Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 2: First Encounter [old edition]

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NOTE: This is an old version of Inhuman, which is currently undergoing extensive revisions that include a stylistic overhaul and several chapters’ worth of new content. Stay tuned for the final version, due out whenever I finally slay the procrastination demon that’s taken up residence in my brain. (The bastard.) Meanwhile, please note that the following may not be representative of my current writing skills and is kept here primarily for archival purposes.

Sean wakes up and tries to make sense of what’s happened … and makes an unexpected friend.


— CHAPTER TWO —

First Encounter

‘I wanna see him!’

Kira sighed exasperatedly, her back to her daughter.

‘No, Aki.’

‘Why?’

‘Because.’

‘That’s not good enough.’

The older vixen sighed again, dropping the tunic she was sewing up onto the table before her with a disgruntled flick of her ear.

It was early noon, and the pleasant cool that had imbibed the morning just an hour previously had all but disappeared, replaced by the stifling, humid heat that was typical of a summer day for the region. It had been just over an hour since the mysterious events of that morning, judging by the sun’s movement in the sky. The mysterious, furless and unconscious creature had been recovered – very cautiously, in case it woke up and lashed out again – and had been taken to the village infirmary. The large, strange, sphere-like craft from which the creature had originated was still in the middle of the Neyrin River, isolated as no-one dared approach it for any number of reasons.

The village healer, a coyote named Krypp, was currently tending to the visitor and his numerous injuries, though was so far keeping silent on the stranger’s condition. This didn’t stop other villagers from speculating in hushed whispers about what was going on, who the arrival was – and most of all, what he was. There were too many odd things about the stranger, and no-one had ever seen anything like it before. Rumors ran wild among the excited villagers, ranging from mutant creatures from space, to old legends and tales about ancient, extinct peoples that were as old as the land itself.

Aki and her mother were in their earthly hut, hiding in the cool shadows from the sun’s baking rays. Kira was settled at her worktable, a pile of clothes on each side of her, busying herself with her daily labor as a clothesmaid and fixing the holes and tears in villagers’ garments.

‘Look,’ Kira said resignedly as she turned to face Aki, who was standing behind her with crossed arms and a stubborn air on her face. Sixteen years of arguing with her daughter had taught her that there just wasn’t any getting rid of the strong-headed young foxgirl until her arguments had been countered or dismissed. ‘You just can’t – I’m not gonna allow you to go anywhere near that – that –’

Human!’ said Aki insistently. ‘It’s a man, Mom, you saw him yourself –’

‘Oh, don’t start with that nonsense again!’ Kira groaned, rolling her eyes. She was getting tired of Aki’s obsession with those mythical ancient creatures, these “humans”: strange, furless beings that had supposedly populated the Earth hundreds of years previously before mysteriously vanishing without a trace Stories about these humans were many and varied; Kira had never bothered to learn any of them, finding the whole thing silly, but she knew some villagers even held humans to be their creators. Although some villagers still believed in their existence in the same way as a child would believe in fairies, Kira was part of the majority that was skeptical, to put it mildly.

‘Aki, when will you pull your head out of the clouds? Humans don’t exist, they never did. They’re just a myth, a fairy tale like any other.’

Aki stared her mother in the eyes, looking immutable, her long, white-capped tail giving a discontented flick.

‘They do exist. You know they do. What else could he be? Did he look like a hare to you? Or a chimp?’

Kira didn’t answer, looking momentarily stumped, and Aki felt a triumphant twinge. They stared at each other in silence for a few moments; she could tell her mother was scrambling for reasons as to why she wasn’t allowed to be near the human-creature.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Kira finally said, changing subjects. ‘Whatever he is, he’s dangerous. You saw what he did – he shot at us, for crying out loud!’

‘He – he was just scared,’ Aki assured, almost pleadingly. ‘He didn’t know what was going on, and he’d just come outta nowhere and –’

‘Aki, stop.’

The order cracked like a whip; Aki quieted down at once, resentful yet realizing that her mother had reached the end of her already short tether. Kira hated arguing at the best of times, and now with the exceedingly out-of-the-ordinary spectacle they had all witnessed and whatever unknown fortune it may bring, she just didn’t have the patience to entertain her over-imaginative daughter’s outlandish theories.

‘Listen to me. I don’t give a damn what that – that thing is. All I know is that some weird stuff happened, and he came out of some kind of craft from another world, and for all we know, he could be hostile or something. He’s just like any other injured animal: he’s scared and violent, and you are not going to approach him, not now, not ever, unless I say otherwise. Understood?’

Aki glared, knowing she was defeated. ‘Fine,’ she muttered.

‘Good.’ Kira turned back to the garment she had been busying herself with. ‘Now, don’t you have some chores to do?’

Aki groaned and turned to leave, plainly dismissed. She ducked behind the curtain covering the entrance and left the hut, stepping into the sweltering sunlight outside.

Shielding her eyes, she glanced around the village for a moment, sulking as she pondered what to do next. She was so tired of her mother’s “because-I-said-so” tactic to end arguments. There she was, a mature sixteen-year-old, still being told what to do – and what not to do – by her parent as though she were some sort of irresponsible cub. Why didn’t her reaching the age of maturity also lend her some independence?

With a resigned sigh, she cleared her head and started down the path in front of her home without a fixed destination in mind, trying not to garner too much attention from fellow villagers she crossed. The members of the little community, while barely over a hundred in numbers, sported the widest range of species imaginable. The most common species were foxes, but there were other canines such as wolves and coyotes, along with felines such as lions, lynxes and cheetahs; horses and zebras, rabbits and hares (a distinction often blurred), bears, deer, goats and sheep, bovines, etc.; the list was nearly as long as the number of individuals who populated the village.

And yet, despite the strange assortment of creatures, inter-species tension was nonexistent. They all cohabited in peace and harmony, and other than the occasional bouts of teasing or the random naughty joke, rivalry between species, even between the traditionally carnivorous and herbivorous, had never been an issue for as long as anyone could remember. One species’ strengths covered for another’s weaknesses, and they all worked together to form the secure bond that held the village united.

Now at the height of day, the place was alive with activity and there wasn’t a soul to be found bored or idle. Everyone had something to busy him- or herself with, regardless of species, gender or age. Some were checking the various shops and boutiques for any supplies they sought while others were repairing the occasional broken fence or leaky roof; a regular trickle of hunters was leaving the village and heading into the woodlands or towards the river for the mid-noon hunting hours towards the prospect of plentiful prey; younger cubs were running around in the streets, playfully heckling passers-by and teasing their parents, though all in good humor.

A curious and tantalizing mixture of aromas wafted through the air, telling of forestry, diverse foodstuffs being prepared by butchers and cooks, and other sweet scents of a summer in full bloom. It was enough to make Aki, even though still a bit peeved at her mother, momentarily close her eyes and take in a deep breath; her sensitive vulpine nose picked up every scent, every trail, which aroused her feelings and heightened her senses. The seasonal fragrances of the village and the wilderness surrounding it always succeeded in soothing her nerves. It was nature’s own relaxation tonic.

Yet, even as she slowly padded down the road, deep in thought, she still noticed as passing males of all types would glance lengthily and keenly at her, their wandering eyes provoking some mild discomfort in the young vixen. One of them, a tall ocelot, even wolf-whistled at her as he passed, smirking, bringing a flush to her face as she looked away in embarrassment. Really, how would she ever get used to this? How did any girls get past the sudden fixation of interest on their persons – and bodies – once they entered their mating age? It’s not that Aki was a shy girl by any standard; she simply didn’t appreciate suddenly being cast in the limelight for the sole reason that she was now available to other males, having breached the milestone that was having her first heat the previous spring.

Feeling slightly morose, Aki padded down the street, trying to avoid others’ eyes, especially males’, as she passed by. There was nothing she or anyone else could do about it, anyway. It’s simply how it was that as soon as a female entered her mating age following the onset of her first heat, any hormone-driven male in the area would actively scope her out whenever she came within sight, their attention attracted by the subtle scent she was now giving off in permanence. It was a vestige from their distant, feral ancestors, built into their instincts, genes and physiology; they couldn’t suppress these desires or reactions even if they tried. Males were meant to actively go after any nubile females that became available, while females, during their heats, would feel the instinctual urge to offer themselves up to the best male they could find. Most fought these impulses down with a minimum of willpower and managed to keep them relatively under control, but every now and then someone would lose focus and unfortunate incidents would occur. Though, these issues usually blew over fairly quickly, as no real malice was ever behind them … usually.

Aki breathed deeply, trying to clear her head of these meanderings as she sluggishly padded along the streets and pathways, turning at random in search of something to do. She soon found herself at the outskirts of the village, with nothing but plains, woodlands and the nearby Neyrin River before her. She was well-aware her mother had demanded that she get to her designated chores, which she knew to be picking fruit from the orchard, but quite frankly, she didn’t feel the least bit inclined to get dirty and sweaty, bending over to get her paws snagged in thorny brambles. Gazing at the glittering blue strip that cut across the grasslands before her, her mind soon filled with the desire to plunge in those magnificently cool waters once more – without being interrupted this time …

Speaking of which … Her eyes were resolutely attracted to the strange sight that was the charred metallic capsule, still planted in the middle of the currents, unmoving, almost as though it were a stone fixture that had been carved through time with the waves swirling around it. Even after the man had been taken into Krypp the doctor’s care, no-one had yet dared approach it, either out of respect, fear, or (in Aki’s opinion) pure superstition. After all, a strange craft comes screaming out of the skies and smashes into a river, out of absolutely nowhere, and then a strange, never-before-seen creature staggers out – who knew what to expect anymore?

Aki stared at the pod for a few moments, inwardly debating whether she should approach it out of curiosity or head to another part of the river for her desired bathe, when she heard someone behind her.

‘Hey,’ came a soft female voice. Turning around, Aki gave a slight smile to Nessi, her best friend, as she padded over through the soft grass to join Aki’s side.

‘Heya,’ greeted Aki. Her friend was a tall and beautiful cheetah girl, her tan, spotted coat shining almost golden in the midday sun. Her fur and loincloth ruffled slightly in the gentle breeze as she approached her foxy friend, smiling and with that usual playful twinkle in her dark, brown eyes. She was only a year older than Aki, yet arguably behaved with twice the latter’s maturity, something they often joked about as Kira wondered why Aki didn’t “behave more like Nessi”.

‘Got your necklace fixed, I see?’ Aki noted, eyeing Nessi’s neck where a glossy, blue-colored rock was held by a blue-colored ribbon. A subtle, elegant inscription on the gemstone read Singar.

‘Yeah, Mom stitched it and cleaned it right up,’ Nessi said. Her necklace had torn and fallen into a patch of mud the previous evening as she and Aki were running along the shore of the river in a playful race.

‘Doesn’t it just look prettier than ever?’ Nessi added, glowing as she fingered the stone at her neck.

‘I guess,’ Aki said, trying to make her tone sound casual and dismissive as she looked away towards the river again.

‘Oh, you’re just jealous,’ Nessi said with a grin, giving Aki a gentle push on the shoulder. Aki shot her a fleeting glance, still grinning slightly yet with an unmistakable look of longing in her eyes as she eyed her friend’s necklace. Nessi didn’t fail to notice; smiling sympathetically, she wrapped a comforting arm around Aki’s shoulders.

‘Don’t worry, Aki. You’ll get your own someday soon, too,’ she offered bracingly.

‘Yeah, I guess,’ said Aki, her voice lower than usual, betraying the unease she felt inside. ‘I just wish I could hurry up and find the right male so I don’t have to deal with all those horndogs staring at my tail and trying to get a sniff all the time …’

‘That’s just how it is: males are pigs,’ said Nessi. ‘Just look at how long it took me to find Singar. Was beginning to think I’d never get someone with any scruples; next thing you know, I get the … the most wonderful male I’ve ever met …’ she trailed away, smiling besottedly and looking glassy-eyed. Aki smirked and gave her a soft slap on the shoulder.

‘Yeah, we know, you two are right for each other,’ she said with a slight sneer as Nessi jumped. ‘You mind not rubbing it in my face?’

Nessi understood Aki’s remark as the joke it was and rubbed her shoulder with her outstretched hand. The two stood there in silence, just savoring the refreshing breeze suddenly blowing through the area, creating ripples in both the grass and the riverwaters ahead. They both found themselves staring at the blackened pod that stuck out so prominently, like a massive, oddly shaped boulder. Without sharing a word or even a glance, they both knew the other was thinking about the same thing they were.

‘So, Li’l Rebel, you gonna go and see … uh … him, or not?’ enquired Nessi.

Aki hummed vaguely in response. She didn’t bother denying it; Nessi knew better than anyone what was on Aki’s mind, and it wasn’t as though she hadn’t been thinking about it … But, did she really want to disobey her mother like that? Not only would it shake Kira’s trust in her, which would be bad enough, but it would be certain to spark a fight, and quite possibly a big one at that. As defiant as Aki may have been, she hated conflicts and sought to avoid them whenever possible. But the temptation just to peak in and have a look at the newcomer was becoming overpowering …

Aki fidgeted uncertainly, torn between the two choices. But, staring at the charred round craft in the river for a few minutes, taking in just how strange it looked, how many questions it raised, led her to making up her mind.

‘Yeah, I think I will,’ she said. Nessi just gave her a benevolent smile without even bothering to try and convince Aki not to go. It wasn’t as though she’d be able to stop Aki from doing what she wanted when she had her mind set on it, unless she jumped on her and pinned her to the ground. And even then, the young vixen was easily quick enough to dodge her.

‘Good luck,’ Nessi said with a slight wave as Aki turned to leave.

Aki paused. ‘You’re not coming?’

‘Nah … that thing gives me the creeps,’ Nessi admitted, looking like she meant it. She glanced at the wrecked pod as she spoke; Aki wondered whether she was talking about the strange object, or about the creature itself – the man. The human.

A human, in her village … Aki’s mind nearly went crazy at the thought.

‘Okay, see ya, then,’ she said before departing back up the gentle slope towards the village. She heard Nessi call “Bye” from behind her.

Aki walked for a few minutes, passing by a host of villagers, most of which – namely males, of course – glanced at her as she passed. Aki mused that she should at least be thankful they’re not getting in her way or trying to grab her – but then, with a mother like Kira, who was renowned for her viciousness when angry, it would’ve been plain stupid of anyone to try anything on the nubile young vixen.

Walking down a pathway lined with the brown wooden facades of various homes and small boutiques, Aki jumped as a trio of lion cubs shot out from behind a corner, running at each other with wooden swords and yelping with joy and the occasional yip of pain as the mock weapons made contact. She couldn’t help but chuckle as the cubs’ exasperated mother tore after them, trying to get them to calm down. There’s a battle she shouldn’t even have started. The village had a very benevolent and accepting attitude towards cubs and the behavior that was expected of them. Rules and boundaries were virtually nonexistent, instead focusing on instilling values of respect and love – and of not doing anything stupid that could get them hurt – to ensure that they kept to the right behavioral path. It was a system that seemed to be working quite well; cub misbehavior, while inevitable, was rarely ever malicious or grave in nature.

Lost in her thoughts, it only took Aki a few more moments before she finally arrived at her destination, which now stood before her in the form of a decent-sized wooden cabin, looking as rustic as did the rest of the village. A small group of curious onlookers had formed around the village infirmary, trying to see through the curtained front entrance for any possible glance of the newcomer. However, Krypp, the healer, certainly wasn’t about to remove the curtain to allow them to see his patient. The old coyote was known for having little patience for onlookers, and even less tolerance towards anyone meddling with his patients. His reputation was a merited one of cantankerousness.

Aki dodged more glances as she ducked around the group and padded around the cabin to the back, where a smaller, less-known entryway allowed her to sneak into the infirmary with neither the crowd following her, nor Krypp noticing.

Owing up to her reputation as a tomboy, Aki had spent what was arguably more than her fair share of time in the infirmary for the various minor injuries she obtained over the years. The decor hadn’t really changed for as long as she could remember. The interior was relatively somber, which ran along Krypp’s preferences for patient care as the low luminosity generally allowed for a calmer, more soothing atmosphere. Everything, from the handful of cots to the tables and chairs, to the walls, floor and ceiling, was made of wood, giving the place a rather dreary, monotonous tone. Half-a-dozen single-person cots with straw mattresses were arranged along the walls; all of them were empty save for one, over which a tall figure was stooped. He had his back to Aki and was completely unaware of her presence … until …

‘Hey,’ said Aki in a low but clear voice.

As expected, the figure jumped and whipped around, revealing the coyote’s shocked face.

‘Oh – dammit, girl, must you keep doing that?’ he snapped, his breathing slowly returning to normal.

‘Why, yes,’ Aki said with a smirk. With Krypp’s impatience, antagonizing him had always been something she took amusement from.

Krypp slowly calmed down and grunted. He was a tall canine with bristly grey fur, devoid of markings except for some white around his eyes, yellow orbs which were fixing themselves upon –

Aki groaned and rolled her eyes. She stepped forwards to the side of the cot Krypp had been busying himself over and broke the older coyote’s gaze from upon her breasts.

‘You’re a pig, you know that?’ she muttered.

‘If you say so,’ Krypp sneered in a low voice, but Aki didn’t hear him. She was gazing down upon the visitor lying wounded on the cot, completely absorbed at the sight before her, something she had only seen in her imagination until then.

It was, indeed, a human: a real-life, flesh and blood man. Very blood-y, in fact; the man was severely beaten and bruised, his entire body smeared with blood both fresh and drying. His pale, furless flesh was mostly hidden under some sort of ripped blue garment that covered the entirety of his body save for his head and hands. Even through the layer of bruising and lacerations, the man’s physique was visibly toned and hardened, and spoke of someone who led a tough life.

Engrossed in the man’s appearance, Aki couldn’t help but think the man was rather handsome, even despite his injuries and unusual appearance. He had wavy, sandy-colored hair, currently in an advanced state of dishevel and matted with streaks of blood. Even when resting, his facial features invoked the impression that he’d gone through more than his fair share of grueling times. He had a hardened, toughened look about him that Aki couldn’t help but find somewhat appealing, even in his currently bloodied state. Thoughts and sentiments flooded her mind almost incoherently; part of her still couldn’t believe what she was looking it. It was as though she were staring at the actual body of a creature that had only ever existed in myths – which was exactly the case.

She just stood there for what must’ve been a long time, gazing upon the man’s battered form and lost in her own reflections, until a sharp cough from behind her snapped her back to her senses.

‘Are you going to kiss him, or can I get back to my patient?’

Aki grumbled as she stepped aside, watching Krypp as he continued to wipe away the drying blood with a wet cloth.

Once the man was cleaned up, Krypp slowly and carefully proceeded to slice off the sleeves and pants of the human’s uniform with a small blade, freeing his limbs so the doctor could treat the injuries there. Aki was once again consumed by her thoughts as she gazed upon the muscled and toned body. Indeed, this man took excellent care of his physical form, and the results were very …

Aki shook her head, trying to clear her muddled thoughts. She couldn’t possibly find such a strange creature attractive, especially in these conditions …

Could she?

She lost track of time and her surroundings as she gazed upon the man, trying to make sense of the overwhelming number of thoughts that flashed across her mind. She barely noticed as Krypp, once finished with rubbing some herbal formula over the man’s cuts and wounds to sterilize and help heal them, started to bandage much of the man’s arms and legs. Once that was done, he once again started to gently cut through the rest of the uniform covering the man’s chest and trunk, revealing the man’s well-defined chest –

The man suddenly groaned and cringed; Krypp stepped back and Aki looked on, both of them wondering whether the human was about to wake up again. Yet, the stranger’s eyes remained firmly shut as he lay there, unmoving.

Yet as Krypp returned to slicing the fabric, the man started to twitch and shiver; sweat started to bead over his face and chest as he squirmed, grunting and whining softly. Aki’s first thoughts was that he might be reacting to the pain from his injuries, but as he remained firmly unconscious, she realized he was likely having some sort of nightmare, and quite a bad one by the looks of it.

The vixen and the coyote stood back for a few moments, watching in mixed intrigue and wariness as the man fidgeted restlessly, tormented by mental images only he could see.

‘Should we …?’ Aki started quietly, uncertainly.

‘No, don’t wake him up’ said Krypp firmly. ‘I’m not done yet, and with these kinds of injuries, he’ll be screaming in pain for hours. Also, if he wakes up now in the middle of a nightmare, he’s going to panic for sure. We need to wait.’

Aki nodded. Waking the man up in the middle of what was evidently a very troubling dream, only to find himself in a strange world (strange to him, anyway) with creatures he obviously feared (judging from his reaction as he had first encountered the anthros) … Not the best idea, in hindsight.

Time slowly went by as Krypp finally removed the top half of the man’s ruined uniform and gently pulled it off over the man’s head, setting it down with the other shreds on a bedside table. The man was still squirming uncomfortably, occasionally gasping or groaning, whether from pain or mental anguish Aki couldn’t tell. Every now and then, he would mutter something incomprehensible: always the same thing, something sounding vaguely like “Luis”, though Aki hadn’t the slightest idea what that could mean. Krypp, for his part, seemed unconcerned by the man’s mumblings and feeble squirming as he continued scrubbing the dirt and blood out from his wounds, all the while applying the sterilizing herbal liquid to the cuts and scrapes to prevent infection. Aki, uncertain as to what she should do, just stood there at the side, watching the grizzled coyote work, gazing upon the man, and thinking …

About an hour later, the man had stopped squirming, his nightmare seemingly over, and Krypp finally finished catering to his injuries. The human now looked quite a bit less brutalized and messy than he had previously, though some of the bruising would obviously stay there for a few days or weeks before fading away. Krypp had neglected to disrobe the man completely, deciding to leave his lower trunks on, obviously to leave him with some shred of dignity.

She was so deep in thought still that she didn’t even notice where Krypp had gone to, just staring at the man, untold numbers of questions filling her head –

She sensed him before she felt him; a warm current of air gently blew against the back of her neck and canine hands suddenly gripped her from behind, laying on her waist and starting to gently rub upwards, over her belly, towards her –

Scoffing in disgust, Aki quickly shrugged him off and stepped to the side, brushing the hands off from around her and turning to shoot an irritated look at the coyote, who merely stared back at her, his expression one of undeniable lust.

Aki had to restrain herself not to just run out of the infirmary, or to kick him in the shins (or higher). It was one thing for horny males to endlessly stare at her (and her features) wherever she went; that, at least, was noninvasive and even bearable. But to actually feel her up from behind … A low growl rose from deep within her throat, a rumbling, feral threat none could ignore. The message couldn’t have been clearer: not – interested.

They glared at each other for a few moments; then, Krypp finally took the hint and slouched off, looking sour.

‘Just let me know if he wakes up,’ he grunted dismissively. He padded across the cabin and out the entrance, ripping back the curtains and letting a brief ray of light in before pulling them back behind him. Aki was left alone in the dusky shack, the unconscious, heavily bandaged and nearly naked human male lying silently in his cot, sleeping peacefully once more.

She pulled up a rickety chair and sat down at the dormant stranger’s bedside, still taken in by his unique, strange appearance. He really did look quite similar to how she had envisioned humans to appear: similar to anthros yet devoid of a muzzle, of fur or scales, and of tail and paws. Somehow, he looked so … plain, like a template that hadn’t had anything added to it yet. And yet, this only seemed to increase her interest in him. Staring him over, she then realized that however curious she was feeling, her sentiments ran more towards compassion, even … affection; as though he were a wounded puppy or something. A little cub she was taking care of …

Aki blushed at the thought and hurriedly pushed it aside. After all, these feelings were likely no more than her emerging maternal, nurturing instincts she developed as she matured. It was perfectly normal for her, at her age, to feel compassion for those around her and to want to care for them. Yeah … yes, that must be it.

Regardless of how she was feeling, the one certain thing was that she found herself unable – or unwilling – to tear her gaze from the man’s bruised yet serene face as he slept on, breathing slowly and deeply.

*

‘So, what was, uh, he like?’ Nessi enquired, her eyes bright with interest.

Aki paused to think, sipping at her herbal tea. She had spent most of the afternoon at the man’s bedside, lost in her own thoughts and with her mind positively bursting with questions. Eventually, Krypp returned, still looking sour from their previous altercation (Nessi had growled indignantly when Aki had told her about it), which Aki took as her cue for an exit. She had originally planned to return home to tell her skeptical mother about the man, perhaps to goad about the fact that he was, by all means, a human, before she remembered her mother had specifically interdicted such a meeting in the first place. She would therefore not be too pleased to hear about Aki’s little trip down to the infirmary – and especially would she be incensed if she knew Aki intended to go back as soon as Krypp exited the cabin. Hence why she was keeping an eye on it from a distance, sitting in the shadow a large oak on the outskirts of town. Nessi, her own cup of tea still warm in her hands, had been waiting for Aki outside the infirmary.

‘He’s … uh …’ Aki started lamely, trying to find words to match her thoughts. ‘He looks … different, but not in a bad way. He was all bruised and covered in blood when I got there, the old yote was busy cleaning him up, but after he left I was able to get a good look at him …’

‘You must have, you were in there for an eternity,’ Nessi commented with a glance. Aki rolled her eyes.

‘Yeah, yeah …’

‘So?’ Nessi pressed.

‘Well, I dunno,’ Aki said, semi-truthfully. She was aware of the feelings and thoughts she had when being with the human, only she didn’t fully make sense of them yet. ‘I guess he … I guess he looked kinda good. Weird … no fur or claws or anything, and his face is real flat, there’s no muzzle … but – I dunno, he didn’t seem as ugly as I thought he would.’

‘Hmm,’ said Nessi. Aki wondered if her friend’s mental recreation of Aki’s description was anything like what she had seen.

‘Hey, sounds to me like you think he’s cute or something,’ Nessi said with a playful wink. Aki shot her a mock-offended look; they both broke into silly grins.

‘Oh, and what was all that stuff he was wearing? Were those his clothes?’ Nessi continued.

‘Uh, yeah, I think,’ said Aki. ‘They were all torn and bloody, too; Krypp had to use a knife to get them off him. I … I hope he doesn’t mind that we tore his clothes apart,’ she added, partly to herself.

‘Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll be too busy panicking over whatever just happened to him to care about his clothes,’ Nessi said, half-jokingly. ‘Besides, it’s not like he needs them; weather’s warm enough as it is.’

‘Hmm …’ said Aki pensively. ‘I dunno … I get the impression he doesn’t just wear clothes to keep warm. He even had clothes over his arms and legs.’

‘Maybe it’s just how it is where he comes from,’ mused Nessi.

‘Yeah … weird,’ said Aki at the thought of a mysterious planet inhabited by fully clothed humans.

They sat in silence for a little while, regaling in the soft breeze that blew along and ruffled their clothes and fur, whispering through the trees’ foliage. Keeping an eye on the infirmary cabin, Aki finally witnessed what she was hoping for: the crowd briefly dispersed as Krypp exited the main entrance, chasing them away with a few barked orders. As they begrudgingly left, he padded down the road and out of sight.

‘Well, pleasure talking with ya, sis,’ Aki said as she clambered to her feet, draining her last dregs of tea in one gulp, ‘only now, gotta go.’

‘Alright, then,’ said Nessi as Aki handed her the cup to take back to Nessi’s mother, who had made them the tea earlier on. ‘Don’t stay there too long or your mother will hear about it.’

‘I get the impression she’s probably gonna know about it either way …’ muttered Aki. Nessi couldn’t help but smile knowingly; it was well known that very little Aki did ever seemed to escape Kira’s eyes or ears. And Aki would always hear about it later on.

‘See ya later, sis,’ Aki said, giving Nessi a wave as she walked off.

‘Bye … Hey, you didn’t deny it when I said you thought he looked cute,’ Nessi called after her teasingly.

‘No … I didn’t,’ Aki said, giving her friend a cryptic look and a small smile over her shoulder before heading back to the infirmary, leaving a bemused Nessi to ponder what she meant.

*

Pain. Pain all over. Every inch of his body was aching as though he’d been beaten with metal bars.

As Sean’s groggy mind slowly started coming to, the first thing he registered, through the blanket of dull pain, was how very stiff his body felt. His muscles might as well have been made of wood. He could feel his entire body from his fingers to his toes, which at least indicated he neither was amputated nor paralyzed – always a good sign – yet even wriggling his fingers, in addition to being incredibly difficult, brought him only more pain, feeling as though needles were being jabbed into his muscles.

His eyes were closed and he lay there, faint sounds from the world around him coming distant and muffled, as though heard through water. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids felt extraordinarily heavy and they were gummed together with sleep. Even in his lethargic state, he could tell he had been out for quite a while. With a seemingly disproportionate effort, he finally, slowly, opened his eyes, expecting to be blinded by the brightness beyond …

But the searing flash never came. Instead, as he blinked repeatedly to try and clear the blurriness away from his vision, he noticed his surroundings were actually quite pleasantly somber. Looking around in silence, he slowly registered his environment and noticed he was lying on some sort of straw-mattress cot. The room around him appeared to be some sort of wooden shack or cabin of a very simple, rustic construct. A couple of windows, set high on the walls as though to prevent anyone from looking in, let a few curtains of golden light filter through, throwing the dust hanging in the air into relief. The interior of the cabin was rather spartan, with a few other cots lining the walls and some tables and chairs to accompany them. The general appearance of the place gave him the impression of a rudimentary dormitory of sorts. His vision was still swimming around somewhat, making him slightly disoriented; he blinked hard, trying to coax his eyes into functioning properly as he stared straight ahead at the thatched ceiling above him.

The firm but comfortable mattress under his back actually felt rather inviting to him in his weakened, exhausted state, and he was sorely tempted to simply allow his mind to drift back into unconsciousness, but he willfully fought this impulse. His experience on the battlefield had taught him always to be alert to his surroundings; after all, awaking in an unknown area and situation was nothing new to him. He’d been captured by enemy forces plenty of times before – though, always deliberately. Phantom Unit was often sent deep behind enemy lines in their missions to gain intelligence on the enemy, and in many instances he’d deliberately let himself fall into their hands as a means to get up close and personal, a tactic that usually worked and earned him great praise for both his bravery and his recklessness. Whenever he did so, he always made sure to carefully study and memorize the area’s layout and appearance for later reference. It was this instinct that told him to check out his surroundings before he went under again – which, in his current state, was all but inevitable.

Drawing from these past experiences, he willed himself to stay perfectly calm as he lay there on his back in this strange cabin. Only then did he suddenly realize he was mostly stripped naked; only his undergarments remained. Most of his flesh, particularly that of his limbs, was wrapped in tight bandaging, and much of it was stained with blood, a clear indicator of the graveness of his injuries.

Injuries … How?

What happened? Where was he?

Glancing to his left, he found the tattered remains of his uniform bunched up on a bedside table there. He stared at it, struggling to coax his memory into service. He couldn’t remember anything that had happened; last thing he remembered was being in that infernal escape pod, spinning out of control in the void of space. Starting from there, he forced his memory forwards, trying to reconstitute the events that would have led him to this peculiar place …

Those hauntingly beautiful clouds …

The strange, captivating light show on his windscreen …

That strange, inexplicable sensation of being squeezed, as though his entire body had been forced through a very tight rubber tube …

A gigantic, beautiful blue planet materializing out of –

He froze as he heard something rustle, to his right.

He slowly, apprehensively, turned his head, almost fearfully. What he saw there made him stop all movement. He had thought he was alone; apparently, he hadn’t noticed the person who was sitting in a chair at his bedside, someone who watched him in silence until then.

It was a humanlike foxgirl. He stared at her blankly for a few moments, stunned beyond movement, before he recognized her as that young vixen he had noticed in the arms of the taller fox … down by the riverside, where he –

He gasped as a sudden rush of images flooded his mind: speeding towards the river – coming to in pain, stuck in his defunct pod – clambering out through the escape hatch – the strange group of onlookers amassed by the riverside, watching him, approaching him –

‘Are you okay?’ the fox suddenly spoke.

He jumped despite in his semi-catatonic state, registering the sudden, gentle voice; this only confused his sore mind even further. A humanlike fox … speaking to him?

He was struck dumb. He merely lay there, staring at the creature with wide eyes, uncertain whether he felt shock, wonder, or fear … or some combination thereof …

Under his gaze, he noticed the vixen appeared to blush slightly and look away, as though shy. He took the time to register her appearance in detail. He guessed, if the average human form was of any reference, that she must’ve been at about twenty or so years in age. Her fur, covering her entire body, was of the traditional Red Fox variety: a tangerine coat with a white underside and black “socks” around her lower arms and legs. He noticed her tail, long and fluffy, swung out to the side as to avoid her sitting on it, and capped with white. The hair on her head was longer than the rest, serving as her hair in between her large, erect ears, which were black with a white fluffy interior. Her short rounded muzzle, at the end of which was a small black canid nose, had black tear-like markings down the side of it, traditional to a fox.

He focused on her eyes, eyes he was quick to notice were captivatingly beautiful; he seemed to lose track of his thoughts as he gazed into them unashamedly. Their large irises were of the deepest, most beautiful blue he’d ever seen. They were staring right at him, into his own; he could see his reflection in them as though they were small mirrors, glittering in the golden sunrays that filtered through the windows like twinkling stars. Like shimmering, magical blue orbs.

They stared at each other for a few moments, any concept of time completely lost to them, until Sean finally realized what he was doing and quickly looked away with an awkward grunt; the fox glanced away as well, seemingly embarrassed, but kept glancing at him even as he turned away, afraid to look at her again.

The vixen opened her mouth (maw …) as though trying to say something, but closed it again, obviously either too shy or ashamed to try and engage him. He shot another glance at her, into those big, startling eyes, which were currently focused with earnest on the wall to the side, away from him. There were so many questions crashing through Sean’s head that he practically got a headache just thinking about it all; he opened his mouth to speak, but just as with the vixen, he found himself curiously unable to voice anything. He gave up after a few dry attempts and merely stared at her, waiting to see if she would start speaking first. Glancing back towards him after a few moments, she finally did.

‘You’ve been here for two days now,’ she said quietly, still staring at the wall. Her voice was soft, warm, and very feminine; there was nothing feral or animalistic – nothing remotely inhuman – to it. It actually stunned him far more than anything had up to that point. It was as sweet as she looked …

‘What …’ he tried to say, his voice a croak from disuse and weakness. ‘What … happened …?’

The fox turned to look at him, evidently surprised at hearing his voice. The slightest beginnings of a smile formed on her muzzle, but only for a moment.

‘You … I … it’s hard to explain,’ she said uneasily. ‘You just – you sort of … came from the sky,’ she said uncertainly.

Sean stared at her and slowly nodded. It all felt exceedingly dreamlike to him in his exhausted and pained state; he wasn’t entirely sure he was actually awake … what if this was just a dream? … But if it was a dream, he wouldn’t be feeling pain, would he? Nonetheless, he was curious to see where it would lead him.

She hesitated before continuing. ‘You were hurt … bad. So when you – passed out, we took you here, to our village, I mean, to the infirmary. It’s where we treat our sick and our injured, so … well …’

Sean nodded again. She flashed a small smile, perhaps out of relief of not having to explain all the details; perhaps she thought he could figure it out for himself. Something he himself, given his current situation, rather doubted.

They stared at each other again, each apparently transfixed by the other’s equally strange appearance. Sean detected something in her eyes, something he couldn’t quite discern; it looked like more than mere curiosity …

Compassion? Affection …?

God, she was so pretty.

Sean didn’t even try and dispel these thoughts; such would be useless. He couldn’t deny it: this creature, this humanlike vixen … whatever she was … Those eyes …

The question escaped his mouth before he was even aware of it.

‘What’s your name?’

Her eyes widened in surprise; she smiled softly as though she’d been hoping he would ask, yet before she could answer, they were interrupted.

A sharp rustling from across the room drew their attention; someone had entered the cabin through an entryway concealed behind some curtains, a soft ray of light shining through for a moment. Discernible through the mild gloom was the figure of what appeared to be a tall canine, resembling a wolf, or a coyote, or something in that vein. He was clearly a male, with a uniformly grey pelt covering his loincloth-clad body. One particular feature drew Sean’s eyes; gazing at the coyote’s uncovered feet, he noticed that they were far closer to paws than actual humanlike feet, with thick toes that spouted large, rounded black claws at their ends. He risked a quick glance at the foxgirl at his side and noticed how she was equipped similarly, though both her hands and the coyote’s were closer to those of humans, with the exception of being covered in fine fur and with fingers that ended in short, rounded claws.

The stranger was glaring at the cute vixen.

‘I told you to come and get me as soon as he woke up,’ he grunted, his yellow eyes flicking back and forth between the vixen and Sean, who was now more confused than ever.

‘I was going to,’ the vixen retorted defiantly. ‘We were just talking.’

‘You know you’re not allowed –!’

‘Oh, spare me the lecture, Krypp,’ the foxgirl groaned loudly, cutting him off mid-sentence. ‘Fine, I’ll get out of your fur. Happy?’

She got to her feet; her fluffy tail swung behind her as she marched away, sidestepping the coyote who fixed her with an annoyed air as she passed. As she was about to leave the cabin through the curtained doorway, she turned back, looking at Sean, who currently felt like he was starting to drift back into unconsciousness, having exhausted what little energy he had.

She smiled at him. Even at this distance, her eyes glinted like crystals.

‘My name’s Aki. Aki Elani.’

The rays of the sun filtering through around the curtain caught her fur, giving it a brilliantly golden glow. It was a magnificent effect; he gazed at her, unable to say anything or even think that well, as she stared back at him with a small smile … Then, she turned back and passed behind the curtains and out the cabin, the cloth falling back into place in her wake.

Aki … pretty name …

For a pretty girl … foxgirl …

He barely registered the coyote approaching him before he sank back into his mattress, his strength failing him at last, falling back into the realms of unconsciousness.