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Dec 14

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What the Fox Says

This takes place between Underdogs: Beware of Wolf and Dogs of War, but there aren’t exactly many spoilers for either novel. There’s a hint of the ongoing story but for the most part you can ignore. And then there’s the question of whether the things in this story actually happen or if it’s just some weirdness.

Summary: After an argument, Ari and Dale find themselves facing a potentially life-changing situation.

Coffee and late-night television.

Dale remembered the nights as a kid when she was allowed to stay up late, or when she just turned on the TV in her bedroom after lights out. Back then it was all infomercials or the channels would go off-air until it was time for early news or cartoons. Now there were all sorts of things waiting to be watched no matter when she went looking. She didn’t much like coffee but it kept her awake better than tea. The shock of its taste was enough to join with the caffeine to make sure she didn’t drift off.

It was a few days before Christmas, and the second wave of snow was dancing to and fro between the city and the mountains. Dale was all too aware of the freezing temperatures and the deep snow that could conceal ditches or holes that would cause all sorts of problems for a wolf. And if Ari transformed in the middle of a field, she would have much greater concerns than leaving behind an odd set of footprints. Frostbite, hypothermia… she could freeze to death if she couldn’t reach one of the stashes.

The night may have been silent, but it was far from still. Dale spent the time wrapping presents with the TV on for company. She was Jewish and Ari Wiccan and they celebrated their independent holidays as well, but Christmas was so ubiquitous and unavoidable that they couldn’t help but celebrate that as well. They had boiled it down to Ari does something for Dale during Hanukkah, Dale did something for her on Yule, and they did things for each other on Christmas.

Her mind wasn’t on the gifts she was wrapping, and the incessant choir music coming from the TV didn’t help ease her mind. She’d gone to bed with Ari but when she woke at three to use the bathroom, the other side of her bed was empty. She wasn’t surprised. It had been a few days since Ari let the wolf run free so she had expected a run sooner rather than later. She puttered around the bedroom for a while, lay down with her phone on her stomach, and eventually got up and went out into the living room.

The previous night’s freezing rain had turned to snow. Dale stood at the window and looked out, cradling her coffee with both hands as she thought of Ari out there by herself. Alone in the cold. She paced back to the couch and sat down. She curled her legs under her, tugging the hem of her sweater around her knees. Tugging the sleeves down over her arms pulled the collar down on her shoulder, but she didn’t care.

She fell asleep sometime before the gray and overcast dawn. It was daybreak in name only, a shifting pattern of gray, and she checked to make sure she hadn’t missed a call. She made herself breakfast with tea and waited until eight before she started calling shelters. Sometimes Ari got picked up by animal control and became a guest of the city’s finest kennels. The trick was trying to figure out which one was holding her girlfriend for ransom.

By noon she’d covered the usual bases without any luck. She called Ari’s cell phone, the office number just in case she had gone in, and there was no response. After a bit of back-and-forth with herself, she finished dressing and drove to work. It wasn’t unusual for Ari to run a little marathon, especially after being pent up for a while. The wolf was just stretching its legs. There was no reason to worry.

Then, just before five o’clock, Dale’s phone rang.

#

Twenty-five hours after Dale woke up alone, her phone rang again. This time the voice on the other end of the line did belong to Ari. She sounded weak, cold, and a little frightened.

“Dale?”

“Ari… where are you?”

She chuckled without humor. “Snohomish.”

Dale was stunned. “That’s over thirty miles away!”

“Believe me, I know. I can barely stand up. There’s a little burger place on the north side of the Snohomish River on Avenue D. They let me use their phone.”

Dale was already up, tugging a sweater on over her pajama shirt. “I’ll find it. Stay there.”

“Hey. You okay?”

“Fine. Wait for me.” She hung up and put on her shoes as she checked her phone’s map. She found the street and plotted her course. Most places in Seattle she could find on autopilot thanks to the wolf generally staying in its own territory. But Snohomish? That was way out of the circle. She put a hat on over her bedhead hair and left the apartment.

One perk of retrieving Ari in the middle of the night was the lack of traffic. But despite making excellent time, she was still not getting back to bed until five. Already exhausted from a restless night and a stressful day of not knowing where Ari was, she was grumpy as she pulled up in front of the diner and flashed her headlights. Ari came outside wearing a grease-smeared pair of coveralls zipped to the collar. When she folded herself into the passenger seat, Dale took a glance at the name sewn on the breast.

“Who’s Allen?”

“Someone at a garage about half a mile from here who will have to do without his dirty coveralls for the day.” Ari pressed back against the seat, stretching her legs as she rolled her neck. “God, I’m exhausted. I’m going to catch some sleep…”

Dale tightened her hands on the steering wheel. “You’re welcome.”

Ari opened her eyes. “Huh?”

“Middle of the night, not to mention staying up half of last night on the off-chance you called me for help. But no, I understand. You’re exhausted. Don’t let me disturb you. Go back to sleep.”

Ari stared at her. “I thought we were…” She stopped and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I know I don’t usually stay out so long. With this wolf manoth thing hanging over our heads next month, I’ve been neglecting the wolf. I felt bad, so I let it run a little crazy.”

“Fine.”

“Dale, I’m sorry. You know I appreciate you doing this for me.”

“I said fine. Can we drop it? You’re not the only one in the car who is tired.”

Ari stared at her for a long moment, then shook her head and looked away. “Fine.”

They carried the silence all the way back to Seattle. Ari was dozing off and on so she didn’t notice they were at her apartment until the car rolled to a stop. She frowned.

“Wow, you’re really pissed off at me this time, aren’t you?”

“You were gone a whole day,” Dale said softly.

Ari said, “I know. I should have apologized for that.”

“You were gone a whole day,” Dale said again, “so I did what you told me to do. Yesterday morning I called all the shelters and pounds to ask if you’d been brought in. You hadn’t. Obviously. But then later in the afternoon, one of them called back. ‘Miss Frye. We’re so sorry, but we have your dog. She was hit by a truck. We’re doing what we can, but…’” She caught her breath and closed her eyes. “She was dying. I ran, Ari. I almost forgot I had a car and I ran. I thought it was you.”

“Shit. Dale, I’m…”

“Don’t…” She stopped Ari from coming in for a hug. “When I saw that it wasn’t you, I was… I was relieved, of course. But afterward I got pissed. I had no idea where you were. I never have any idea where you are. Do you understand what that’s like?” She nodded out the window. “See that snow? The ice? I wake up in the middle of the night and I know you’re out in that, maybe naked and barefoot, and all I can do is sit and wait for a call. When you get out of the car, I’m going home and I’m going to turn off my phone and sleep until… whenever I wake up. Until I feel rested. But right now I just… I don’t want to worry about you for a few hours.”

Ari looked so distraught that Dale nearly apologized and took back her rant. But finally Ari nodded and said, “That’s fair. I guess, ah… I guess call me when you’re ready to forgive me.”

“I will.”

“Love you.”

“I love you, too,” Dale said. “I do. I know that this isn’t something we can fix, it’s just something I have to live with. And I’m fine with it most of the time. It’s just been a really bad day, and I need some time by myself.”

“Okay. I get it.”

Ari leaned in to kiss Dale almost chastely before she got out of the car and walked up to her building. She looked back and waved before she went inside, and Dale waved back. She waited until Ari had disappeared before she pulled away from the curb. In the silence, a fog bank drifted down the street in the wake of Dale’s car, obscuring both vehicle and building from sight for a handful of seconds. When it cleared the sky opened to reveal the last glimmer of stars before night gave in to day.

#

Dale woke up after spending almost ten minutes trying to fruitlessly avoid the reek pervading her apartment. In her sleep she had covered her head with the pillow and then dragging the blanket up over it. There were tears in her eyes from the odor, and she tried not to choke as she retreated to the living room. She opened the window despite the fact it was below freezing outside, gulping in the fresh air. There was a stink out there as well, and she groaned as she looked for some sort of relief from the stench.

Someone knocked and she lurched to the door, half-awake and in a daze. She knew she was in her underwear but she didn’t care. She could tell it was Ari before she even turned the knob, so she didn’t bother asking before letting her in. She also knew Ari had two cups of coffee, and the smell of the ambrosia was almost enough to cut through everything else. She threw open the door, took one cup, and held it in front of her face so that the steam enveloped her head. She took a long drink and sighed as the overwhelming smell helped ease the assault.

Ari was torn between surprise and confusion, but her overwhelming expression was of repentance. Dale waved her inside and shut the door behind her. Ari had a bag over her shoulder, and she placed it on the table as she looked around suspiciously.

“God, Dale, it’s freezing in here…”

“It smells. There’s something dead in the walls, I don’t know…”

Ari took a deep breath and shook her head. “I don’t smell anything.”

That cut through Dale’s stupor. “You can’t smell anything? What about the wolf’s nose?”

“No. I think the wolf is feeling guilty about what she did. She’s been quiet today. Look, we need to talk. Can we go to the office?”

“Sure. Let me go put on some pants…”

Dale went down the hall to her bedroom. She gagged when she entered the cloud again and tugged the collar of her T-shirt up over her nose. She had pulled on her skirt when Ari appeared in the bedroom doorway with her head tilted back so she could scent the air.

“That reek you’re smelling. Is it like shoes being burnt with pickles?”

“Yes. God, you do smell it?”

“Usually,” Ari said. “Your neighbors cook it at least three times a week. Most days the smell lingers until early evening.”

Dale frowned. “So why have I never smelled it before?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know why you’re smelling it now but I’m not.”

“Well, whatever the reason, hopefully it won’t cling to us if we go quickly. Come on…”

Ari was looking down at her hands. “Hold on.”

“What?”

“I can’t change.”

Dale stopped and looked at Ari’s hands. “What do you mean?”

Ari shrugged. “I’m pushing myself to transform into the wolf, and nothing’s happening.” She flexed her fingers and looked at the palms. “Not even a twinge. Combined with the missing senses…”

“Are you saying you lost the wolf?”

“I don’t know what I’m saying, Dale. Just give me a second.”

Dale grimaced. “Can we think in the kitchen? Or the car? This is really killing me. We can go see Dr. Frost and see what he has to say about the wolf going AWOL.”

Ari nodded absently and followed Dale out of the bedroom.

#

Aaron Frost had an office downtown where he treated human patients, but as a canidae he treated those like him in a side practice. Ari was one of his most frequent customers due to the unusual nature of her birth, and he often allowed her to make house calls. His office was currently closed due to Christmas, but Dale called ahead to let him know she was coming and he told her to come on by. She parked in his driveway and led Ari up the driveway, glancing back to see Ari leaning toward one of the bushes along the side of the house.

“Anything?”

“Not much.” Ari said, “I want you to know I’m not just… blowing this out of proportion so we don’t have to talk about last night. I know we have to talk about it, and I know you were a hundred percent right.”

“I didn’t think that,” Dale said. “But thank you.”

Dr. Frost had been watching for them and came out as they arrived at the porch. “Ms. Frye, Ms. Willow. Lovely to see you both again.” He ushered them into the house. “Is everything all right?”

“Hopefully,” Dale said. “Have you ever heard of a canidae hibernating?”

He blinked in surprise and then scratched the back of his head. “Hibernating? How do you mean? And what does it have to do with you?”

Ari said, “I can’t change. I can’t even really smell the way I should.”

Frost looked at her and narrowed his eyes. “Okay…”

Dale was emboldened by his lackadaisical reaction. “This has happened before, then?”

He looked back at her. “What has happened before?”

“Ari can’t change.”

“Yes. We’ve been over that several times. A relationship between a human and a vulpes is uncommon, certainly, but you seem to have made–”

Dale and Ari both stopped him. “Whoa, whoa,” Dale said. “What’s a vulpes?”

Canidae vulpes. Fox,” Ari said.

Dr. Frost nodded at Dale. “Yes. A fox shifter. You.”

“Me? What…”

“You’re a vixen. A fox.”

Ari said, “And you said we were a mixed couple. So I’m… I’m not…”

“You’re a run-of-the-mill human,” Dr. Frost confirmed with a confused smile. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. Now… if you’ll forgive a foggy old man who is having a hard time following this conversation, would you kindly explain why you came to me?”

Dale took a deep breath. “I think we’re going to need something a lot stronger than anything you have to offer.”

#

Dale retreated to the living room where Ari found her examining the Christmas tree. She was touching one of the ornaments and saw Ari’s approach in the curved reflection and she managed to fake a smile before she turned around. “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Ari held out her arms and Dale accepted the hug. To her surprise she sagged against Ari almost immediately, her eyes burning with tears she thought she’d managed to stop. She hid her face against the material of Ari’s jacket. “I’m here for you.”

“I know. Thank you.” She sniffled and closed her eyes. “I’m going to die.”

“No.” There wasn’t a moment of hesitation in Ari’s response. She put her hands on Dale’s shoulders and pushed her back. “You’re not going to die.”

Dale said, “You heard what Dr. Frost said! I’m a… vulpes. Eventually the fox is going to take over and it’s going to cripple me horribly. I’ll either die or I’ll be traumatized beyond surviving.”

Ari shook her head. “Whatever is going on here, it’s not news to anyone but us. Dr. Frost told me he’s seen you transform. He’s seen you as a fox before. So it stands to reason you’ll be able to withstand the change.”

“Why… why do you look happy about that?”

Ari smothered her smile and shook her head. “I’m not. But… I am. Dale, ever since we started dating, I’ve wished there was a way you could experience this the way I do. It causes pain, it was forced on me without a choice, but the idea of losing the wolf is devastating to me. The only reason I’m not sobbing in the corner is because I know you’ll need me. And because now you can understand what it’s like on the other side. And I can understand what it’s like for you.”

Dale sniffled and wiped her knuckle across her eye. “But how is this even possible?”

“I… don’t know.”

Dale caught Ari glancing over her shoulder and turned to see she had stolen a look at the tree. “Oh, come on. That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it? Because unless Dr. Frost is playing a weirdly elaborate prank on us, that seems like the best explanation. Or at least the most likely to be true.”

“A Christmas miracle? Come on, Ari.”

“You have anything better? You woke up with a canidae’s sense of smell and I woke up without it. And that’s just a couple of hours after we have a fight about the wolf? A few days before Christmas?”

Dale put her hands on her forehead. “This is all just a bad nightmare.”

“Then which one of us is having it?”

“I don’t know. My head hurts.”

Ari said, “Hurts how? Is it a normal throbbing?”

Dale looked at her. “I don’t know. What does an abnormal throbbing feel like?” She closed her eyes. “It’s kind of a jagged pain.”

“You’re trying to change.”

Dale recoiled. “No. How do I stop?”

“Just relax. Dr. Frost? Can you come in here?” She rubbed Dale’s arms. “Just relax, honey. I’ll walk you through the first time.”

“I don’t want to change.”

“Neither did I. My mother had to force me into it.” The doctor arrived and Ari said, “Doc, Dale’s going through the first stages of transformation. We might need your help.”

Dr. Frost said, “Okay. I’m not sure why. But whatever is going on, I’m here to help.”

Ari took Dale to the couch and sat her down. “Can I get a blanket or something?” He went to retrieve it as Dale began rubbing her temples. “You’re going to have to undress before you transform and you’ll be naked when you regain human form. So you need to be sure not to let it happen when you’re running down the street in front of a dozen people.” She frowned. “Oh. And there’s another problem.”

“Good. I was thinking we didn’t have enough.”

“When I’m a wolf, I can pass for a regular house pet. People see me and they think ‘dog’ before they go to wolf. But a fox is pretty distinctive. We have to be sure that no one calls animal control and that they don’t shoot first and ask questions later.”

Dale said, “Shoot…?”

“There’s a wooded area nearby,” Frost said as he came back with a blanket. “If she stays within its confines, she shouldn’t cause too much of a ruckus.”

Ari draped the blanket over Dale, holding it up so Dale could nervously undress underneath it. “Your joints are going to start aching. It’ll feel like they’re being squeezed, especially your elbows and knees. Your lower back and hips will be even worse.”

“What about my face?” Dale said. “I’ve seen your face when you shift, Ari. How bad does that hurt? When it… when you…”

“It hurts,” Ari said softly. “Have you ever dislocated your shoulder and popped it back into place?”

“No.”

“Oh. Well, it sort of feels like that. The first blast of pain makes you feel like you’re going to die, but once you’re in the wolf… or fox form, it fades away with a wave of adrenaline and endorphins. Having a canidae in your head is like…” She searched for the words.

Frost said, “Think of the most vivid dream you’ve ever had. In the dream everything seems perfectly real, authentic. It doesn’t even occur to you that it’s not really happening. That’s what transforming is. You’re becoming your true self, waking up from a dream of being human. Your body is doing what it’s naturally supposed to do. But how…” He looked at Ari. “How do you understand it so well?”

“Because until this morning, I was a wolf and Dale was a human.”

Dale’s jaw popped and Ari reached under the blanket to hold her hand. “I’m right here, sweetheart. You can squeeze my hand as hard as you need to.”

Dale closed her eyes and ducked her head, opening her mouth in a silent scream as her body contracted under the blanket. Ari watched as Dale stretched her jaw out as if she was yawning. Her toes curled and she tightened her grip on Ari’s hand. She grunted something that might have been an apology but Ari brushed it off.

“Hard as you need, babe. Break my hand if you have to. I’m here.”

Dale suddenly thrust back against the couch as something within her snapped. Ari jumped at the sound and fought the rush of nausea that came with hearing Dale’s bones break. After the initial wave of snaps and shifts, the transformation progressed quickly. Ari watched as Dale’s face took on a new shape, wider at the jaw and flatter on top. Her hair became red and white fur, and she only pulled her hand away seconds before the fingers snapped and reformed into black paws. It felt far longer, but only seconds after Dale surrendered to the transformation, she had been replaced on the couch by a beautiful red fox.

She shuddered and looked up at Ari, at Frost, and then looked back at herself. Her tail flicked up from beneath the blanket. It was thick and red-brown with a tuft of white on the tip. Dale looked at it, watched it flip twice, and then released a quietly quizzical yelp.

“How do you feel?”

Dale shuddered and licked her lips, although Ari figured she was feeling her teeth. Ari cupped the side of Dale’s head and bent down to kiss her nose. “You’re beautiful, babe.”

Dale took a deep breath and licked Ari’s face before she stood up to shake the blanket off. She half-tripped off the couch, stood shakily on her four legs, and shook herself violently.

“The woods,” Ari said. “Where are they?”

Frost gestured. “She can go out the back door. Right through here.” He led them into the kitchen and held the door open for Dale. “Out through the fence, along the alleyway. You’ll go left on the dead-end street and then up the embankment into the trees. No one should bother you if you’re quick enough.”

“Remember, we’re near Portage Bay. The closest stash is by the Montlake Tennis Court. I’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” Ari promised.

Dale made a sharp coughing sound that could have been a bark, then cautiously ventured out into the snow. She crossed the back porch and looked back, ears twitching, then she yipped once more and headed off at a leisurely trot. Ari watched from the back door until Dale disappeared through the open gate, fighting the urge to chase after her to make sure she was all right.

Frost was watching her. “That whole thing… the…” He waved his hand. “What you told me, it was all true, wasn’t it?”

“It is. As far as we know, you’ve been treating me for the past few years. Not Dale. I’m a canidae. A wolf.”

“Incredible,” he whispered. “Well. It seems we have much to talk about and the time with which to do it. I’ll make us some coffee.”

#

She had a tail. For some reason her mind kept circling around to the fact she had a bushy tail that seemed like it was as long as her whole body. Once she was safely in the woods, she sat down and curled the tail around her front legs. Her front legs! She had four legs and a tail, and she was covered with fur. Her mind had reeled in the past – the discovery of canidae’s existence, Ari declaring her love, her mother dying – but this time the world seemed to literally swim back and forth like the center of a compass.

The pain had been indescribable. Ari once told her it was probably similar to getting kicked in the balls while giving birth as someone tried to draw-and-quarter her. But even then Dale thought she might have been understating it. Despite that, the memory was already fading to a point where she could imagine going through with it again. She would have to, if she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life as a fox. She licked her lips again and looked around, twitching her ears in response to the variety of sounds filling the air all around her. Tiny things scurried under the debris of fallen leaves, a whole microcosm underneath the snow and mud.

Don’t eat anything, she begged of her fox. Just fast for today and I’ll give you a lobster dinner tonight.

She’d overheard enough of Ari’s morning-after expulsions to know that sometimes the animal in her took over. Hopefully the fox would be a little more restrained, at least until they got things sorted out. She couldn’t begin to imagine a world where this was the norm.

And why not? This is Ari’s norm. She has to arrange her schedule around running a few nights every week. She has to accept it as a fact of life that she’s sharing a body with something she can only fractionally control, if that. Who am I to bitch about being stuck in this form?

She sniffed the ground and resisted the urge to scratch at her nose with both forepaws. Horrendous. Nature smelled horrible. That was what dirt really smelled like? And crushed leaves and fossilized potato bugs and ladybugs and shit and… snow? How could snow smell so bad? Wasn’t it just water? She opened her mouth and let her tongue loll, shocked at how natural it felt as she loped forward through the woods.

As she circled a tree trunk, she realized she had no idea what she was going to do. How did Ari fill the hours she spent wandering the city? Dale had often wondered but she never asked because it felt as if this was something private. She knew that Ari let the wolf run amok to a certain degree, but what did that entail? Digging holes, sniffing through trash? How was she going to let the fox get its fill of exercise without knowing what it expects from her?

Fox? Are you there?

She huffed a sigh. How stupid. Ari sometimes spoke of the wolf as a separate entity, but Dale knew it wasn’t anything like that. It was a side aspect of Ari, another part of her soul. Talking to the fox wouldn’t be any better than talking to herself.

Okay. I’ll talk to myself. Hello, foxy lady. Thank you for letting me borrow your fur coat. It’s very cozy. Surprisingly so. Okay, here’s the deal. You may know who I am, but I’ve never met you before today. I’ve never done this before. So I’m going to let you off the leash a little bit. Do whatever you need to do and then get back somewhere safe so I can change. I’m hoping you know where all the stashes are and you can get me there without being spotted.

She stretched her legs.

Oh, and please don’t eat anything. If it’s a half-eaten sandwich in the trash, maybe I can stomach that, but nothing living. God, nothing freshly-dead, either. Anything that’s been cooked is fair game. Okay. Be gentle.

She waited for her body to shoot off without her input. The fox just stood there.

Go on.

She swung her tail and waited. She sneezed as something particularly pungent reached her nose. Finally she decided she needed to try another tactic. She cleared her mind as much as possible, erecting a stone wall around how bizarre this moment was. She focused on the odor of the woods as if she could see it, since she almost could see it. It was like waves in the air. She picked one at random and followed it, waiting until her feet were in motion before she began reciting song lyrics in her head. She let her attention wander as she navigated around trees without thinking.

Her attention continued to fade, moving out of daydream into near slumber. She was aware but not consciously in charge of her movements, her steps becoming surer of themselves the deeper she went into the darkness. There was a moment of panic, a twinge as her brain rebelled at the idea of losing consciousness while her body was in motion, but she smothered it as the wolf began running.

#

Ari tried to explain the situation to the best of her ability, quite a feat considering she still didn’t know what had happened, but she was also stymied by the fact her attention kept being drawn back to the window. Frost pretended to ignore the first few interruptions, but finally he chuckled and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.

“You’re like the cartoon dog in that movie. Every two minutes, squirrel!”

Ari sighed. “She’s out there right now. Alone, in the snow.” She stood up and went to the window. “How can I just sit here and not do anything?”

“How does she?” Frost asked. “You said this is exactly what she does every night you’re out running. Not only that, she answers your calls in the middle of the night and comes to get you wherever you are. That sounds like an incredible sacrifice. It also sounds as if you’ve possibly been taking that for granted.”

“No. I’m… she knows how much I appreciate what she does for me.”

“Hm. Often in life it’s the things that we think go unspoken that need to be spoken the loudest. You say this entire situation is an unusual circumstance. Perhaps something… and I’m not saying god, but perhaps something that watches over us saw an opportunity to show you and your friend Dale the other side of the situation. You’re faced with another perspective. You get to see your girlfriend go through a painful transformation and then you’re forced to remain home while she goes off into a dangerous world. You say that sometimes you go running for hours at a time. Dale’s been gone fifteen minutes and you’re already a nervous wreck. Imagine how you would be if you woke up and she was simply… gone. No idea when she would be back, no idea if she was safe.”

Ari was breathing hard just at the thought. She rubbed her hands over her face. “How do I fix it?”

“There’s nothing to fix. Dale is here because she chose to be. You haven’t lied to each other. All you have to do is acknowledge the sacrifices you and Dale make for one another. Be appreciative for all the pain you cause one another. Be grateful to one another. Tis the season, after all.”

“I didn’t expect…” Ari ran her thumb along the windowsill. “I know Dale doesn’t like watching me transform, and I get it. Or I thought I did. I’ve seen other canidae transforming and it was never a big deal. But watching her go through it? I don’t know how she does that on a regular basis. I would have to leave the room.”

Frost nodded. “That’s one reason it’s so rare for a canidae to be with a human. It’s not because we’re monstrous, although one could certainly make a case for that. But even if they somehow come to terms with the fact we can shift, the reality of transforming from one to the other is often too much for them to take. I’ve often thought that your acceptance was astounding, but perhaps since there’s another plane where your roles are reversed?”

Ari turned away from the window with a smile. “Another plane?”

“How else would you describe this situation?”

“A dream, a hallucination, who knows?” She walked back to the couch and sat down. “I apparently spent a full day as the wolf before this happened. That tends to play games with my memory. Not usually to this extent, but still.” She rubbed her hands together. “And Dale was mad at me. Who knows what that did to my mind when I went to sleep?”

Frost smiled. “You and Dale obviously have a unique relationship.”

Ari stood and went back to the window. “You can say that again.”

“Ariadne…”

“Yeah?”

“She won’t be coming back yet. You can stop looking for her.”

Ari crossed her arms. “No. I can’t.”

#

Being a fox was fun.

She found a snow drift and she knew there was something hiding underneath it. She forgot her admonition against live food and went into full predator mode. She crouched and approached stealthily, then leapt into the air. At the apex of her leap she folded her body in half and dove headfirst into the bank. Her jaws closed around something and bit down, and she felt the surge of victory as she pulled it up out of the snow. She was just aware enough not to look at it, to ignore the taste on her tongue, and she looked around for the boy that had been following her. He wasn’t any stripe of canidae, just a pet that had caught sight of something weird wandering through his territory. She took two steps toward the pet and dropped her prize on a patch of snow. The poor thing was already dying; it might as well serve its purpose in the circle of life.

She turned and scurried off before the pet could get any ideas about what her offering meant. She heard traffic and altered her course away from it. She seemed to have an innate feel for the shape of the wooded area; she could tell where people had been and kept to the areas with less traffic. As she ran she formed a mental picture of the area she had available. It was relatively vast, and she felt it would be perfect to wear the fox out so she could get back to her two-legged life. But she wasn’t in the hurry she thought she would have been.

A squirrel froze halfway up a tree. Dale locked eyes with it, playfully lurching forward on her forepaws and then pulling back. The squirrel darted off and Dale kicked up a rooster tail of snow as she pursued. She overtook the squirrel easily, running to block its path and then jumping out of the way to give it a path of escape. The squirrel hesitated, realized she was only interested in playing, and ran again. Dale yipped and chased its fluffed tail. The rodent, secure in its safety, ignored several opportunities to flee to safety up one of the oaks it passed, choosing instead to use the opportunity for training against a less-pacifistic opponent.

It rounded a corner and Dale followed seconds later to find her quarry had vanished. She had just realized she could use scent to find it when the little bugger leapt from a high branch and used her back as a springboard. Dale twisted in an effort to catch it, falling on her side as the squirrel scurried away. She yelped and barked as she got back on her feet, shoot the snow from her coat, and gave chase once more.

If this was how Ari spent her nights, Dale could understand how easily she could lose track of time. She was aware of everything she was doing, but it was as if she was accessing a different part of her brain to make decisions. The fox was in control, and the fox was part of her. She lost track of her squirrel playmate and didn’t feel like chasing him down again, so she changed course and moved north. She was tired out but not exhausted, and the rational part of her brains – the human and the fox seemed indeed to have become two different municipalities – agreed that she should be in search of a stash. She slowed her run to a leisurely trot and tried to remember where the nearest bag was hidden.

Montlake, she remembered, and turned north. She kept to the scrub along the sides of the road, ducking out of sight whenever a jogger or bicycle came by. People smelled so peculiar, she realized as she watched them go. She wondered how she smelled to Ari under normal circumstances. She might have to start letting Ari choose her body wash and soap since she was the one who would suffer or enjoy it the most.

The woods near the tennis court were overgrown, and she had a moment of panic as she approached the stash. She very clearly remembered placing this particular bag, even if she couldn’t recall exactly what was inside of it, but what if this world was different in more ways than one? What if this version of her had put it somewhere else? Or what if the human version of Ari was the one who chose the stash locations and she hadn’t chosen this particular spot? She reached the clearing and sniffed around, found the rock she’d chosen as a landmark, and discovered a bit of turned-up dirt that revealed the corner of a duffel bag after a bit of pawing. Confident she would have something to wear, she rocked back on her haunches and closed her eyes.

How does this work? How did I change into the fox? It just sort of happened. Like the doors were about to open and I just stopped holding them. Well… I’m pushing through now, foxy, so… let me in. Go-go Gadget Human. The power of Greyskull compels you. Shazam! Come on…

She opened her eyes and looked around, half-expecting animal control or some hunter in Elmer Fudd gear to be sneaking up on her. She stood and walked in a circle, glancing back at her tail to see if it showed any signs of disappearing. It was still there, fluffy as ever, and she gave into an indulgence and tried to bite it. The result almost sent her flipping onto her side. She corrected herself and was about to see if foxes could howl when her right leg (arm) suddenly collapsed underneath her. She tried to push herself up but the leg (arm) was bent at an unusual angle. Her left leg snapped and she yipped in shock and pain as she went down.

After that the change was relatively quick, but she felt each crack and snap of her skeleton as it returned to its normal shape. Ari was wrong, oh god, I’m going to die after all. She hugged her arms against her chest as giant invisible hands twisted and tugged her into an upright shape instead of a hunched all-fours posture. In the middle of it all she heard someone crashing through the underbrush, probably drawn by the sound of her cries that she couldn’t stifle even if she wanted to. If they saw her half-formed they might go get help, if they saw her lying there naked and sobbing they would assume the worst. Either way they would most likely go get some help.

The person dropped hard to their knees next to her, and she caught a whiff of a familiar scent. Ari gathered Dale into her arms, holding her tightly as the last tremors washed over her, another pop and her leg straightened, one more twist and her shoulders were properly aligned. She clutched Ari’s collar, suddenly freezing and drenched with sweat at the same time, and she could only cry.

“It’s okay, Dale,” Ari whispered. “I’ve got you. I’m right here.”

#

Ari unearthed the duffel bag and dressed Dale in a pair of cargo pants and a baggy sweatshirt she got out of it. She was surprised the clothes fit her so perfectly, since Ari was a bit taller than her, but then she realized in this world the clothes would have been bought with her in mind. When Dale felt able to walk, Ari helped her up and supported her on the walk back to Dr. Frost’s house. It wasn’t an incredible distance; Dale figured she had looped around and circled herself more than a few times while she was letting the fox run amok. She stumbled a few times, but Ari was always there to catch her. At one point she offered to carry her, but Dale shook her head and kept going. She ached all through her middle, and her legs felt like the muscles had been stretched around steel pipes, but the ache eased with each forward step.

They got back to Dr. Frost’s house, and Ari helped her onto the couch. While Dale recovered, Ari said, “I couldn’t just sit and wait. I went out looking for you, and I managed to follow your tracks. Where there wasn’t snow, there was mud. You didn’t make it easy, though. Looks like you danced a few jigs out there.”

Dale chuckled. “There was a squirrel. We played tag.”

Ari smiled. “Sounds familiar.” She stroked the limp hair away from Dale’s forehead. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“How I do it?”

“Waiting. I couldn’t even sit here for half an hour without running to find you. I was sure you’d been hurt or caught by someone… you do it five or six times a month. And then I was gone for an entire day, you got the call. I’m pissed at myself now that I’ve experienced it. I should have found a way to call. I wasn’t… entirely honest about the trip. I know why the wolf took me to Snohomish.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dale said. “I understand why you didn’t call. The decisions you make when you’re… like that. They don’t really correspond with what you would do when you’re two-legged. Speaking of which…” She smacked her lips together and made a face. “Is there any mouthwash…?”

#

They left Dr. Frost’s house and drove back to Dale’s apartment, again with nothing said but this time it was an amicable silence. When they got home, Ari took Dale’s hand to guide her into the bedroom. Dale undressed without comment, smiling as she stretched out on the blankets with her hands folded under her chin. She closed her eyes as Ari climbed on top of her and began massaging the kinks out of her shoulders. “I was hoping you’d do this, but I didn’t want to ask…”

“It’s only fair. After all the hundreds of times you did it for me without the possibility of sex afterward…”

Dale lifted her head. “This isn’t leading toward sex?”

“We’ll see how relaxed I can get you.” Ari pushed her back down and went back to her massage. She had been repaying Dale with massages since they started dating, and she was no stranger to the curves and planes of her girlfriend’s back. Now she had the added benefit of knowing exactly where the knots were hiding post-change. She dug her thumbs in on either side of Dale’s spine just above her hips and Dale arched up off the bed.

“Too hard?”

“No-o, harder… just like a thumb-length higher and… ahh!”

Ari rubbed in tight circles, fingers splayed as she bent down and kissed the back of Dale’s hair. “I dreamt of you as a fox once, you know.”

“Oh? How did reality add up?”

“You were so much more beautiful than I thought.” She shifted her weight and knelt between Dale’s legs, scooting higher as Dale bent her knees and raised herself into the proper position. Ari moved her lips to Dale’s neck while her hands ventured around her waist to ease between her stomach and the blanket. Ari settled on top of Dale and stroked with two fingers, thrusting gently against her as Dale writhed, pinned helplessly underneath. After a few seconds Dale arched her back and whimpered quietly as she came, and Ari kept her hand where it was until she went limp again.

“Wow… an orgasm really does help the aches and pains.”

“I told you it does.”

“Well, yeah. But I thought you were just bullshitting me.”

Ari laughed. “Well, sometimes. Maybe.” Dale lifted her head and Ari kissed her. “I love you no matter what you are. Fox or human, you’re mine.”

“I love you. Not your wolf.” She kissed the corner of Ari’s mouth and breathed deep. “You smell so good. Roll over…” Ari complied and Dale made short work of getting her undressed. She slid down Ari’s body, kissing her breasts and stomach before settling between her legs. She inhaled deeply, eyes closed, and tightened her fingers on Ari’s thigh. “Oh, wow…”

Ari pushed the hair out of Dale’s face and smiled down at her. “Better than normal?”

“High point of my day.” She wet her lips and went to work, and soon Ari was incapable of words. She tried to hold out as long as possible, but Dale was in no mood for teasing. She added the tips of two wet fingers and Ari was done for. She came with toe-curling force, her hand tight on the back of Dale’s head, gasping for air as Dale traced back up the center of Ari’s chest with the tip of her tongue. Ari cupped her face and kissed her, letting Dale suck her tongue before sagging back against the pillow. Ari stroked her finger down the center of Dale’s back, then back up until Dale began to twitch and shudder in her arms.

“Cut that out.”

Ari chuckled and kissed Dale’s cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” She settled on top of Ari, holding her close, remembering something as she drifted off. “Hey. You said you lied about… why the wolf took you to Snohomish.”

“Oh…” Ari’s voice was vague, half-asleep. “Yeah. I… there was… someone…”

Dale wanted to tell Ari she was falling asleep mid-sentence, but she was hardly one to talk. She figured they could work out whatever the lie was in the morning.

#

“Hey.”

“Mrm.” The apartment was cold and Ari’s body was warm. Dale pressed against it, trying to edge her way back to sleep. Ari was persistent.

“Do you smell that?”

“Yes. You stink. Sweaty.”

Ari pinched Dale’s arm. “No, the reek from your neighbors’ apartment.”

Dale inhaled and then sighed. “Guess they took the day off.”

“No. They didn’t.”

It took her a moment to realize what Ari was saying, but when she did she woke up almost instantly. She lifted her head and blinked at Ari, who smiled at her. Dale breathed in again and this time she picked up a hint, a very vague hint, of the odor that had driven her crazy the day before. Eyes wide, she looked at Ari. “It can’t be as strong as yesterday.”

“If anything, it’s stronger. I can smell it. I can smell you.” She rubbed Dale’s arms. “The wolf is back.”

“And the fox is gone.”

“How do you feel about that?”

Dale almost said that of course she felt relief, but the truth was she felt conflicted. She stroked Ari’s hip and shrugged. “I don’t know. It was just one day, one transformation, but I don’t know if I’m happy it’s back to normal.” She frowned and pushed her hair behind her ear. “Wait. We’re talking about… the dream, right? That was all a dream.”

“I don’t know. I remember it. We can call Dr. Frost and see what he remembers about yesterday. But I don’t think we’d like the answer. I think what happened was just for us.”

Dale nodded. “I like that answer.” She kissed Ari’s bottom lip. “Now. What’s in Snohomish?”

Ari smiled and lifted Dale off of her, rolling out of bed. She put on her jeans and a T-shirt, held up a finger for Dale to wait, then hurried out of the bedroom. Dale took the opportunity to put on some underwear and a T-shirt, staying in bed until Ari came back with the bag she’d brought over the day before. “I was doing some online shopping last week and I found a guy selling this in Snohomish. I was trying to figure out if I could sneak away and go get it, or if it would just be easier to ship, and I guess the wolf took the choice away from me.”

“All that for a bag?”

“The bag isn’t the gift.” She sat down and opened the bag. “This is the gift.”

Dale raised her eyebrows in anticipation, but her expression relaxed into sincere shock when she saw what Ari was holding. It was a statue of Abbott and Costello sitting on a bench, and the sight of it filled her eyes with tears.

“You mentioned your mother had one like it.”

“I thought they were my uncles until I was, like, seven. I loved that statue. Ari… how in the world did you…” She took the statue, eyes filling with tears as she remembered her mother sitting her down with some old VHS tapes to correct her misinterpretation. She swallowed the lump in her throat and laughed. “Mom hated TV, didn’t have time for movies, but she loved these guys. I can’t believe you found the statue for me. I can’t believe I got mad at you for it.”

Ari shrugged. “The wolf knew how important it was. Unfortunately it didn’t take into consideration the fact I would be naked and have no money if it took me up there in the middle of the night.” She shrugged. “I went back up there the morning after we fought. I wanted you to know there was a good reason.”

“I love it, Ariadne. I love it, I love you.” She put the statue down on the pillow and leaned forward to kiss Ari. “Thank you, baby.”

“You’re welcome.” She wiped away one tear away, kissed away the other. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. I didn’t get you anything.”

Ari nodded. “Yeah, you did.”

Dale smiled and pulled Ari to her. They pulled the blankets up over them and started removing the clothes they had just put on. They only stopped long enough for Dale to transfer her gift from the pillow to the safer surface of the night stand before they got back to the business of reconciliation. With any luck they wouldn’t have to get out of bed before the weekend.

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