Settle down, it'll all be clear

It had been an interesting ride, and Etta was just happy to be back home. She opened the door for Ben and stepped aside to let him in first, watching him closely as she followed behind him. "So would you like some hot chocolate or a shower?" she asked, pulling off her coat to hang on the wire rack next to the door. Her home was not as clean as she would normally have it for guests, but it certainly was not messy by any means. There were just stacks of papers left here and there. She walked over to her couch first, grabbing the stack of student case files she'd pulled earlier in the week to see if any adjustments could be made. Those she quickly shoved back into her work purse she had on the chair next to the front door.

"Don't mind the mess," she said with a hurried laugh. "Wasn't expecting company, but please, let me know what you'd like."

@"Ben Jones"


It was warm here. This was important when it was not warm outside, and outside was always where Ben ended up. The heat had his nose running, and Ben smeared the back of one hand to it from time to time.

Ben wanted hot chocolate and a shower, so he nodded almost frantically to the offer. There was no mess that Ben could see, but even if there was, he could forgive someone who loved him.

This place smelled stronger of the scent that made Ben's brain grind its teeth, but less like alcohol.

Ben only nodded to the question and Etta gave him a small smile. So he obviously wanted both, but didn't know there was a choice to be made on what to do first. "Alright darling, how about a shower first and then some hot chocolate?" She looked at his clothes and knew he'd need something else to wear too. "You know, I have some of my brothers' clothes here because when they visit me, they always leave something behind accidentally. You're a bit smaller than they are, but I bet I have some older clothes of theirs that may fit. I definitely have some nice, big t-shirts you can use as pajamas. And I think there are some sweatpants that'll fit. Might be a little big on you. If you want to wear them, I can wash your clothes tonight if you'd like."

She gave him a kind smile, and waited to see if he would be open to having some different clothes to wear. He was quite the odd bird, or mouse in his case, so she knew she had to be thoughtful to his needs and wants.

Everything felt a little overwhelming. Etta said many words when she talked, and this place smelled strangely, and Ben didn't know if it was safe to take someone else's clothes. Sometimes Ben would walk into laundromats and do just that, but many times Ben had been beaten and yelled at for it.

This would maybe be different because Etta loved him. She would protect Ben from anything.

"Okay," he said eventually, then stood utterly still as Ben waited for the next instruction.

Ben was not much of a talker, and Etta realized that she had said a whole lot to him. He seemed to understand it all though and Etta nodded and reached out a hand to his shoulder to gently guide him through the house. "Here, let me show you where to go," she said quietly, as she moved towards the hallway off from the kitchen. She paused at one door and opened it. "This is my guest room. You can stay here tonight. Let me grab some of my brothers' clothes from here-" and with that, the woman quickly popped into the room and moved to the closest where she grabbed a box down from the top shelf and began to go through it, finding everything that Ben would need for a good night's sleep.

"Here we are," she called, putting the box back in the bottom of the closest and going back out to Ben. "Now right across this room is the bathroom." She paused to open the door, and stood to the side to let Ben in. She set the clothes on the counter top and gave Ben another smile. "Alright darling, have a good shower. I'm going to change into some dry clothes and then I'll get everything out for that hot chocolate alright? When you're done with your shower, come back out to the kitchen, okay?"

There was a hand on Ben's shoulder but it was startling only for a second because it belonged to Etta. Guided through the house, Ben listened intently, trying to remember all the important details and also look at everything with Ben's eyes.

Brother. Etta had a brother. But Etta couldn't love him like she loved Ben, this was certain. Nodding with increasing fervor, Ben found himself sniffling at the end of the tour, overwhelmed by it all.

"I- I'm going to," Ben said, meaning that he would shower but there were a lot of thoughts in Ben's head.

Stepping into the bathroom and closing the door behind him, Ben stared at the shower for nearly a minute before finally stripping off his clothing. The tub had sharp edges and was a little frightening, but eventually Ben convinced himself to step into it, leaving the shower door open.

Turning on the water was rewarded with a blast of cold. Ben yelped, reeling back against the wall of the shower, waiting in a huddled, naked, shivering pile as Ben waited for it to get warm. Eventually, it would. And it was the nicest thing Ben had felt in a while.

Standing in the stream of water, Ben stared at the opposite wall and let it cascade down his dirtied skin, arms loose at his side.

Ben would stand here. And stand here. And stand here.

The rush of the water soothed all the sound in Ben's ears.

Etta smiled and left Ben to his shower as she wandered back towards the living room and to her bedroom. She paused only briefly, heart thundering in her chest, when she heard Ben yelp. She waited, listening with her cheetah's ears, to see if there was any indication that Ben was in trouble. But no other noises came, other than the shuffling noises as the man moved to stand in the stream of water. Content that he was still safe and sound, Etta continued to her room and quickly changed, deciding to wear the pajamas and slippers she usually reserved for the pajama spirit days at school.

She grabbed her hairbrush too and attempted to brush out some of the dried alcohol that had crusted on the strands of her hair. Hopefully she smelled less like alcohol now. After, she went out to the kitchen and grabbed two mugs and poured some milk in her electric kettle. She didn't want to heat it up yet, because she had no idea how long Ben would take.

And that was good, because the boy took forever. Etta had always been glad that she had a large and amazing hot water heater that provided seemingly endless heat, but as she waited for Ben, she began to wonder just how long the hot water would last. Finally, she was sure she heard the water turn off, and she got up and flipped on the electric kettle and grabbed two packets of hot chocolate and a bag of mini marshmallows and waited for Ben to emerge.

Ben would stand in the water for a long, long time. Ben stood in the water until his skin was pink and soggy, hands and feet and fingers and toes wrinkled and saturated.

The water had run cold by the time he stepped out, dripping onto the floor as Ben simply stood and breathed for a while. The clothing was too large, but this was nothing new to a Ben who had been small his entire life. Even as a baby, Ben had been very small, or so he'd been told. There were never any pictures.

Hair still damp and clinging unevenly to Ben's skin, he emerged from the bathroom wide-eyed and smelling the air in too-large clothing.

Etta moved from the kitchen to the hallway and smiled at Ben looking much like a drowned rat. She gave a small chuckle as she walked closer to him. "Feeling better yet?" she asked, pausing in front of him. "I have the kettle going for some hot chocolate in the kitchen." She motioned for him to follow her and walked back to the kitchen and grabbed the mugs from the counter.

"Have a seat anywhere, darling. I think the milk is just about done and I'll get you a cup of hot chocolate made right up. Do you like marshmallows in your cocoa?" She looked over at him, waiting to see if he would pick a spot to sit and answer about the marshmallows.

Ben never felt better, but Ben did not feel worse. With a nod, his eyes fixed on the cocoa, and the bag of marshmallows. Ben's mouth was watering, flavorless after gulping down water from the shower.

"I like all food," he said, moving to stand relatively near to Etta. She smelled different than before, but not all the way. "Do you-"

It had to be a yes Ben knew it had to be because she cared so much about him.

"Is there more food?"

He seemed able to answer her better, and Etta attributed it to Ben understanding that she wouldn't hurt him. She chuckled again when he said he liked all food, and as she poured the milk in the mugs and added the hot chocolate mix, she put in a good helping of marshmallows for him. And then came the question, and she turned and looked at him as though she'd made quite a big faux pas.

"Oh! Of course, darling! I wasn't even thinking- you must be hungry." She brought over the hot chocolate for him and set it down on the dining room table. "Take a seat, Ben and I'll get you a nice, hot meal, alright?" She headed back to the kitchen and opened her freezer door, pausing as she wondered what on earth a mouse like Ben would like. As a cheetah, she craved a lot of meat and have tons of it. Closing the freezer partway to see the boy, she smiled at him once more. "Now I know you said you like all food, but do you have any preference, darling?"

Ben was hungry. Ben was so hungry all of the time. Stupid Ben, ugly Ben, useless Ben, but most of all, hungry Ben.

Instructed to take a seat, Ben chose the nearest one automatically. Licking his lips absentmindedly, Ben bunched his hands in his lap, fingers tangling up.

"Food that's warm," Ben said, and just the thought had his heart racing. Food made just for Ben. Eyes burning at the rims, feelings rushed into his face, and unable to stop himself, he blurted out a question.

"Y-you love B- you love me, don- don't you?"

Food that's warm. Etta gave the quietest sigh. That didn't really help her narrow anything down, but with a shrug, she pulled out a bag of chicken stir fry. She had just gotten the contents dumped into a skillet and was reaching for the oil when Ben asked her a question. A very interesting question. She paused, mid-reach, and turned to face the boy.

"Ben, in some ways I guess I do love you. I just hadn't really seen it like that. I'm very concerned about your health and wellbeing. I want you to be cared for and looked after, and I am happy to help you, darling." She gave him a kind smile, and walked over to him to slide the mug of chocolate closer to him. "Drink up while it's still warm. I've got dinner coming for you in about fifteen minutes."


There it was. Proof that she loved him. Ben's heart swelled enough that his chest hurt, like it might break out of his ribs. The tightness in his throat rendered him effectively speechless.

Instead, he nodded, and eventually Ben slurped down hot cocoa and marshmallows noisily, waiting for dinner.

Etta loved Ben Etta loved Ben Etta loved Ben love Ben love Ben love Ben.

Ben whimpered a little as he gulped.

Ben made little whimpering noises, and Etta looked back at him for a moment. "Are you alright?" she asked, worried that maybe saying she loved him had frightened him in some way. She decided to still act fairly casual about everything- no need to cause any sort of alarm when she didn't really ven know what he was thinking. Instead, she set to work on his dinner.

She hummed a little as she poured the oil into the pan- You, My Love- an old song from the 50s that featured Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. Not that she was interested in having any sort of romantic relationship with Ben- she just enjoyed the 50s. The stir fry sizzled in the pan, and sometime after her humming ended, so did the cooking. She grabbed a plate from her cabinet and plated up the entire thing of stir fry, grabbed a fork from her utensil drawer and brought them both over to Ben. "Here you go, darling," she said with a smile, as she sat down and drank her own mug of lukewarm chocolate.

Asked if he was alright, Ben made a non-committal sort of noise, sniffling once.

Etta loved Ben. They just met and she loved him and that made it even truer. Ben listened to her humming music and observed, wide eyed and quiet.

Ben was a good observer. His eyes were very sharp. And his nose, too.

The food arrived and Ben began to gobble it down, hot enough to burn and blister, but it would heal.

Ben healed well just like he saw and sniffed well.

Etta watched as Ben immediately began to dig into the food. "Isn't that hot?" she asked, mildly concerned for his well-being. But maybe mice could handle hotter foods somehow? That didn't make sense, and Etta moved to put her hand on his arm, but paused just before touching him. "Ben, darling, the food's not going anywhere. Take your time. You don't need to burn yourself." Her voice was kind, but firm- a skill she had practiced plenty while working with young teenagers.

Yes, Ben was a lot like the children she worked with- just in a bigger body and maybe a little less put together. But that was alright. Etta knew she couldn't have children of her own, so maybe Ben could fulfill that maternal need she'd always wanted to have and experience before becoming a cheetah. "Maybe in the morning we could go to a store and get you some clothes that fit you properly. Would you like that?"

It was hot which was why Ben was eating it. A hand moved to his arm and he tugged away sharply, huddling some over the food.

Etta loved Ben, but it didn't mean that she wouldn't take something away from Ben.

Food packed in his mouth, Ben swallowed in gulps, eyeing Etta warily from the corner of Ben's gaze.

She talked about clothing and Ben knew clothing could be warmer than without. So Ben nodded, nearly finished with the dinner in front of him.

Ben didn't slow down, and he acted almost like a starving dog as he jerked his arm away and got closer to the food. Etta sighed. "I won't take good food away from you," she said quietly and grabbed her mug of hot chocolate to drink from. She gave a smile as Ben nodded about getting clothes the next day.

She stood up again a moment later and got a cool glass of water from her refrigerator and set it down in front of Ben. "I know it's cold, but you should probably have some water too. I'd hate for you to get dehydrated."

She wouldn't take good food but what about told that wasn't good. Ben felt himself clenching a little, but finished all on Ben's plate before long.

A few gulps of water followed, and Ben sniffled one last time. A belly full of food was sedating, and Ben fell nearly glassy eyed.

The gnashing in Ben's head was quiet for now, and and Ben looked to Etta for some indication of what she would tell him next.

Ben didn't offer any complaints about the water and took a few drinks from it. Etta smiled happily at him and noticed afterwards that he looked like a tired toddler. "Are you sleepy now, darling? You can stay in my guest room. It has a nice, big bed and a fluffy blanket. I think you'll like it." The woman stood, grabbed the plate Ben had finished, and deposited it in the sink before leading Ben back down the hall to the guest room.

"Hope you don't mind some of the pink decorations," she said with a little chuckle. "But here we are, and you're right across from the bathroom here," she said, pointing to the bathroom he'd been in for hours previously.

A bed. A fluffy bed. Ben clenched his teeth at the prospect of something so nice, and warm, and soft, and wrapped all around Ben.

There was one worry.

Where would Etta be? What if she loved him and then left? Unsettled, Ben made a quiet resolution within not to let her leave the house.

For now Ben followed, heading toward the bedroom and then giving an excited sort of whine at what his eyes fell upon. Ben did not understand why pink mattered. Ben did not understand colors.

There was a moment of silence as he continued to take it all in.


An almost desperate wail, and Ben turned to plunge his face into whatever of her he could reach.

"You're so- k- kiiiiind to- and- Etta loves B- m- Ben" Ben blubbered desperately, wrapping clinging arms around her and grabbing tightly with Ben's hands.

Etta was pleased when it seemed as though Ben was happy with the room, but then, he suddenly started crying loudly and grabbing onto her. Etta allowed herself to be pulled into a tight hug, even though her cheetah was trying to push away from the sudden contact. After a quick moment, Etta even raised her own arms to wrap around to Ben's back and give him a soft pat. Very motherly.

"I'm glad you like the room, Ben," she said quietly, trying to be soothing against Ben's wails and sobs. "You're welcome to stay here as long as you like, alright?" She waited patiently for him to let her go.

Etta soothed Ben, and it mattered very much.

Eventually Ben was just snotty sniffles, some smeared against her clothing, and he slowly released her.

Nodding several times to himself, Ben would eventually go toward the bed and settle in. For the next several hours, the ceiling would be Ben's primary focus as his mind buzzed, teeth gnashing quietly in Ben's ears.

But eventually, when the world felt quiet enough, Ben would venture out to the kitchen. The goal was to gather as much food as possible into his arms, then return it to the room to hide it.

There was safety and comfort in careful hoarding. Ben was quiet as any careful rat, grasping everything from marshmallows to pepper shakers.

Etta watched as her guest climbed into bed and she offered him a smile. "I'm going to be up for a little while longer, darling. I'll close your door so I don't disturb you, but feel free to keep it open if you'd rather." With that, she gently shut the door, collected Ben's clothing from the bathroom to throw in the wash, and cleaned the dishes from dinner and hot chocolate. Once the washing machine dinged its timer, Etta tossed the clothes into the dryer and took her own shower- fast, unlike Ben's.

She cleaned up the bathroom and made herself a cup of chamomile tea and settled in on the couch for some reading as she waited for the dryer to finish. She folded Ben's freshly cleaned clothes carefully and set them on the top of the couch for Ben to get the next day. Yawning then, she rinsed our her tea cup and finally made her way to bed. Even though she was generally a light sleeper, she did not hear the rat that was her house guest grab food from the kitchen.

When she awoke the next morning and walked out to her kitchen, she got the sense that there was something amiss. She said nothing and she started to get out the supplies to make oatmeal and then noticed that the marshmallows she'd had pulled out for hot chocolate last night were missing. Arching a brow, she headed to Ben's room to see if he was awake and might know what had happened to a few missing items.

Ben did not sleep much. Ben did not need to sleep much, and also, it was difficult to sleep very much when you rarely slept in a safe place. Ben had keen ears even while unconscious for the sound of approach, for someone who might want to hurt him. Many people did, and Ben did not fully understand why, except that Ben was ugly, and stupid, and unloved, and useless, and hated, and most of all, unlucky.

But Etta loved him.

Ben heard her approach the door and rushed toward it, lingering just at the other side.

Taking a few deep breaths, Ben made sure it was the scent of her, and it was. Staring at the door, he waited to see what she would do, wondering if she might come in and finding increasingly that Ben would not want to let her leave if she did.

Etta smiled when she heard movement inside the room. Wanting to maintain good privacy manners, she knocked on the door lightly. "Ben, are you awake?" She waited a moment before she opened the door, smiling at him. She didn't immediately see the items that had gone missing, but that didn't mean that they weren't around. "Good morning, darling. I was going to make some breakfast for us and I noticed that some food has gone missing from the kitchen. Would you know where it's gone?" She gave him a kind smile and kept her tone sweet and polite rather than accusatory.

Smiling. Etta was smiling and that meant things were okay. Ben's eyes darkened as his pupils seemed to gobble up his irises, some force focusing as Ben sniffed.

The first few words for nice. Ben was already hungry. But then there was a question, and Ben knew the answer, and Ben knew Etta knew.

There was a surge of protectiveness for his hoard, and in a panic, Ben slammed the door with all the force Ben could. Whirling back onto the bed, Ben was on all fours, wild-eyed and baring human teeth as his hands clenched the sheets.

Desperately clinging fingers began to pad at the ends, and the skin there darkened to an almost purplish hue.

Etta knew there were many different scenarios that could play out when she asked Ben where the food was. So, when he suddenly slammed the door in her face, she didn't mind that much. She dealt with plenty of slammed doors from hysterical pre-teens and teens at her job, and so she simply shrugged and went back out to the kitchen. Her cat was a bit more alert and wanted to go inside the boy's room, but Etta refused. When Ben was ready, he could come out.

She made a cup of tea, which luckily hadn't been taken, and sat down on the couch while she waited to see if Ben would come back out. While she waited, she turned on the television to watch some news and kept the volume low so that she could hear if Ben was doing anything else in the room.

She didn't come back.

Etta didn't come back. This was upsetting, and Ben wondered if she was leaving the whole house.

But Ben didn't have much time to talk about this. Instead, Ben folded up, face caving in as eyes bulged and lagged behind. Ears cupped and thinned, legs shriveled and shrank.

It would take five minutes of whimpering and eventually squeaking to produce a rodent on the bed, nose twitching and eyes wild.

Etta frowned as she heard the boy shifting in the room. She hadn't known such a question would've thrown him into such a fit, and though she had elected previously to not go into his room until he wanted to come out, she also wanted to make sure his little mouse self was fine. She didn't know how long he'd been like this, and if he was still new to it all, then she didn't want him to further get scared. Especially considering she was a cat and the mouse would probably smell that.

Etta took a deep breath and prepared herself for seeing a large mouse in her house. She didn't fear rodents- well, maybe a little, but she was more concerned about the way her cheetah would react. She inched towards the door and gave a slow knock. "I'm just coming in to check on you darling," she said quietly as she pushed open the door.

She had expected a mouse. A large mouse. Maybe the size of a hamster or guinea pig. Instead, she was greeted by a rat the size of a small dog. She gave a little yelp in surprise, and instantly, the cheetah inside of her took advantage and decided to blast through. Etta yelled out in pain as the bones in her chest started to bend and crack. "Oh no!" she yelled, and she quickly slammed the door shut to Ben's room. No, the cheetah would not get Ben. "You need to hide!" she yelled out, hopeful that Ben could understand her as she flung herself into her bathroom across the hall.

Her legs were next, and she worked hard to fight through the shift and shut the bathroom door behind her and lock it. The cheetah inside tried to swat at the door to keep it open and unlocked, but Etta was still a little bit stronger and managed to complete the task before the cheetah finally took control as she continued the rest of her shift.

The first words didn't register one bit. Shift largely complete, Ben's mind had a new focus: find a safe, quiet, out of sight place. He set small scrabbling claws to the bed sheets, then froze as the door opened.

Beady black eyes stared, all of Ben utterly still, a woolly rat statue.

The yelling that followed was met with deep alarm, a tiny pounding heart. There was a place Ben knew he could reach. It would just take work.

Scurrying to the head of the bed, Ben began to claw to cram himself between the mattress and the head of the bed, little nails scraping into the outside of the fabric as Ben dug with the same enthusiasm he might have had burrowing into the earth.

After a few moments of more loud bone cracking, the cheetah was out. She stared at the door of the bathroom, tail flicking back and forth in an annoyed manner. She wanted a better look at that enormous rat that had been in the guest room, but without opposable thumbs, getting through the door would be hard. The window in the bathroom was also small. The cheetah eyes it all the same. She could fit through it, but breaking through it when it was so high up would prove to be difficult.

Instead, she returned her focus to the door. Giving a low growl, she pounced at the door handle; large teeth gnawing on the metal in a fervent attempt to get the door open. Large paws came next, gripping and smooshing and clawing at the door handle, when suddenly, there was a click. The cheetah stared at the door and nudged the handle. It moved! Stepping forward, she kept the handle up and pushed against the door, but realized that it wasn't doing anything but staying in place. Growling at the door for not opening, the cheetah then swiped at it and was surprised when it hit against the frame and then opened towards her. Ah! She was pushing when she should've been pulling.

With the door now open, the cheetah stepped out into the hallway and gazed at the door that was close by. She walked closer, nose to the ground as she sniffed. Yes, the rat. It was still in there. She started pawing at the door, trying to get this one open too.

There was not much for a rat to do but claw and dig at the mattress, coils catching and preventing further burrowing. Breaking free of the room was impossible; there was not enough momentum to break the window.

Human thought was utterly absent, and to the sound of clawing at the door, the rat froze.

If it opened, there would be a race to escape. For now, Ben could only huddle between the headboard and mattress, covered in clawed fabric and stuffing.

This door was different. The handle wasn't the same and the cheetah studied it for just a moment. In the back corner of her mind, there was something familiar about it; like she knew how to use it. Twist. The cheetah sat on her haunches and leaned her two front paws against the door. She bit this handle now too, trying to get it to turn the way that it needed to. But it wasn't working. Every little twist she thought she made, she pushed against the door, but it didn't budge.

She growled at the door and moved her mouth from it. This handle was too tricky. If she wanted to get inside, there would need to be a different way to do it. Thinking for a moment, she backed up as much as she could, going back into the bathroom even, and ran towards the door.


The sound was loud. Her head hurt. But still, the door remained shut.

There was so little a rat could do.

Burrow, shove, dig. The metal coils challenged his teeth, and Ben gnawed furiously, trying to cut a hole into the space to cram himself into. Small jaws strained until a soft crack sent him recoiling. A took chipped, jagged and sharp, and the rat was no nearer to the safety at the center of metal coils and fabric.

Ben would wait for the monster to leave, or to enter.

Only time would tell which.

The cheetah hissed at the door this time, as though she thought she could frighten it into opening. When that clearly didn't work, she decided to give the running into it another go. After all, she was sure the door had shuttered hard against her head previously. Maybe this time, it would cause the door to give. The cheetah backed up once more, keeping her golden eyes on the door. A quick huff, and she ran again, banging into the door so hard that she thought she saw stars.

Still, the door remained closed. The cheetah felt dizzy now, and her original plan of getting the big rat was now on hold. Instead, she wandered down the hall, into the living room, a little less coordinated than before. She was in pain and mad. She gazed at the clothes that had been laid on the back of the couch and reared up to grab them. They smelled faintly of the rat and she tore into them, angrily ripping them to shreds.

There had to be greater safety than this.

The hiss and the slam left Ben quivering, muscles tense enough to feel like they might snap.

But eventually she seemed to back away. Sensitive Ben ears listened to her move further and further from the door. More noise outside.

This was the safest place Ben knew. Another drive pushed at Ben: hunger. There was food shoved between the mattress and box spring, but Ben was not strong enough to reach it now.

A delicate paw smoothed Ben's whiskers, nervous grooming in the face of a situation that would require the passage of time and good luck.

Ben was always very, very unlucky. His woolly body nestled further against the shredded side of the mattress, a fallen pillow nestling Ben from above.

Tearing up the clothes felt satisfying to an extent, but Chetta's head was now hurting more. She hissed at the door once more with a mighty swish of her tail. She stalked through the living room, attacking a helpless couch pillow, before finally deciding that her head simply hurt too much to fully enjoy and appreciate her time out.

Golden eyes stared back at the rat room door before staring back at the master bedroom and sulking away. With a slightly dizzying jump, the cheetah made it onto the bed. Etta had worked hard on getting the cheetah to recognize that the bed was a comfortable place to be whenever it got bored or tired. The cheetah made it to the top of the bed and nudged the covers a few times until her head was under them.

With a slight pounce, she got her entire body under the covers and laid down, tail resting comfortably on the pillows. The rat was safe. For now. The cheetah was done and it was time to bring back Etta the human in all her naked, but covered by the blankets thank you very much, glory.


Twenty minutes of silence was what it took for a plan to go into action.

Out. Ben went to the door frame of the room, covered still as he was with mattress fluff, and began to furiously gnaw. Wood splintered, cracked, came free as his powerful teeth (one chipped) tore hunks free. It would take an hour to get through the door, an exhausting effort on an empty stomach.

Hunger, next. Racing through the living room and to the kitchen, making it to the counter with a few clawing hops. But the food had been taken already. Cleared of the counters. Trapped between mattresses.

Frustration. Ben nosed across the counter, sniffing for crumbs.

That nose would lead him back to the floor. To a bedroom, but not the one Ben had slept in.

The other one. A body like there and the nudity meant very little to a rat. Ben approached with great caution, heart racing. She was very still and some far off part knew she would not wake.

It started with a small bite of her smallest finger on her right hand. Testing. Not a sound or stir.

Another, harder. Enough to draw blood, which Ben lapped at nervously but with great hunger. A little more. Another bite. More lapping at the side of her finger. Eventually, there was exposed bone at the edge of her pinkie knuckle.

That was when Ben froze, turned, and fled back into the bedroom through the hole he'd chewed.

There was no disgust, only fear, and Ben wedged himself into a corner to groom and rest and fade back into a naked man on the floor.

It was hours later when Etta finally awoke. Her eyes opened and she tried to curl up around her pillow when she realized she didn't have her pillow. And then, the memories all came back. She shot up suddenly and felt a wave of pain through her head and, strangely enough, her pinkie. She looked down at her right hand and noticed that she'd been bleeding for a while, as the bone of her finger was slightly exposed.

The sight nearly sent her back into beast mode, but she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths to regain her composure. She remembered her cheetah bashing her head against the door a couple times, but she couldn't remember hurting herself like this. But maybe she had, and the cheetah hadn't known because she was too focused on the concussion she likely gave herself.

She remembered Ben then and quickly threw on her robe and hurried to the extra room. There was a hole in the door, fairly large, and she grimaced about that. She'd have to get a new door sometime. She opened the door and found Ben on the floor, naked and scrawny, but alive. With a relieved sigh, she headed back out, cleaned up her hand and wrapped up her pinkie, and pulled a few of her brothers' clothes out for the boy; laying them on the bed. She pulled the blanket off then and draped it over the man carefully before finally walking back out, closing the door, and going to get some ice for her head and hand. Thank god she'd heal fast. At least, she figured she was going to heal fast.

Two hours later, Ben would wake with absolute stillness. Eyes open, staring at the floor, Ben barely even breathed.

Ben needed to leave. Ben needed to leave very fast. Rising from the floor with utter care, Ben slowly pulled clothing on, feet quiet and mindful with each step.

Food would be next. Ben began to tug a pillow from the pillow case. In his focus, Ben took a step back, and one foot fell on a piece of splintered wood from chewing on the door.

Startled and already on high alert, Ben screeched out a yelp of alarm.

It had been a few hours since she'd checked last on Ben. A cup of cold tea sat on the coffee table, next to a ruined sofa pillow Etta had picked up earlier. She'd just finished wrapping her pinkie finger once more. Unlike her head, it was still oozing blood and was still incredibly painful. It also didn't seem like it was healing up nearly as quickly as it should- which left her with a very uneasy feeling.

Etta was still trying to wrack her brain as to other possible answers when she suddenly heard Ben yelp from the room. In a flash, she was up, and by Ben's door. She pushed it open and stared at him in surprise. "What is it? Are you alright, darling?" She stared at the empty pillowcase in his hands and wondered what he was planning on doing with that.

Ben had called her in. Ben hadn't meant to.

Etta loved him. Ben knew this was true.

But Etta was also very, very scary. Etta had yelled at him. Etta had turned into a terrible monster.

In a supernatural flash, he threw Ben to the lower of the two windows. Once, twice-

And in an explosion of glass, Ben was staggering off into the great outdoors, still clinging to an empty pillowcase.

Ben looked scared of her, and Etta honestly couldn't blame him. "Ben," she tried calmly, reaching out towards him. But suddenly, he'd thrown himself against a window. The initial smack against the window took her aback, but she quickly recovered and moved forward to try to stop him. "Ben, don't!" she said, but it was too late. Another smack, and the glass shattered and Ben was out of the window.

She wasn't a jumper, and hoisting herself up and out of the window with her still bone-exposed hand wouldn't be good, She looked out her shattered window helplessly as the boy ran off. She already knew that by the time she got to the door, he'd be too far ahead of her to catch up. Instead, she called out the window, "I'm sorry! Come back when you're hungry!"

With a heavy sigh, she rubbed at her hand, the pain radiating from her pinkie finger in a pulsating throb. She turned to look at the room; pretty much destroyed, and sat down on the edge of the bed as the tears came. She felt an odd crunch when she sat down, and through her tears, she stood up suddenly and lifted up the mattress to find the hoard of food he'd taken during the night. "Oh Ben," she said, pinching the bridge of her nose. She looked back at the window and shook her head. That would need to be fixed as soon as possible.

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