Kanna frowned at her daughter. “Honey,” she began, trying for patience, “you’re only six. You don’t actually feel dysphoric yet. That doesn’t happen until well after you’ve had your own children and they’ve grown up. You know that.”
Hazi was unfazed by her mother’s logic, a stubborn set to her red brows. “My skin don’t fit right,” she protested, pinching at the soft flesh of her upper arm. “Inn’t that dys-pho-ri-a? Dada tol’ me it was.”
The Merre woman lifted a hand to massage her temples and the base of her long ears. “Honey,” she tried again, “how old is Dada?”
“Dada is five times me!” the little girl said triumphantly, still pulling restlessly at her dark skin.
“Has Dada said he feels like he needs to change his skin?”
Hazi gave a gasp and a scowl. “Of course not! Dada stays with us ’til I’m a mama.”
Kanna smiled gently, kneeling to look her daughter in the eye. “Exactly. Now. Try to tell me how you feel without using the d-word, okay? If you’re getting sick, we want to make sure we take you to the herbologist today while the light’s still warm.”
Hazi’s face fell and she bit her lip. “Um. Liiike my skin is a wool sweater and it’s summertime, so it’s all hot and scratchy inside. And my tummy feels like it’s made of water.”
“Do you have to pee?” Kanna asked matter-of-factly, a distant fear beginning to toy with the back of her mind.
The child stuck her tongue out. It was purple. Kanna blinked; Hazi had been born with a blue tongue. Well, sometimes even children in good health changed colors… “No!” she grumped, folding her arms across her chest. “Not full of water, made of water!”
Kanna sighed. “Did Dada tell you what dysphoria feels like?”
Hazi slumped her shoulders in a sulk. “No,” she mumbled. “I tol’ him what I felt like an’ he said go find you and tell you ’cause it sounds like dys-pho-ri-a and if I got that then it’s a bad thing. He said I shoul’ mention his brother.”
Kanna recoiled, despite herself. Her mate’s brother had become one of the shapeless and gone mad. The fear blossomed in her throat, cutting off her air. If Hazi became shapeless…
“No,” she whispered, shaking herself off. She reached out and touched her daughter’s dark mane, ran her thumb along the soft cheeks. “No, sweetheart, you’re not going to be like Dada’s brother. Come with me; I’m going to leave you with Dada while I go talk to the herbologist. There might be an illness going around that’s making you feel funny.”
Hazi took her mother’s hand and scuffed her feet all the way to her father’s workshop, where the hill-shouldered man sat over a pottery wheel and shaped clay with paw-like hands. “Dada!” she called, running up to him as soon as Kanna released her hand. “Mama’s gonna talk to the herbogist–”
“Herballagist.” Hazi stuck her tongue out. “And gonna ask if I’m sick.”
Tenyu looked up from his work and met his mate’s troubled gaze. She mouthed no over their daughter’s head, forced a smile, and walked down the slope towards the dirt path that wound towards the center of their village.
“Okay,” Tenyu sighed, pushing the rim of his work-in-progress to correct a fold in the lip. “Tell me again how you feel.”
“My skin’s a scratchy wool sweater in summertime,” Hazi diligently repeated, pleased with her newfound metaphor. “An’ my insides feel like they’re made of water.” She frowned, plopping down next to her father’s stool. “An’ my bones kinda ache.”
The Merre potter kept himself busy with his work, wondering when she would list the fourth common symptom of dysphoria: a growing exhaustion that would lead her to sleep more than a few hours a day, giving her body time and rest to begin its first evolution towards a new skin and shape.
The shapeless were the only ones who ever changed as children, and they never stopped once they began.
As Tenyu worked in silence, Hazi yawned.