Corin sat cross-legged on his bed, cradling a glass flask in both hands.

A physician student learned about poisons, and had access to things that most people didn't.

All it would take to end the hurting and the emptiness forever would be to drink the few ounces of liquid in that flask. Even if someone found him, which was unlikely in the brief window before it did its work, they'd have to know what he'd used before they could find an antidote, and the flask held a combination of three poisons. There was no reason to think that any would counter any of the others; he'd looked into it at length. He wasn't risking having to face anyone tomorrow with that huge and unanswerable question of why.

No more feeling like every day was a lie. No more watching Jared and knowing that while Jared was fond of him, it couldn't approach Corin's own feelings. No more knowing that nothing could ever be any better than it was, and that it could only get worse.

No more of the constant exhausting struggle to block out his own thoughts, to hide from his own fantasies, to distance himself from his own feelings.

No more denying what he'd always known, deep down under everything: he wasn't a man in anything but the most superficial anatomical sense, which was the only sense that the culture around him recognized. And so, that culture would accept nothing else.

He'd written no note to leave behind. It wouldn't change anything, and would only shame his family. He'd done that enough already. His death would do so further: poison was a woman's death of choice, not a man's, but it was the one that drew him with a siren song of peace. Fall asleep one last time, without another day of misery to face on the other side.

Could he do it?

Could he face life anymore?

Any living thing will react to escape from pain. The greater the pain, the more extreme its response, and the more extreme the lengths it will go to in order to avoid the stimulus for it. Anything to make it end and not begin again.

I'm so tired of lying to myself and smiling when I want to cry. I'm so tired of hurting. Make it stop.

He worked the glass and cork and wax stopper out of the flask, and raised it to his lips.

Before he even tasted it, motion caught his eye; startled, he lowered the flask to look.

Sitting on the floor, directly in front of the door, was a red fox, tail curled neatly around its feet. It regarded him with luminous green eyes, which a fox really shouldn't have.

“Hello,” Corin said, oddly certain that the fox was able to understand. “Whatever you want, I can't help. If you're here as a guide for my soul, you're a few minutes early. But I'd really rather my soul didn't go anywhere else. That would probably just mean more hurting.”

The fox tilted its head—his head, though he had no idea why he was so sure it was male. He got up and turned to face the door, tail waving high in the air, but looked back over his shoulder.

“I can't follow you. I have something I have to do.”

The fox stepped through the door as though it weren't there, vanishing out of sight.

Then his head reappeared through it, eyes fixed on Corin.

Corin looked at the flask in his hand, puzzled. One of them could be a hallucinogen at the correct dosage, but he hadn't actually drunk it yet, had he? At least, he didn't remember drinking it.

That was the most reasonable explanation: he'd already swallowed the contents and was hallucinating while his hated body began to shut down.

Well, it was probably the last thing he'd ever do, in any sense, so why not? Three years of training made him reflexively put the cork back in the flask, hardly aware he'd done so, or that it was still in his hand as he got up. The fox disappeared again, but when he opened the door of his room, he found him sitting there waiting.

It seemed pointless to lock the door. He followed the fox though the sleeping boarding house down to the back door. He couldn't lock that, but he could hope that no one would have any reason to try it before Bruna got up to start breakfast.

What difference did it make? This was a hallucination anyway.

The fox led him through the streets, surreally quiet well past midnight but before anyone woke to begin the new day. They saw no one. A couple of blocks away, Corin realized he was holding the flask; he emptied it into a gutter and dropped it. The sound of the glass shattering seemed unnaturally loud in the silence.

To the edge of the city, and out further, along one of the deserted roads—the one that led to the east. There was nothing in that direction except fields and pastures and maybe a small village or two before the highlands.

Time stretched and compressed weirdly. Had he been walking, following the white flag of the tip of the fox's tail, forever? For only minutes? The sky grew lighter, and he saw wagons pass him along the road, in both directions, and riders on horses, and pedestrians. He ignored them. He had no intention of putting that mask on, ever again, and interacting with anyone would force him to do so. If they could even see him, they gave no indication of it.

Somewhere far off, he realized that his feet hurt, his whole body hurt, but so what? If his body had turned out the way it should have, his entire life wouldn't have been one long excruciating lie. It deserved to suffer. Or maybe it wasn't the walking. Maybe it was pain as the poison worked, and his mind was trying to put it into a context that made sense. He wished it good luck, because in this dreamlike reality, nothing really made sense, or everything did equally, he wasn't sure which was true, or whether both might be.

It didn't matter. All that mattered was that waving tail. His stomach growled at him, or was it only that he thought it should do so, as the sun moved across the sky and began to descend?

Walking, and more walking, and there was nothing for his mind to focus on, no distraction of books or questions to answer, no escape from the memories that tumbled one over another. Things that had happened, and with all his defences stripped away, there was nothing for it but to admit to himself what he'd really been feeling, what he'd really wanted to do. People who had been part of his life, and what he really wished he could say to them, but had never been able to do so.

He must be dying, he decided, and this was either some spiritual road for making peace with his life before going on, or some mad activity of his mind triggered by the poison. Either way, he'd have preferred to avoid it but he couldn't, so he accepted it.

Real or not, rather annoyingly he was growing tired, and it was harder and harder to force his body to keep moving. The white at the tip of the fox's tail showed clearly even in the darkness under bright stars that had never before looked so clear or so close, as though he could stretch just a bit higher and touch them.

The fox led him off the road for the first time, over a rise to a hollow under a cluster of trees, and there was a spring of water there. Not caring about the risks of contaminated or soiled water, he drank thirstily. Utterly exhausted, his body simply refused to get up. With a vague idea of avoiding wildlife coming to drink, he crawled a short way from the spring, and everything greyed out.

If he was dying, if this was the true sleep that wouldn't end, he welcomed it.

Somehow, though, it did end.

Disoriented and ravenous, the only thought that remained clear was that he'd been following the fox, for some reason he could no longer remember but it must be important. He emptied his bladder, wishing vaguely that there was a way to rip away his own flesh and rebuild it, and drank again, and stumbled to his feet. The fox expected him to keep up, though he had no idea why. He'd let everyone else down, all his life, and even with his death. He could at least try to get one thing right.

Because he could remember far too many times he'd failed, and the memories wouldn't stop coming...

* * *

The sounds of something large moving nearby made Corin open his eyes.

That was about all he had the strength left to do. The tall grass bent over beneath him, the soil under that, was a more comfortable bed than some he thought he'd had in the past several nights. He'd decided, delirious with hunger and exhaustion, that this mad trek was his punishment for taking his own life, and it would actually never end, but could it continue if he simply couldn't get up? A thin thread of hope remained that this was all happening in the space of an hour, with the distorted time of a dream, and that he was actually very close to the final systems of his body shutting down forever.

Greenish-gold eyes in a tawny-furred face, and behind it, a sleek lithe body with great paws on long legs. The big cat sniffed at him curiously.

Corin just sighed and closed his eyes, past caring.

Somewhere far away, he heard a puzzled voice with an unfamiliar accent. “We're nowhere near a human settlement, so what are you doing here?”

But the answer was too long, too complicated, and how could he expect a weyre to care any more than anyone else he'd ever known? He licked dry, cracked lips, and tried to whisper, “Let me die,” but his voice, unused for what felt like an eternity, failed him.

Distantly, he was aware of hands tucking a blanket or a cloak or something of the sort over him, and of the wind no longer reaching him. Hands steadied a smooth wooden cup that had cool water in it, and supported him so he could sit up enough to sip at it—that was pleasant relief from the dryness. When the hands went away, he lost track of time again, just existing.

More hands, and multiple voices, one of them female. “Definitely odd. The nearest human settlement would take the better part of a day on two feet from here, most of it cross-country, and he isn't dressed the same. But Sano says to bring him back, so that's what we'll do.” And the hands moved him, still with the blanket or cloak, onto something else, and the something else rose and moved and swayed alarmingly, and he passed out.

* * *

Where am I?

Something soft under me, but it doesn't feel right for my bed. Warm blankets over me. I think I'm dressed, at least partly, but it doesn't feel quite right. Something against me, something big and heavy and warm... and purring?

I wasn't supposed to survive that poison. Maybe I'm still hallucinating. I must be, because otherwise, where could I possibly be?

He felt too dissociated still for fear, but he did open his eyes.

Twilight, dim but with a soft illumination from somewhere above, faintly yellow-green in tone. He could make out only vague shadows, nothing that made any sense.

Rolling over took an extraordinary amount of effort.

Lying beside him was a cat the size of a human, who opened eyes that caught and reflected the light. It yawned, and the white teeth showed quite clearly enough.

Probably he should be terrified, but what could it do except kill him?

Then it wasn't a cat, it was a naked human man.

“Oh, good, you're awake.” He sounded pleased. “We weren't entirely certain you would wake up. You came very close to dying.”

“Then why did you stop me?” Corin asked bitterly. It felt like he hadn't spoken in an eternity; his voice was harsh, hurt his throat.

Luminous eyes blinked. “You wanted to die?” The pleased tone became deep perplexity. “Why? You aren't sick with something painful and incurable or anything like that, so nothing's that bad.”

“You wouldn't understand.”

“Dayr might or might not,” another voice said softly, one that was also male but lighter, with that same unfamiliar accent. “Weyres find unpredictable things utterly baffling, but other things they grasp with surprising speed. Odds are quite good that I will understand, however.”

Corin forced his rebellious, aching body to sit up, but gathered the blankets around him as much as possible with another body—the weyre? Dayr?—pinning one side. He'd been right, he was wearing a clean pale shirt, he couldn't tell the length of it. “Why should I tell you?”

“Wouldn't it feel good to make sure that someone knows, even if those you've left behind never do?”

More light, as the newcomer uncovered a palm-sized hemisphere resting on a small table; it might be wood or dull metal or thin pottery, Corin couldn't tell, but it was pierced with many holes in a regular pattern, and clear white light escaped through them, brightening the room enough that Corin could see. The newcomer must be shyani, humans didn't have skin so pale or hair that was golden or large bright sea-blue eyes. Small silver rings showed, high in the cartilage of each ear, one on each side.

Which all meant that somehow, impossibly, he must be in a shyani hill.

Jared would be so jealous.

That thought was just too much: tears gathered, and wouldn't be stopped.

The shyani simply handed Corin a square of soft thin fabric and seated himself on a stool next to the bed.

A warm furry body curled around his back, purring reassuringly.

Had he ever really cried before, for all the times he'd smiled while weeping inside, all the countless tiny cuts inflicted day after day with each bleeding away a bit more of his will to live, for everything it had cost him to lie to himself so that he could tell everyone else the lie they demanded to hear?

Exhausted and abused, his body couldn't sustain the aching sobs for long, before he wound down to sniffles and catches in his breath and a throbbing headache.

“Be still a moment.” The shyani began to sing softly, he couldn't understand the words and yet somehow they sounded right. He reached out and laid one palm against Corin's forehead.

The headache faded away.

Corin stared at him, certain he looked shocked. “How did you do that?”

The shyani smiled. “I'm a shaman. In human terms, that is partly a spiritual calling and partly a healer and a few other things as well. I've spent quite a lot of time and effort repairing the damage done to your body by lack of water and food and proper sleep and too much exertion. If I should not have done that and you intend to make it pointless as soon as you leave here, would you be willing to tell me why?”

The puma curled around him, a great living purring backrest, swiped his leg with one cheek.

Corin looked down, twisting the rather soggy handkerchief in both hands. “Because there's nothing to live for. I can't be what everyone says I have to be. No one will let me be what I am. I've gotten very good at lying to myself so that I'm better at lying to everyone else. But it's killing me a little at a time, and I'd rather just die so it won't hurt any more.”

“What are you that no one wants you to be?”

There, Corin balked. Even dying was easier than saying those words out loud.

“Hm. Will you tell us, then, how you came to be alone in the highlands and nearly dead?”

“I... I was at the University. It's a place humans go to learn more advanced sorts of things. I'm a student there, I've been studying medicine, mostly. I had... I had poison, it would have been fast. Before I could drink it, but I thought I had drunk it and was hallucinating, there was a red fox in my room. He walked through the door and wanted me to follow him.” The cat behind him made a low chuffing noise, ears perking forward. “And I did. I suppose he must have led me to where you found me. I don't know what he wanted.” He shook his head quickly. “That sounds insane. I must have imagined him, or it was some self-preservation instinct trying to keep me from doing it.”

“Or there was actually something there,” the shyani said. “A part of the shaman's calling involves communicating with the spirit world. When each shyani child reaches the appropriate age, a shaman sings his or her spirit animal into coming forward to be guardian and guide for the rest of that shyani's life. Often the spirit animal gives us a clue about that child's future or inner nature. I would have had to call yours in order to heal you, but he was already with you. Red Fox most often chooses witches and those called to be shamans, though occasionally someone with another notable gift instead. And he chooses only women and osana, never men.”

Heart thumping hard, Corin looked down, drawing in closer on himself. Belatedly, the unfamiliar term registered. “What's an... osana?”

“To us, one is born with a body that is male or female or otherwise, and an inner self which can be masculine or feminine or otherwise. When the body is male and the inner self masculine, or the body is female and the inner self feminine, the result is man or woman. Much less often, one can be born with a body that is male and an inner self which is feminine, and that is what we call osana, or a body that is female and an inner self which is masculine, which we call umana. There are those who do not fit either category on one level or both, and they are called etana. Many, but not all, osana and umana and etana become shamans. Whether we do or not, we are acknowledged as what we are.” His tone turned very gentle. “We are not driven into being something else, or forced to lie to ourselves and others. I think many lives must be lost that way, that otherwise could make the world a more wonderful place. I think that you were very nearly one of them, but when you stood at the doorway between life and death, it gave Red Fox a way in and he led you here.”

The cat behind him made a low chuffing noise that sounded rather like a greeting. Corin rubbed his eyes with one hand, but he could still see glowing green eyes and a narrow russet face in the corner, watching him, white-tipped tail coiled around small paws.

The shaman glanced in that direction, and inclined his head respectfully.

“You see him too?”

“Indeed. That is one thing shamans do. We see what is there. And weyres often perceive things of spirit, some more clearly than others. Your guide is here to observe the results of his efforts.”

Well, that more or less ruled out his hallucinating only the fox, though it left other possibilities. “So now I know it isn't the same everywhere,” Corin said wearily. “Now I can feel terrible about being born human instead of shyani along with...” He swallowed hard, forced the words out. “Along with being born wrong. Oh, that helps.”

The shyani shook his head. “Your old life is gone,” he said, still gently. “You decided to end it, quite definitively. But perhaps you can find a new one, one that will allow you to learn who you truly are, and to be that. Endings can become beginnings, as well.”

“You're asking me to live.”

“I'm suggesting that we find you a way to live without pain or lies.”

The hope being offered was terrifying, far more so than the thought of escape.

“You said we. Not just now. A minute ago.”

The shaman nodded. “I knew when I was very young that I was umana. I knew when my spirit animal came that I would be a shaman. Beaver builds dams that create ponds that help all things in their community to thrive, and a dam can also serve as a bridge. I've never been in a position of anyone condemning me for being what I am. Exactly the opposite. That doesn't mean I can't see the hurting in you and want it to heal. That's what I do, after all: I make things right, as much as I possibly can. You said you were studying medicine—that's the human system of healing, hm? So I think you must understand.”

“I'm human. Why would you care?”

“Is it any less painful than it would be for a shyani or a weyre? Is a wound any less for being on my wife or a stranger, one of our donkeys or a wild animal? It's all pain, physical or otherwise. Every life is priceless, and every life deserves to be lived with as little suffering as possible. Would you allow a shyani or a weyre to bleed to death at your door?”

Corin's eyes dropped to his hands.

“Do you have any idea what you're asking me to admit? How much contempt my own people, my own family and friends, would have for me if they knew? And... I chose to die. I tried to die. I didn't ask for any intervention, I tried to make sure there couldn't be any. You're telling me to do the opposite.”

“I doubt I do know, though the fact that you consider death more welcoming tells me a great deal. Is it that you wanted to die, though, or that you wanted to not live as you were and could find no other way out? You chose to follow Red Fox. Knowing that things are different here, that you can be accepted as you are and you can very probably find an important and valued place with us... do you still want to die more than anything else?”

“No,” Corin said softly. “I can't. Not knowing that.” And that was both a terrible grief in itself, that it wasn't yet over, and a vast relief, that it wasn't yet over. “I can't be who I was, but I'm still here.”

“Then who do you want to become?”

For a very long moment, Corin was silent.

“I want to help people,” he said finally. “That part was always real.”

“And may be why Red Fox took an interest in you. As I said, he comes to shamans and to witches, and you are not a witch. That is a gift some shyani are born with.”

“And,” he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I should not have been born male.”

The red fox in the corner stood up and stretched, then strolled across the room.

The shaman tilted his head to look at Corin. “Hm, that isn't what we would say, but then, there is infinite difference between seeing all variations as valid and valuable in their own right, and seeing everything in terms of two absolute labels. What does your own inner self say that you are, rather than what you are not?”

Heart pounding, Corin said, very quietly, “A woman.”

The shaman smiled and held out a hand, palm-up. There was a tattoo on the centre of his palm. “I'm Sanovas, shaman of Copper Springs. That is Dayr behind you—not of anywhere, he's been wandering, as young weyres often do. You are?”

Not Corin. Corin is dead.

Possibly it would be terribly offensive by shyani standards, or to the spirit-fox, but one name was there and waiting, right at the edge of consciousness.

“I'm Vixen.”

The red fox vanished, but it wasn't in anger, she was sure. No longer visible, maybe, to his human charge who had chosen to step out of the space between life and death. Not visible for the moment, at least. It felt rather pleasant, that someone had wanted her to live so badly.

That several someones had, really.

“Welcome to Copper Springs, Vixen. And if you're to live long enough to learn anything more about us, you badly need to eat.” Sanovas raised his voice. “Aerfen, my love, could you fill a bowl with that soup? And then come meet our new daughter.”

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