I admired myself in the mirror. I looked, I thought, perfect. I’d put enough work into it, I should look perfect at this point.
Smile, faintly lopsided but not too lopsided. Teeth, off-white and slightly crooked. Pupils, round and black but not too round or too black. Skin, a delicate texture of almost-identical shades. Hair, buzzed short for ease of maintenance, also a texture and not just a colour. Five fingers of appropriately varied lengths on each arm, five toes the same on each foot. Two feet, two legs, two arms, two hands. I looked perfect.
Then, I walked outside and realized I had made a horrible mistake. I had forgotten something essential. While I looked perfect, my shadow branched four legs from two feet, and had long, curving horns that widened the shadows head. I considered, for a moment, turning around. Skipping this year. Continuing to work until it was truly perfect. But no, by that point the faculty would be on to me, and wouldn’t let me back. So, self-conscious about the shadow behind me, I went to class.
At first, I thought no one had noticed, until we had a break and a girl came over.
“Why are you here?” She seemed angry, leaning in very close so her iron pendant almost touched me.
“To learn.” I responded, voice flat and one-dimensional.
“To learn what?” She demanded, still very close.
“Biology, currently.” The professor called her back to her seat, and she left with a huff.
I went through weeks like that, my lack of humanity the worst kept secret on campus. Sometimes, when I sat very quietly, seemed fully absorbed in my classes, they would forget about my shadow. I learned ways to protect myself from me, and others like me. Iron-spined books, and salt packets. I found a ramen packet, in fact, empty of its contents. I filled it with sand and kept it in my pocket, along with the tin pendant I found. I look more like a student now, and sometimes they forget to look.
The girl from the first day, Stone, had taken to hovering near me. She followed the rules religiously, and warded off any more unwary classmates. She’d talk to me then, about silly classmates, or books she was reading.
Then came the day Stone was taken. She had been walking home, and followed the wrong path in the dark, and I cannot rightfully explain my fury. She was not mine, I did not hold her name, but she was my closest friend, if I could be said to have such things, and how was I to properly study when my best example was taken?
I shed my glamours that night, and returned to the world I was born in. As I left, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. My head looked heavy with my horns revealed, and my eyes were distant and alien. There was no warmth to my skin, and the sound of my hooves on the floor was uncomfortably loud. There were sores around my mouth from the times I had eaten salt in the cafeteria, burns on all fourteen of my fingers from lifting iron. I shook myself and walked into the night to find Stone.
I found her. I felt guilty, to be seen honestly at last. I expected shock, or horror. I did not expect her gaze to linger around my mouth, around my fingertips, an odd expression of concern.
They let me take her without bargains. I made them uncomfortable, too, with my studies. I brought her back, hand in hand, and left her at her dorm.
“Will I see you tomorrow?” She asked, voice small in the swallowing darkness.
“We have class.”
Stone brought cupcakes to class the next day, to celebrate her return to the world of humanity. She proclaimed loudly that they were salted caramel, so I remained in my desk, an odd sinking feeling in my gut.
I could hear her approach, but was still surprised when a cupcake landed on the edge of my space.
“Here. Made to suit your dietary restrictions.” I blinked at her for a second, my human eyes back in place, and she smiled.
The cupcake didn’t burn as I ate it, completely unsalted.
“I appreciate you thinking of me.” I admitted at the end.
“Likewise.” She paused, looking at the seat beside me.
“Can I sit here?” I smiled, a lopsided but not too lopsided smile.
“Sure. I’m just here to learn.”
Stone would speak to me about other things, after that. About her family, her brothers, the world of humanity at large. She would help me with math, and I would help her with writing. She never slipped up following the rules, but I would not have taken her even if she had, and she knew it.
At graduation, three years later, as we all cheered and threw our hats in the air, Stone leaned over to me and whispered in my ear.
“I don’t want to leave.” I gave her a startled look, the rest of the world growing dim around me.
“Can I stay with you?” She snuggled in closer to me, eyes beseeching.
“You know what I’d need.” My voice felt distant, almost hollow, though I could tell it was more resonant than usual.
“My name is Petra. Can I stay with you?” I could feel my illusions cracking, eyes shining a little too brightly.
“My name is Thali. I will keep you as long as you wish to be kept.” Then I kissed her, because it felt like the thing to do.
“Thank you.” I whispered into her hair as she laughed, delighted.
She teaches, now, and I do too. My Petra teaches mythology and astronomy, and I have late-night classes, in some of the more fluid classrooms, for those interested among my people. Explaining what I can about their world, how to cast a convincing glamour, explaining about math and science and biology.
I’m so glad I didn’t skip.