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The Porcupine's Dilemma

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He’s never felt so small.

Charles’s world is collapsing around him and there’s nothing to protect him, not any more. His father is dead. Not just dead, but murdered with no hope of justice. Charles has to be strong for his little brothers and sister and mother and –

He knows they’ll come looking for him but he has to get away from the world for just a minute. He hides where he always did, in a corner in his father’s study. He curls up and cries, the world spinning around him as he protects himself in the only way he knows how.

He’s not sure how long he’s been there in the dark. He’s almost cried himself to sleep when he hears the door slowly creak open, and soft footsteps into the room. They aren’t the footfalls of his mother or one of his siblings, or one of the servants. That leaves one person.

“Charles?” Says the voice of the last person he wanted to see.

He’s quiet, hoping if Isabelle doesn’t find him after a cursory glance she’ll leave him alone. “Charles, I know you’re in here.” She walks farther into the room, and he cowers more into his corner. But it’s no use, she somehow knows which piece of furniture he’s hidden himself behind. “Charles, please. It’s alright.” She extends her hand, protected by a falconry glove. Under the other arm is a bundle of clothes.

A small, spiky animal emerges from under the table, wary. He sniffs the air, then the glove, and looks up at his wife. She lifts her armored hand and he backs away, raising his quills, but she only strokes his head and he starts calming down. This is the first time someone has been able to touch him since he transformed into his animal form three days ago and found himself unable – or unwilling – to return to human form. No one knew how to interact with a creature completely made of spears.

This is probably the nicest Isabelle has been to him, at least in his admittedly miserable memory. Last year when they were married, she couldn’t stand him. He was beginning to realize that her coldness was her way of protecting herself, barbed words the metaphorical counterparts to his physical spikes. Even when they needed companionship they hurt each other.

Charles wants to curl up again, this time in Isabelle’s arms, but that can’t happen, so he lies on the floor next to her and she carefully strokes his spiny head and back. She asks him when he last ate, if he’s cold, does he want to go to bed. He can’t reply in his human voice, only hystricomorphic snuffles and squeaks, but he appreciates her concern.
Without thinking about it, he shifts back to human shape, and Isabelle wraps him up in the cloak she’s brought – and then in her arms. His eyes are red and sunken from crying and he’s shaking.

“Come on,” Isabelle says. “Get dressed. We’ll raid the kitchens, I know where the cook hides the sweets.”

He nods. “Thanks,” he says, his voice barely more than a hoarse whisper.

There’s a quill stuck in his hair.