Chapter VI: First Frost [Foxtrot]
Zuru is digging himself a den. Jett is sitting on the porch, watching the fox dig. The .22 is nearby, just in case a wolf decides that it is prime time to take revenge for Wolf’s death. Zuru’s paws are still wrapped in bandages, and Jett worries he will have to wash the wounds again before the day is out. Zuru doesn’t mind; were he strong enough to take a human form, he would probably suggest a mutual bath. Since he is not, however, he will settle for being fox-handled.
He has dug a fair-sized hole, for the earth is pliable. Still, he is not necessarily pleased with it, as he’d feel rather more comfortable if he had two or three alternate exits. Jett is apparently displeased with Zuru’s den-digging zeal and hauls the fox up out of his new foxhole.
“Your wounds are getting filled with dirt,” he grumbles, tucking the fox under his arm. Zuru scowls. He doesn’t like being treated like a doll very much, he thinks.
His wounds are unwrapped, and he is unceremoniously placed in the bucket full of water Ruse has dragged in to the sitting room for such occasions. The fox-bathing is getting to be a bit of a ritual. They’d had a few visitors come to the lodge and stay, and they were quite scared of Zuru.
Jett bathes Zuru and takes him back to the room. He puts the three-tails in front of the fire to dry off. Then, he sits on the bed and watches the fox for a moment or two. He goes into the bathroom and gets the hair dryer.
Zuru wags his tails excitedly. He likes the hair dryer. It’s warm, and it fluffs out his fur. When Jett turns it on, he tilts his head back a little bit and closes his eyes. He loves the feel of it; a hot breeze on a summer’s day, rushing through his fur. True, the noise hurts his ears, but the warm air is so good when he’s cold.
He wags his tails appreciatively and purrs when a hand scratches behind his ears. Jett muses, “Can you not speak human languages in that form?”
Zuru gives him a look, as if to ask if he is a moron. Of course he can’t; a fox’s voice box simply isn’t made for making human noises. In order to speak human languages, he must take a human form. Jett sighs and scratches his ears again.
“I’d ask you to change then, so we could talk, but you need your energy.”
Zuru nods. Jett is frowning. “Why would you take the form of a woman?” he asks. “You’re clearly a todd …”
Zuru smirks knowingly. Jett frowns more at him. Zuru claws into the floorboards “wait.” Jett sighs and turns off the blowdryer.
Zuru curls up in front of the fireplace. The nights are coming earlier and earlier now. Soon, the frosts will set in, and then, there will be no more digging a den near the lodge. Zuru sighs. Tomorrow, he must work on digging.
For now, he and Jett go back to the main room to have dinner. An elderly couple is staying the night. They’re on a cross-country tour and are just now on the last leg. They join the Ruses for dinner. They frown at Zuru, especially when Jett sets a dish of cream down for him.
“Why do you let that thing in the house?” the woman asks, crinkling her nose.
Zuru laps happily at the dish. It’s damn good stuff. He thinks he likes humans more every day. The old man leans a little closer to Zuru, squinting. “What is it, anyway?” he asks, adjusting his spectacles.
“A cat,” Mrs. Ruse says.
“A dog,” Ruse says.
“A fox,” Jett says.
The couple frown at each other. “Well,” says the woman, “I’ve never seen a white fox, nor have I ever seen an animal with three tails.”
Zuru frowns at his empty dish and decides he fancies some meat now. He hops up on a chair at the table and proceeds to help himself. The couple stare. “Good Lord!” the woman cries. “What is that thing doing?!”
“Get down!” Ruse barks, nearly throwing the fox across the room.
“Uncle!” Jett cries. “You’ll open up his wounds again. I know you don’t want him here now, so why make it any longer by hurting him?”
Ruse grumbles and sits back down. Zuru shakes his head, snarls a little, then trots over to sit beside Jett. The dark-haired one feeds him the chicken they’re having directly from his plate. Zuru licks his lips and purrs appreciatively. The woman at the table shakes her head and mouths ‘disgusting’ to her husband. Zuru resists the urge to stick his tongue out at her.
Jett helps Mrs. Ruse clear the table. Zuru curls up near the fire while he waits for the human to be finished with these domestic things. He closes his eyes and takes a nap. Ruse and the man are smoking pipes together. Zuru tries to ignore the heady scent of tobacco smoke. It’s spicy, but not in a good way, not like the outdoors.
“Clear night,” Ruse says. It is; the stars twinkle in the darkness. A light on the porch shines out into the shadows, throwing harsh light on the trees. The characteristic summertime buzz of insects is gone. Tonight, Zuru thinks, there will be frost. There’s a sharp tang in the air that screams it.
“Cold night,” the man says. “Frost for sure tonight.”
“Ah,” Ruse says, dumping out his pipe into an ash tray. “Most definitely. We always get it first up here. Higher elevation and whatnot. I hope MacRaleigh’s got his crops out of the ground.”
“Any farmer who leaves it too late deserves to have his crops killed by the frost,” the man says. “I know. It taught me a lesson in being prompt.”
Ruse nods. The two men are silent. Mrs. Ruse shakes her head at them. “I wish you wouldn’t smoke in the house,” she says.
“It’s too cold to smoke outside, Mother,” Ruse says.
She sighs and gathers Zuru up in a towel. “Time to wash your wounds,” she tells the fox and carries him off the bathroom.
It is when Zuru is lying in front of the fireplace again with his eyes closed that they hear the first eerie wail of the evening. It goes up, followed by some barking. Then another wail. Mrs. Ruse goes to the window. “Jett,” she says, “you’ve locked your door, right?”
“Yes, Aunt,” he replies. He uses the blow-dryer to fluff out one of Zuru’s tails. Zuru sits up and purrs. Jett rakes his hands through the blond fur.
Mrs. Ruse walks away from the window. “Is it those damned wolves again?” Ruse asks his wife, a big frown on his face. His hands dig into the material of the chair. He looks ready to get up and get the shotgun.
“It’s not the wolves,” Mrs. Ruse says.
“Wolves?” their woman guest asks.
“We are in the mountains, dear,” the man says.
“They’re not … dangerous, are they?” the woman asks. She’s put a hand to her lips.
Ruse shakes his head. “Oh, no,” he says. “They like to troll around here, though. They get pretty close sometimes.”
The woman glances at her husband. Ruse clears his throat. “We’ve just reinforced the windows and the doors,” he says confidently. “There’s no way they’ll get in, unless you let them in. Jett’s over on your side, and he’s got a rifle in his room if you do have trouble with ‘em.”
Zuru is sitting up, his ears pricked on his head. The wailing has continued. Zuru’s tails wag eagerly. Then, he tosses back his head and wails too.
Everyone in the room startles and looks at the fox. The wailing continues outside, so Zuru wails more as well. Jett clamps a hand around his muzzle. “It must be a vixen,” he says, looking toward the door.
Mrs. Ruse chews her lip worriedly. Ruse frowns. “If we let him go, he won’t come back.” He glares at Jett, informing him that he will not stand for the three-tails’s release. Even if it’s just for the night, Ruse will not let his prize go.
Jett frowns more. Zuru keeps trying to answer that siren call. The wailing vixen comes closer and closer. “Aunt,” Jett says, “get me a dry towel.”
She brings him one, and he ties it firm about Zuru’s muzzle. The fox’s cries are muffled in his throat. He glares at Jett.
His lack of answer doesn’t seem to deter the vixen, however, who has apparently made it to the porch. Her call is so close, and then, they hear scratching at the door. Zuru runs to the foyer and starts digging at the door as well. Jett drags him back.
“No,” he tells the three-tails firmly. The vixen wails again, and Zuru tries to call back. Jett carries him away from the door. He passes through the sitting room and takes the fox to one of the empty bedrooms upstairs. He shuts the three-tails in.
“I will be spending the night here, Aunt,” he tells Mrs. Ruse upon his return.
“Good heavens!” the woman guest says. “You don’t have to seek nature out here! It comes right to your doorstep!”
“Will she scream like that all night?” the man asks, frowning.
“Probably,” Jett says with a sigh.
“I can shoot her, if she won’t move,” Ruse says, getting up and going for his gun.
“Oh,” Mrs. Ruse says. “Never mind dear. There’s another exit; our guests can get to their rooms from there.”
“She’ll probably move off once she finds she isn’t being answered any longer.” Jett glances toward the door. “Somebody has to watch him all night, however. He’s a clever little thing.”
Midnight comes and goes. Still the vixen can be heard making her plaintive cry. She circles the lodge, searching desperately for her answer. At half-past, their guests manage to make their way to their room, without being apprehended by the vixen.
Jett joins Zuru in the second-floor bedroom after that. Zuru’s muzzle is still tied shut, and he is in the window frame, attempting to bark at the vixen. She has stopped and is looking up to the window. Jett frowns and shines a light out the window. She moves from the shadows into the light being cast on the parking lot.
“Ah,” he says when he sees the vixen has almost white fur with golden tips and four long tails. “Your mate. No wonder she calls for you.”
Zuru has set eyes on Yin Mi for the first time. He looks imploringly at Jett. It is not safe for her to wander there; the wolves might attack her. He wants Jett to scare her off. Jett sighs and heads downstairs.
Mrs. Ruse looks up from her knitting when her nephew walks by her. “Where are you going?” she asks.
“To talk to the vixen,” he replies, tugging on his shoes.
Mrs. Ruse frowns. “You can’t communicate with regular animals,” she grumbles.
“She’s like him,” he says and goes out the door to the parking lot. Zuru is watching from the window, undoubtedly.
The she-fox barks at him, then snarls and wags her tails. She is angry, and she does not like this human creature. She wants to see her mate. He spreads his hands wide. “Look,” he says, “he’s injured. I know he called to you, but he can’t move right now.”
She eyes him suspiciously. Jett sighs. “He says for you to go home. The wolves are out to get him, and he thinks they will attack you too.”
She looks undecided for a moment, then transforms into a tall, slender woman. “Let me see him,” she says, and her voice is heavily accented. He wonders where she learned English.
He shakes his head. “No,” he says. “He can’t mate right now; it’s a strain on him to even get up. If I take you there, you’ll just change back into a fox and force him to rut.”
She smirks. “You are a smart human,” she says. “Too smart for the wily vixen. But, you keep him from me?”
Jett blinks, then nods. “I have to. For his own safety, and that of your brood.”
She frowns. Jett shrugs. “He won’t be much use in hunting for you if he can’t even limp around here.”
She smirks again. “Too smart for wily vixen,” she says. “I go.”
She transforms again, then takes off into the bush. Jett waits for a moment or two, but hears no cries. The wolves have been silent tonight. Absently, he notes the frost beginning to collect on the loose stones of the parking lot. He turns and heads back inside.
The early morning is bright when their guests take leave of them. The air is cool and crisp. The frost glitters on the ground. Zuru sits in the chair and waits for Jett to wake up. He swings his foot to and fro; his ears twitch a top his head.
Jett opens his eyes at last. He looks blearily around the room, then startles at the sight of Zuru’s kitsune-jin form frowning at him from the chair. Arms crossed, frown in place—definitely human, but with three golden tails and a pair of blond fox ears.
“Ruse plans on taking me into town today,” he says; his voice is rough, like a growl. It’s not at all like the sweet, virginal maiden Jett encountered six days ago.
“Uncle?” he asks, rubbing his eyes. He runs a hand through his hair.
Zuru does not look amused. “Yes, your uncle,” he hisses. “He wants to sell me, to scientists, to a zoo. Don’t you know you humans aren’t supposed to know about the Kitsune no Youkai?”
Zuru’s tails flicker back and forth in annoyance. “It’s bad enough you three know, let alone others.”
“Why don’t you just run then?”
Zuru holds out his injured hand. Jett blinks. The fox has removed the binding, and he can almost see the fractures in the bones beneath his skin, which is plain and blanched against the rest of Zuru’s tan. “I think it was worse than you anticipated,” he says.
“It needs a splint,” Jett says, catching the hand and examining it. “Dammit, if I had realized sooner. . .”
“Getting out will only serve to kill me,” Zuru growls. “But—your uncle is a fool. Tell him not to waste his time on driving all the way to town.”
“And how would he waste time? He takes you, shows you to people—no matter who buys you, he’ll get good money.”
Zuru laughs. “Jett, Jett! I’m a fox. I’m the Crown Prince of the Kyuubi no Yoko! If he shows me to anyone, I’ll be part of the cage, I’ll be an ordinary red fox. I can make them think he’s crazy—he’ll see me as I truly am, but they’ll see nothing, nothing but a red fox.”
Jett is silent for a moment or two. “He won’t change his mind,” Jett says. “He’ll take you anyway.”
“Fine then,” Zuru says. “But don’t doubt that I will do these things.”
“Why don’t you just stay transformed?” Jett asks, looking the fox’s humanoid form over.
Zuru smirks. “I would, but truth be told … it takes too much damned energy. I still feel weak and sick. This form is making my head spin.”
And with that, he changes back. He hops off the chair, wincing as he lands upon his broken paw. “First things first,” Jett tells him. “No matter what form you want to take, you need a splint for that paw.”