I was sore from bed, and frankly I felt I had to get out of the Keep for a while to clear my head. A walk in the forest would do me good, I figured, let the cool crisp late-autumn air revitalize me.
I had still not yet adjusted to life at the Keep, or even its surrounding areas. Even this early in Autumn, it didn't take much of a journey up the mountainside to encounter snow. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, enjoying the scent of the pure, white, innocent blanket surrounding me.
I trekked further up the mountain, and found that the air had enough moisture to pleasantly sting the inside of my rodent nose, as well as cutting off my visibility further than a reasonable distance. The smell and feel of the pure solitude was quite invigorating.
I stood up as straight as my stocky build would allow, and stretched, cracking my back in several places. The warm feeling which came was intense and pleasant. I opened my eyes, and looked around again, my somewhat near-sighted vision renewed.
The forest around me was interesting in its composition. Although most of the trees were aspens, the peaceful monotony was interrupted almost regularly with an occasional pine, and a single willow loomed nearby. The aspens particularly appealed to me, distinctly greenish and yet nearly as white as the snow on the ground surrounding them. Their succulent leaves beckoned me with their sweetly pungent aroma, and their bark I knew would be wonderful to sink my incisors into. I waddled over to one particularly thick aspen, crouched over, and bit into its sweet, juicy flesh, starting to gnaw away at the base of the wood.
It was then that I noticed the familiar shade of red out of the corner of my eye. It was on the ground, beside the lone willow in the middle of the otherwise-aspen forest. Just as suddenly, I noticed the distinct, yet faint, sound of chewing. I wasn't as alone as I thought.
I paused, and gathered my thoughts. I took a few final gnaws of the tree's wood, knowing that the moist air would keep its flesh from losing its taste too quickly, but not caring, knowing I would soon lose my appetite. I slowly stood up, turned towards the tree, and looked at the shade of red on the ground, the cloth piled upon the snow. Almost the exact same shade of red as on a good quarter of my body.
I sighed, more audibly than I intended.
The chewing stopped.
"Hello?" came an all-too-familiar voice from behind the tree. Around the left side of the willow furtively appeared a familiar face.
It was her.
"Oh. It's... you," she said, with a sigh.
I grunted. "Don't be so happy to see me."
"I... sorry. I didn't mean to..." she said, trailing off.
"Don't be," I said, not meaning it.
We stared at each other for a short eternity.
"So," she churred, finally breaking the silence, "what brings you out here?" She smiled a little, worry in her eyes.
"I needed a walk, needed a good gnaw."
"Oh." And then, "Me too."
I nodded, and grunted softly.
She timidly began to climb down the tree, slowly, not taking her eyes off me. "If you like, I can just--"
"No, don't bother," I said, "I'll go somewhere else." I began to turn around.
"No-- wait. Please."
I stopped turning, sighed, closed my eyes for a second, and turned back towards her. I found myself impatiently tapping my foot without thinking. "Mmm?" I asked.
She finished her frustratingly slow descent to the ground, and timidly sidestepped from behind the tree, shyly revealing herself almost completely. She was just as I saw her last, so shapely, so-- no, I reminded myself, I mustn't think of that, I can't let myself....
She leaned to her left, put her shoulder against the tree, pulled her legs together, rubbing them against each other a bit nervously. Her eyes quivered, and it seemed she might begin to cry.
I sighed, and leaned back against the aspen tree behind me. I felt it bend a little under my weight. I didn't want to leave, didn't want to leave hern, but certainly didn't want to stay...
She looked down, nervously played with her robe with the finger-like toes of her right foot. I sighed, leaned further against the tree, feeling a few insignificant fibres in the chewed-out base snap. I crossed my arms, trying not to think about whether the pattern lined up.
"Are you going to say anything," I said with deliberate malice, "or are we just going to look at each other until we freeze?"
My remark hurt her. Good.
She sniffed a little, sighed, and bent down, picking up her robe. She pulled her long, black and white quills close to her back, and slipped the snow-soaked crimson garment on. She then rolled to her right against the tree, disappearing from my view.
I heard her begin to cry. God, why did she have to cry like that. Was she always like this, even before she was this -- this woman? She had told me she never was very masculine to begin with.... Those were happier times, when she said that, before she...
I felt my paws involuntarily clench. Before she ruined my life.
"Pascal," I said, trying not to sound too angry but coming out angry anyway.
"What," she said from behind the tree, tears in her voice.
She was only trying to be open with me, only trying to bond. She ruined my life. She did it because...
She did it because she loved me.
I felt my paws relax. I relaxed too, I couldn't keep up the anger. The rose she gave me had a thorn, one which stuck me and stayed there and still hurt greatly....
And I just couldn't hate her for it. I began to feel water in my eyes... probably was the humidity. I wiped it away with the back of my paw, the perfectly-black-furred back of my paw. Part of the rose she gave me.
I plodded forward by the left of the tree, looking to my right, seeing her looking up at the branches of the willow, tears wetting the fur on the sides of her face.
I sighed, and did the only thing I could do. I stood in front of her, wrapped my plaid-furred arms around her back, and held her close, resting my head on her right shoulder as she cried into the fur on my face. I couldn't help but try to comfort her while I was absently not-looking at where the black fur on the back of my paw gave way to the cream-yellow skin of the palm, the diagonal border between black and dark-red, thinking about the rose she gave me, thinking about all the love and all the hate and all the confusionn and trying to sort out what exactly I didn feel...
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." She cried more, coughing spasmodically on her tears.
I just closed my eyes and held her closer, unwilling to forgive her but unable not to.
Shivering on the edge of her bed, wrapped in a warm blanket, feet immersed in a tub of steaming-hot water, she barely gripped a hot bowl of noodle-and-broth soup which she occasionally dared to take a small swallow out of.
"Feeling any better?" I asked, for the first time in months concerned for her well-being.
"Uh-h-h-huh," she managed to say, shivering.
I wondered how she could get so much colder than me out there. Our fur was about the same thickness, and yet I was barely affected by the snow. And she had a robe, on top of all that... which was wet with the snow. Absent-minded and foolish, I thought, mentally scorning her.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"N-n-nno, thanks-s, I'm f-fine."
She nodded, without trying to say anything, a little squeak coming out through her black-and-white nose. She let her head relax downward. Tears were in her eyes.
I sighed, bracing myself for what I had to say. "I've been doing some thinking."
She looked up at me and sniffed, the sides of her nostrils bowing momentarily inward.
"There's worse things you could have done."
"G-g-good to h-hear," she said with a tone of bitter sarcasm, and proceeded to look downwards again.
"No, I mean, really. I... at least you didn't color me like you," I said, with my best attempt at a joking smile.
She contemplated angrily for a moment, and then briefly smiled a small amount. Even through her shivering and uncertainty... God how I loved her smile. The way her incisors stuck out just so, little flecks of white, framed by her zebra-striped lips and below by her magenta chin. It didn look good on her, as odd of a coloring it was.
"I mean, then people wouldn't be able to tell us apart, save for the quills. That'd be a nightmare, you know?" I grinned foolishly, as much as my relatively-toothless rodent dentition would allow.
She uncertainly smiled a bit more, a look of hopeful confusion on her face. She wasn't shivering as much now. Good, though her quills were involuntarily erecting.
"I mean, it was bad enough those few days after we met. Everyonen thought I was you until word spread. Can't blame 'em, either, seeing as how physically I wasn you, or how you are in your odder moments." I chuckled. "Looking back on it, that was pretty funny, I mean, in an odd, youn sort of way, even if you didn't mean it as a joke."
That seemed to catch her off-guard. Her jaw lay slightly agape and her quills lay relaxed, and aside from a slight regularly-spasmodic quiver, her shivering had entirely stopped. I could barely see the striation of her dimly-lit tongue.
"Really?" she asked. "I mean... er, thanks. I think."
I smiled. "Yeah, really."
She smiled completely, now. With a greater feeling of confidence, she put the bowl of now-warm broth to her lips and drank the remaining liquid. She closed her eyes, and I could almost see the warmth growing inside of her.
"I'm... I'm glad you're not mad at me for... that... anymore." She put the bowl of broth-boiled noodles down on her nightstand, pulled her feet out of the tub, and shook them off, little droplets of lukewarm water cascading off the tips of her claws and gently splattering onto the warm slate-stone floor of her bedroom.
She stood up and stretched with her arms down at her sides, shrugging her shoulders upwards with her eyes closed. I faintly heard a few of her vertebrae crack, and she inhaled, swelling her four-times rounded chest, held the breath a few seconds, then exhaled, mrring, in pleasure.
She walked over to her closet, leaving quickly-drying footprints on the gray slate floor, and selected a robe identical to the water-soaked one she wore before. After a moment's thought, she elected not to put it on, and simply draped it on the foot of her bed, and gracefully sat down beside the garment.
"Thank you, Michael," she said. "For... not leaving me out there in the cold. I appreciate it. And... for the hug, too."
I closed my eyes and shook my head. "I should have done it a long time ago." I sighed. "I did a lot of thinking on the way back, and I realized something out there. I couldn't hurt you, even if you did do this to me. It was a gift, and I hurt you by first accepting it, and then not wanting anything to do with it. Now it's a part of me, just like being a beaver is. I can't change what the Keep has done to me, and this was just your sort of... welcoming present. Sort of part of the Keep's magic. I'm going to have to live with it, so I should at least try to enjoy it."
She looked at me deeply, and her eyes began to glisten with moisture. "I... I'm glad you've... changed your mind. I was afraid you'd... you'd never speak to me again."
I stood up from the chair, careful not to let my cream-yellow tail pull it up with me, and walked over to her, gently placing my paw to her chin and looking into her eyes. "Pascal, you've forced me to accept my new life. It's going to be strange, no matter what. Your own brand of strangeness is just one of the many, MANY things around here, and it's certainly more welcoming than somen of what I've gotten so far. Everyone else can laugh at me for all I care, because I know that I have something they don't. I have the favor, and the first custom coloration job, of the court alchemist.
"The other woodsmen can mock me by wearing clothes in my new colors, but the joke's on them. They have to wear clothes to keep warm, but myn plaid jacket is a part of me. They have to find the colors and repair and wash and sew, and the colors they find are always inferior. Myn plaid is right from the source, and created by a genuine expertn in colors!" This made her smile in a way which I imagined to carry a blush under her fur. I continued. "And the joke's on them -- they're not mocking me, they're following the lead you set for me. Perhaps in the future, alln lumberjacks will wear plaid, and nobody'll know why. An eternal joke on me? Perhaps. Or perhaps my-- your-- ourn eternal joke on them.
"I'mn sorry, for not realizing what a gift you gave me before." I looked down at my plaid-furred body, stretched my arms out to my sides while idly waving my cream-yellow tail side to side. "This is me now. Thank you."
She smiled -- oh, that smile again -- and little tears began to dampen her cheeks. She wiped her eyes on the inner, furred part of her right wrist. She continued to stand before me, smiling, speechless.
"C'mon, now," I said, "let's go and get dinner. I'm starved."
"Okay," she half-whispered, her sweet voice gracing my ears for the first time in an eternity of minutes.
I carefully wrapped my arms around her back, embracing her gently, and nuzzled and kissed her right cheek, tasting her pleasantly-salty tears. I held her for an eternity which was not long enough.
As before, in happier times, we walked together, naked save for our colors, past the stares and snide, whispered jokes of the less-eloquent members of the Keep. We made our way outside, to the sunny fields at the mountain's base, and together we gnawed on the bark of a lone willow.