felt like it was on fire. The others were smiling at her. Had she really done well? She now noticed that the pain was quickly receding. As it left for destinations unknown, muscles relaxed, breathing slowed, and a stillness finally came over her. "Hwurf." Grace cautiously released the blanket from around her face to get a better look at her surroundings, but the first thing she noticed was something long entering her field of vision. It's where her nose and her mouth used to be, covered in sandy red fur flecked minutely with gray and black, and something black rested at the end of it. She grimaced, and she watched the apparition flex accordingly. It was her muzzle. Did that mean it was over?

Feather Fang was grinning from ear to ear. "It's over, Grace! You're okay, you're safe. You can come out if you want."

The elder's aged eyes merely watched Grace with reserved curiosity. She had seen this countless times before, but there was something personal in the way that she met the gaze of the newest resident of Ranier. "You did well. I'm so glad you're here."

"Hff." None of this felt real. None of it sounded real, none of it smelled real, and none of it tasted real either. Grace decided it was time to see if it looked real. She used her arms to hoist herself up to sit, finding that the motion was much easier than it had long been for her to make. Her back... it didn't hurt. The constant smoldering ache was gone. A whine of concern passed through her nose as she further righted herself, leaving the blanket to stay draped over her shoulders. She closed her eyes and clenched her fist within the blanket to see if it was as different as her face was. Oddly swollen parts greeted her, as well as a softness and a dull pointing pressure. Several, in fact. Nails -- no, claws. Those paw pad bean things that dogs have, that Moonsight and Feather Fang and Scent of Pine have. Grace had those too now. Every grain of emotion she felt caused a substantial movement over her face; in bracing herself to look at her hand, she could feel her lips pull much of the skin of her muzzle back. Her ears did the same, moving lower, back and out to the side, pulling much of her face along with them. Her cheeks hiked upward as well, causing a few teeth to show in conjunction with the way her mouth had joined the expression. It was time. She winced as she brought her hand out of the blanket and up to her face... another whine punctured the calm of the room. That was not her hand. It was what she expected, in a way, but in a much bigger way it was completely alien to her. It was hand-shaped, sure, but it was all covered in grayish-white hair! Dark, puffy pads adorned her hands at the tips of her fingers and the center of her palm. It looked like a dog-flavored hand, she reasoned. A few flexes of her digits solidified the idea that this was indeed what her hands looked like now.

"What do you think? It's cool, right? You won't have to wear gloves in the winter unless it gets ridiculously cold."

Grace took inventory of how she felt about her new hand. It was as terrifying as it was amazing. Her hands had been freckled, wrinkled and lined in the doing of much work. In spite of the premature age her hands had shown, a product of the tribulations of her life, she liked how they looked. These hands told no such story; would they ever? Would she ever feel some connection to them? A quick glance cast lower informed her that the rest of her body had similarly changed: a deeper chest, more muscled thighs, slender calves that bent in weird places. Fur of rusty red, black, brown, white and sandy brown adorned the various new features. It was all different. It was all wrong. Panicked, unintelligible, deep-throated noises erupted from her mouth in response to Feather Fang's question. This continued as she told the fellow Rougarou of all the strange, horrible curiosities her once familiar shape had now become, growing higher in pitch as she vocalized.

It wasn't long before Moonsight had to cover her ears in protest of Grace's volume. "Oh moon above," she grunted in discomfort.

Feather Fang knew what to do. They stood, approached Grace, and placed their paw between Grace's ears. The paw drew back and down along the back of the new werewolf's mane... and the frantic canid noises of suffering quieted. "It's a lot to get used to, I know, just please stop howling at us."

"Aharghh... wrurgariff." No one knew what this meant, but Grace's tone was apologetic.

"That's much better. Thank you." It surprised Moonsight to see how quickly Grace's new instincts were kicking in. Accepting touch from someone she lived with showed that she was trying to accept the others as part of her circle, where she'd seemed stiff and averse before. "Try to speak slowly. How do you feel?"

A look of uncertainty splashed over Grace's face. Her ears came forward and splayed outward as she reached behind her to touch her back. Eyes went wide - she was so fluffy and soft now. Wow, that felt amazing. This spark of positivity ignited a conflagration within her; swirled emotions burst into flame, and her eyes welled up. She wanted to go back to how she was before; at least that was familiar to her. She wanted to go back where she came from. To feel her bed along her back, the smell of her apartment, the sound of her car, she needed it so badly and she needed it now. A protracted whine pierced the air, terminating in a plaintive bark. "Hhhhhhhhheeeeeeeaff!!" Yellow eyes welled up in frothing turmoil. Grace stumbled forward from the couch, fell to her knees, and grasped Moonsight's robes. She pleaded without words for the elder to fix this, to send her to a place where things made sense somehow.

"Oh! H-... oh, Grace, oh, easy." Moonsight's paws had moved outward, not in welcoming Grace's sudden arrival, but in avoiding touching her. She lowered her arms to rest beside her as she stared into panicked, tearful eyes. Her eyes welled up too. This suffering soul was begging for something. She had an idea, but she felt unsafe in assuming what Grace wanted. A moment was taken to calm herself and regain that serene aura she was known for. "Is it important that I understand this?"

Grace emphatically nodded her head several times in succession. She released Moonsight's robes and gestured at the elder's paw, then touched her own to her forehead. She knew what Moonsight was asking.

So be it. "Okay. Please close your eyes. This won't hurt." Moonsight raised her paw and gently placed it on Grace's forehead once it was clear. She inhaled and raised her head, exhaling from her mouth in preparation. "Calm. Think about what you want to say." The elder focused herself to allow her consciousness to expand down her neck, across her shoulder, through her arm, and out of her paw. She was not at all prepared for the onslaught of confused, desperate thoughts that cracked through the connection. It was painful. It was loud. It was almost electric. 'I want to go home! I don't understand! Why does my back feel better! I'm not supposed to be here, I'm not supposed to be like this! Help me! HELP ME! PLEASE HELP ME. I NEED YOU. PLEASE MAKE IT BETTER, I CAN'T TAKE IT!' Of the more intelligible thoughts, countless images, scenes and sensations poured out of Grace. Years and years' worth of experiences and emotions flashed through Moonsight's mind. A steady stream of tears erupted, but she kept her focus. Was there anything else Grace needed to say? Amid the hurricane of thoughts was a still part of Grace's mind that moved forward along with the rest. Something old, ever mired, awash in the torrent of painful emotion that was Grace's existence. Words and a harrowing fear as light as a feather: 'Mom? Mom? I don't know where she went, have you seen her? I don't know what she looks like. Anyone? Can you hear me?'

"Nngh," Grace grunted. She felt like the top of her head was swirling around in a circle. It felt odd, but oddly not invasive. It didn't hurt, but it wasn't the most comfortable feeling in the world. Oh no. That meant this was actually doing something, didn't it? An attempt was made to focus all she could on how she was feeling right now, and what she needed Moonsight to hear.

"Moonsight? Grace? Are you okay?"

Feather Fang's intervention snapped Moonsight out of her focus and back into the den. She opened her eyes. The feeling of adrenaline pulsing through her was instantly recognizable; she needed to ground herself. But Grace... good, her eyes were open, too. There was a forlorn hope in them that contrasted the aghast expression of the elder. Moonsight had heard what Grace was trying to say, along with much, much more. Too much. Just enough. She pulled the younger Rougarou into a tight embrace without hesitation. She felt the surprised response immediately, but she wasn't rebuffed. Instead, the embrace was shared. It continued for minutes that felt like hours that felt like days that felt like months. Warmth, safety, quiet, understanding; all were known between the two. The rest of the world fell away. All of the sounds and smells and feelings that it carried disappeared with it, leaving only this embrace between two people. Grace felt nothing at all, and it healed her; she wondered if this was what peace felt like. The two eventually separated, and Grace wiped her eyes. Moonsight didn't. She nodded to Feather Fang instead. "You're feeling so much," she observed of Grace, and sighed through her nose. "Your spine... the genetic code in your lycanthropic cells determine the shape you shift into. It's straight now. It may still hurt when you're not shifted, but when you do, over time, your back should adjust to more closely fit your lupine shape."

"...mrerf." That was enormously good news. Being free from that pain, that disability, it would be life-changing for Grace. She hoped Moonsight was right.

"As for getting you home," Moonsight began, reaching for Grace's paw to hold it within both of hers. "I don't have the slightest idea how. I wish I did. I'm so sorry. You will always have the village's help in finding your way back, though, if that's what you want."

Feather Fang knelt down beside Grace. Their paw gingerly came to rest over those of their company. "Count on it," they asserted with a smile. "You look great, by the way. This red? I haven't seen that before."

"It's more common in the Southeast. Isn't that interesting? You have the colors of your home."

Grace wondered how that could be. She still didn't know how she could be like this to begin with, let alone being of an endangered species from her home state. There was no connection between them and her until now. None of this made sense, but if she really was welcomed here, she would have time to figure it all out. She hoped she could figure it all out; how could one figure this situation out? Had anyone ever been in this position before? A horrific thought entered her mind: what if there were others like her? A resolution was made to think about that later; this house had already been saturated enough in the scent of fear. Emotions having scents was another idea that Grace was not ready for, but there it was, plain as day. She looked to the spot Feather Fang had indicated to see that rusty red fur on her shoulder. It was kind of pretty, wasn't it? She touched the fur with that new hand of hers. She felt that it was thicker underneath, and was surprised to see that she had an undercoat. Her nose felt cold. Her ears exuded warm air, but she felt cold around them, too. The rest of her felt no chill whatsoever. It amazed her; this would be a helpful survival boon if things with the village went to shit. These lupine senses had become stronger over the course of the day, but now they were fully operational. Grace felt like she could hear everything within a mile, and smell everything within three. Eugh, she needed a bath; all that stress sweat had a pungent odor to it. She opened her mouth to apologize to the others for offending their noses, but she knew it would only come out as noises they wouldn't understand. They hadn't said anything about it; they must have expected this. Instead, she turned her attention to the open window to look outside. It was over. What would happen next? "Hwurh?"

"It's about that time, isn't it?" Feather Fang said with a grin. They stood and raised their arms up to begin a series of stretches. "Ahh. It's a great night for some fun."

Fun wasn't what Moonsight had in mind, but she was content that someone was focused on leisure. "Do you feel well enough to go outside, Grace? You don't have to if you aren't ready."

Grace's eyes found Feather Fang's, then Moonsight's after the former was seen discarding their clothes without a care in the world. What is the deal with that? It seemed to be the norm here, but still. "Aff," which is new werewolf for 'yes.' Though her limbs were shaky, she managed to get to her feet before stumbling forward. Her proportions and stance were different now.

"Ohp! Easy." Moonsight caught the new werewolf with an airy chuckle. "Look down." She watched as Grace did so, discovering the same style of digitigrade feet that all of the Rougarou sported. That definitely wouldn't complicate things, no, not at all. "It's like walking on your toes. Your tail will balance you; it's easier if you don't think about it."

"Aourr??" Grace cast a hasty glance to look behind her, and sure enough, a fluffy brush of a tail greeted her. She squeaked in surprise; this was one discovery too many for the distressed Rougarou. Her tail ducked between her legs upon being seen. It must have been shy. A yelp of protest further announced her reception of this new feature."Aeear!"

"That's right. You'll need to be mindful when you sit down. Do you think you can balance on your own? Focus on my arms and lean back. Easy now."

That sounded simple enough. A sigh of focus left Grace's nostrils as she recalled Moonsight's earlier advice. Tippy toes. Even as she achieved balance, it all felt so strange to be standing like this, to have her body configured like this. It was like she had platform ankles now. The elder's words of encouragement fell upon dissociated ears as Grace took in the scenery of her lower half. The outsides of her upper legs retained red and tan coloration, giving way to lighter-colored fur along her calves, ankles and feet. She had four toes now. Four toes. Only four, on each foot! No wonder she couldn't balance herself, she had lost her pinky toe. With focus on her balance, she attempted to wiggle the digits below her. They responded. This felt like a costume to her. She heard further words that she couldn't understand, and she looked up to find that Moonsight had taken her hand and was leading her toward the door. In a hurry to avoid being pulled off her balance, Grace took a few hasty steps forward. "Hff," she protested; she wasn't ready for that surprise.

The elder appeared to be pleased with both Grace and herself. "You'll adjust quickly, let your instincts guide you. Come, you'll love the feeling of the moon." With shaky steps, Moonsight lead Grace through the front door and out into the open night air. It felt good to be out of the den and through the scariest part of this experience. It felt even better to have someone to guide you through such an experience. Freshly into her first shift, with her head finally beginning to clear, Grace took a look around the village. Most of the residents were gathering around the bonfire to talk, sing, eat and play. Many joyous eyes reflected the moon's light in a simple celebration of themselves and their unity. She had told she was part of this, that she was accepted and welcomed, regardless of where she was from. Guilt rose through her when she remembered that she wouldn't be staying here for long. Living so closely with nature around such accepting people was a dream for someone like Grace, but she had to find a way home. She had to. It wouldn't be fair to her, her friends, or anyone here to linger any longer than she had to; it would be taking advantage of such an amazing place while depriving others of her existence.

It was possible to back, right? What if it wasn't? What would Grace do then? She decided it wasn't worth thinking about.

"Oh wow, Moonsight, look at this! Look!" Feather Fang was bouncing up and down, excitedly pointing at Grace.

Moonsight, who had been watching the festivities until Grace was ready to join in, returned her gaze to the one she guided. Her face lit up with surprise, then excitement. "Grace, look at your fur." She watched as Grace did so, a nonplussed expression announcing that she had no idea what she was looking at. "Do you see how the strands of your fur catch the moonlight? How they reflect and shine? Now we know how you became one of us - you're moonborn."

"Hurh?" Moonborn? It sounded so silly, like something out of an Elder Scrolls game. Daahh, dah dah daahh, dah dah daahh, dah dah daahh, dah dah daahh. Great, now Grace was going to be tasked with killing werewolves or something atrocious like that. She hoped, she prayed that she wouldn't have to do such a thing, and that this actually meant something more serious than its name carried.

"It means, well, according to our culture, that the moon changed you to help you in some way. Moonsight's moonborn, too." Feather Fang gestured to the elder, whose fur was similarly gleaming like metal in the moonlight. It gave her an ethereal look, and it inspired a feeling of renewal in Grace as she observed it. "Scientifically, it's caused by a difference in the way your cells are altered by lycanthropy. Nobody knows how or why it happens, though, at least when I looked it up."

"One could say that magic fills the gaps in science, but in the long history of our people, I think someone would have had an idea by now," Moonsight posited. "It's notable in its rarity, since it was long considered a disadvantage while we hid. There are stories of help being sought, contracts made, revenge sworn, with timely indications of the moon's intervention. We believe the moon, the sun, and the Earth to have a metaphorical will of their own, and to guide us through life's cycles. Don't worry, I'll teach you all of this in time - that's my duty as Great Mother."

Feather Fang gave Grace a pat on the back. "It's not bad, and if you don't think of it that way, it might not be good, either! It can just be a thing if you want it to be. Anyway, I feel like I could bench press my house, sooo I'm gonna go have some fun! I'll see you two later!" Like a cloud in the daylight sky, they were off to join the revelry of the village.

"I know this may be overwhelming at first, but you'll settle. Feather Fang's presence has brought so much vitality to the village. Ahh..." A sentimental sigh punctuated Moonsight's thought with a smile. "Do you enjoy their company?"

Bouncy, bubbly, loquacious types like Feather Fang had always rubbed Grace the wrong way in the past, but this one was growing on her very quickly. She returned as much of a smile as she could alongside an appreciative nod.

"Lovely. So, now that you're outside with us all, how do you feel?"

"Mmh...?" That was a good question. In contrast to Grace's usual experience of being fogged by pain and fear, despite the current situation with her body becoming something entirely new, she felt calm. She even felt focused, clear-headed and like something good was happening. It was an unusual feeling usually reserved for infrequent psilocybin trips. Being some unusual type of werewolf didn't bother her, but it didn't make her feel special, either, and she felt she had the right of things. As she considered her state, Grace brought her eyes to watch the moon. It had risen above the trees on its journey through the dark, blazing a trail for the next day to come. This one had been so eventful, so stressful and full of new people and experiences. Knowing herself, she knew this would take an energetic toll on her for some time, but it was hard to even conceptualize such a thing right now. She was awake. She was alive. If the moon had given her this otherworldly experience somehow, then she would bite. She considered the idea of seeing where this experience went to be a debt paid to an old friend that she'd watched during sleepless nights as a child. Back then she had certainly sought its guidance when none could be found elsewhere. In the cool night air lit sparsely by white albedo, she had felt reassured and accompanied in some way. The moon had gotten her through some difficult times. It took Grace a moment to realize she had totally zoned out on Moonsight's question. A measured inhale and a determined exhale was the answer.

The look of concern that had awaited Grace's answer faded into calm acceptance. "I'm relieved. You've been through so much, but it all led you to this village, in this world. Here and now. I hope I can make it all worthwhile, Grace." Moonsight regarded a spontaneous, communal cheer from those around the fire with a sentimental fondness. "In light of how stressful today was, and your fear of whether you can belong in this world, if you'd rather leave community until tomorrow, I'll accompany you. What would you like to do tonight?"

A small whine escaped Grace's throat. She didn't know what she wanted to do, but she felt unsure of bringing Moonsight away from the community during a celebration. It's true that she was afraid to take up space in this place or any other; after the kindness these people had shown, though, she wondered if she may have to simply deal with it.

"No," Moonsight reassured, as if having read Grace's mind. "In all honesty, I could use some quiet, too. You wouldn't be keeping me from anything, so please choose what brings you comfort."

Well, in that case, Grace felt that if Moonsight was telling her it was okay, it was probably okay. She still felt guilty, and nothing would change that, but she didn't know how to be a werewolf, and Moonsight certainly did. What would be a quiet place? She turned to her left to watch the grasslands ripple in the cool evening breeze of Autumn. It looked so free, so open, rimmed by sheltering trees. Grace took a step forward and indicated the area with a slow sweep of her arm. Her head rose to take a breath of the scents drifting off of the wild flora with her eyes closed. Memories of wandering through designated natural areas back home flooded back to her. Camping illegally in state parks, sleeping on the hood of her car on the way to Minnesota, an end-of-shift cigarette on the back dock of the tractor dealership, she was peacefully haunted by memories of places she may never see again. She wanted to get as close to those places as she could while the clouds were still parted, to feel as free as she could amid the stifling changes life had brought her today. Boundless energy could be burned by forging her own path through the wilderness of this place, and she could run until her legs gave out.

"Wonderful. You know, we call our full moon event The Run; it's our simplest pleasure in this life. Set your spirit free tonight, Grace, and you'll know what it means to be one of us." Time was spent teaching Ranier's newest arrival how to move on two legs and four, for a werewolf had the luxury of choice in movement. She was able to internalize the skill quickly without the usual pain in her spine. The thrill of speed would be achieved like none other on this night. After a brief set of lessons and a quick bite to eat, Moonsight and Grace took off for the grassland together. They ran and they ran and they ran some more. All of the tension of the day melted into condensing breaths with each beat of paws on the ground. The elder moved with unexpected fluidity and grace in equal measure, and the younger moved with power she never knew she had. As the aged Ford LTD had done through many a long night in its time, so too did they fly over the ground in a meditative state of simple existence. Fur shined and spirits blazed under the light of the full moon in a community of their own. They knew freedom unbound tonight; such was the way of the Rougarou.


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