The Shapeshifter by Henry Moraja

Nikolaus yearns to learn the secrets of the shapeshifter, so others can finally see him as he sees himself; by Henry Moraja.

In the town of Neunburg, legend says a shapeshifter lives in the woods. A will-o'-the-wisp, a trickster, a murderous beast too clever for humans to comprehend. There are stories about it, told around the fire at family gatherings; and paintings and songs, and they all tell the same tale: a wayward child snatched away, a clever creature, a harbinger of the end times, unavoidable. Someone must have seen it, ages ago, but now it's nothing but a myth told over and over, meaning distorted with every repetition.

Nikolaus Sauer believes in many things, foolish things and wise things and everything in between, but he does not believe in the shapeshifter. He wants to, so desperately it makes his chest ache, but the truth of its existence would be far worse than its mythos. Still, the shapeshifter is all he can think about on the train ride home, staring out the frosted windows at tall and silent trees lining the tracks, that lonesome and shivering monster with gifts Nikolaus would do anything to have for himself.

Blue light from the setting sun washes the valley in that downy stillness known only in winter and Nikolaus forces himself to watch shadows of clouds moving across the sky instead of the forest. His heartbeat thuds in his fingers as it always does after a long day of work but the rocking rhythm of the train soothes him, washes the worries from his brow and reminds him, gently, of the two silver coins held tight in his fist. He is lucky to have this dressmaking apprenticeship, or any apprenticeship at all. These are wartimes, and many of his friends from childhood have no such opportunity, nothing in front of them besides conscription or back-breaking labor on family farms they've toiled over for countless years already. Nikolaus is lucky; he knows he is.

Even so, a half-hour train ride each morning and evening with six hours in between spent squinting at stitches and threading yarn for Frau Augenstein and flinching when a distant explosion rocks the street is enough to make one wish he had never applied in the first place. Not with Mama left at home, all alone, barely enough kindling for a fire to keep her warm until Nikolaus could return.

He taps his fingers against his knee as if that might make the train hurry, then pulls the watch out of his trouser pocket. An elderly woman across the aisle catches Nikolaus's eye, glances down at the trousers, and grimaces. Nikolaus ignores her. They should be arriving at Neunburg Station any moment now.

Yes, there, in the distance: yellow street lamps cresting the snowy hill, painting the night travelers huddled on the station's platform in enough hues of gold and cream and warmth to spite the frigid winter. Nikolaus, fragile as his fingers already are, hates the cold and the cramps it sets deep under his skin, a bone deep chill that only Mama knows how to eradicate, for she had the same affliction when she was a girl.

As soon as the train's doors hiss open, Nikolaus leaps from his seat and into the nighttime, making a face at the old woman as he passes, and dodges shadowy men boarding for their jobs in the city, dodges young men in military dress kissing their parents goodbye, dodges the stalls of merchants hawking quick, cheap meals to passers-by, until the cobblestone streets quiet and people became sparser upon them, until cobblestone turns to gravel and dirt and the trees press in closer and Nikolaus can breathe again. He is finally home.

"Oh, my dear, come in, you're freezing!" Mama says when Nikolaus knocks on the door of their modest one-room boardinghouse, provided at no small cost by the government for the care and keeping of The Poor, which Mama says they are not and all standards of their lives say they are. "Still wearing those trousers?"

"Yes, Mama," Nikolaus says, long suffering. "I like them and they're all the rage in the city."

Nikolaus hands Mama the coins and smiles when her face lights up. A pay raise. This means they are not in danger of losing the boardinghouse this month, nor running out of broth for stew or attracting the attention of the debtors that search villages for those desperate enough to fall for their ploys.

In celebration, Mama allows them each an extra portion of stew and they stay up late talking about the city, which Mama has only seen in Nikolaus's stories. He tries to make them as beautiful as possible for her, to smooth away the wrinkles on her face as she lays her head in Nikolaus's lap and listens. At work, we have cakes every other day, Nikolaus might lie one night, the sweetest cakes you've ever seen, lemon and lavender and mint. The dresses are so beautiful and there's materials I've never even heard of: softer than silk and twice as strong. The women are all plump and joyful, the men generous, jolly even when it rains. You'll see it one day, Mama.

Later, Mama takes Nikolaus's hands in hers and massages the tendons, starting with his wrist and working her way down his palm, focusing on each finger in turn. Nikolaus bites the inside of his cheek to keep from protesting, but Mama remembers the pain and hushes him as she might a startled horse.

"Shhh, my darling. I know it hurts, but we need these hands to stay good and strong. Your skills, your smarts, your hands. You're going to save us, my dear, I know you will. I love you so much, my sweet baby girl."

Nikolaus screws his eyes shut and thinks of the shapeshifter. Sometimes he feels so full of rage and envy he wants to scream until the whole world goes quiet.

The next day Nikolaus is free of obligation so Mama takes up the mantle of labor, rises early from the bed they share to ask around the village for any washing that needs done. Nikolaus drifts in and out of sleep, watches strange shadows on the wall, mites of dust trapped in weak sunbeams, dancing through the mist of his breath. Before sleep can overtake him again, he throws the quilts off and climbs to his feet to greet the day. One as rare as this, with no work and Mama gone all day, needs to be taken full advantage of, lest there never be another one.

He dresses quickly, trading his worn sleeping gown for his beloved trousers and shirt, and eats the day-old roll Mama left out for him while gazing at the woods through their single window. Last week's snow clings heavy to tree limbs and blankets the grass, all aglow with the sun's reflection. It's so much more beautiful to gaze at from indoors than to slog through with an armful of fabric on a crowded city street, and Nikolaus thanks the stars he's not at work today. Still, the only reason Frau Augenstein shut down the store were the rumors of a targeted civilian attack, hence the explosions and the blackouts and the dull hush that had settled over the city in the past few days. Walking corpses, Nikolaus always thought when he glanced out the shop's windows and saw the gray, shuffling creatures with hats pulled low and collars blocking their faces. Prepared for their deaths, unable to flee or fight or muster any feeling either way. Nikolaus can't tell Mama this, but he isn't sure if there will even be a shop or an apprenticeship to return to tomorrow.

"It's the end of the world," Frau Augenstein remarked to herself one day and Nikolaus, naive in his youth, hadn't believed her. But now he isn't sure. Now he isn't sure of anything.

Movement outside jars Nikolaus from his thoughts. He scans the trees for whatever bird or small creature disturbed them but sees nothing. In the distance, a train whistle blares, long and shrill and lonely, and the sensation of being watched prickles Nikolaus's neck. He moves slowly, casually, to grab a knife from the cupboard and holds it at his side. Just in case.

He flinches when a thud from the roof rocks the boardinghouse and nearly sends one of their plates crashing to the floor. Nikolaus manages to catch it before it falls but when he looks back out the window, there's a trail of fresh footprints leading from the house into the woods. The handle of the knife digs into his palm and blood blooms in his mouth when he bites too hard at the inside of his cheek, but he knows before he makes the first move that he's going to follow those footprints, cursing himself the entire way.

The woods sound different than they used to. Maybe Nikolaus has been out of them for too long, maybe the war has frightened all the animals away, but they are too quiet, drained of the life Nikolaus had taken for granted inside its sublime wilderness. He used to spend days running himself ragged with Reginheraht and Werner, climbing trees, racing over exposed roots, and returning home with pine needles in his hair, dirt in his wide grin. It must have been ages since he'd last stepped foot inside, ages since he let the woods envelop him like this. It feels like coming home.

He wanders aimlessly for longer than he should, lets his hands wander across rough bark and through snow-covered leaves, breathing in the cold, crisp air and relishing the give of spongy earth beneath his boots. There are still birds in the woods, thank the stars. At least one, perched on high branches, watching him with impenetrable dark eyes and cawing just loud enough to break his concentration and make him trip on fallen branches. He curses at the bird and it caws again, then takes flight and disappears into the sky.

"Good riddance," Nikolaus calls after it and keeps walking.

After a few more paces, though, he stops dead. In the clearing, maybe a hundred feet away, stands a real life reindeer, gray as twilight with embers of white dappling its back, a powerful and terrifying rack of horns protruding from its skull. Nikolaus blinks a few times to be sure his eyes aren't playing tricks on him. Reindeer are meant to be extinct, driven by hunters and poachers further north where no human can find them anymore. Their fur is an antique luxury in the city now, their horns sold on the black market for more coins than Nikolaus would ever see in his life. And yet there is one right in front of him, tamping the ground with strong hooves, gnawing at the few nutritious plants still alive under the snow.

Nikolaus takes an unconscious step forward and a twig cracks underneath his feet. The reindeer jerks its head to look straight at him and in a moment of panic he remembers that he'd dropped the knife some time ago and that reindeer weren't only killed for their pelts and horns, but because they were known to impale those who encroached on their territory.

Neither realization helps him when the reindeer paws at the ground twice, then charges towards Nikolaus. His scream comes out choked and pathetic, and he is only able to take one step backwards before the reindeer is bearing down on him, horns primed to pierce straight through his heart, and he closes his eyes in anticipation of the pain - but it doesn't come. Instead, something warm and more akin to flesh than fur smashes into him, propelling him backward too fast for his legs to keep up, and slams him against a tree.

For a moment, there is only a strained, fragile silence punctuated by Nikolaus's panicked breath and pounding heartbeat. Then he opens his eyes and tries to make sense of the scene in front of him. He can see the outline of his struggle in the snow, fifteen feet of kicking and pushing, two pairs of feet, no reindeer. Instead, a boy with silver hair and eyes as shiny as starlight has one pale hand around Nikolaus's neck and is pressing him, cruelly, against the tree.

"Nice to finally meet you face-to-face," the boy says. "Why are you spying on me?"

Nikolaus's vision starts to go spotty around the edges and he can barely muster enough strength to hiss, "Shapeshifter."

"Yes, you're very clever. Now answer my question" - the boy presses harder and Nikolaus chokes, claws at the boy's hand and finds it as cold as ice - "before I have to kill you."

"I wasn't... spying, I was... thought you were a... a reindeer." Nikolaus's ears ring and the darkness cuts through his vision, dragging him deeper into unconsciousness.

Before death arrives, the shapeshifter releases him and he falls to his knees, coughing, retching, gasping for air. Cold snow bites into the palms of his hands, the pain a grounding reminder that he is more alive and capable and real than this shapeshifter could ever hope to be. He coughs noisily as a distraction, then leaps to his feet and throws two handfuls of powdery snow into the shapeshifter's face before tackling him to the ground, feet and fists flying.

"Hey!" the shapeshifter yells. "Stop it! I'm not going to warn you again!"

"You tried to kill me!"

"I wasn't going to!" The shapeshifter writhes underneath Nikolaus, then curses and transforms into a frog. It looked easier than it should have been; no burst of light, no sickening twist of muscle and bone, just a boy one moment and a frog the next. If Nikolaus hadn't been so angry, it might have distracted him enough to let the shapeshifter go, but he grabs the frog around its middle before it has a chance to hop away and holds it up in front of him.

"I've captured you," Nikolaus says, breathing hard, "and now you have to tell me everything."

The frog blinks twice, then sighs and transforms into the same boy as before. Nikolaus realizes he's now grabbing the shapeshifter by the collar of his thin shirt, fingers brushing the cool skin of his collarbones, and he lets go with a huff.

"Fine," the shapeshifter snaps. "Fine, you got me. What do you want to know?"

"Your name, first of all, and what you think you're doing here." An acidic fear courses through Nikolaus's blood. "I know the stories. Is this the end of the world?"

The shapeshifter smirks and something in his face - thin bones, a birdlike shrewdness about his nose and mouth, kinder eyes than Nikolaus expected - itches Nikolaus's mind, a memory submerged deep in his subconscious. "One question at a time, my dear. My name is Florian and, yes, I'm a shapeshifter and, yes, the world is probably going to end but I have no say in that."

"But the stories say you're meant to be a harbinger or a portend or something."

Florian's face darkens. "People make up all kinds of stories about things they're scared of. I'm no more a bringer of apocalypse than you are. And you are...?"

"Nikolaus. I live in the village just outside the woods. And I'm not a spy. I didn't even think you were real until now."

"Well, I'm glad I could change your mind." He turns to go but Nikolaus grabs his sleeve.

"How did you become a shapeshifter?" he pleads and ignores the grimace that clouds over Florian's face. "Please, I need to know. I'll do anything."

"It's not something I would wish on my worst enemy."

"I don't think you understand. I need to know how you did it."

"I can't tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because it damn near killed me and I can't in good conscience put anyone through that." Florian runs a shaky hand through his hair and glances down at Nikolaus, brow furrowed. "What did you mean by 'the end of the world'? Is something happening out there?"

Nikolaus shrugs. "The war. It's getting bad again, I guess, but my mother says we've weathered worse before."

"What war?"

Nikolaus frowns. "The war. It's been raging as long as I can remember. Surely you've heard of it." Florian doesn't answer. "How long have you been in these woods?"

"I can't remember," Florian says in a small voice. His face has turned sickly pale, eyes unfocused and far away. "I can't... remember."

"That's alright. You don't have to. The war just means no one has enough to eat and the newspapers list how many people have been killed, numbers too big to even make sense of, and sometimes you can hear explosions in the distance when the fighting starts up. It hasn't reached this far inland yet but Frau Augenstein - she's my boss in the city - says it's never been this bad before. She's old, so she would know."

Florian's eyes widen. "You go into the city?"

"I have a dressmaking apprenticeship there."

"Stars above, I've missed the city."

"Come with me," Nikolaus says with a wild grin. "If you can make yourself into a flea or a mouse, you can hide under my collar and come home with me, and I'll take you to work tomorrow."

Florian thinks for a moment. "What's the catch?"

"Teach me how to shapeshift. That's all, just tell me how to do it and you can hide in your woods for the rest of eternity for all I care. I just need to know how to do it."

"It won't be easy." Florian's face goes deadly serious and for a moment Nikolaus almost regrets bringing it up again. "The ire of the world will weigh heavier on you than you expect, and you cannot escape unscathed."

"I know," Nikolaus says, jaw set. "But I have to do it anyway.

Finally, Florian's expression breaks open into a radiant smile. He reaches out to shake Nikolaus's hand and says, "Well then, I'd be honored." As soon as their hands touch, Florian shrinks into a small gray mouse and scampers up Nikolaus's arm to sit on his shoulder. "Lead the way, Nikolaus. Let's go home."

That evening passes with a hazy, dreamlike quality that Nikolaus tastes on his tongue sweet as honey. He can't let Mama see Florian, of course - her fear of mice is only outshone by her fear of spiders - but the two of them make it into a game wherein Florian tries his hardest to make himself seen and Nikolaus has to chase after him and stop him without alarming Mama. She gives Nikolaus many strange looks but he's so happy it doesn't matter.

The next morning breaks early and Nikolaus is up before the sunrise. Florian, still a sleeping mouse on his pillow, ignores all his prodding so Nikolaus eats breakfast alone while staring out at the snow-covered trees. Florian is still here. Nikolaus hadn't dreamt the whole thing. The thought alone fills him with a giddy, childish excitement - which reminds him, suddenly, of where he recognized Florian from last night.

He stands and tiptoes to the lone, half-empty bookshelf next to the front door. Books are a luxury Nikolaus can never get enough of and Mama graciously lets him pick one out every holiday, keeps them all in good condition, even the children's books Nikolaus has grown too big to enjoy, like his childhood favorite, a fairytale about Sir Hendrik the Brave illustrated in the richest greens and golds that probably cost two weeks' salary. He pulls the thick book off the shelf, blows dust off its cover, and flips it open. The first drawing of Sir Hendrik himself depicts a pale, thin young man with silver hair and bright blue eyes, the spitting image of Florian in human form.

"Darling?" Mama murmurs from the bed. "You're still here?"

"I'm leaving now, Mama," Nikolaus replies, shoving the book back on the shelf and scooping up Florian before Mama sees him. He kisses her forehead and starts the trek towards the train station.

Florian finally wakes up when they're halfway to the city and hides himself in the curtain of hair that just barely brushes Nikolaus's shoulders. "It's so early!" he whispers in Nikolaus's ear. "You do this every day?"

"I have to get to work somehow," Nikolaus replies, trying to move his mouth as little as possible, though the other passengers, weary miners and anxious young merchants, probably wouldn't care. "Remember, you're only here to see the city and not get me into trouble. Frau Augenstein will have a heart attack if she sees a mouse in her store."

"I could turn into something else. Your brother or cousin, shadowing you for the day?"

"Frau Augenstein doesn't like strangers."

"I'll just die of boredom, then."

Nikolaus cracks a smile and leans his head back against the frozen window. "Good plan."

The train pulls into Immenstein Station a few minutes ahead of schedule and Nikolaus keeps his head down as he files onto the platform surrounded by his fellow passengers. He has never gotten used to the rush of people in the city, their noises and movements and footsteps that box him in and make him feel corralled, watched. He doesn't miss Neunburg often but mornings are a rude awakening that make him want to flee back home and hide under the covers.

Frau Augenstein's Alterations Boutique is three blocks from the train station, in a quieter, more expensive part of Immenstein, sandwiched between a patissiere and a bookstore Nikolaus has never had the courage, nor the funds, to enter.

"It's much busier than it used to be," Florian says in Nikolaus's ear as they approach the shop. "So many more people. Last time I visited, this street didn't have nearly this many stores."

"Refugees, I think. More people are moving into the city to get away from the war. Most of the girls at the shop are from the eastern edges, where the fighting is really bad."

Nikolaus pushes open the door to the shop and is immediately assaulted by Frau Augenstein's booming voice, echoing off the hardwood floors and making the girls already working at their desks flinch. "Sauer! Where have you been? One day off means you come in all the later the next day?"

Florian is already whispering insults at Frau Augenstein but Nikolaus smiles and approaches her office on the far side of the main room. "Sorry, Frau Augenstein, I didn't realize you were expecting me earlier than nine o'clock. Would I have been paid overtime?"

Frau Augenstein glares at Nikolaus over the polished rim of her glasses. "You're the last one in today, Nadina, you know I have to make an example of you. Will you finish the Müller dress today?"

"It's nearly done already, just a few more stitches on the hem."

"Very well. Finish that and I'll set you up with another client, though you've really done nothing to deserve it." Nikolaus grins, the invigorating zip of rapport with Frau Augenstein wiping the sleep from his weary mind already. "Oh, quit smiling like that, it'll be one of the mean old ones who'll never give you a moment's rest, I promise. How is your family?"


"Your family, Nadina, if you have one." Frau Augenstein looks back down at the account book on her desk but does not move her pen. "The girls were worried you might have ended up on the wrong side of the raid last night."

"No ma'am, I live to the west. We had a quiet night."

Frau Augenstein doesn't soften but Nikolaus takes solace in the slight grin on her lips as she orders him to get back to work. Nikolaus returns to his desk, greets Aldona and Etta who sit beside him, and starts hemming the Müller dress, doing his best to ignore Florian's uncharacteristic silence in his ear.

Lunchbreak comes a few thousand stitches later, when Nikolaus's fingers start to throb with the day's first cramp. He bids his neighbors goodbye, promises to pick up the sweets Aldona likes from the patisserie, and bundles up in his coat before trying his luck on the bustling street. The lunch rush has mostly passed so he's able to scrounge up two bowls of soup and slip a packet of sweets into his pocket for Aldona. Then he finds an empty alleyway a few blocks from the shop and says to Florian, "You can come out now."

With that same disorienting buckle in reality, Florian materializes in front of him with a tight smile, looking for all the world like a storybook knight, too perfect to be real. How Nikolaus had missed their similarities the first time around, he wasn't sure, but the sight of Florian fills him with such tender, burning envy he has to look away.

"You told me your name was Nikolaus," Florian says after a few sips of soup. He doesn't look up.

"It is," Nikolaus insists.

"But everyone called you -"

"I know what they call me." Nikolaus takes a long drink from the bowl and it burns the roof of his mouth. "I hate that name, more than wearing skirts or having my hair long." He tries for a laugh but it comes out humorless and strained. "Mama says it's a phase I'll grow out of."

"Have you tried to talk to her about it? Or Frau Augenstein?"

Nikolaus shakes his head. "They couldn't possibly understand. They'd hate me. I hate it myself, I can't imagine showing someone else... putting them through that. If I keep it to myself, I can almost pretend it doesn't exist."

"No, Nikolaus," Florian says. "Thinking like that will do you no good. I -"

A crash above their heads interrupts Florian. Nikolaus looks up to see a window swung open and a woman's face peeking over the sill. She catches his eye, wrinkles her face in abject disgust, and says, "Damn shapeshifters. Piss off, the both of you!" Nikolaus and Florian freeze, just long enough, apparently, for the woman to channel her rage into action; in one fluid motion, she swings a bucket out over the alleyway and dumps no less than a gallon of water onto them, then slams the window shut again.

A shocked stillness settles over the alleyway. The cold water bites at Nikolaus's exposed skin when the wind picks up, weighs his hair down and drips onto his shoulders, stains the front of his shirt and trousers with blotchy wetness. When he lifts his hands, he sees they are shaking. He is cold and water pools in his shoes - his one good pair of shoes - and he bites the inside of his cheek and he bites the inside of his cheek and nothing helps until Florian grabs him by the shoulders and pushes him, hard, against the brick wall.

"Nikolaus, look at me," he says and Nikolaus sees he got the worst of the water: hair soaked through, his entire shirt stuck to his skin. "It smells clean so we shouldn't have anything to worry about there. Dry yourself off with the hem of your shirt. We're going to go back to work for a few more hours and if anyone asks, say a carriage splashed you as it drove by, alright?"

"You must be freezing," Nikolaus says nonsensically.

"I'll be fine. Can you manage that for me?"


Florian nods gravely and presses a quick kiss to Nikolaus's forehead before disappearing into a mouse again and scurrying up onto his shoulder. Nikolaus's legs take him back to the shop, his shoes squelching wet and obnoxious against the cobblestones, and his hands guide him through the rest of the workday. He gives Aldona the sweets and the entire shop Florian's carriage lie; Frau Augenstein makes a valiant attempt to commiserate about the disreputable state of carriages these days but her careful eyes follow Nikolaus around the shop like a hawk.

Nikolaus can't find it within himself to care. The rest of the world has become sequestered behind a pane of glass, thick and unbreakable, dulling the shop noises, turning his fingers thick and clumsy with a needle. He stabs himself more than he has since starting this job but even the blood on his tongue is tasteless, the pain a distant inconvenience. Florian whispers in his ear, begs him to act natural and to remember he'll be home soon, but a small part of Nikolaus's mind tells him, over and over, that he was right all along, that what he knows himself to be is freakish and wrong and worthy only of punishment, just as he always thought.

The winter sun has already started to set by the time the shop's clock chimes four o'clock. Nikolaus packs his belongings with methodical exactitude, says goodbye to the other girls and choruses a "See you tomorrow" to Frau Augenstein, then joins the stream of people heading home for the evening. Anxiety thrums beneath his skin and he keeps sneaking looks over his shoulder, petrified that the woman will find him again, that someone else will see the dampness clinging to his skin and somehow know all his transgressions. The eyes of merchants and other workers rake over Nikolaus's skin like hot coals and he wishes more than anything in the world that he were wearing a dress or a skirt or a suit of armor, anything he could hide behind.

Without warning, Florian appears at his side and slides a warm hand into Nikolaus's. "Keep walking. Keep your eyes up. We only have one more block."

Nikolaus's initial reaction is horror - it would be so easy to blame Florian for everything, to push him away and yell to everyone that there is a shapeshifter in their midst, just so he could run away - but the sight of Florian, fairytale prince, knight in shining armor, brings tears to his eyes. He nods and leads the way to the train station where the watching gazes of conductors and passengers alike sends Nikolaus's hands shaking worse than before, convinced that someone will push him onto the tracks and leave him for dead, convinced that, once on the train, someone will demand he leave or follow him home, endless possibilities that all result in Nikolaus, finally and rightfully, punished.

But nothing happens. He and Florian disembark uninhibited at Neunburg Station and are able to pick their way through the quieter streets of the village until they reach the rows of government-issued houses where Mama is waiting, cheerful as ever, for her baby girl to come home.

Nikolaus is off and running before he realizes it. Florian yelps behind him and chases him with the clumsier footsteps of those who haven't lived on this gravel all their lives. Movement feels good, feels productive, and soon Nikolaus's lungs are screaming and his face has gone hot and he keeps pushing until they've run far enough into the woods that it's safe enough to fall to his knees in the snow and curl into a ball.

"Now you see why I haven't been to the city in a while," Florian's voice says from somewhere above Nikolaus, slightly winded but still achingly confident. "Some places require an extra dose of courage to endure."

"That might have been nice to know before I took you with me," Nikolaus replies as he sits up and wipes the sweat and tears from his cheeks.

"I'm sorry. Genuinely. I didn't expect - I hoped things might have gotten better, though I'm not surprised they haven't." Florian takes a deep breath and squats beside Nikolaus, arms wrapped tight around his knees. "They used to call me Fredrika, you know. Before I ran away."

Nikolaus blinks. "Really?"

"I hated it too. Did everything I could think of to distance myself from it, until I realized I wasn't doing myself any favors by ignoring the parts of my past that, no matter how terrible, made me who I am." He looks up at Nikolaus, places a steady hand on his shoulder. "You are not embarrassing. You are not freakish or sinful or worthy of punishment. You are Nikolaus Sauer and you are stronger than any who say otherwise."

"Show me what you look like." Florian startles, just slightly, and Nikolaus grabs his hand. "Please. I need to know."

Florian nods and stands, new determination emerging on the set of his jaw. Nikolaus follows him to his feet, watches as Florian's appearance melts into one shorter and curvier, with deep brown hair cropped tight and messy to his scalp, a smattering of freckles dancing over round cheeks and above full lips. Even his clothes change into a ratty homespun shirt with tattered trousers a size too big, borrowed from an older brother or nicked from a shop without time to check the size.

Nikolaus can't hide the radiant grin spreading across his face, the foreign sensation of hope that flickers in his chest. "You look so normal," he says. "You look just like me."

"Do you believe me now?" Florian asks as he ruffles Nikolaus's hair with one freckled hand. "We have nothing to be ashamed of, even if the rest of the world wants us to think we do."

"To be fair, I would choose to look like Sir Henrick the Brave too if I could."

Florian laughs. "You can, Nikolaus. I'll teach you how to harness your powers if you promise me one thing. You don't need to abandon your life like I did to hide in fear in these woods. You can stay in society and make it better and maybe, if you're willing, bring me back with you."

"But -" The thought of it sends joyous shivers down Nikolaus's spine: trousers and a short haircut and for Mama to call him her son. "But my mother and Frau Augenstein -"

"They will be hard conversations, I know. And many people won't like it. But you're stronger than me." Florian's smile doesn't reach his eyes. "I'm jealous of you, you know. If I had half the bravery you have..."

Nikolaus doesn't need to hear the end of that sentence. He throws himself into Florian's arms, wraps himself around Florian's torso and buries his face in Florian's chest, taking in the warmth and steadiness of this, an offer for a future he didn't believe he could have, and someone to share it with.

"I promise," he says. "Let's go home."

In the town of Neunburg, legend says two shapeshifters live in the woods. They keep to themselves mostly, but they have always been good neighbors. There are whispers about them, of course, and disapproving stares in the market, but they never seem to notice or, if they do, care. The stories say that if you feel unmoored or unworthy or believe you were made in error, they'll help you, as long as you make one promise: to live, to be brave, and to trust in the cosmic rightness of your existence.

1 comment:

  1. Well-told tale, positive and life affirming, for anyone who is considered different. Thanks.