Pain tore through her gut like a knife.
She hated that that was the first place her mind went. It seemed so melodramatic, so cliche—but she also knew first hand how that felt, and that was exactly it. Claws were messier, less concentrated, more a general fiery haze of pain. This was single, piercing, and specific. A sharp line of pain ran from left to right, just along the hem of her jeans, crossing beneath her bellybutton.
She wondered, after her first shift, if that was a coincidence. Did the demand to change shape happen behind her belly button because it was what she considered her center, or because that had been body’s tether to life for the nine months her human body had been forming, and her wolf body longed to be reborn?
But now, Hazel didn’t wonder much of anything. She shoved back from the desk, darting to the bathroom across the hall so she didn’t wreck havoc on her laptop. She didn’t have time for this shit. She had a paper due by Monday and would be working well into the late shift Saturday and Sunday.
The shift was just going to have to wait.
At thirteen, it had been so much easier to excuse herself from the world—and almost impossible to control the shifts into wolf form. The “genetic predisposition to seizures” had seemed like such a pretty lie when her body had first tried to turn itself inside out during a round of dodgeball. Her parents had explained calmly to the principal when they’d picked her up from school, and just as calmly told her the truth on the drive home. She came from a long line of werewolves. They’d hoped the family curse would skip her, but clearly it hadn’t, so here was what to expect. The “your body is changing” talk to the nth degree.
Random bouts of intense pain at unpredictable intervals for the next twenty to sixty years. It depends on what route your metabolism takes, they’d said. If you lean more towards human, this will pass with menopause. The same was true if she leaned toward the shifter half of her lineage—shifters just lived two or three times as long, and so their fertility period adjusted accordingly.
But again, these thoughts were miles away, compared to the desperate reality of the here and now. Such memories would drift through her mind as she lay panting in the aftermath of the muscle spasms, assuming she managed to keep this shift at bay through the weekend.
She’d promised her beast she’d take the day off come Tuesday. Labs were canceled this week, and she could afford to miss at least two more days of art history, if she didn’t recover in time. She’d drive out to the lake Monday afternoon as soon as psych was over, and let the animal run wild.
Of course, the animal wasn’t really the sort to be bargained with. Only mastered.
Hazel knelt on the sticky bathroom rug, breathing in the smells of damp and sweat and soap. The shower curtain needed changing, she could smell the mildew starting to build. No, shut the nose down. Look around, think with your eyes, think like a primate. Look at the tile, find a face in the patterns. Think about people.
Her nail polish was chipping. Yes, that was good. Nice, vain, human thoughts. She stared at the aqua polish, soothing against the purple fuzzy rug. Caribbean blue, according to the label. Oceans, pina coladas, plastic furniture, suntan oil. Nothing like the woods by the lake.
The pain eased off a bit, and Hazel sat back on her haunches—heels. Sat back on her heels. She fished her phone out of her pocket and turned on some electronic trance music, some video remix or another. Soothing stuff, peaceful like. But utterly devoid of any natural sound. The low bass and synthesizer notes echoed off the tile, filling the small space with a subdued beat. Hazel slowed her breathing, went back to kneeling on all fours, and began to work through a yoga routine to stretch her knotted muscles.
The pain growled to life as she arched her back, urging her to stretch out her forepaws and raise her muzzle to the sky. Blue nail polish, she thought furiously, locking her eyes on her very human hands. She arched the other way, feeling her spine elongate, and the bones seemed to push through her skin, out into the air behind her, helpfully offering the balance of a tail. Hazel pushed her butt up against the wall. No tail, just jeans with stupid little rhinestone detailing that sometimes pushed through the fabric to pinch her. Human butt, human hands, blue nail polish.
Finally, the pain receded enough she could stand. She dropped into a forward bend, staring at the orange nail polish on her toes. Blue and orange. Color theory. Contrasts. Hands and feet are different. Not all paws. Hands are for knitting, typing, doing up buttons, driving cars. Feet are for cramming into painful shoes, spending long hours standing on them at work, wrapping in brightly patterned hand-knit socks.
She reached high, feeling the long stretch from flat footed feet to dexterous fingertips. Fingers were clever, for reaching. Toes were stubby, but good for balance on two legs. Fingers were terrible for walking on. Spines were for reaching up, up, upward. Careful posture. Books on your head. Trays of drinks in your hand. Upright.
She skipped the up and downward dog poses, moving into the more complex shapes of the warriors. No animal ever moved like this. These shapes were for human ferocity—the bow, the sword, the tools that replaced claws and teeth. She was fierce, she was cunning, and she was these things because of her human mind, not her animal instincts.
Then, balancing poses. Up on one foot, she was calm, centered. There was no room for pain. Pain would disrupt her balance. She willed it to retreat, pulling it into a ball with each inhalation. No time for pain. The human master of this body had human things to do. Research, writing, revision. Showers, blow dryers, make up. Taking orders, making money, rolling silverware into tight little bundles of napkins.
Finally, finally, she could move and bend and flex without even a twinge. She stared in the mirror for a long time, noting the smallness of her upturned nose, the close set of her wide, dark eyes. The curve of her little bow mouth and the way her too-pointed chin always seemed to thrust out somewhat defiantly. The brown hair she kept styled long but unobtrusive, easy to style into braids and ponytails and other shapes that hair was never meant to fall naturally in. Vain human manipulations.
Satisfied that none of her features had slipped, she went out to the kitchen and put the kettle on. She carefully measured three teaspoons of her mother’s herbal loose leaf, not because it needed careful dosing, but because the exacting effort was just one more silly human trait. Likewise, she counted the three minutes of steeping by the second, vocalizing the numbers and picturing them in her head. When the brew was done, she sipped at it carefully, then went back upstairs to her paper.
The beast was caged. For now.