VII

Grand Delusions

The ride into the city is a long one. They take Uncle’s flatbed truck, with Zuru in a cage on the back. The cage is secured and covered with a tarp. Zuru barks and yips, but Ruse ignores him. Jett sighs and gets into the truck.

Zuru barks and yelps for a long while. His voice is drowned out by the truck’s motor and the squealing of the springs as they drive along the rutted roads. They drive by Lorne’s, and the dogs rush to the fence, going wild. For a long stretch after that, the road runs straight through the forest, and Zuru can see the wolves prowling through the trees, waiting to see if Ruse will slow enough for them to attack. Ruse drives with his foot to the floor, well over the posted speed limit. A trail of dust spins up from the tires, and Ruse seems to have a hard time steering the car as they jolt to and fro. Zuru yelps with each bump; it’s a rough ride.

It takes them more than an hour to go through the mountain pass to the next city. The wolves stop trailing them before half-an-hour has ticked by; they have passed out of their territory. The creatures stop and set up an unearthly wail. The chance for revenge has slipped between their paws.

Zuru falls silent and tries to sleep as they go down the bumpy road. Every jar sends aches up his fractured foreleg.

Ruse parks the car at last, and Zuru hears the mill and burble of people. His ears prick. Apparently, they have arrived in the marketplace. Ruse struts over to one of the stalls and starts talking to the owner. Jett peers in under the tarp and hisses, “If you’re going to transform, now is a good time.”

Ruse brings the man behind the counter over to the truck and unfastens the tarp. “My, have I got a rare critter here fer ya,” he says as he whisks the tarp off. “Take a look at that!”

The man’s face is blank, Zuru notes with mild amusement. “The cage is empty,” the man says. He looks at Ruse for explanation. “A rare critter, huh?”

Ruse looks back, but the man is right. He can see nothing in the cage. He throws the tarp back over the cage. “Perhaps he’s in the tarp,” he says, laughter choking his voice as he shakes the tarp out. Then he takes it away again.

“There’s still nothing there,” the man says.

This time, however, Ruse can see Zuru. The three-tailed thing grins wickedly up at him and waggles his tails. “How can you not see that?!” Ruse barks. “It’s sitting right there—it’s grinning at me!”

The man blinks, then shakes his head. “There’s nothing. I’m sorry, Mr. Ruse. Your cage is empty.”

By this time, people are drawing close around the truck. They look at the cage, but they too see nothing. Jett bows his head; he can see Zuru and his infuriating grin; he knows what game the three-tails is playing. “There’s nothing in the cage,” some of the people murmur.

“Has the man lost his mind?”

“Perhaps he’s been out in the woods too long . . .”

“I’ll show you!” Ruse growls and throws the tarp back over the cage. “Now! Prepare to behold—the demon fox!”

The crowd blinks when the tarp is whipped off. “You’re right,” the shop clerk says, “it is a fox.”

“But it’s no demon fox.”

“Looks like a perfectly normal fox to me.”

Zuru indeed looks like a regular red fox. He’s excluded Ruse from his illusion, however, and the man leaps upon the truck and begins to pull at Zuru’s extraneous tails. The fox does his very best not to yelp.

“Look! Look!” Ruse cries. “He has three tails! Three tails!”

“Ruse—”

“If these aren’t tails, what are they?!”

“They look like fistfuls of hay,” the shop clerk snorts. A smirk plays on his features.

“The man’s off his rocker,” some of the women in the crowd murmur.

“He’s a demon, I tell you! A demon fox!”

The shop clerk turns his back. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Ruse. Here, we prefer our foxes dead and skinned, rather than alive.”

The crowd begins to disperse, leaving Ruse tearing at his hair. He slams a foot down on the cage. “You!” he screams at Zuru. “Oh! I’ll shoot you! Then everyone will see what color your pelt is— and how many tails it has!”

Zuru just smirks. Jett pats his uncle on the back. “Come on, Uncle,” he says. “We have to go back to Aunt. She will have lunch waiting for us by the time we get back.”

“Hmph!” Ruse says. He points a finger at Zuru. “When we get back, I’m feeding you to the wolves!”

Zuru looks whiter under his fur. He does not like that idea at all.

Fortunately for him, when he arrives back, Lorne has arrived to speak with Ruse, and Mrs. Ruse has more guests to attend to. A wedding is taking place upon the morrow, and some of the guests are from out of town. Zuru struts around the house, diving between the legs of the young girls and peeking up under their skirts. When one of the girls sits down by the fire with her legs outstretched, Zuru sticks his muzzle underneath the hem and leers.

He smirks when Jett scowls at his lewdness. Just after dinner, he grabs the skirt of one of the younger girls in his teeth and pulls it down as she runs by. She shrieks in embarrassment. Jett grabs the playful fox. “Bath time,” he growls and drags Zuru off to the bathroom.

Zuru yelps, then cowers when Jett drops him to the floor and locks the door behind them. “You’re a naughty fox,” he tells the three-tails. Then, he remembers the fox-bathing supplies have been left downstairs and leaves.

Zuru takes the opportunity to transform into kitsune-jin form. He draws the bath himself and finds some of Mrs. Ruse’s lavender-scented bubble bath beneath the cupboard. He fills the tub as high as he dares, then crawls into the mess of bubbles and awaits Jett’s return. His tails are draped over the side of the bath, dripping water on to the floor.

The door squeals when Jett opens it. “Now,” he’s saying as he walks into the bathroom, “I think you get a bath, and then a good tanning of the hide—”

“Oh, I’d like that. It sounds . . . naughty.”

Jett starts and drops everything on the floor. He stares at the kitsune-jin for a moment. “I’ll let you bathe then,” he says, and turns to walk back out.

“Nonsense,” Zuru says. He drapes himself over the edge of the tub, ready to leap lest Jett run away. “It was a long and dusty road to town today . . . I’m sure you’d like to clean up?” He rolls onto his back and brings his foot up out of the water. He flexes his toes.

Jett snorts. “What makes you think I’d get into the bath with a man?”

Zuru blinks, then transforms. “Well,” she says, “I swing both ways. Whichever you prefer, really. Which way do you swing, darling?”

Jett feels the flames creeping up his cheeks. He looks at the floor. “Don’t you have a mate to go back to?” he asks.

Zuru snorts. “No doubt she’s sought relief for last night’s discomfort elsewhere. I won’t blame her—kitsune no yomeiri has not happened between us yet.”

“Kitsune no yomeiri . . ?” Jett looks confused.

Zuru sinks further into the rapidly cooling water. “The fox’s wedding,” she says. “We are not yet married. Yin Mi will not be my bride for a while yet. I have time to play.” She smirks at Jett. “Now, will you come and join me? The water’s getting cold.”

Jett slowly gathers up the things he dropped and moves into the bathroom. He shuts the door and locks it. Zuru’s smirk curls more. “Very good,” she says, “wise decision.”

Jett does not know what to say. He is silent as he strips down. Zuru leers in appreciation. “Ah,” she says, “if only I could get the human form so right. Mine’s always off.”

“I have a lot of questions for you,” Jett announces as he stands bare in the middle of the room.

Zuru blinks. “Is now really the time for them?” she asks.

Jett climbs into the tub with her. “Will I have another chance?” he asks. “Will you not take to the woods as soon as dawn comes?”

He touches a hand to her face. “Is it true your shadow is still a fox’s shape?”

“Take a look and see,” Zuru chuckles, casting her eyes to the floor. Jett sees nothing but the shape of the woman in the bath and his own shadow.

“No then,” he says. “What about your tails? Don’t you have to have lived a thousand years before you begin to grow tails?”

Zuru laughs. “Oh no. Our tails split once every hundred years. If we live a thousand years, we gain our ninth and final tail, and become immortal.”

Jett frowns. “You have three tails.”

“I’m three hundred.” Zuru smirks. “We do not age the same as humans.”

“No kidding,” Jett grumbles. He looks down.

Zuru spreads her legs for him. He frowns, and sighs. “I thought nine-tails weren’t any different from regular foxes—that they got to be that way by growing old.”

“No,” Zuru murmurs. “Not anymore. Oh, we started out that way, but you know. . . selective breeding and whatnot. When nine-tails begin breeding with nine-tails, and nine-tails only, you get a bit of an elite species.”

She smirks. “Which is why we rule.”

Jett blushes when he remembers that he’s soaking with royalty. He takes his hand away and sighs. “It’s no good,” he grumbles. “I see it all the time while you’re a fox, so I just can’t pretend you’re a girl.”

Zuru changes back. “Thank you,” he murmurs. “That one takes much more effort to maintain.” He fluffs a tail.

He gives Jett a curious look. “So,” he says, “how do you humans go about this sort of thing?”

“Umm,” Jett says. He bites his bottom lip. “Well, usually, if it’s a girl and a guy—”

Zuru waves his hand in dismissal. “I think I know that much. Mount the bitch, rut her.” Then, he blinks and frowns. “Do human males and females have to stay locked after—”

Jett blushes furiously. “No. It comes right out.”

Zuru sighs. Then, he grins. “Foxes . . . we get stuck together.”

Jett just stares at him. Zuru spreads his legs a little wider. “So,” he says. “What do humans do?”

Jett thinks. “Well,” he says, “sometimes we—give head.”

Zuru frowns. “What’s that?” he asks, eyeing Jett.

Jett goes furiously red. “Well, um, it’s like—when . . . one person. Sucks cock.”

Zuru tips his head and leans forward a little. “Cock?”

Jett can’t even meet his gaze. “You know . . .”

Zuru nods in understanding. “Ah,” he says. “Okay. So I just—”

He goes down on Jett without much warning, really. Jett tenses, and stifles a cry. Zuru is quite skilled with his mouth, the clever little fox. He looks up at his victim, and Jett is almost scared by the smoldering look.

Zuru sits back. “Well,” he says, “I see how that’s fine and well for you. But what about me?”

He reclines, and spreads his legs wide. Jett swallows hard. “Um,” he says shakily. “Well, there’s—handjobs.”

“Which are . . ?”

Jett feels a little bolder. He is the teacher here, not the student. He grabs Zuru and starts stroking. The kitsune-jin tips his head back in delight. Oh, he knew hands were useful for something! “Good,” he pants. “And then I—”

Their elbows bump and they’ll have bruises. Bathwater splashes all over the floor. “Stop,” Zuru growls.

Jett pulls his hand away, surprised. He’s teetering on the edge, and Zuru calls a stop? The kitsune-jin turns over, gets on all fours and spreads wide. “Mount me,” he growls.

Jett stares. Zuru bucks his hips. Jett stares, then pushes the kitsune-jin’s legs wider. Zuru growls and starts jerking off. Jett feels shaky. Nevertheless, he pushes into Zuru, grabbing hold of the blond fur on his tails.

Zuru screams and tries to bite him. “Let go, let go!” he howls.

“No,” Jett huffs and gives the tails another tug. He pulls back, then thrusts again.

Zuru is panting. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Mm. Yes. Very good.” He presses down, so that he’s rubbing against the white porcelain of the tub.

Mrs. Ruse is knocking on the door and calling, “Jett? Jett, are you in there? What’s going on? Where’s the fox?”

“I’ve got the fox,” Jett calls back in a ragged voice. Water is still sloshing over the edge of the tub. “I’ve got the fox!”

Mrs. Ruse actually sounds worried. “Jett?” she asks. “What’s going on?”

But she isn’t answered. Jett bites down hard on his own lip, and slaps a hand across Zuru’s mouth. The kitsune-jin promptly bites him.

Zuru slides down the tub, making them both sink back into the water. Jett takes his hand away from the blond’s mouth. Zuru pants a little more, then loses hold of the transformation and changes back into a fox.

Jett crawls out of the bathtub shakily and towels off. Zuru whines and almost goes to sleep in the bubble bath. “Dirty old fox,” Jett grumbles, plucking the three-tailed creature out of the water and wrapping him up in a towel.

He drains the bathtub. He cleans up the water on the floor. Mrs. Ruse stares at him when he walks out of the bathroom. “He was unruly,” Jett mumbles and heads downstairs with the fox cradled in his arms.

Mrs. Ruse stares after her nephew. By the time she decides to chase after him, he’s retired to his own room, despite the fact that it’s barely eight o’clock. “Oh,” she murmurs, “I needed help with dishes . . .”

In his room, Jett settles down by the fire with Zuru sound asleep on his lap. Outside, the wolves are howling again. Despite that, they seem to have abandoned the idea of taking revenge on Zuru. Jett takes up a book and pets Zuru. The fox’s tails wag happily.

In dismay, Jett notices he’ll have to re-splint Zuru’s forepaw. Grumbling, he sets the fox on the floor and goes to the bathroom to get bandages and other supplies. “Stupid fox,” he grumbles.

Zuru opens bleary eyes and watches him work. “No more transformations, okay?” Jett asks, glaring pointedly at the three-tails.

Zuru’s ears twitch, as if he might agree. “Your leg will never heal if you keep switching forms,” he tells the fox.

Zuru yawns, as if the concept bores him. He turns about and goes back to sleep. Jett resumes his book.

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