Are you certain this is what you want?
The words rose in Rowan's mind as her Jeep rumbled down the back road, but she left them unspoken. She'd already asked, again and again. Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?
It had already sparked a fight between her and Jennifer—who had, after yet another of Rowan's anxious questions, shot back with one of her own—How many times am I going to have to tell you? Yes! I want this! Are you going to back out on me now, after coming this far?
The argument had burned out almost as quickly as it flared up; they were both on edge, and they both knew it.
Maybe it would have been easier if Rowan had been turned, rather than having been born a werewolf. Then she'd have the experience from the other side; she'd know what Jennifer was going to go through.
But Rowan didn't know. She'd been born to the change, and Jennifer had been born full-human. Rowen had, of course, spoken about the matter with her non-birthing mother, Naomi, who had been turned—not by Rowen's birth-mother Annabel, but by another werewolf who had been an adoptive mother to Naomi—but there was a huge difference between hearing about someone else's experiences and living through it yourself.
If Rowan could bear to complete the ritual, and if everything went right, then Jennifer wouldn't have to die full-human. She'd gain a few more precious centuries of life, and she'd learn the joy of the change—the way the world seemed to open up when you stood on four paws, the scent of the night air, the glow of the full moon, the knowledge that you were surrounded by the pack, running together, whether to bring down prey or simply for the joy of movement...
For the sake of all that, Rowan would do it. She had to.
Because Jennifer had made her choice, even knowing the risks.
Even knowing that, if something failed—if the bond between them wasn't strong enough, if her will to survive faltered, if any doubts in her mind kept her from fully embracing the wolf, if the pain of transformation was simply too much for her and she chose oblivion over agony—then she would die on the forest floor, with her throat ripped out and her lover's jaws stained with her blood.
For the wolf to rise, the human had to die. That was the way of the change.
“Not much further,” said Rowan, to break the silence.
“Mmhm,” Jennifer replied, looking steadily out the passenger side window.
Rowan took a long, slow breath.
“I still want this,” said Jennifer. “I do. But if... if you can't...”
“I'll do it,” said Rowan. “Just, please...”
Promise me you'll come back, Rowan wanted to say, but saying it out loud would be acknowledging the other possibility.
“Please, remember that I love you,” Rowan said, instead.
“I will. I love you too,” Jennifer said, with a somewhat half-hearted smile. “I'll be glad when it's over.”
Me too. Rowan nodded, and turned her attention back to the road—she'd been down this way before, and there were a few sharp turns ahead, just before they reached the pack's gathering place. It was a few miles off from the little community of Pinebend, where most of the pack lived.
She could sense the presence of the other members of the Pinebend Pack in the distance. If she focused, she could do more than that—she'd know who was in wolf-shape, and who was still in human form, and she could get a general sense of what everyone was feeling.
But right now she needed to keep her attention on the road.
“Rowan?” said Jennifer, after a few minutes of silence.
“Mmhm?” Rowan replied.
“I'm sorry for blowing up at you about, you know, asking me if I still wanted to do this,” Jennifer said.
“You've already said you're sorry, and I've already forgiven you,” Rowan pointed out.
“I know, but—I feel like I've been selfish. I've been thinking about me—I mean, I am the one who's going to get hurt, and maybe die, but... it's going to be awful for you, too,” said Jennifer. “I don't have to do anything but hold still. And you... I don't think I could do it.”
Rowan took a few moments to try and formulate a response. “Jen... I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And this is what it's going to take. So I'll do it.” She swallowed. “I'll do it.”
“It won't be your fault, if... something goes wrong,” said Jennifer. “It won't, I mean. I've made up my mind. And I don't have any doubts about our bond. But even if it did, it wouldn't be your fault—I don't want you to blame yourself.”
Rowan said nothing—there was a tricky set of turns up ahead, and she wanted to keep focused on those... that, and she wasn't sure how to respond.
I'm going to blame myself if you die, she thought. No matter what.
But like I said—I love you. You're choosing this—and I know how many chances you've had to turn back. So I'll do this for you, because I love you, even if it means I risk losing you.
“We're almost there,” she said, instead, once she'd passed the last of the sharp curves in the road.
“I'm glad,” Jennifer replied, leaning back in her seat.
They'd had to walk a bit—there was only so close the Jeep could get.
Now, they had to wait for dark—for the full moon to shine as the brightest light in the sky, drawing Rowan out of her human shape and into her wolf form.
This was the only time the change could work—in the light of the full moon, when a werewolf's wolf side was closest at hand. Or at paw, perhaps, though “jaw” would be a closer analogue—
Deep breaths, Rowan, Rowan told herself. Stay calm.
Jennifer was fiddling with her phone; she probably wasn't getting service out here, so it was probably more of a way to vent nervous energy than anything else.
Rowan extended her pack-sense—her packmates weren't far, and it seemed they were all in wolf-shape, though none of them had shown themselves as of yet. They would be watching at a distance; this was a ritual between two alone, the changer and the changed. If the transformation succeeded, they would all hunt together tonight. If it failed...
Then they would be on hand to comfort Rowan, and howl her grief with her.
She felt a quiet, cool strength emanating from one of the wolves in the woods—Stay strong, daughter.
Rowan closed her eyes, trying to send a message back to her mother, though it was a bit difficult to focus. I will.
Annabel sent nothing more, and Rowan was left with her own thoughts.
Rowan kept glancing up at the sky, praying for dark to come—not a very specific prayer, but more a vague hope that some higher power, if one existed, would take pity on her, and make the time go faster.
She feared what was to come, but the tension she was in now was far worse.
“Jen,” she asked, “is your phone working?”
“Well, it's on. But I'm not going to be able to make any calls. Not that I would.” Jennifer shrugged. “The only person I would call is my brother, and... well, I'm still going to have to figure out how to explain this to him. I was planning on waiting until after, so he wouldn't worry.”
That was another thing Rowan had never experienced—having non-werewolf family members to explain things to.
She'd been born a werewolf, to a werewolf birth-mother, with a werewolf as her other mother, and a werewolf aunt, among a pack of other werewolves, in a mostly-werewolf community.
There were some human women in Pinebend—lovers, family members, and close friends of pack members. Some might possibly be werewolves themselves, one day; others chose to remain full-human all their lives.
Some werewolf communities did have male humans—there were werewolves had male lovers, male family members, or male friends who wanted to live nearby. There were no male werewolves—a bit ironic, given that the root words of “werewolf” meant “man-wolf.” No one was entirely certain why this was; some said that there had been male werewolves, long ago, but if that was so, none had been seen for centuries; female werewolves couldn't transform male humans.
And while there had been occasional attempts, all movements that sought to change the common name of the species to the more-correct “wifwolf” had never managed to build up enough steam to replace the by-now ubiquitous “werewolf.”
Pinebend was fairly traditional, by werewolf standards, and all-female. Going out into the wider world had been quite an experience for Rowan.
But perhaps it might be nice to move back to Pinebend, someday. If we can get things to work out—maybe find a way to work remotely, at least some of the time, Rowan thought—though the satellite Internet out here was sometimes spotty, which complicated matters.
Still, it was... nice, to live among people for whom shifting at the full moon was expected, and where you could rejoice in your wolf-nature with other shifters. It was nice to be part of a community where being attracted to women was seen as something quite normal, rather than unusual at best and immoral at worst.
Jennifer's parents had cut Jen out of their lives entirely after Jen had come out as a lesbian. Her older brother was the only part of her immediate family who still had contact with her at all.
The thought of losing her parents for something that seemed so insignificant—so ordinary—made Rowan's heart ache.
I want to share your pain, and make it less, Rowan thought, looking over at her girlfriend.
But pain couldn't really be shared—not like a load on one's back, halved when split between two.
It could be eased, sometimes, by the help and sympathy of loved ones.
But your pain was your own. In the end, you had to carry it yourself—or collapse under the weight.
Rowan clenched her teeth, trying not to imagine the way Jennifer's skin would feel when she had it between her fangs.
It'll all be over soon.
“You're going to change, soon?” Jennifer asked, as she looked up at the darkening sky.
“Yes. As soon as the moon forces me,” said Rowan. “Not too much longer, I don't—”
She inhaled sharply. A sense of strangeness—of not being in quite the right body, limbs not quite the right shape and in the wrong orientation, face too flat, teeth too dull—shivered over her whole body.
The moment passed. Rowan took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.
“Soon,” she said.
Many werewolves followed a religion honoring a lunar goddess—called by a number of names, but in this region generally referred to simply as Luna—who was viewed as the mother of all werewolves and the one who had gifted her daughters with the ability to reproduce, even without male aid.
Werewolves could not reproduce with humans, and given that there were no male werewolves, the only way for werewolves to increase their population was either to turn full-humans—which required that a strong bond of love and trust exist between the werewolf and full-human, and that the full-human truly wish to be transformed—or to reproduce via parthenogenesis.
Werewolves were, happily for their population numbers, fully capable of the latter, though it wasn't the true parthenogenesis seen in some species—the children produced were not clones of their mother. No one was quite certain of the mechanism involved, but children did seem to manifest traits of various members of their mother's pack, with the traits of the mother's chosen mate showing up most strongly, assuming that said mate was a werewolf.
Rowan didn't know how this ability had come about. But she'd never been all that religious—which had occasionally caused a bit of tension between herself and her birth-mother Annabel, who devoutly made the traditional prayers, offerings, and rituals to Luna that she'd been brought up with. Naomi, perhaps because she hadn't been born a werewolf, participated, but had never seemed to Rowan to have quite the depth of feeling that her birth-mother had.
Maybe there was a goddess involved, maybe not. Either way, she'd never really thought it mattered.
But now, staring the death of her lover in the face, she found herself making a silent prayer—
Silver Luna, Changing One, do not let her die.
“Talk to me,” Rowan asked. “Please.”
Jennifer nodded. “Okay. Anything in particular, or were you just looking for a distraction?”
“The second,” said Rowan.
“All right.” Jennifer took a deep breath. “I think I need a distraction, too. It seems almost too real, now that it's about to happen. I keep reminding myself why I'm doing this. Why I'm here. And it's because I love you, you know? I trust you. I trust you enough to know that you'd never do anything to hurt me—and even this, now, isn't you doing something to hurt me. You're doing this to help me live. I want—I want this. I want to know what it feels like to change, to turn into something new.”
“It's wonderful,” said Rowan. “I felt so stifled, living in a full-human city. I ran into a few other werewolves, from time to time. We know each other by scent. But I had to be careful where I shifted. Careful who I let know. Always keeping part of myself caged. Out here, I can breathe again.”
Even as resilient as werewolves could be, a human who knew what they were could find ways to harm them, if they chose. The werewolf weakness to silver was well-known to pretty much everyone, and full beheading could also end a werewolf's life. Even without silver weapons decapitation, a sufficiently determined mob of humans could do enough damage over time to outpace a werewolf's ability to heal, and the werewolf's body would eventually give up.
And there had always been humans who hated werewolves.
Anyone who really wanted to know what Rowan was probably wouldn't have a hard time working it out... but she didn't flaunt it about, certainly.
“It might be the same for you, too,” said Rowan. “Or maybe it'll be easier. You grew up human, after all.”
“Probably,” said Jennifer. “But still. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. I know it'll be hard, in some ways. But I know it'll be worth it.” She reached out and took Rowan's hand, giving it a quick squeeze. “We've been together... what, four-and-a-half years? And they've been the happiest years of my life. I know that I want to spend the rest of it with you.”
Rowan was struck, morbidly, by the thought that Jennifer's wish could come true whichever way things went tonight.
The feeling of strangeness, of being an alien creature in her own flesh, passed over Rowan again. She clenched her teeth—her flat, plant-grinding teeth—and tilted her head one way, then the other, as if working a crick out of her neck.
“I'll admit,” said Jennifer, “that aside from, you know, the way people—humans—full-humans see werewolves, this is the part I like least—the fact that you're forced to change sometimes.”
“It's not so bad,” said Rowan. “Really. On most full moon nights, I'd have already shifted. This is just to make sure that I don't... do anything... before the moon's power is strongest.” She wasn't entirely sure waiting would make a difference—there were many, many theories among werewolves as to what sorts of things would reduce the likelihood of a failed transformation—but she didn't want to take chances.
“It's just... like an itch,” said Rowan. “Only... sort of everywhere. And with an urge to shift, rather than to scratch.”
“That really doesn't sound much like an itch at all,” said Jennifer.
Rowan shrugged. “You'll see for yourself, soon enough.”
The moon already hung in the night sky, glowing a gentle silver-white.
Brilliant Luna, Ever-Shifting, do not let my lover die, Rowan prayed. Please.
The prayer came to her, not quite naturally—she was not her mother—but she could still feel a resonance in the words—words she knew must have been formed a thousand times by a thousand different werewolves.
Let this work. Do not let her die. Please, let her come back to me, through the agony of the change, into the joy of this double-life.
“I think I'd better strip,” said Rowan. She didn't want to get caught up in her clothes, after all, when the change hit. Quickly, she took her clothes off, leaving them in a crumpled heap; she'd come get them later. If this worked. If it didn't, she doubted she'd care enough to bother.
“If this is the last thing I get to see, that's not so bad,” said Jennifer, with a nervous, breathy laugh. It wasn't really that funny, Rowan thought. But if it helped her release tension...
“You should probably take off yours, too,” said Rowan. “To prepare for the change.”
Luna, silver Luna, please let this work!
The moon hung bright and heavy in the sky above, and something deep within Rowan—something that seemed to quiver in the very nucleus of her cells themselves—whispered Now, it's time, and Rowan felt herself begin to shift.
She couldn't fight it. She didn't want to, truly.
She inhaled through a half-formed muzzle, her eyes shut. The shifting didn't hurt her, not on the full moon. It was as easy and natural as breathing, and just as inevitable.
Hands became paws. Her face lengthened into a wolf's elongated muzzle. Her skeletal structure shifted from bipedal to quadripedal, hard bones becoming, for a few brief moments, like clay under the power of the werewolf's change.
It didn't take more than a minute or two until Rowan was standing before her lover—seeing her more sharply in the dark with a wolf's night-vision.
Jennifer looked back, meeting her eyes. It was a very human thing to do; a full-wolf would have seen it as a challenge.
Rowan dipped her head, slightly.
She could hear Jennifer's heart racing, and the way her breath was quickening. She was afraid.
They both were.
Rowan looked back up. She could feel, vaguely, an impression of support from her pack, hidden in the woods around her, but there were no words in their mind-speech, only love and the promise of comfort.
They would give her no more.
This was her burden to bear.
Slowly, Jennifer knelt, to allow Rowan easier access to her throat.
“Okay,” said Jennifer. “I guess... it's time.”
Yes. It was time.
Time to do something that went against everything within Rowan—time to hurt one of the people she loved most in the world, to hurt her so badly she might die.
Rowan whined, softly, in the back of her throat.
Luna, Mother Luna— It was a child's wail of desperation, a pleading, take this pain away, help me, please!
“Rowan,” Jennifer whispered. Her voice was thick, her breath was shuddery, and it seemed like she was trying not to break down. “Now. Please. I love you. Please. Let it be done.”
Rowan took one step, then another. Her entire body quivered under the horror of what she was about to do.
I am going to kill her, and see if she can pull life out of death's jaws.
Oh, Jen, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
Another step. She was close, so close, she could almost feel Jennifer's own heartbeat.
She pressed the side of her muzzle against Jennifer's face, licking her cheek. Again, she whined.
“Do it,” Jennifer whispered sharply.
The words sounded like a thunderclap in Rowan's ear. She pinned her ears back against her head, drew back a step, and steeled herself.
Quickly. Let there be no pain.
And then she lunged, fangs bared for the kill.
And felt as if she were something else—a ghost, a wisp of soul floating outside her body. She was drifting somewhere, away from her body, away from the fact that she was bleeding out into the soil in a clearing deep in the woods.
That last view—a werewolf plunging at her, teeth gleaming in the moonlight—had stirred a primal fear in her that, for a brief instant, had made her forget who that werewolf was—Rowan, her lover, her best friend, the woman she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
However long that life would be.
It seemed to her, then, that she had a choice.
Her body was there, lying on the ground, dying.
She could leave. It wouldn't hurt at all; it would be quite natural. That was what humans did, when they had their throats torn out by a predator. She'd gotten through with the dying part, so death would be simple. Quiet. Peaceful.
I don't want to die! I promised that I'd come back! Jennifer thought. But the thought of pushing herself back into that body, bleeding and broken on the forest floor, was not an appealing one.
And she knew that it would hurt, a lot.
She'd talked about it with Naomi, one of Rowan's moms. And how jealous Jennifer had been—still was, really—that Rowan's parents certainly wouldn't disown their daughter over her love of women.
Not all werewolves were lesbian or bi, of course, but they seemed to be more often than not. A werewolf with a girlfriend or wife was nothing to turn heads, at least when among other werewolves.
That had, honestly, been one of the reasons she'd made the choice she had. She wanted that—wanted that little piece of the world where she could be normal, even if she'd be even more of an outcast in the rest of the world.
Not that Rowan's parents and pack wouldn't have been perfectly welcoming to a human—no, a full-human, that was how they said it. Jennifer had met several of the humans who lived in Pinebend.
But she'd have been there as an outsider—and she wanted to share everything with Rowan.
That, and she'd dreamed of becoming a werewolf since she'd learned what they were, as a little girl.
It had seemed like such a wonderful thing—having the power to transform yourself into something powerful and fierce, with teeth and claws—something that didn't have to be afraid of anything.
Now, she was afraid.
Naomi had gone through this, too; she'd been born full-human, so of course Jennifer had asked her about it.
“It was the best choice I ever made,” Naomi had said. “But it was also the worst pain I've ever been through. You have to be prepared for it. There's a reason why some humans die rather than transform—it's hard enough that death might truly seem the better option. But you have to hold on. Remember why you're doing this, and remember who's waiting for you.”
Rowan was waiting for her.
The bond between them was like a rope, strong enough for the incorporeal-Jennifer to cling to, to drag herself down, inch by inch.
There had to be a bond of great love, between the werewolf and hopeful-werewolf-to-be, for the transformation to work; now Jennifer understood why.
Oh, Rowan, I'm coming. I'm scared, but I'm coming back to you.
Cringing, Jennifer forced herself back down, down, back to her body, back to corporeality, back to the pain that would come.
And it came swiftly.
The first thing she noticed was the agony of her throat-wound, pumping out spurts of blood; she couldn't possibly have much more left, could she?
She took a gasping breath—or tried to; her windpipe was torn.
There was truly nothing keeping her alive but the strange magic that fueled the werewolf transformation and her own will. The former would not fail, she didn't think; the latter was still up for debate.
Stay. I have to stay. I promised.
She couldn't see. She could barely move. Her body was in the clutches of almost-total paralysis.
Then, piece by piece, her body began to reform itself.
It felt as if her bones were being broken, one by one. First her jaw, her cheekbones, the sockets of her eyes; her shoulders, her wrists, her fingers; each and every one of her ribs, pop-pop-popping one by one in a thunderstorm of agony.
Hurts. It hurts. Help me.
She didn't know how long her torment lasted. Minutes? Hours? Time and time again, the thought came—End it. End the pain. Let go, rest, and nothing will ever hurt again.
Every time, she fought it back.
Her body was becoming strange to her, now, and that too made it more difficult to hold on. Was it really hers any longer? It was hard to tell through the pain, but she didn't think she had fingers any more. Her face wasn't her face; she wouldn't recognize herself in the mirror.
What was she?
I'm a werewolf—I'm trying to be. Like Rowan. Rowan, help me, please, I don't know how much longer—
And then, impossibly, an answer came: I'm here! Blessed Luna, I'm here, I'm here, hold on!
It echoed through her mind, and she could feel the fear, the pain, the desperate hope, and, above all else, the love that suffused each word. Jennifer clung to that love like a rope, like an anchor, holding her down in the body that part of her was screaming to leave behind.
Rowan? Jennifer thought back.
Yes! Stay with me, please, stay with me. I love you. Please, Rowan sent her.
It was the mind-speech Rowan had told her about; the telepathic bond that linked pack members. And now Jennifer was of the pack—the transformation was working.
That knowledge—the reminder that this was working, and that the pain would end—helped her steel herself. Her body still felt awful and twisted and wrong, and it seemed that every last one of her nerves was firing with pain, and yet...
Bit by bit, it seemed to be ebbing.
There were other voices, too, after a few moments.
Stay with us. We're here, and we welcome you. Hold on a bit longer.
A sea of voices, gentle, loving, enfolded Jennifer. The pack—her pack. Her people, at long last; the family she'd never thought she'd find—she didn't know them nearly well enough, yet, and at the same time it seemed to her that she was coming home, after spending years in a foreign country.
Just a little longer. You're almost there, came Naomi's voice.
You're doing so well, came Annabel's.
I love you, I love you, I love you, you're almost there, almost done... Rowan's voice was a constant murmur in Jennifer's head, and Jennifer sang back, I love you too, I love you, I'm staying here, I'll stay...
The searing agony faded into a mere, full-body ache, which ebbed away to nothing at all.
Jennifer lay still for a while, breathing in, and out, in, and out, centering herself.
She felt a presence next to her; a wolf was lying down beside her. Rowan, she thought to her.
Yes. Here. Jennifer felt Rowan's tongue sweep across her face—her new face, her wolf-face.
Is it over? Am I done? Jennifer asked.
It's over. You're finished changing. You're one of us, now. The joy and relief in Rowan's mind-voice was palpable. Oh, Jennifer. You're here. You're still here.
Jennifer opened her eyes. Carefully, fearing that pain would come raging back into her body if she made any wrong move, she rolled over onto her stomach.
Shh, shh, it's over, you're done, it will never hurt like that again, said Rowan.
She's right, said Naomi. You've gotten past it. You've finished. Here—will you let us sit with you?
A-all right, Jennifer thought. She could feel the rest of the pack, now, and she could see some of them, too, as they emerged from the trees—a great host of wolves, of myriad shades—though her color vision was pretty bad, both due to the darkness and her new canine eyes.
Still, she could pick out pale grays that were almost white, dark browns that were almost black, and every variety of shades in between.
She turned to look at Rowan. Rowan's wolf-form had a pale grey underside with a dark “jacket” over her face and back.
Rowan leaned over and licked Jennifer's face again.
Jennifer gave a little huff. She'd always found Rowan's caninesque expressions of affection endearing, but now she was a werewolf herself.
So, experimentally, she licked Rowan's cheek.
It tasted about what she'd expected wolf fur to taste like, which was not especially nice, but at the same time... it felt oddly right.
The other wolves of the pack were drawing near, and Jennifer could sense their caution—they didn't want to crowd her, or make her uncomfortable.
She wasn't sure she felt quite up to standing, yet. If... you want to get closer, that's all right with me, Jennifer thought at them.
There were a few dozen others; they approached a few at a time. They greeted her with mind-speech, telling her their names, getting her scent and allowing her to get theirs. She knew at least some of these werewolves already, from her previous visits to Pinebend, but a few were strangers—werewolves who lived outside of Pinebend, in human cities, but who were still part of the pack.
The scents, however, were new. She was amazed at how intense her sense of smell had become—it was almost overwhelming. Each wolf smelled, well, like a wolf—but at the same time, each scent was unique, even more unique than their names.
Mind-speech works with sensation, as well as words, Naomi said, drawing near to take her turn greeting the new werewolf. We try to stick to words and emotions, to make it easier when you are new, but among ourselves, sometimes we use scents rather than names to identify each other in mind-speech.
Jennifer wondered if the other werewolf had guessed at her train of thought, or if Jennifer had been sending her thoughts by accident. Naomi gave no indication of which it might be.
Or maybe she was always sending her thoughts, or at least her feelings, to the others in the pack. That thought—the idea that she'd lost the ability to be alone in her own head—was a little unsettling.
Rowan nuzzled against Jennifer. Is something wrong? she asked, clearly concerned.
Jennifer, trying to focus her mind-speech on Rowan and Rowan alone, asked When I think—even if I'm not trying to speak with the others—can you still hear me?
No, said Rowan. If you're not making an effort to send out a message, we'll just pick up your feelings—though sometimes you can guess at someone's thoughts from their feelings. Your distress, your anxiety... and your joy, too. There will be joy tonight, when you're ready to run with us.
But what if I don't want you to know what I'm feeling? Jennifer asked.
Oh! Well, it's possible to block yourself off from mind-contact with the rest of the pack, said Rowan. Or just from some. I'm sorry, I should have told you earlier.
Well, maybe Jennifer would get used to it, but at the moment... Can you teach me now? she asked.
Sure. You have to... you have to imagine a wall around you, and your thoughts and feelings. Something no one can pass. You have to want to close yourself off—and you can let other people in your walls, too, but you have to be able to pick them out from the crowd. It's... I'm sorry, it's a little hard for me to explain.
Okay, said Jennifer. I'll give it a shot. I don't want every single thought and feeling to be on the public record.
Rowan nuzzled her partner. If it will help you feel more comfortable, then you should try. But it's not so bad, really, leaving yourself open—it makes it harder to hide, but it means there aren't so many secrets.
Jennifer wasn't convinced that having secrets wasn't a good thing. Maybe werewolf culture was more different from full-human culture than she'd previously thought.
Jennifer settled down a bit and closed her eyes, trying to focus. A wall, then. She erected a brick wall in her mind, too tall to jump, with no purchase to climb. She poured herself into the effort, all of her will—
And then, suddenly, she was alone.
She couldn't feel Rowan any longer—not mentally. Rowan was still there, of course, physically, but the warmth of her love and concern, which had been pouring into Jennifer ever since that first moment when their minds had linked, in the depths of Jennifer's ordeal of transformation—all of it was gone, as if a switch had been flipped.
In sudden anxiety at the loss, Jennifer's concentration broke, and there was Rowan again, giving off waves of mingled love and anxiety—I'm sorry, are you all right? Maybe I should have... Rowan started. And Jennifer could feel the others, too—when her walls had come down, the others had felt her distress as well.
I'm fine, I'm fine, Jennifer reassured everyone. I just... maybe I'll leave the walls down, for now.
I know it's hard to get used to, Naomi reassured her, her mind-voice warm and reassuring in Jennifer's head. Everyone's thoughts, and feelings, all so close. It is not so strong when we are in human shape, and it grows weaker with distance, but the bond is still there. But one does get used to it.
I hope so, Jennifer thought back.
But I will help you learn to build barriers, so you can choose when you wish to be open, and when to close yourself away, said Naomi. Rowan loves you dearly—there isn't a one of us who could possibly doubt it—but there are things those born as werewolves can't truly understand. When you're used to being alone in your own mind, suddenly having an entire pack only a thought away is overwhelming—and it's not the comfort that Rowan has always known it to be.
Yes! That's exactly how I feel, Jennifer thought back, with a wave of gratitude.
All the while, Rowan was there, by her side, a steadying force. The physical contact, one furry body against another, was a great comfort.
Would you like me to help you form a wall with just you and Rowan? It's what you'll want to do later, anyways, once the running's done, Naomi thought.
What do you mean, what we'll want to do later... Jennifer began, but then she noticed that Rowan was... well, the best way she could think to describe it was the telepathic equivalent of a blush.
M-mom! Rowan sputtered.
In response, Naomi leaned over and licked Rowan's forehead. Now, now, I remember what it was like for me, after the first change. After brushing so close to death, you want to remember you're alive. She chuckled.
I remember it too, Annabel added, with a glow of pleasant nostalgia suffusing her mind-voice. Still, perhaps we should leave the reminiscing for later.
I'll look forward to it, Naomi replied. Now, Jennifer, I'll help guide you through this—Rowan told you to build a wall, but I've found that walls are sometimes too sturdy of a metaphor, if that makes sense—perhaps try a curtain, something that can veil you from sight, but which can be easily whisked aside when you want to let others in.
That does make sense, said Rowan. A wall's always worked fine for me, though.
Hush, dear, let her work, Annabel chided. Rowan gave a little mock-growl in response, but subsided.
Observe what I'm doing carefully, and follow me. See if you can replicate it later, said Naomi. Now, bring the curtain around...
Jennifer felt Naomi's mental presence enfolding her, building a new barrier—making use of a somewhat less-sturdy metaphor, but one which was still effective, and somehow she could tell that the barrier stretched far enough to hold Rowan, as well. Jennifer tried to follow Naomi's lead, and the barrier became her own; she felt Naomi's presence recede.
Did it work? Rowan asked.
Jennifer closed her eyes, resting her head on her paws. She could still feel the other pack members... but faintly. She could tell that they were there, but not much else.
Mom—that is, Naomi—says to tell you that it's not a full block, but you can try strengthening it if you want—or she'll help you do it, Rowan said.
I can feel the others a little—but it's not bad. They can feel me the same way, right—that I'm there, and doing okay, but not too many of the details? Jennifer replied.
There was a slight pause. She says yes, Rowan replied. I guess I can serve as your go-between for now.
Sorry, Jennifer said. I'll... try and be less nervous.
No, no, take all the time you need. If you want me to do this for the rest of our lives, then I'll just get used to passing messages on. Rowan leaned over and nuzzled Jennifer's cheek with her muzzle. You have nothing to be sorry for. You're here, and we're okay. We're okay, and we're together.
Again, the warmth of Rowan's love enfolded Jennifer, and she did her best to return the feeling in kind.
Okay, Jennifer thought. I guess I can't just lie around forever. Jennifer got carefully up onto all fours. She wriggled her toes a bit, getting a feel for her new feet. They still seemed a bit strange, but they were rapidly becoming less so.
She opened her jaw, then closed it, feeling the way her new face worked. She ran her tongue around her mouth, then let her mouth flop open, panting open-mouthed for a few moments.
She felt... good. After the ordeal she'd just been through, she wouldn't have thought it—but that ordeal seemed to be ebbing away in a way that didn't seem quite natural. It had hurt—but she didn't feel truly traumatized. Though she certainly didn't want to feel it again, the memory had grown rapidly softer, and fuzzier—no longer something pure and sharp and real.
Perhaps it was an aftereffect of the magic that had transformed her. Whatever it was, she was grateful.
In any case—it was over and done with. Never again, Rowan had promised. She would never have to hurt like that again in order to change. She was a werewolf now, truly and purely.
She could sense Rowan's anticipation. Come with me, said Rowan. Come with me, into the deep woods—there's so much I want to show you, so much I want you to see, and smell—isn't the air just perfect? And the sky is clear—it couldn't be a better night!
Jennifer looked up at the gently glowing moon overhead, hanging full and heavy. It seemed... benevolent, somehow. Kindly.
She knew that some werewolves worshipped the moon as a goddess, though Rowan wasn't especially religious. Jennifer, on the other hand... well, she wasn't religious at the moment, though she'd held onto the vague belief that there could be some higher power out there, watching over the world.
The religion she'd been raised in had rejected her for who she was, but she missed the comfort of being part of it—of being able to go to a church, surrounded by fellow worshippers, and sing praises.
She'd felt something, back when she was young—something she'd thought was God's presence. A feeling in her heart—like she was known, and loved more than she could ever imagine.
Faith was something she'd been raised to.
On the one hand, wanting to believe in something didn't seem like a good reason to believe. But on the other...
Old habits died hard, she supposed.
Breaking away from her old faith had hurt. It still did, sometimes. But she couldn't go back.
This... she was curious to learn more about. She looked up to the moon, and imagined a goddess—some celestial woman, or perhaps a great shining she-wolf, watching over her children as they went about their lives.
She didn't know if it were true. But it was a comforting thought, and maybe there really was Someone out there.
Thank you, she thought, looking up at the night sky.
And for a moment, she felt something like she had, once, singing hymns at church—a feeling of joy, like a shaft of moonlight shining into her soul.
But then, she turned back to more immediate, earthly affairs—her partner, for one, who might be wondering why she'd been staring up at the sky. Or perhaps not—Rowan wasn't blocked off the same way the rest of the pack was.
Either way, Rowan didn't comment on it. Instead, she simply said, You want to go, now? Are you ready?
Yes, Jennifer replied. Now that she was beginning to feel more at home in her new skin, she wanted to try it out. Yes, yes, I'm ready, let's go!
The other werewolves nearby pricked up their ears, after a moment—presumably after Rowan had passed on the fact that the run was about to begin—and the air itself seemed to change, becoming thick with anticipation.
This was an old, old ritual, Jennifer knew. It was usual for a pack to gather on the first full moon night of each lunar cycle to run through the woods—and sometimes to hunt, as well, though that wouldn't be the case tonight. A successful transformation was life brought out of death; it would not, Jennifer gathered, be proper to bring more death during the night's run.
That, and Jennifer knew that the pack had brought a few deer back to Pinebend in the last week. A pack of werewolves had to consume less meat than an equivalent pack of wolves—werewolves could happily eat all the plant-based foods a normal human could, though they did have bad reactions to certain foods, like garlic and grapes, while in canine shape.
Still, they did tend to enjoy meat. That said, Jennifer remembered Rowan once mentioning that there were a few vegetarian werewolves down in Clearhaven, the next-nearest werewolf community. Though saying “next-nearest” didn't mean much—Clearhaven was a couple hours' drive away from Pinebend. Werewolf communities tended to be well-spread out, so as not to impinge upon each others' territory and deplete the prey population.
That, and there was a longstanding custom of keeping werewolf communities fairly small, harking back to the days when werewolves had tried to keep themselves more hidden from humanity.
There were still troubles between full-humans and werewolves, of course—sometimes there was violence—but on the whole, the world had gotten better.
And here, now, the forest absorbed all of Jennifer's attention. She itched to be moving, and almost of their own accord, her legs began to move her forward, first at a walk, then at a lope, and then, as the pack surged forward, at a full-blown run.
She could feel Rowan's joy at the sheer pleasure of moving, of simply existing in a body that could do so many wonderful things.
Jennifer wondered, briefly, if she'd view her human body differently, when she turned back—if it would become, in a small way, a wonder to her as well. This wolf-shape was good—but there were things about being human that were good, too. Hands, for one—and better color vision, for another.
And chocolate. Chocolate was also good.
She had always taken the abilities of her body for granted—taken so much for granted. She had gambled everything for this, and she had won the jackpot—and winning might just make her value what she'd had all the more.
But for now—now was the time to push this body to the limit.
Only it didn't seem to have limits, so far as endurance went. She'd been running—they'd all been running—for what felt like a long while. Some energy surged through her, something cool and gentle and sustaining.
The full moon forced werewolves to transform. But it also gave them strength.
As a pack, Rowan had told her, werewolves could run tirelessly beneath the full moon. Jennifer hadn't realized just how tireless she'd meant; she felt as if she could run forever, and never stop.
She felt a surge of joy at the sheer delight of moving through the forest, experiencing a whole new banquet of scents—pine, wood, soil, even the scent of her packmates was pleasant to her new, expanded senses.
Rowan's scent, of course, was best.
She told Rowan as much, over mindspeech, and received a laugh in response, and a reply of I feel the same about yours! Human, and wolf, as well.
Jennifer leaped into the air, vaulting over a fallen log. For a brief moment, it felt as if she were flying.
It felt as if there was nothing she couldn't do.
Yes, she thought. I've truly won.
The cool, fresh air; the scent of the forest; the presence of her new packmates around her; and the full moon—the glorious, brilliant full moon—shining above them in all its fullness—or, perhaps, in all Her fullness.
Her... seemed right, somehow.
Thank you, Jennifer thought, sending a simple prayer of gratitude up towards the heavens once again—and she felt a brightness swelling in her heart that she thought, perhaps, might be a You're welcome.
She's alive, and I'm alive, and it's a good, good night to be living, Rowan thought.
She could be with Jennifer in a way she never could before—not merely because they shared the split werewolf nature, but because they could now make mind-contact. She hadn't been able to feel Jennifer's emotions the way she could another werewolf's, for one thing. A werewolf could, if they put in an effort, possibly speak telepathically to a full-human—but the full-human would have more difficulty hearing than another werewolf would, and the full-human couldn't speak back.
This would mark a change in their relationship—for the better, Rowan hoped.
She chose this, Rowan thought. And she seems so happy!
To feel her lover's joy at discovering what it meant to be a werewolf was a joy all its own.
The werewolves wouldn't run all night, of course. It was traditional for pack members to gather, and either hunt or simply run together on the first full moon night, to celebrate and make use of the energy the full moon gifted them.
But while Rowan had always been athletic, and had always taken pride and pleasure in exercising her body's capabilities to the fullest, even she didn't want to do it for a full night—though she had no doubt she'd be capable of it under the full moon.
Though she wondered if Jennifer might.
Well, I'll stay with her if that's the case, Rowan thought. Until the moon sets, and releases us from this form.
One by one, the other werewolves broke off, either to spend time privately with their own mates, close friends, or immediate family, or to go back to Pinebend and to bed.
Eventually, only Rowan and Jennifer remained, still untiring.
They ran, together, long into the night, sometimes running side-by-side, sometimes breaking into impromptu games of chase, or races, or contests of who-can-leap-farther.
There was a somewhat childlike giddiness to the whole thing. But it was fun, and there was no shame in play.
Of course, as the night wore on, Rowan gently sought to guide Jennifer back around towards Pinebend. Better to reach the guest lodges by the time the moon's power wore off, or else they'd have to find their way back without the moon-gifted speed and endurance.
Jennifer followed her lead happily enough, though they took a brief detour to splash around a bit in a little brook that Rowan had always used to play in when she was little.
I bet you were an adorable puppy, said Jennifer.
I'm sure my mothers would be happy to show you the multiple albums they have of me at the time, Rowan thought back. Her birth-mother, Annabel, was an avid photographer—she'd even done it professionally in the past. She'd specialized in nature photography, which rather made sense for a werewolf.
For a while, little-Rowan had become her mother's favorite photography subject, going off the sheer volume of albums that were dedicated to that topic.
Ha! I'll ask them to show me! said Jennifer, rearing onto her hindlegs to fall forward with a splash.
Rowan turned slightly and, with a graceful dip of her head and flick of her jaw, splashed more water at Jennifer.
This resulted in an impromptu splash-fight.
It was two somewhat-soggy werewolves who made their way back to the guest lodge they'd be using for the night.
Some of the werewolves of the pack lived in human cities; it was far easier to have a steady job that way, and there were certain comforts that came along with urban life—such as steady internet access and cell service, for one. The wolves of Pinebend managed to support themselves through a variety of means—growing or hunting their own food, doing work that could be done away from larger civilization—a few of the wolves in Pinebend made furniture or handicrafts—or, in a few cases, living off of pensions. Some took work during only part of the year; some commuted.
Still, those who lived away from Pinebend were no less pack, and so there were guest lodges set up for those who wanted to come visit.
One of these had been reserved for Rowan and Jennifer—though Rowan wouldn't have used it, of course, had the transformation failed; she'd have spent the night at her mothers' home instead, and they would have grieved together.
By the time they got back, the moon had set. Rowan could feel her energy ebbing, slightly; she'd still feel the full moon's effects to some extent until the sun rose, but it grew somewhat weaker after the moon slipped beneath the horizon.
Ah, well; it had been a good night. Very good.
The door handle was made so that someone in wolf-shape could open it with a paw, and it had no lock; the two made their way inside.
It was rather small—one room, with a sizable bed to one side, and a wood stove for cooking and warmth during winter.
The one potential benefit to the moonset was that, now, Rowan could change back to human shape if she chose. Though she didn't know if she'd choose to do so; she rather liked sleeping in wolf-shape—
Rowan. I feel like... I can change back now. Is that right? Jennifer asked.
Yes, Rowan replied.
Will it hurt? Jennifer asked, with a twinge of fear.
No, no, never, never like that, Rowan reassured her, moving closer, pressing herself against Jennifer for reassurance. The change will come harder, when the moon is closer to new, but it will never hurt.
Jennifer leaned against her. Okay. She began to change.
Rowan watched as fur receded, and her lover's body reshaped itself into the human form Rowan had come to know very, very well.
“Rowan,” said Jennifer. “Can you change back? I'd like to...” And here she grinned, a wicked expression on her face. “I'd like to... what was it Naomi said? Remember that I'm alive. That we're alive.”
It had been a very good night so far, and it only seemed to be getting better.
Of course! Rowan replied.
She paused a moment to bolster her own mental barriers—and she stretched them out to cover Jennifer, as well; there were some things that didn't need to be shared with the rest of the pack; mind-contact with other werewolves might be weaker in human form, but it was still present.
Though there wasn't really much bolstering necessary; Naomi did good work. Still, it was good to make certain of things— Rowan was quite confident, now, that both of them would still be able feel, faintly, the presence of other werewolves around, but nothing more than that—and any other werewolves would know only that two werewolves were in the guest lodge.
With that out of the way, she transformed.
No sooner had she finished than Jennifer was upon her, her mouth seeking Rowan's.
“Mmh,” Rowan moaned softly as they kissed, her hands running up Jennifer's bare back.
This was a new thing she could share with Jennifer—the way the mental bond could amplify things. She could feel that Jennifer was enjoying herself, and Jennifer could feel the same—and that knowledge only made their enjoyment all the stronger.
Jennifer broke away, abruptly. “Bed,” she said. “Please.”
“Well, since you asked so nicely,” Rowan said, grinning.
It didn't look like either of them was going to be getting much sleep that night.
But neither of them was about to complain.
We're alive. We're together.
Everything is going to be more than all right.