The Definitive Guide To Seducing Humans (Or How I Learned To Eat Tofu)

by Mushi Megane (虫メガネ)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/71051.html)

Introduction

“You couldn’t get another animal to sleep with you even if you dragged its dead carcass into your den.”

“Because if he dragged it in, it would promptly rise from the dead and lurch away as quickly as possible.”

“And then he could add ‘rejected by zombie’ to his list of non-conquests.”

“I like that. Rejected by zombie. That would be fun on a T-shirt, if we wore T-shirts. ”

“Or a bumper sticker, if we drove cars.”

“Or a coffee mug, if we drank coffee.”

“Very good.”

“I had coffee once. It tasted like dirt.”

“Well, it doesn’t surprise me that humans would drink dirt.”

“Nor I.”

My comrades’ conversation did not amuse me. All three of them sat there, chatting away. I had expected them to nod in silent approval when I announced that I could seduce any animal at any time, but instead I get this talk of coffee and dirt. “You all are obviously overwhelmed by my sexual appeal, and it has muddled your brains,” I huffed.

“Do you know what also tastes like dirt? Mud!” Kinri, the youngest of us four, proclaimed. Everyone turned, and to my annoyance, I watched Senno and Shuri nod in approval.

“Yes, it certainly does.”

“True, true, Kinri. Good boy.”

They turned back to each other. “He wouldn’t be able to seduce a rock,” said Senno, “Because even if he slept on it, its spirit would make it roll away.”

Shuri picked up on that. “Nor a tree. It would uproot itself at the mere shake of his tail.”

“Nor a lake. It would funnel itself into the air and rain down someplace far off just to get away from him.”

Kinri jumped in. “Do you know what also tastes like dirt?”

“Enough.” I whipped around with my tail in the air and walked away. “It is clear to me that you have been all bewitched by goblins. I can hardly understand a word you’re saying. Come talk to me when you have all been cured and are sensible again.”

As I was leaving, Senno spoke up. “Perhaps the only cure for our ‘bewitchment’ is for you to prove your claim.”

I looked back over my shoulder. “I have nothing to prove to you. It is a fact, plain and simple.”

“Fact?” asked Shuri. She brushed her ears back with her paw. “Facts are things that you can prove, Taman. Like, in winter, our coats become thicker. This is something that we all know because we have all seen it. But you,” She nodded towards me. “We have not seen you seduce anything. Ever. So, pardon me if I question your fact.”

This was intolerable. To question a fox’s honor was questioning his very existence. I stared back at them, giving both Shuri and Senno a hard look. I would have given it to Kinri too if he wasn’t so busy licking the ground.

“I declare,” and I paused for extra effect, “that the next creature I see will soon fall prey to my seduction. And I will do it without magic.”

This time, I earned the silence that I had wanted in the first place. Even Kinri raised his nose up out of the dirt. I looked at them satisfied. I had left them in awe of my greatness.

“Do you smell that?” asked Senno.

Shuri sniffed the air. “It smells like…”

Kinri fled before she could finish. She had barely said “human” when there was a cracking noise behind us. I turned to see movement in the bushes. Something was coming our way.

“Happy hunting,” said Senno as he and Shuri dashed into the forest.

And then I found myself alone. Well, alone with the human.

Lesson 1 – Carefully select your subject for seduction

“Oh, this isn’t the way out either.” The human sighed and looked about the clearing. He dropped his bag on the ground and sat on me.* “Now where do I go?”

*By this time, I had changed myself into a very fashionable rock. I thought this was clever since I could study my subject without him knowing. He was not that heavy, which was a very big plus.**

**But he did start to get heavy after ten minutes. I had assumed that the human would stop sitting on me and walk about and perhaps sigh some more, but he didn’t. He kept sitting there quietly with his bottom on my head. If I have to mention, it was not a bad bottom, and he was not a large human, but he did appear to be full grown, and as I am simply a fox in rock form, I can say that this became tiresome. So, I’m sure you understand what I did next.

“Maybe it would help if you got up?” I said.

“Oh, right.” He stood up and started to brush off his pants. After a couple seconds, he looked around with a wild-eyed expression. “Who- who said that?”

Well, I could not say that I was a fox in rock form, correct? That would hinder my seduction from the very beginning. So, it is very understandable when I said-

“I am the god of the forest,” I used as booming of a voice that a fox-rock could make. “And- I think it would be good, if…you left.”

“Oh, right, sorry,” said the human, very flustered. He grabbed his bag from the ground and ran out. He returned a moment later, appearing very fearful.

“Yes?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, uh- my lord, but…” He looked around. “Which way is out? You see, I came today looking for some plants- which now I realize could be the reason why you want me to leave. I’m very sorry. Here, I won’t take them with me.” He turned over his bag and started to dump out its contents. He arranged the herbs, grasses, and flowers in a neat pile and pushed it forward towards the center of the clearing.

I stared at the pile of plants. What do I do with these?

“You see,” said the human, bowing his head. “I’m…I’m lost. If it’s all right, could you tell me the way out? I promise I won’t trespass again.” He looked up with his fearful eyes, and I met his gaze (although he didn’t know it.) “I promise,” he repeated.

Well, at least one of us appears honest, I thought. “Turn around and look the other way.”

He didn’t move at all and looked even more scared than before.

“I’m not going to hurt you, human, so just turn around!”

That got him. He stood up, spun about, and faced out. “Like this?”

“Yes, very good.” I had to think quickly. What form would work best here? Something god-like, something inspiring, something regal-

Something hit me on the forehead. “Ow!” Without thinking, I reverted back to my original form.

The human turned around and looked down. Too late! He caught sight of me. We stood there staring back at each other. I hoped my face wasn’t as fearful as his. I looked down and saw the cause of my pain. A pebble sat a few paces away. Someone had kindly scratched a smiley-face on it.

Damn them!

I was going over every curse I knew, but the human interrupted.

“Are you here to help me?” he asked.

Hm, well, that’s a good idea. I stopped rubbing my forehead and nodded in my most god-like way. “Yes, I am to lead you out of the forest.”

The human relaxed immediately. “Thank you.”

“And then to your home.”

He tensed up again. “My- my home?”

“Yes.” I started to walk, my tail high in the air. “It is very important that I- I mean, the god of the forest knows where you live, in case you ever come back. Because if you do, then he can send things after you.”

“Things?” He followed me into the woods.

“Yes, like little spiders or moss that doesn’t go away. Gods of forests do that, you know.”

“I see…” said the human. “Well, I won’t break my promise.”

He said it with such earnestness that I turned around and looked at him. Now most humans I wouldn’t trust as far I could throw them, which isn’t far by the way. Thieving, lying, cheating, murdering wretches, the lot of them. With no magic to boot, so honestly, what’s the point of existing? …But this human didn’t appear like a bad sort at all though. Full grown, but still young, with short straight hair on his head, and warm brown eyes which, at the moment, were looking back at mine.

The forest had grown quiet, and I realized I was just standing there, staring at him. I coughed and moved on. “Well,” in my harshest voice, “you better not.”

As we walked, it started to grow dark. I lengthened my tail and told him to hold on to it. I could have lit a fox-fire for him to follow, but I thought there was less chance of separation this way. We walked in silence, and I felt his grip, tight, but not painful.

I told him to not let go until we reached his home.

—–

“Ooooh, Taman! The god of the forest called. He wants you to stop impersonating him!”

“And such a wonderful performance too. I certainly would have mistaken him for the god of the forest. I mean, if the god of the forest was a rock.”

“You mean it’s not?” asked Kinri. “What is the god of the forest then?”

Shuri and Senno looked at each other.

“Well, it would be…” Senno started

“Not a rock, I’m sure,” finished Shuri.

“Don’t listen to them, Kinri. They don’t know either.” I got up from where I had been rudely awakened. “And if you wouldn’t mind, I would appreciate it if you all would go away. I’m in very deep thought right now.”

“I assumed you were in very deep sleep, but call it what you like,” sniffed Shuri. “Now, how is your seduction going? Already successful?”

“I took him home last night, yes.” I started to groom my fur.

That got their attention. “And? And?”

“He lives in a little cottage near here, alongside the road that goes to town. He has a large garden, which is why he came into the forest, to search for new plants.”

“And? And?” They clamored closer to hear, one on top of the other. Poor Kinri was squished on the bottom.

I focused on smoothing out my tail. “And then…I said good night, and came back here and went to sleep.”

“What? But you had him. He would have done anything you said. He thought you were a god!” Senno fell off Shuri and Kinri and stood up. “And you walked away?”

“Of course,” I said. “What kind of seduction is it if I say ‘I’m a god so take off your clothes’? Where’s the sport in that?”

“That’s the way I like it.” Shuri fell off Kinri and sauntered towards them. With a flick of her tail, she formed herself into a tall, slender human female, pale and naked. She cupped her milk sacks and looked at the three of us, her eyes wide and innocent. “Come with me.” Her soft voice echoed in the clearing.

“Oh, you’re going to make me sick.” Senno averted his eyes.

“I think she’s pretty.” Kinri ran up to her. “You’re very pretty, Shuri.”

“Thank you, Kinri,” she smiled and in an instant, reverted back to her fox form. “It works every time too.” She turned to me. “Why didn’t you do something like that? Men always fall for it.”

“I just didn’t,” I said. “So, please leave me alone. I need to think.”

They did eventually leave, but even when it was quiet again, I couldn’t really think of anything. Shuri had a point. It would be easy to seduce the human, although my pledge was to do it without magic, which made things a little more difficult. No enchantment, no spells, none of it. But I couldn’t just walk up to him in my true form. No human wants to be with a fox. Or rather, no human that I want to be with. It involves some logistics that I don’t want to think about.

So, I have to alter my pledge a little. I need to be able to change my form into human, but leave it at that. No further magic. No swishing my tail so he sees only me.

But what kind of human? Something tall and pale with big milk sacks like Shuri’s?

That didn’t really appeal to me at all. How do human females walk around with those swinging about? They must get caught on all sorts of things.

Well, if not a female, than a male. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me, right? How different could male foxes and male humans be?

——

“Oh, you’re very pretty, Taman,” Kinri ran around me in circles.

Senno rolled his eyes. “Oh, I think I’ll be sick again.”

“Mmmmmm, not bad at all.” Shuri gave my male human form an approvingly look. “I think you would be better with the milk sacks, but this will do.”

“He does have these down here.” Kinri nodded towards my groin. “This longish thing and those littler thingies.”

I shrugged. “Those are the correct parts that come with this form.”

“You can’t even reach them with your mouth.” Senno looked disgusted. “I don’t understand why anyone would want a form that couldn’t lick itself.”

“Oh, go away and lick yourself,” said Shuri. She turned to me. “So, Taman, for all appearances, you are human. Now what?”

“Now,” I stood up straight. “I seduce.”

Lesson 2: First impressions are very important

As I walked out of the forest, I went over in my head what would be the best introduction. Humans say so many strange things to each other. “Hello. Good day. Beautiful weather, isn’t it? Sleep well. Nice shoes. You are a male human, and look, so am I, so we obviously have so much in common. Let’s go inside and explore our dangling things.”

That last one was very honest and clear, which is what the human seemed to like the most. Perhaps I should start with the weather and then lead into the dangling things. Yes, that sounded good.

I walked down the path towards his cottage, confident that this seduction would be completed by midday. When I reached his door, I stood there for a moment. What do humans do at doors? Foxes don’t have such silly things. We just have holes that we bark at. Would that work?

As I pondered the best bark for a door, my weak human ears picked up the sound of something moving about in the yard. I peeked around the corner and saw that the human was bent over in his garden. I had a nice view of his bottom. It was not as perfect and round as mine, but it certainly wasn’t bad.

I brushed my hair out of my eyes and checked my skin to make sure that I hadn’t been sullied while on the walk here. Not a blotch or a scratch. Perfect!

I entered the back yard and with my biggest smile, called out. “Good Evening! Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

The human looked up from his garden and turned around. When he saw me, he made a funny “meep!” sound and dropped the tool he had been holding.

That must be another human greeting. “Meep!” I replied back. And to make it extra cheery, I added, “Nice shoes!”

For a moment, he stood there and stared at me with his mouth hanging wide open.

This was going splendidly. I raised my eyebrows and went into my next greeting. “You are a male human, and look, so am I, so we obviously have so much-”

“Are you insane?” The human took a step back.

“Excuse me?”

“Are you- I mean- you are-” He grabbed at his head and removed his hat, and as he talked, he squished it between his hands. “I mean- you’re naked!”

I looked down at myself. “Yes, I am. I thought this is the easiest way to show off this body. Isn’t it nice?”

“Yes, but- ack!” The human put his squished hat back on his head and ran into the house through the back door. In a moment, he came out holding something in his arms. “Here.”

He held a blanket towards me. My, this was going faster than I had expected. “Would you like us to lay down on that?”

“No, it’s to cover-”

“Everything all right here?” called a voice from the front yard. “I was walking by, and I heard some shouting.”

“Oh, no,” hissed the human. He ran up and wrapped the blanket around me and held it there.

Then a man in a dark suit with bright buttons and a black hat came into the back yard. “Hello.” He tipped his hat at us.

“Hello there, Officer.” The human smiled. “Good day.”

The “officer” smiled back and then looked at me. Smiling appeared to be the right thing to do, so that is what I did. I smiled and said, “Nice shoes!”

“Thank you.” The officer looked down. “They’re the kind we all have to wear, but they’re dependable.”

It was silent for a moment. The human still held the blanket around me. The officer gave us a questioning look. “Is he a friend of yours, Yoshida-san?”

“Uh…uh…” the human’s grip on the blanket tightened. “He’s…a visitor.”

“…Right,” said the officer. “Well, perhaps he should be inside. He looks a little cold.”

“Yes, that’s just what we were doing when you came by,” said the human.

“Well, don’t let me keep you further.” The officer turned to go.

“Sleep tight!” I called to his back.

He looked at me, his expression confused. “…Thank you,” he said as he left.

The human’s grip on the blanket slackened. “That was close.”

“Yes,” I sniffed at his hair. “You smell very nice, like grass.”

His eyes opened wide, and he stepped away from me. “Why don’t we go inside, and you can explain yourself.” He started towards the back door. I followed, dropping the blanket as I walked.

“No, no, no, keep that on!” He picked it up and threw it to me. The outburst appeared to surprise him since he then stopped and sighed. He gave me another look. “Please, keep that on,” he said in a softer voice.

“Right.” I wrapped the blanket around my waist. “Like this?”

“Perfect.” He sighed again and went inside.

I followed, in awe of my own skills of seduction.

Lesson 3 – The Fine Art of Introductions

*As you know, when you learn a fox’s true name, you gain a special power over them. They cannot bewitch you like they can others. Therefore foxes never share their names outside their circles, and when talking to strangers, are very careful not to divulge each other’s names. Thus, it is understandable (and very clever!) that I introduced myself as:

“Rice Cracker Hot Sauce?” The human repeated. “That is your name?”

I nodded. I thought it was a very stately name, and it well matched the boxes in his pantry. I looked about his kitchen to see if there were any other things I could add to it. Longer is always better, you see. “Rice Cracker Hot Sauce Blueberry Pancake Mix…”

The human held up his hand. “I see. That-” His mouth opened and shut a few times before continuing, “is a very practical name. Right. Yes.” He took off his hat and scratched at his head. “Would it be too much to ask, I mean…” He looked back at me. “Do you have a nickname? Something shorter? Not food-like?”

Shorter? “But longer is always better, you see.”

“Right.” He tapped the table with his finger for a moment. “Look. My name is Yoshida. Yoshida Ren.”

Ha! Silly Human, you have taught me your true name. I’m sure this will make things much easier for me. “Yoshida Yoshida Ren. That’s a very nice name. Nice and long.”

“No, it’s not Yoshida Yoshida. It’s just-” He scrunched his hat again. It seemed to be something he liked to do. “Look, just call me Ren.”

“Ren?”

“Yes. Now,” He turned, closed his pantry door and leaned up against it. “Is there something short like that which I may call you?”

This is tricky. Something shorter, but I can’t tell my real name. I looked about the kitchen some more. Sugar? Faucet? Phonebook… All that was flashing across my mind, and then I looked back at him. He had that earnest look again, like from back in the forest. Earnest and hopeful, his hands squishing his hat into a small ball.

He must have used some sort of human magic, because before I knew it, “Tam” slipped out between my lips.

“Tam?” He repeated.

It was not my full true name, but when he said its shortened form, I still felt a shiver shoot up my spine and go all the way to my weak human ears.

It felt very strange. …It felt nice.

“Yes. You may call me that. But it’s not short for anything so don’t go thinking it is, or try guessing!”

“I- I won’t.” He sighed, but this time, he look relaxed about it. “But that’s much easier to say. Thank you, Tam.”

Oof, another shiver, and all the way down to my toes. I might have to sit down if this keeps up…

He walked over to the counter, picked up the kettle, and filled it with water. He placed it on the stove. “Now, Tam, tell me where you’re from. If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look like you’re from around here.”

The third time he said my name, I thought my knees would fall right out from under me. I grabbed the table for support. What’s happening?

“Tam? Are you alright there?”

A buzzing sound had started in my head, low but getting louder. My skin tingled warm and then hot. I let loose the blanket around my waist, and for a moment, I felt cooler, but then he touched my arm and again-

“Tam?”

Then everything went black.

Lesson 4: Don’t deny Divine Guidance. They’re tricky and tend to pop out of nowhere.

I woke up to find myself in a bed with the covers all the way up. I could not remember how I got there, but I noticed that I was still naked.

“…This must be a good sign.” Even I underestimated my elite skills of seduction.

“I wouldn’t say ‘good’,” a voice spoke. I looked up and by the door there stood a short little man in a white coat.

“Hello?” Already I felt something strange from him. Another fox? A tanuki? Maybe a demon.

“Yes, I know. Nice shoes.” He walked over, his arms crossed. He studied my face for a moment. “You almost lost it down there, young one.”

“Did I?”

“Yes. If I hadn’t been outside spying on you, the whole thing would have fallen through. How many foxes can keep their form when they black out like that?”

“I beg your pardon? I’m not a- a-” But already I felt defeated, and I turned away. By the way he looked at me, he somehow knew. Everything. “Well, what about you. Why were you down there? And how did you know?”

“Well, I wanted to know what kind of fox would say that he was me.”

…Oh dear.

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Very rock-like. Very god-rock-like. I swallowed, and tried to think of something clever. “You must have mistaken me for another fox that misrepresented you,” sounded plausible, or “Please don’t kill me,” seemed very clear, but just then, there was a knock on the door.

We both turned and saw it open a little. The human, Ren, poked his head in.

“Dr. Mori, is he-” He looked over at me and squeezed his hands together; this time there was nothing between them. “Is he alright?”

“Very much so.” The little man nodded and smiled. “Good thing that I was right outside your door when this happened.”

“Yes, that was a miracle, as well as a big surprise.” Ren opened the door wider. “But is he really alright? Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes, there is.” The little man nodded. “If you could wait downstairs, I’ll be there in a moment. I just have to explain some things to our patient here.” He shooed Ren out into the hall and stood by the door until we heard the human’s footsteps fade away.

“Right,” said the little man as he closed the door. He turned and gave me a much darker look than the one he had a moment earlier. He walked over and sat down at the end of the bed. “If you don’t mind, I wish to do away with all pleasantries from here on in. I know you, and I know everything that has happened, and I am sure by now that you have a very good idea who I am. Yes?”

“Yes.” I nodded. He looked at me expectantly. “…My lord.”

“Excellent.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Now, I want to see how much you know. For instance, do you know how many people pray before entering my forest?”

I expected the questioning to be a bit more relevant to the current situation. Maybe he’s a little dotty for a god. “No, sir.”

“Would you like to guess?” He raised his eyebrows.

The rock in my stomach was telling me that no clever answer was going to be right, so I shook my head.

“Well, if you did guess,” said the little man. “And if you said one person.” He raised a finger in the air. “I would say, that is a very good guess.”

“One person, my lord?”

He sighed and looked down. “Yes, it is hard times right now. Most ‘pilgrims’ these days pray to other more popular gods. They pray to the boxes in their houses and to their automobiles, and to their telephones and to their plastic cards. As of late, I have had only one person stop by the little shrine outside the forest and give me a proper prayer.”

“I see.” Oh, no, this wasn’t leading to…

“And then. Just yesterday. That pilgrim, that one person thought a talking rock was me.”

Oh dear…

“And then. Due to being afraid of this talking rock, this person, the only person who has been praying at my temple every time he comes into my forest, then promised to never come back.”

He gave me that expectant look again. “Never.”

I had lost all words although somehow “Meep” slipped out.

Then he was at me, his hand around my throat, pressing me against the bed, his grip tightening. No longer the smiling doctor, his face had scrunched up and turned a dark shade of purple. “Now,” between clenched teeth. “I don’t care about your silly game. All I care is that I get my one prayer back. But that won’t be easy because the one who prayed made a sacred contract with a magical being. In order for him to return, that contract will have to be broken. Do you understand what you have to do now?”

I wanted to change my form, to get away from him, but it wasn’t just his hands that held me. There was a stronger force keeping me put.

“I said, do you understand?” He jammed his thumbs underneath my chin.

I nodded, since not a word could come out.

Instantly his demeanor changed, and the pressure around me disappeared. I blinked and saw him sitting on the edge of the bed again.

“Excellent.” He clapped his hands. “Now, I shall arrange so that you can have some time with this human in order to null the contract.”

My mind started to race. Time? Contract? Human?

Ren.

For some reason, I remembered again his face when we stood in the forest. Sincere and relieved, yet very determined. “I promise.” He had said.

So we had made a contract. A formal bond.

Is that why I feel this way when I think of him? Because we made a contract? And then all we have to do is break it, and this feeling will go? Then when I close my eyes, I won’t remember his face anymore? I won’t see the way he looked at me? I won’t hear his voice in my head? I won’t feel all shivery when he says my name?

The god of the forest got up from the bed and started towards the door. “I think by tonight this should be all fixed.”

Tonight. That should be enough time, my mind reasoned, but my mouth said something else. “A week.”

The little man stood by the door, looking at me. “What did you say?”

I don’t know what I was saying. My mind was telling me to shut up, to save my skin, but these words kept streaming out, and I felt just as surprised what came next.

“Please, my Lord. Please allow me a week.”

He shook his head. “Too long.” He tapped his fingers on door frame. “I’ll give you until tomorrow night.”

I know. I can’t contradict a god, but still- “Three days. Just…three days.” I said. “…Please.”

He studied my face. “And after that?”

“You will have your prayer back.” I swallowed. “…I promise.”

“That is what I wanted to hear.” This time the smile reached his eyes. It did not make me feel better though. He walked back over. “And look, I’ll even give you a hand.” He tapped my nose, and I felt strange crawly sensation move under my skin. In a second, it was gone. “Now, even if you black out again, you won’t lose your human form.”

Wait a minute- “I won’t lose my form? Only when I black out, right?”

“Oh, no. I mean, you can’t change at all now.” He winked. “It will make things easier for you, if something happens. And also it gives you some added…” He licked his lips. “Incentive to finish this as quickly as possible. That is, if you want to return to the forest and to your friends anytime soon.”

This can’t be possible. I closed my eyes and thought of my true form, with my pointy ears and thick fur and my long, beautiful tail. All I have to do is think of it, and I will back. But even before I opened my eyes, I knew what I was.

“I’ll be a human? For how long?”

“Until your contract is broken, and not a moment sooner.” The doctor patted my head. “But look on the bright side. Now you won’t be tempted to use magic either. Wasn’t that also part of your little game?”

My little game. Yes. That’s right. “How very kind of you to remember,” I mumbled.

“Far be it for me to interfere in your fun.” His hand took my shoulder. “Just as long as you do what I want.” His grip tightened. “The sooner the better.”

I stared at him. I couldn’t think of anything less fun than this moment. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. “Now you have some work to do, but before that, I think you should get more rest, Taman.” He started towards the door. “Sleep, Taman. Sleep.” My eyes closed before his hand reached the knob.

It’s magic, you know, when someone says your name.

Lesson 5 – Open windows don’t always bring good things

Morning light streamed in through the window by my bed. I blinked and looked out at the sky, and for a moment, I thought I was still dreaming. Warm sun, blue sky, soft blankets tucked tightly around me-

Blankets? Wait-what?

I sat up and felt my head. As my dream faded, my reality became more and more clear. My reality and my current…circumstances. The body that I had thought was so perfect now seemed anything but since I could no longer change out of it.

No longer did I have fur or whiskers or a long, pointy, and I should add, fantastic nose. My skin was now unfortunately smooth, my nose obscenely small, and the only hair I had was on top of my head, too soft to be of any real purpose. How do humans live in the winter? “Cursed creatures and their stupid, weak bodies!”

“I could have told you that. In fact, I think I did.”

I turned and saw that my view of the blue sky was blocked by a large black crow. I didn’t need to look closer to know who it was.

“You didn’t, Senno. And lay off. I don’t need any of your observations right now.”

“You don’t say?” A second bird, this time a small finch, landed next to the crow. “It seems like you need us even more now.”

I scowled at Shuri and decided to not tell either of them that a large buzzard was coming in from behind. Kinri was never good at flying. He excelled at crashing though, to my enjoyment.

I watched as they picked themselves up off the floor. Shuri flitted back to the windowsill and started to preen her feathers back into place. “Hmph. You listen here. Don’t be cranky at us because of this mess you’re in. It’s not our fault.”

“No, of course not. None of you have had anything to do with this. I’m sure it was some rabid squirrel that threw a pebble at me and made me show my form in the first place.”

“Oh, no.” Kinri beat his oversized wings. “That was Senno. He said his aim was the best. And it was!”

Senno pecked at him. “It was Shuri who told me to!”

“Don’t you dare pin this on me!” She dived from the window at him.

Watching them bat and peck at each other brightened my mood, but the noise they were making would bring nothing but more trouble. I waved my hands at them to stop. “If you don’t mind, I have a lot of things to do, and only three days to do it.”

“Three days?” Senno let go of Shuri’s tail feathers. “Oh, sorry, old boy. You’ve been asleep for awhile. I think you only have- what, an hour left?”

I thought my weak human heart stopped right then.

“Stop it, Senno.” Shuri whapped his back. She looked up to me. “You slept for a day. You have two left.”

“Oh, thank gods.” With my hand over my heart, I could still feel it beating. Two days? Damn, that shifty little man! He wasn’t going to let me have the last word on our “negotiation”.

Senno snorted. “It’s been fun to watch you squirm through all this.” He flew up and landed on the edge of the bed. “Do you want to call it quits now, or will you drag this out until the very end?”

“What are you talking about?” I nudged him with my foot beneath the blanket, trying to get him off the bed. All my effort won me was a sharp peck on my toe.

“Are you going to tell him straight off, or are you still going to try to win him over with your,” he snickered, “unrivaled skills of seduction. I do hope you choose choice two. It’s been a lark watching up until now. Oh-oh- Look at me! I’m a rock! I’m a god! I’m an ugly human! Won’t you sleep with me? It’ll be good, I promise! I promise!”

This time he sailed right off the bed. I gave him a solid kick in the chest to make it so.

Shuri flew down to the heap that was Senno. “Taman, calm down! You’re much bigger than him right now.”

“Well, he’s more annoying. I think that makes us even.”

“I don’t need any help,” Senno pecked at Shuri when she started to brush him off. “And you.” He glared up at me. “Don’t even think of asking for anything. We all heard that you can’t use magic. Good luck getting anywhere without it. Say anything you want to that human, and he’ll just think you’re daft. So, enjoy your ugly, useless body. You’re going to be stuck with it forever. And I will laugh at you at every step!” He cawed, his voice loud and crackling.

It dawned on me then that he was right. What kind of curse did the forest god give me? If I can’t use magic, if I can’t change back, why would Ren ever believe me? I’ll just look like some crazy…human!

I stared at my hands, with all these weird finger-thingies. What is the purpose of these- these thumbs?

Senno was still laughing. “You see, don’t you? There’s no way out for you! No way-”

The door blew open. A broom launched in with Ren close behind. He looked around the room until he spotted Senno and Shuri on the floor. He waved the broom at them. “Out! Out with you!” He brushed it towards them, forcing them up. Shuri dodged Kinri, who still sat on the window, but Senno crashed right into him as he tried to flee. Both of them tumbled out. For a moment, I was fearful for them, or rather for Kinri. But then I saw all three of them in the air, their backs becoming smaller and smaller as they flew further away.

I closed my eyes and leaned back. The room was once again quiet. “Thank you.”

A warm hand fell on my forehead. It moved to my cheeks, and then lightly felt my throat. “Are you alright? Did they frighten you? Or hurt you? I’ve never seen such a large buzzard before.” I opened my eyes to see Ren peering down at me, his face worried. “I mean, I think it was bigger than the cat next door, and Mr. Puddles is really…big-boned.”

His politeness, no matter the circumstances, struck me, and I laughed.

He stepped back. “What?”

Once it started, I couldn’t stop. The laughter just built up more and more, until my sides and head hurt. But what struck me as the most funny was that Senno had been right. There was going to be no good way to get out of this. No easy way.

I looked at Ren. His expression grew more and more worried, but for some reason, I felt more relieved. Suddenly, things seemed much clearer now, like the blue sky outside.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” He squeezed his hands together.

“Yes.” I looked outside. “Could you close the window?”

As he walked over, I saw that the light had changed, morning was moving into midday.

Two days. No, one and a half.

That was not a lot of time.

But not easy did not mean impossible.

Lesson 6 – Learn everything about your subject

A whole day wasted in bed. Well, I’ll have no more of that, thank you. Ren kept giving me that worried face of his and those hand-scrunching “Maybe you should lie down” remarks, but when I started walking around (naked), he went into his closet and rummaged around.

“Here,” he handed me some multicolored clothes. “These pajamas are too big on me, but they may fit you.”

Pajamas? I believe that is the human term for sleepwear. That unnerving “doctor” might have put a damper on my plans, but here was a sign that definitely pointed towards “Soon-to-be-seduced”. I could barely hold back my glee when I put them on.

The pants part was pretty easy- one foot in, then the other, and lift up until it can’t go any further. The shirt was a little tricky. It just hung open, but I had a feeling it was supposed to close up somehow. (Although leaving it open would expose my perfectly shaped chest…perhaps I’ll just tie the ends down here…)

As I started to knot the ends together, Ren’s hands moved into my field of vision. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think how tired you must still be.” He loosened the knot and then one by one, he took each shiny button on the left of the shirt and looped it into one of the holes on the right side. I watched as his hands moved up my chest, closing the shirt. His eyes focused on each button. “I know when I just wake up, it takes me a good half hour to do anything. One time I walked out into the garden to pick a tomato in only a bathrobe. What a sight for the neighbors.” Even without looking at me, I could see his cheeks take on a red tint.

I pictured him, bending over in his robe and yanking on a tomato plant. “I’m sure they enjoyed it.”

He shook his head, the tint deepening. “You might notice the ‘Are you clothed?’ sign on the back door. It’s to help remind me in the mornings.” He had worked his way to the top of the shirt. For a moment, his hand stayed on the last button, but then he stepped back without fastening it. With a quick motion, he pressed his hands on my chest and moved them down, smoothing the shirt out. “There. Perfect fit.”

“Thank you.” I looked down at his work. Everything was fastened into place. I’ll have to practice at these button-things. I can just picture a mood being spoiled by taking an hour to remove a shirt.

“Well,” Ren smiled. “How about some lunch?”

——-

Sharing meals, you see, is one of the most important steps towards seduction. Filling one desire, that being the desire to eat, is only a few shades away from filling other desires. Plus all the amazing things you can do with your mouth to appear more enticing—sucking, sipping, licking. When I sat down at the kitchen table, my mind was already spinning about how to suck, sip, and lick my way out of these pajamas.

That, and I was very hungry. A day without food made me want to eat anything, even whatever humans eat. At least, that’s what I’d thought.

I looked at the plate of sopping green things, topped with mushy yellow squares that Ren had placed in front of me. I stared at it for a moment. “Is this what humans call a centerpiece? Like when people put flowers or burning sticks on their tables?”

“Um…no. That’s lunch.” Ren sat down across from me. “It’s tofu with spinach.”

“Tofu?”

“Yes, it’s made out of soy beans.”

Soy? Hmmm. “So, is the meat…inside the soy bean?” I poked it with my finger and the tofu jiggled back at me.

“No. There’s no meat.” Ren shook his head. “Actually, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.”

“You don’t eat meat?” Oh, no no no, that can’t be right. I looked from the plate to him. “But all humans eat meat. They are a meat-eating animal- like wolves, and hawks and…foxes. They’re made to eat meat.”

“This human,” Ren pointed to himself, “doesn’t eat meat, and there won’t be any meat served in this house.” He stood up and picked up my plate. “I’m sorry if I didn’t warn you. If you don’t like tofu, perhaps I can make you something else. I think I have some pasta in the pantry…”

I grabbed the plate before he could move away. He looked down at me with surprise. “Tam?”

“I didn’t say that I didn’t like it. I just don’t understand why you eat it. Since humans eat meat, or most of them anyways.”

“You may notice that I’m not like most…humans.” His grip relaxed, allowing me to take the plate back. He sat down again and looked down at his own plate. “I hope you enjoy it, even if it’s not what you were expecting.”

Maybe it was because I was so famished, but one bite quickly led to another. I had great difficulty with the two sticks Ren had set out for me to eat with, so after several failed attempts at picking up the jiggly tofu, he handed me a spoon.

The food wasn’t bad, actually. Plus, I got to lick the spoon afterwards. Licking is ALWAYS good.

——

As Ren washed the dishes afterwards, he suddenly stopped. I looked up to see him staring out the window over the sink. He tapped the windowpane. “I see you! Don’t think I don’t!” He ran to the backdoor, grabbing his broom along the way, and went outside. I was confounded by the whole display and followed close behind him.

Ren was running in between the rows of plants in his garden, waving his broom about. “I see you! You, by the lettuce! Off-off-off!”

The next moment, a small brown flash of fur zipped from the lettuces and ran for the fence. Another moment, and the rabbit was gone through a hole between the gate and the fence post.

Ren waved his broom in the air one more time, but now with far less energy. He sighed and turned. “Darn things. They’re always eating my vegetables.” He raised the broom again and pointed it towards the middle of the garden where a stick-man stood dressed in a scraggly jacket and a floppy hat. “I even put up Mr. Scary Coat, but they just run right by him.”

I would expect so. Mr. Scary Coat was anything but menacing, what with the floral jacket he wore and the pink and purple bonnet perched on top.

Ren frowned at the stick-man. “Maybe it needs a new hat. Something more hideous. With feathers, maybe…” He continued to mutter to himself as he walked inside. I looked at the garden and at the hole that the rabbit had fled though.

“Do they bother you often?” I asked when I went back inside.

“All the time!” Ren’s anger was obvious by the way he splashed the water as he finished the dishes. “In the morning, I wake up to see their little tails peeking out between the carrots. At lunch, their noses are deep into the cabbages, and by dinner, I would be lucky to have a single radish left. And the day I put Mr. Scary Coat out there, I swear to you, I heard something laughing over the fence. Well, I will show them.” He made one more splash in the sink and then pulled the plug. As the water drained out, he shook his wet finger at the window. “I’m going over to the Used Shop to find the most horrific hat possible. The more feathers, the better.”

He turned and grabbed his coat by the door. “Tam, I’ll only be a few minutes. The shop is just down the road.”

I didn’t think another hat would do what he wanted it to do. Maybe if it had sharp teeth and could run fast. I followed him to the door. “I can go as well. Help you choose something.” And make sure no one else seduces you along the way. I have dibs, you see.

Ren looked at me for a moment. “Oh, no. Tam. You should stay here. We can’t have you wandering about in pajamas. And that reminds me. I’ll look for some clothes for you while I’m there. No worries. They’re used, but very clean. And I’ll pick out something nice. I promise.” He smiled, in that sincere, never-break-my-word way, the one that got me here, locked in this body in the first place.

For some strange reason, all I could do was smile back at him.

——

While my Object of Seduction was out finding hideous headwear, I stood in the kitchen, staring out the window at the garden. Now, if pesky rabbits were eating my food, and if I was, say, a fox, I would solve this problem in a much more direct fashion.

I applaud you, Mr. Scary Coat, and all that you have contributed thus far, but I think we need something more…carnivorous to fix this.

As I stood by the window, I saw it, a sniffing nose sticking out of the hole in the fence. My, aren’t we brazen? Didn’t get your fill a few minutes ago, I see? Already back for more? You must be so used to hopping all over that human without any fears of being harmed.

Well, you won’t be hopping over me.

I walked into the garden and crouched by a bush near the fence. Even in this gangly human form, I slipped easily back into my instincts. My sense of smell and hearing may not be as sharp in this body, but I remember the hunt. Standing so still, like my feet were part of the grass they stood on, and my body, the bush that shielded me from the fence. My breathing slowed. My hands rested on the ground in front of me, ready to push off any moment.

And there he was. He disappeared when I first came out, but he was already back. He sniffed the air. He knew something was out there. He might even sense something strange, like a human, but not quite. But he was ultimately too sloppy, too used to having his way all the time. Nothing harmed him here. He always ate his fill before the human even noticed. Even with the strange smell, it wasn’t enough warning. Nothing dangerous was ever here, nothing worse than the stick covered in a lady’s coat. He darted forward, towards the carrots. His ears back, his nose forward, his eyes on the prize.

It was too late when he noticed. He tried to dodge, but already, I had him by the neck. Normally, I would take him by my teeth and shake him until it broke. But now, with my human hands, I didn’t have to use my mouth. It snapped easily, and then I held him in the air, over the fence.

“See this, boys. I know you do. Even in this form, I can smell you, watching.” I waved the rabbit in the air, its lifeless legs flapping left and right. “Your fate will be the same if you cross that fence again. I’m sure you all know how good a fox keeps his word when he wants to.”

I walked back to the house and sat on the back steps. The rabbit’s body lay next to me. My mouth watered at the idea of eating him for dinner, but I had a feeling that wouldn’t go over well with Ren’s “vegetarian” ways. Perhaps he would be pleased enough with the knowledge that the rabbits would stop, and he would change, just this once.

—-

The front door slamming shut alerted me that Ren had returned. I could barely keep in my excitement. Neither could he, it seemed. Almost immediately, he ran into the backyard; this time, he held not one, but two large, floppy hats, one purple, one yellow, both generously covered in feathers.

“I know-I know,” Ren laughed as he walked up to the stick-man. “I just couldn’t decide. Aren’t these so wonderfully awful?” He removed the hat that had been sitting on top of the stick man and dropped it on the ground. He went back and forth with the other two hats, placing one on top and then the other. “What do you think? Which says ‘stay away!’ more?”

I came up behind him. “I think this one does.” I smiled, and held out the rabbit’s limp body in the air.

Ren was still looking at the hats. “Which one?”

“The dead rabbit in my hand here. I think this will send the clearest message.” I shook the rabbit for added effect; its head flopped back and forth.

Ren turned around. “What?” And then he saw. His eyes widened, as did my smile.

“What did you do?” He took a step back, and looked at me aghast. “Where did you get that?”

He must be shocked by such good news. I kept smiling. “I saw him come in to the garden again. It wasn’t too difficult. I just grabbed him and-” I mimed my breaking of its neck. “Very easy. Especially with human hands.”

Ren stared back at me for a moment and then looked away. He still held one of the new floppy hats, and he scrunched it between his hands. “Oh dear. Oh gosh. You killed it. With your bare hands…Oh, dear.” He shook his head and walked past me into the house. I heard the door shut behind me.

I looked back at the house and then to the rabbit. Somehow that “Oh, dear” didn’t sound like “What a wonderful thing you did, Tam. Take me now.” That didn’t make sense though. Why wouldn’t he be happy? Why does he look so sad?

My answer was the back door opening again. Ren came out, this time carrying a shovel. He looked very grim, his lips a thin line, nothing like the smiling, happy, hat-holding Ren that I had just seen.

Without a word, he looked around his yard. With a sigh, he walked over to the fence, near the hole, and stuck the shovel in the ground. With a grunt, he lifted a patch of earth up and tossed it aside. He kept doing this, over and over, silently digging.

Is this some human ritual? “What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m digging a grave,” he replied, not looking up.

“Why?”

Ren didn’t respond, but kept digging. His frowning expression, his downcast eyes, that sniffing sound he was making- it made me feel awful for some reason.

I took a hold of the shovel, stopping him. “Are you angry?”

Ren didn’t look up. “Let go,” he said. “Please.”

“No,” I said. This made him look up. “I want to understand.”

“Understand what?” he asked, sniffing again.

I held the rabbit’s body up and pointed it at the garden. “You have this garden. The rabbits eat from your garden, which makes you angry. Right?” Ren kept looking back at me. I continued. “Then I kill a rabbit, but this also makes you angry? I don’t understand the way you humans think. Which is it? The garden or the rabbit?” I held out the rabbit.

Ren looked down at the body. “Both,” he said quietly.

“Both? How can you have both?”

Ren reached out and touched a finger against the rabbit’s fur. “I want my garden to live. I want the rabbits to live,” he said, stroking the rabbit. “I want everything to live, Tam. I want- I just want it that way, all right?” He looked back up at me. “I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. It’s the way I am.” He pulled the shovel away from my hand and started to dig again.

To want two things that don’t work together at all? I placed the rabbit on the ground as I listened to Ren push the shovel into the earth again. How strange. How can you want something that is damaging to something else you want? I looked back up at him, his shoulders stooped, his bangs hanging in his eyes.

There is something that I want even though wanting it stands in the way of something else, returning to my true form, going home…

I reached over and stopped Ren’s shovel again. This time, I pulled it away. “I’ll do that.” I placed the shovel into the hole he had dug and pressed it down.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“This is me, not making sense. Now we have something in common,” I said, adding some dirt to the growing pile. “Go on inside. I’ll finish here.”

Ren didn’t move. He stared back at me, his expression unreadable.

“Go inside,” I repeated. “…Make that tofu stuff. I- I want some more.”

As I continued to dig, I heard Ren walk away. Even though I asked him to do it, it still made something twist inside me. It hurt. “I’m sorry,” I called out.

I heard Ren stop, but I didn’t look up to see if he had turned.

“Where I come from, what I did was right. It was the natural thing to do.” I nodded at the rabbit. “But I realize now that it wasn’t right for you. And I understand a little about why you want both. Because that’s what I want too.”

I returned to digging. I heard the back door close. After a few minutes, I found myself standing knee-deep in a hole. Maybe this is deep enough to bury all my mistakes… I picked up the rabbit by its scruff, and laid it down by my feet. I stepped out and started to push the pile of dirt into the hole. When I was done, a soft mound marked the spot where I first learned that what you want doesn’t always make sense.

I turned around and saw the kitchen windows glowing with light.

—-

Lesson 7 – Let me introduce you to your wingman- Alcohol

Our dinner was much quieter than lunch. It was tofu again, like I had asked for. This time it was reddish with a spicy flavor.

Ren’s anger seemed to have disappeared, but it was replaced by jumpy nervousness. Between long pauses, he kept asking me if I liked the food, or if it was too spicy. “I know, you need more water,” he said, jumping up from his chair.

I looked at my full glass of water. “I don’t think so.”

He looked down and noticed it too. “Well then, how about some wine? I feel a little…thirsty.”

After pouring two glasses full of red liquid, he brought them over to the table. He held out his in the air. “Cheers,” he said with a smile.

He kept holding his glass in the air like that, as if waiting for something.

I picked up mine and held it up, mimicking him. “…Cheers?”

Ren brought his glass closer and clinked it against mine. “Cheers,” he repeated. This time, his smile was relaxed and easy. He took a long sip.

I brought the glass to my lips. After eating the spicy tofu, the liquid seemed to burn in my mouth, but after a few sips, it tasted warm and smooth.

“Do you like it?” Ren asked, this time nodding towards the wine.

“Yes, I do.” I took another drink. “It’s funny.”

“Funny?”

“Yes. It’s like drinking…” I held up the glass to the light. “That feeling you have when you’re excited and you really want something. Like…” It hit me. Like a small pebble smacking my forehead. “Like seduction in a glass.” I couldn’t help but smile. “How wonderful.”

I looked up to see Ren staring at me, eyes wide, cheeks pink. He quickly looked away, downed his glass, and then reached for the bottle. “Huh…that is funny.”

I was growing more excited by the second. What could be better? An elixir that promotes seduction? No magic involved? Why didn’t I think of this before? Do humans know that it has these fantastic properties?

Ren was finishing his second glass. I poured myself some more. I ended up finishing the bottle. “All gone.” I shook it.

Ren looked up. “I think I have another.” He stood, wobbled, and gripped the chair.

“Are you all right?” I started to stand.

“No-no-no. I’m fine. Just got up…too quickly.” He smiled, waved his hand, and then wobbled to the pantry.

I wondered if I should feel a little guilty about not saying anything about the “wine” and the effect it could have. It was in my favor that Ren didn’t understand, but still. Something pricked at me. Like maybe it was too…easy this way. Ren opened another bottle and filled his glass, and then topped mine as well.

After a few more sips, he sat his glass down, clamped his hands together in front of him, and looked directly at me. “Tam, I want to ask you a couple questions.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Okay.”

“Did you-” he started and then stopped, shaking his head. “I mean- are you really-” He stopped again and balled his fist up by his chin.

“…Am I really?”

Instead of answering, Ren stood up, this time gripping the chair for balance. He walked over to the sink. “Never mind. It’s crazy.”

“What’s crazy?”

He grabbed a dish and started to rub the sponge across its surface. “I just had this feeling that I might have met you before.”

I thought I heard a little bell start to go off, somewhere inside my head. But it seemed far away. I took another sip of wine. “Really?”

“Yeah.” He turned to look back at me. “Have you ever been to the forest nearby?”

It rang a little louder now. My mind felt muddled for some reason, but it was becoming harder to ignore. “…Forest?”

“Yeah, the one nearby. Up the road. Have you been there…lately?”

“Uh…”

“Like, a couple days ago?” Ren was getting more excited now. He squished the sponge between his hands.

The bell was ringing by my ear now, loud and clear. I put a hand to my head. Yes? Is that what I’m supposed to say? But you probably don’t recognize me since I’m no longer a rock? Or a fox?

“…No. I’ve never been there.”

Ren’s face fell. “Oh.”

The ringing stopped, but something else was pricking at me. Ren’s face a moment ago was excited, but now it was the total opposite. “Why? What happened a couple days ago?”

“Nothing.” He turned back to the sink. “It’s silly.”

“What?”

“No, really, nothing.” He scrubbed at the dish again.

I picked up my glass to drink, but then stopped. A thought popped into my head. “Would you like to go?”

“Where?”

“To the forest? We could go tomorrow.”

Ren stopped washing the dishes. He shook his head. “No, I can’t.”

A part of me wanted to stop right there. I was afraid of where this conversation was going, but it felt like something else was pushing me, like the forest god’s hands were squeezing still at my neck. “It could be fun. A nice walk, you know?”

“But you’re not well,” Ren countered. “The Doctor said that you should take it easy.”

“But it’s not that far, right? And I feel fine.” I stood up. This was a mistake. The floor seemed to move away from my feet. I held the table to keep balance.

“Oh,” Ren said. “In that case, then tomorrow will be it then.”

“What?” My head was swimming. “What will be it then?”

“The Doctor said that you can leave once you feel better.” Ren’s hand slowly pressed the sponge against the plate. “You’ll go home then, right? Tomorrow?”

“Right…” No, this isn’t how I want this conversation to go. I let go of the table and walked over to him.

“So tonight will be your last night,” Ren said softly. He was still looking down at the plate, but his hands were no longer moving.

I didn’t want to say “yes”. I didn’t want that to be true. “Still, we could go for a walk. You know the forest, right? You could show me around. Show me where you like to go.” I was standing right behind him. I wish you would turn around. “You know, something fun to do before I-” Go. I don’t want to say it.

“I can’t,” he repeated. “I told you. Besides, I heard at the store today that there’s a big boar running around. It could be dangerous.”

I saw Ren’s expression in the windowpane, his eyes looking off in the distance. And then I saw my own reflection behind his, my face locked in a sad grimace. The two things that I want- both are slipping away.

My head was buzzing, my body felt hot, and something stung at my eyes.

“If you don’t turn around. I’ll make you,” I whispered.

Ren turned slowly to look at me, his hands empty. I took them in mine.

In the back of my buzzing head, I heard Senno’s crow voice cackling. “Say anything you want to that human, and he’ll just think you’re daft.”

“I don’t care,” I told the voice.

“What?” Ren looked up, questioning.

“I don’t care about some boar.” I gripped his hand. “Tomorrow, will you come with me? To the forest? It sounds crazy, but I need you to come. Just walk with me, and that’s it.”

“I can’t. I made a promise. And it’s one I don’t want to break.” His eyes searched mine. “Do you understand?”

I looked down at his hands and squeezed. “What if you made that promise to me, and I asked you to break it. Would you?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t. Not yours.”

There it was again. That look of his- like the one I saw in the forest. Earnest. Truthful. Strong. Everything that I wish my gaze could give back to him.

I shut out the buzz in my head; I pushed away the invisible hands grasping at my neck. The floor and the walls seemed to blend together around me, but all I could see was Ren’s face looking back, and all I could feel was his hands warm within mine. I pulled him closer and leaned down. I saw his eyes close. His mouth opened a little. I touched his nose with mine, softly, and bent further and let my lips lightly fall on his. At first they just touched, but then I felt the slight pressure of his lips pushing against mine. I returned it.

With a bang, something crashed against the window behind us, loud and sudden. We jumped apart. My hand went to my lips. Ren spun around to look out the window. “What was that?” he asked.

I went to the back door and grabbed the knob, but Ren tugged at my sleeve. He was holding his broom. “Let me go look.”

He moved past me and outside. I followed.

Around the window, there was nothing evident about what could have caused the noise. Ren brought his hand to the pane and brushed it along the glass. “Look, it’s cracked.”

I stood a few feet away, looking out across the yard. I had the feeling that we were being watched. This was confirmed by the pebble that sailed across the night sky and struck me in the chest. It bounced off and hit the ground. I picked it up and closed my fingers around it.

I didn’t need to look at it to know what it meant.

“Let’s go inside,” I said. “Whatever it was, it’s gone.”

Ren sighed. “I’ll have to get it replaced.”

The open door somehow sucked out all the warmth that the kitchen held a minute ago. Ren was back at the sink, looking away from me. This time, the water was running, and he was rigorously washing the rest of the dishes. “I think I’ll be going to bed soon,” he said. “I’ll sleep down on the couch. The bedroom is all yours.”

“Why don’t you sleep upstairs?” I said. “I told you I was fine. I can sleep down here.”

“No, tonight I’ll be down here,” he repeated, this time with some force. “For your last night, you should be upstairs.”

His splashing of the water said everything else. The moment is over. Tonight is done.

As I walked upstairs, I thought about the crack in the window, and the rock in my hand, and the crow that had tossed it at me, its wings as black as the sky above it.

Lesson 8 –Keep friends away. Far far away

Sunlight was not my friend. Neither was the morning. My head was making that achingly clear.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so awful in my life.

The hammers pounding inside my brain and the feeling that at any moment, last night’s tofu was going to introduce itself to the floor were only a small part of that awful feeling.

I lay face down on the bed, trying to ignore the light streaming through the window and the knowledge that valuable moments were slipping by for every second I lay there, my cheek wet from drool, my eyes crusted from sleep.

Stuck in this human body, about to get kicked out on the street, with only the wrath of a god and my rock-throwing “friends” to keep me company, I tried to put together a plan of action.

Get up. Don’t vomit. Go downstairs. Say “Good morning.” Say “Please go back to the forest or I will be cursed forever.”

Get up. Don’t vomit. Go downstairs. Say “Good morning.” Say “It was me in the forest. I am really a fox in human form. I’m sorry for lying.”

Get up. Don’t vomit. Go downstairs. Say “Good morning.” Say…

Say “I don’t want to go.”

I grabbed at my head. How could I get him to believe me and trust me if everything I say screams “Hello-crazy-kick-me-out-never-see-me-ag

ain!”

Downstairs, I heard noises in the kitchen, pans on the stove, the sound of knife hitting board, the back door slamming shut.

The last sound forced me to roll off the bed and stumble to the window. I squinted in the light and looked out over the backyard.

Ren, with his garden hat low over his face, slowly walked out to his garden. He must have forgotten to read his sign on the back door since it appeared he was only wearing his robe and some sandals. I watched as he bent over to pick something up from the rows. I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows at the view.

He stood up with a couple tomatoes in his hands, turned around and started back, only pausing to look at the hole in the fence and the small mound of dirt next to it. He turned to look up at the window where I was squatting. I ducked out of view.

I heard the back door creak open and shut. I leaned my head against the windowsill and closed my eyes.

“Get up. Don’t vomit. Go downstairs. Say Good Morning.”

Whatever happens after that, happens.

——

I got downstairs. I did not vomit.

“Good morning,” Ren said to me as I walked into the kitchen.

“…Good morning.”

He still had on his garden hat and sandals, but now he was also wearing a t-shirt and some loose pants. The blinds to the window were drawn, blocking out the morning light and the crack in the pane. In the dim light, I watched him move between the stove and the cutting board, his back to me.

“Did you sleep okay?” he asked, throwing some mushrooms into the pan.

No. “Yes.”

“Good.” He added some chopped tomatoes in with the mushrooms.

“Yes.” I hadn’t moved from the doorway.

“There’s some coffee in the pot,” he said, and nodded to the glass pot on the counter. One mug sat near him. One mug sat next to the pot.

“Okay.” A voice spoke up in my mind, of Kinri excitedly running around and licking the ground. “I had coffee once. It tasted like dirt.”

I filled the mug with the dark liquid and sniffed at it. It didn’t smell like dirt…

Ren stirred the mixture in the pan, its contents starting to pop and hiss.

“Do you like eggs?” he asked.

“I love them.” I said, still looking at the coffee. “They’re hard to get sometimes, but I’ve gotten better at picking locks.”

“That’s nice.” Ren said, still stirring.

“I don’t know what I like better.” Once I started, words just streamed out, without thinking. It was all I could do to fill this weird coffee-smelling, pan-hissing air that stood like a wall between us. “The egg or the chicken that lays the egg. Sometimes I can’t decide. I’ll do all the work to get in the coop, but then I don’t know which to choose. Understandably, it drives the chickens crazy.”

“Uh-huh,” Ren said, still stirring.

“I tried both one time, but that turned out to be a big mess. I couldn’t carry both, and by the time I had eaten the eggs, the farmer knew I was there because of all the noise from the chickens. I didn’t have time to drag off the chicken I did get since the farmer came out with this big ax. I almost lost my tail getting out of there.”

“Wow.” Ren picked up the pan and shook it a little.

It was slowly dawning on me what was coming out of my mouth, and that all this talk of chickens and axes and tails either didn’t bother him, or…

“But then I turned into a big ox and chased the farmer around the yard. He screamed like a little girl. It’s really tiring, changing into a big animal though, so after I made him run around a little, I got out of there. Slept for a whole day. I was so hungry afterwards, it was as if I had never gone to the farm in the first place.”

“I think this is almost done,” Ren cocked his head, one hand on his hip, the other still holding the spoon.

“Ren,” I said. He didn’t turn. “Ren.” This time much louder.

I was about to say his name again, but this time he spoke.

“I’m sorry,” he said, still looking away. “I keep thinking about last night. I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I tried to take advantage of you like that.”

“What?”

“What was I thinking? You must think I’m awful.” He started to scrape the egg mixture onto some plates.

“Wait. What?”

“I mean, all that wine I gave you. And then kissing you like that-”

“What? I kissed you.” I tried to move into his line of vision, but he kept shifting.

“You’re sick. You collapsed on my kitchen floor.” He turned away to carry the plates to the table.

“Ren, listen.” I took his arm, stopping him.

“And what do I do? I practically throw myself at you-”

“Ren.” I took his chin and forced him to look at me. “Ren.” I repeated, hoping that humans are affected by true names as much as foxes are. Maybe it worked, because finally, he looked up at me.

“Listen,” I said.

And as if on cue, there was a loud knock at the door.

And then suddenly, the magic was gone. Ren turned away from me and towards the door. “Who could that be?” Still holding the plates, he moved out of my grasp and headed towards the front of the house.

I stood in the kitchen, my hand still in the air where he had just been.

I heard the door open, followed by Ren’s cautious “Hello?”, and then, the sound of two plates dropping and hitting the floor.

I darted out and saw him backing away from the door. Our breakfast scattered at his feet. “Ren, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Ren?” A voice, soft and soothing, asked. “Is that your true name? How splendid to know!”

Oh no…

“Humans always give their true names so easily.” A second voice added. “Such stupid creatures.”

No-no-no. Not now.

“I think it’s a nice name!”

I moved forward to step in front of Ren, and stood in between him and the door.

Outside, dressed in a mix of bed sheets and skirts, stood three people- one young woman, and two young men, all three of them topless. In their hands, they held fistfuls of flowers, all of which seemed to be similar to the kind that grew in Ren’s front yard.

The woman smiled brightly when she saw me. Her large milk sacks bounced about as she waved. “Hello, stranger.” She winked.

I felt a touch on my shoulder. I turned to see Ren looking at me, his face pale. “Do you know them?”

It was at that moment when my stomach rejected everything inside it, and I realized that part two of my action plan was about to fail all over the floor.

—–

Part of me wanted to stay locked in the bathroom, my head leaning against the toilet seat, but there was no way I was going to leave Ren alone with them. When I came out, shaky, my mouth tasting awful, I found Shuri, Senno, and Kinri sitting at the kitchen table, and Ren standing by the counter. He shot me a concerned look as he handed me a glass of water. “Here, try a little of this.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea…” He gave me a weak smile as he pushed the glass into my hands and then turned back to the table. “So, you’re all friends of Tam’s?”

Senno snorted. His arms were crossed against his naked chest. He wore what looked like a plaid skirt, his bare legs sticking out, his feet bare. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“Then what are you doing here?” I couldn’t help but snap. I felt the anger of their entrance start to bubble up inside me. I waved at Shuri. “Could you cover your sacks up? You’re not supposed to leave them out like that.”

“Tam, calm down.” Ren kept averting his eyes from Shuri’s prominent chest. “It’s not…a big deal…It’s quite similar to how you showed up the other day.”

“Thank you, Ren.” Shuri smiled at him. Ren looked away, beet-red. She cupped her sacks and held them out to me. “Besides, aren’t they lovely? I think I did a particularly good job this time.”

“Oh, yes, they are nice.” Kinri chimed in. His lanky arms and legs stuck out of the sheet that was wrapped around him, the material dotted with dancing pink ponies. “A policeman liked them so much that he chased us down the street, but we hid in the bushes until he went away!”

“Well, how about this,” Ren looked from me to Kinri, still keeping his eyes off Shuri. “I’m going to go look in my room to see if I have anything that might fit everyone, and then maybe we could sit down and…” Words failed him for a moment. He looked at me. “Maybe that will be more comfortable?”

“That’s a good idea,” I said.

“I’m quite comfortable,” Shuri shrugged, but already I was pushing Ren towards the stairs.

When I heard the door close to his room, I turned on them.

“What are you doing here?” I hissed.

Shuri looked affronted. “Excuse me? Is that the tone one takes with friends who are trying to help?”

“Help? You couldn’t help me any less than you are right now.”

“Oh, I think we could definitely help you less. Gods know I don’t want to be here.” Senno scowled as he got up and started to leave the kitchen. “I’m going to use the human’s water room.”

“Be quick.” I pointed at him. “You guys are not staying here.”

“Taman. Why so testy?” Shuri leaned back. “You should be happy to see us. We are here to help you fix this big mess you’ve made. If you don’t get this settled soon, you’re going to be stuck in that body.” She waved her hand at him. “It’s fun for a little while, but do you want to be like this forever?”

I looked away from her. I didn’t know what I wanted, but didn’t want to say that. Instead, I pointed at the bunch of flowers that all three had dumped on the table. “What’s with all this?”

“We know that the human likes to eat plants, so we brought them.” Kinri smiled proudly at the pile. “I ate some of them already,” he added sheepishly.

My fingers rubbed at my temples. “Did you have to take those? I think he likes them to stay in the ground.”

Shuri rolled her eyes. “Then he can grow more and not eat them. We were just trying to be nice. It’s not our fault that you found the weirdest human to seduce.”

“Ren’s not weird.” I glared back at her. “He’s the most normal one here.”

“Hmph.” Shuri sniffed. “How is the seduction going? Are you finished yet?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“I see.” She smiled. “Not well at all then. I knew you couldn’t do it.” She sighed. “Well, if that’s the case, you might as well force him to go back to the forest. We could change into something awful and scare him. Make him pray that something will save him. Maybe that will appease the forest god enough to swoop in and save the day. At least then you can get your real body back, and then we can forget about all of this.”

Shuri looked very satisfied with her plan. Kinri looked very satisfied with the daisy that he was chewing on. I looked from one to the other. Force? Forget?

She was right, in a way. There was no way I could seduce Ren now, not with just a few hours left, and us nowhere close to that goal. And then there was still the forest god to clear with. If I forced Ren somehow to go, conked him on the head, dragged him, scared him into breaking his promise and praying- probably the god would let everything else go as long as he got his prayer back. Then I can just get on with my life. I could live with Shuri and Senno never letting up about not seducing him. But that would also mean going back to the forest, going back to everything before, before all this…

I shook my head. “You’re right. I failed. I didn’t seduce him. But that’s because Ren isn’t something to just seduce and throw away. He’s not like the random humans you pick up and toss. He’s- he’s more than that. He’s someone to talk to…and eat with and…” Shuri and Kinri both stared at me, but I kept going. “You might not understand, but I- I want more than to seduce. And I don’t want to force him or scare him into doing something he doesn’t want to do. I want the opposite. I want to protect him and just…be there with him. I don’t care if you think it’s stupid, but I would even-” and then it hit me as I said it- the truth. “I would even give up everything and live in this useless body if it meant that I can stay with him.”

My own words surprised even me as they sank in. Would I really give up everything? Would I even face the wrath of the forest god for this human who doesn’t eat meat, and won’t kill rabbits, and obsessively washes his dishes, and probably doesn’t even care that I feel this way about him?

It was Kinri who broke the strange silence that fell on the kitchen. “Where did Senno go?”

My eyes widened. Senno! I turned from the kitchen and ran into the hall. The bathroom was empty, its door open. He was nowhere else downstairs. I looked at Shuri and Kinri still sitting in the kitchen. “Stay there!” I yelled and then dashed up the stairs.

Ren’s bedroom door was closed. When I grabbed the knob, it wouldn’t turn. Locked? I banged on the door. “Ren! Ren! Are you there?”

There was no response. I banged again and shook the knob. Nothing.

I grit my teeth. “Senno…” I stood back from the door. This form might be weak, but with enough force… I ran at the door and crashed against it. I felt it lean forward, and then suddenly, it burst open, and I fell on to the floor in the room.

I looked up, and my eyes widened in horror.

Ren lay across the bed, his shirt pushed up, and his body limp. On top of him sat the naked form of Senno, but changed. He was still in his male form, but now giant milk sacks hung off his chest. He was leaning over Ren, and the sacks went all the way to touch Ren’s exposed front.

Senno looked back at me with a mix of surprise and annoyance. I launched myself at him. He halfway turned to meet me, but I had more momentum and knocked him off the bed. We rolled onto the floor.

“What did you do?” I yelled.

“What you couldn’t do!” Senno spat back, and pushed me away. It was then that I got a better look at him. Not only had he grown giant milk sacks, but his male appendages hung heavy between his legs, and dangled close to his knees.

I looked away from Senno’s misshapen form and went to Ren on the bed. His eyes were closed. “Ren?” I touched his cheek, but there was no response. “Senno, what did you do to him?”

“Nothing!” Senno kept his distance. “All I did was come up here and try finish what you didn’t have the nerve to do in the first place. When I came at him though, he just dropped to the ground.” He shook his head, looking at Ren. “This human is obviously defective.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” a voice piped up from behind. Suddenly, I felt a pair of strong hands pull me away from Ren. I turned, ready to fight anyone else, but then stopped as I stared at a familiar bald little man in a white coat.

The forest god looked down at Ren and shook his head. He touched Ren’s neck for a moment and lifted each eyelid up. “This is not good,” he said.

Shuri and Kinri popped into the room. “Oh, Taman, the forest god is here,” Kinri clapped. He stopped when he first saw the god standing over Ren’s prone body. His eyes went from the god to me to Senno. “Whoa, Senno. You look funny.”

“Ugh, that is not a good look.” Shuri put her hand to her mouth.

“What?” Senno stood tall. “This body is perfect. And bigger is always better.”

“Funny,” the god murmured, holding Ren’s wrist. “I’ve heard that before.” He looked up at me.

I stared back. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Shock,” said the forest god. “It’s quite bad. There are very few cures.” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry to say that he will soon be gone. Oh well.”

It felt like my heart almost stopped. I sat down on the bed and looked at Ren.

“Humans- so weak.” Senno scoffed.

“Shut up.” I said. I held Ren’s cheek. His face was white. His skin felt cold. He was breathing still, but for how long? “Please help him. I’ll do anything. Just help him. Don’t let him die.”

The forest god sighed. “There is one thing.”

“Anything,” I looked up at him.

“Up the road, towards the village, there’s a blackberry patch. Dig out a bush and bring it here. Then I will see what I can do.” He looked mournfully at Ren. “Although I would hurry. He doesn’t have much time.”

I ran out of the room and down the stairs. I heard Shuri and Kinri yelling after me, but I didn’t stop. I ran out of the house and kept running down the road. My lungs were bursting, and it hurt to breathe, but I kept running. Suddenly to my right, I saw some blackberry bushes growing alongside the road. I dove at them. They were gnarled and laced together into a tight ball of prickles and berries. Even though the bushes’ thorns tore at my skin, I bent down and started ripping them out of the ground. My hands were bleeding, but I kept digging and pulling, until I finally yanked a section of it out. Without another thought, I took the bush and started running back to the house.

The door was still open from when I had left. I ran inside and up the stairs, taking three at a time. I blew into the room, with the bush held in front of me. “Here it is,” I said, gasping for air.

The room was empty, except for the forest god sitting on the bed. Ren was gone, as was Senno, Shuri, and Kinri. He looked up at me, his face brightening. “Oh, wonderful. Those look great.” He took the bush carefully from my hands and plucked off one of the berries. “Perfectly ripe.” He popped it into his mouth and savored the flavor.

I looked around the room. “Where’s Ren?”

“Oh, he left.” The forest god continued to eat the berries. “A little while ago.”

“What? I thought you said he was in shock? That he was dying!”

“Oh, did I say that?” the forest god looked up at me surprised. “Oh, no. He just fainted. I probably would have too if Senno came at me like that. What a fright.” He shook his head. “You kids need to know that size doesn’t matter.”

I sat down on the bed. I still felt out of breath. I looked down at my hands, cut and bleeding. “Where is he then?”

“The forest,” the doctor said.

I looked up. “Why is he there?”

“Because I told him that’s where you went.”

I held my head in my hands. “But you knew where I was! You sent me there. Why did you tell him that?”

The forest god didn’t respond at first. I looked up at him to see that his eyes had grown unfocused. He looked past me and started to speak. “He’s there right now. I can feel him. He’s looking for you. I can even here him calling out your name from here. Oh-” he stopped, his face darkening. “And it looks like I’m not the only one to notice.”

“What do you mean?”

The forest god’s unfocused eyes turned towards me. “Didn’t you know? There’s a boar running around these past few days. And I think he’s just picked up on a human’s scent.” He started to eat the berries again. “Hmmm. These are good.”

I grabbed at him. I didn’t care anymore about who he was or what he could do to me. “That boar will kill him! Why did you send him there?”

“Because-” the forest smiled as he met my gaze. This time, his eyes were clear. “It is where you are going.”

Down the stairs, out the door, and down the road, I ran. Everything slid past me- my bet, the forest god, Senno’s jealousy, it all fell away as I pushed my weak human body to move faster, to forget about the pain in my lungs, in my hands, in my legs. None of it was worth it. The only thing that mattered was out there right now looking for me. As I crossed into the edge of the forest, I prayed that I would find him first.

Lesson 9 – Have a plan B

As I ran between the trees, my mind switched all of its focus to finding Ren. Somehow my body responded. I dodged tree roots without seeing them. My feet ran down paths I never knew about. I ran without thinking- just moving forward- searching.

I need to hear better, I thought. I need to listen. As if in response, I felt my ears lengthen, and could hear the sounds of the forest clearer than before. I could hear the squirrels above me, chattering about the human who had come stumbling by earlier.

I need to be faster. And then I was on four legs instead of two, bounding between the trees.

I need to find his scent. My nose grew longer and sniffed the air as I ran. I smelled the trees, the grass, the earth, and then, the unmistakable, almost unnatural scent of a human.

I need to be higher. And then I was souring up to the trees, flying over the path that I had been running on before. My shadow flew over broken branches and footprints. I kept going, following the trail, barely noticing three more shadows close behind me.

“The boar knows the human’s here,” Senno said. “It’s already tracking him.”

“Then we need to give it something else to track,” Shuri yelled. She started to fly lower to the ground. In a moment, long human legs were dashing down the path. “I hope he gets a strong whiff of this,” she called up to them, laughing.

Kinri followed to the ground. His naked legs took a moment to get into the rhythm of running, but then he was off between the trees. “Look at me! I’m a human! Hello! Human here! Come find me!”

I kept flying, searching. I could see two tracks- one more broken then the other; one brought on by a much heavier, angrier animal. Both going towards the same direction.

Senno flew silently behind me. I saw his shadow grow larger as he neared the ground.

When he changed, he looked like his first male form, his milk sacks gone. His legs started to run. “I’m not doing this for you,” he yelled as he disappeared into the forest. “It just happens that I hate boars more than hate you.” I could hear him behind the trees, calling out. “Oh, it’s awful being a human! I can’t even lick myself! I wish a predator would come by and end my misery! Maybe then I will be reborn as something more flexible!”

Ahead of me, I saw a break in the trees. I flew lower until I neared the ground. My legs touched the earth and started to run. “Ren!” I yelled. He was close. I knew it. Not by smell or by sound. I just knew. I could feel it, as if there was a string between us. I could feel him pulling. “Ren!”

And then I heard it.

“Tam!”

I broke into the clearing at full speed and skidded to a stop. I saw Ren first. He stood with his back against the trunk of a large tree, his eyes wide, his breathing coming out in gasps.

“Ren!”

He turned and saw me. I started to move towards him, but he held out his hand to stop me.

I looked at him, confused. But then I heard a loud snort. I turned my head to see that a few feet from Ren, his hooves digging angrily at the ground, stood the boar. His eyes were locked on the human in front of it. I could sense that he knew I was there, but I was nothing to bother with.

He had found what he was looking for.

—-

“Stay still,” I tried to keep my voice level. “I know it’s hard, but try not to move at all. Don’t even talk to me.” I kept my gaze on the boar as I edged closer. I saw his eyes flick towards me for a second before they moved back to Ren.

“Stay out of this, fox. This isn’t your business,” the boar’s voice seemed to shake the clearing.

“Of course.” I stopped where I stood. “I won’t bother you. I just wanted to say something, and then I’ll leave.”

The boar didn’t reply. He just huffed and took a step closer to Ren. Ren flinched slightly, but held his ground. Good. Just stay like that. Don’t run.

“My, you are very impressive.” I said as I looked at the boar. “I’ve never seen a boar as large as you. I think you might be the biggest one ever.”

“Hmpf.” I caught a smile on his face, brief, but definitely there. “Might be?”

“I mean, definitely.” I nodded. “You are definitely the biggest. What have you been eating?”

“Everything,” the boar looked sideways at me. “Everything I find, I eat.” He stomped his front hoof on the ground. “I would even eat you if this hadn’t come right to me.” He smiled again. “I hate humans the most. It will be my pleasure to gut this right now.” He took another step closer. “I might even get bigger. No one will be able to stop me.”

“That’s true,” I said, thinking about it. “I don’t even think the god of the forest could stop you. Not if you’re that big.”

The boar snorted again, but this stopped his advance for a moment. “Yeah. I don’t think even he could stop me.”

“But if that were to happen,” I scratched at my chin. “Wouldn’t that make you the god of the forest?”

“Huh?” The boar turned this time, his black eyes glaring at me.

“Think about it.” I walked a little closer. “If the god of the forest is the most powerful one here, and you’re more powerful than him, then wouldn’t you take over? Wouldn’t this be your forest now?”

The boar took a step back from Ren. His eyes were looking off in the distance, past me. “Yeah. Yeah, It would be my forest.”

“Ah, but there is one problem,” I sighed.

The boar waited a moment, but I just looked at the ground.

“What’s the problem?” he yelled. I had to grip the ground beneath me to not dart into the bushes.

“Well, the god of the forest won’t just walk away,” I said. “You will have to prove that you’re stronger than him, otherwise everyone will still think that’s he’s most powerful, no matter how big you get.”

“I’ll prove it.” The boar’s anger was rising. “Right now! Where is he? I’ll tear out his insides and then everyone will know!”

“That’s a great idea,” I sat up. “And look, there he is!” I pointed behind him. “You can prove it right now!”

The boar spun around. “I’ll gut him! Then I’ll be the god!” His head swung back and forth searching. “Where is he?”

“Right straight in front of you. See?” I gripped the ground as I concentrated all my energy. Inside, I called out to the ground, and the grass, and the trees to give what they could. Please, make this work. Please. Just this once. Lend me your strength. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ren quietly lifted off the ground and taken up into the tree branches above.

The boar was still looking into the bushes. “I don’t see him, fox!” He slowly turned his head. “If you’re making a joke, then I’ll be happy to gut you instead.” It stopped and stared as his gaze fell upon a hairy stomach. He slowly looked up.

It was taking all my concentration to keep this form, but somehow, I was able to lower my head and look down at him. “See…?” I slurred my words, but I could still speak. “I’m right here.” The boar’s eyes widened.

I wasn’t quite sure what I looked like. Looking down, I saw my huge feet and stomach, all covered with thick brown hair. My paws had sharp black claws that clicked together when I tried to make a fist. My shadow fell across the entire clearing, and at the top of my head, it looked like thick antlers were sticking out. Was that the trees around me? Or was that me?

The boar was backing away. “What are you? I- I’ve never seen you before.”

Whatever I was, I was too big. I could already feel my form slipping. Maybe another minute, maybe less. I had to act.

I bent down and reached my paws out towards the boar. With as a much power as I could, I roared. “Do you not know your god when you see it, Fool?” I held one hooked claw over the boar’s head. His eyes were locked on it. “Now, what were you saying before? Something about this being your forest?”

The boar was shaking his head back and forth. His once booming voice was now lost.

“You did.” It was slipping. I could barely stand up. Just a little longer. Please. Something warm touched my back. I felt myself stand a little straighter, a little taller. “And the punishment for such blasphemy can only be the most painful death.” I moved my claw closer until it was directly in front of the boar’s right eye. “Perhaps in your next life, you will learn humility.”

The boar shrunk back. “Spare me! Please!”

In my mind, a part of me wanted to just push that claw right in to the boar’s head, end it all, but then I remembered, somewhere up in the tree branches, safely sitting, was Ren. Ren, the one who didn’t want me to kill the rabbits that ruin his garden everyday. I could feel his gaze looking down on me, and I remembered. I want everything to live. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. It’s the way I am.

And I love everything about the way you are.

I pulled my claw back from the boar’s face, and he let a breath out, only to suck it back in as I pressed the claw to his chest.

“I will spare you, but only if you make me a promise,” I said.

It took the boar a moment to realize that I was waiting for an answer. He nodded. “Anything! I’ll do anything!”

“I will let you live, but only if you will never harm another animal again.”

The boar looked back at me, not understanding.

“Or simply put, for now on, you can only eat plants.” I pressed my claw into his skin to show that I was serious. “Do you promise?”

Very slowly, he nodded. I pressed deeper. “Say it. Say you promise.”

“I- I- promise,” he stammered. “I- I will only eat plants for now on.”

“And if you ever break this promise.” I leaned over until my huge antlered head was just inches from his face. “I will know. Now, go.”

The boar stayed where he stood, staring at me.

“Go!”

He was off, crashing through the bushes. I stood there until I couldn’t hear him anymore. Then I sank to the ground. I felt my large hairy form slipping away into nothing. My mind was clouding. The one thought I clung to was that Ren was somewhere above me, with Shuri, Kinri, and even Senno. They were all up there. They were all safe.

“Thank you.” I fell onto the grass, closed my eyes, and felt all my energy that had been given to me slip back into the earth.

As I felt the darkness wrap around me, I heard a voice.

“Taman! Taman!”

And in the nothing that I faced, I smiled.

Lesson 10 – Bathe often

Once I turned into a large ox to chase a farmer around his yard. This action was exhausting, and I slept for a whole day afterwards. This other time, when I impersonated the god of the forest by turning into a huge hairy monster, I slept for a week. When I woke up, in a bed, with the covers up to my chin, the only thing I could think about was how hungry I was. I didn’t stop to think about where I was. I only got up, trotted downstairs, and went into the kitchen and hopped up on one the chairs. The human was busy at the sink, washing dishes. When he saw that I was there, he stopped for a second, and dropped the dish he was drying into the sink full of water.

“I’m starving,” I said. “Do you have anything to eat?”

The human nodded, and went into his pantry. “How about some pasta?”

I wolfed down the first plate of food he gave me, and then the second, and the third. I didn’t notice that I was eating with my nose stuck in the pasta.

By the fifth plate though, I was starting to feel full, and after that, everything was slipping into place. I was at Ren’s house still. He was okay. He was safe. He looked very happy actually. He looked as happy as I felt. And then I looked down and noticed my paws on the table.

“Aghh!” I yelled, backing away, which caused me to fall off the chair.

“Are you okay, Taman?” Ren was right at my side.

“I’m…fine.” I said. I shook my head and looked at him. “But you’ve seen me. In my real form.”

Ren smiled, and I felt his hand on my head, stroking it. “Silly. I’ve seen the real you ever since you found me in the forest. And even before then, I think I always knew. Besides,” He stood. “You’ve been shedding in my bed for a week. I’m definitely used to seeing you like this.”

“But aren’t you mad? I lied to you.”

Ren thought about that. “You did.” He nodded. “But I’m not mad. I’m actually happy. Not about the lying.” He held up his hand, “But I’m happy about what you did. Otherwise, none of this would have happened.” He cocked his head at me. “Aren’t you happy that we met?”

I stared at him for a second. “Of course!”

“Good.” He tapped me on the nose. “Then we have something else in common.”

It took me a second to wrap my mind around that. I closed my eyes, and a second later, I was standing up on my human legs. I turned to look at him. “You’ve seen my real form. But is this form okay too?”

Ren’s cheeks were red. He looked down at my lower half for a second and then back to my face. “This- this is good too.”

“Are you sure?” I touched my chest. “I could have big milk sacks like Shuri had?”

Ren put his hand on top of mine, and pressed it against my skin. “No. You don’t need to do that. This is perfect.” He smiled. “Besides, I don’t want you to change too much. I still have nightmares about that one friend of yours.”

I shook my head. “Yeah. Don’t mind him. He thinks everything should be bigger. I don’t know where he got that idea.”

We stood there in the kitchen, just like that, for a long moment- me, stark naked, and him, blushing, and trying to not look down.

I didn’t want it to ever end.

Of course, with my luck-

There was a loud knock at the door.

-we always get interrupted.

—-

Senno, Shuri, and Kinri didn’t leave until past midnight. I was almost alarmed at how comfortable Ren was with them, and to protect their full names, he only knew them as Shu, Sen, and Kin. They wanted to fill me in on everything that happened after we got into the woods. Even though I was there with them, and I could remember most of it, they wanted to tell it again and again.

“And then we carried Ren into the tree,” Kinri added. “We had a great view of everything.”

“We even saw the real god of the forest walk up behind you and place his hands on your back,” Shuri said. “Then you were even bigger and very scary looking.”

This was one point that bothered me. “What I don’t understand is, when did the curse end? I changed over and over in the forest, but I’m not sure how.”

“I can explain that,” Ren said. “The doctor told me about the curse when we carried you back, and that the only way to lift it was for me to pray at the temple again. The thing is, before I entered the forest, I was so worried about finding you, that I stopped and prayed there, and begged the god of the forest to forgive me, and to make sure that you were safe. After that, I went in, and then you found me.” He smiled and took my hand.

“On the contrary, I think it was you who found me.” I squeezed.

“Blech, this is disgusting,” Senno rolled his eyes.

“Do you know what else is disgusting?” Kinri asked excitedly.

It was at that moment that I decided visiting hours were over.

—-

My body still felt sore even though I’ve been asleep for a week. When I mentioned this, Ren suggested a long bath might help loosen things up. He went into the bathroom to start the water.

I had never taken a bath before, so he gently explained what to do- the proper way of washing, and rinsing, and then getting in the tub.

As I started to rub the soap into my skin, I thought about everything that had happened, about Ren really knowing who I am, about him being okay with it, about the curse, and my friends, who I now know really are my friends, even if sometimes they overstay their welcome. Even the god of the forest…even he helped out in the end.

It’s funny. This all started because I said I could seduce anything, but in the end, the only thing overtaken was….me.

I heard the creak of the bathroom door open, and the soft sound of feet on the tile. I turned my head to see Ren creeping up, his blush an even darker red. He held a bar of soap and a hand towel below his stomach, covering himself. Ren kneeled down next to me and grabbed the bottle of shampoo.

“Is this a human thing?” I asked.

“What?” he said, not looking at me.

“Taking a bath together? Do humans always do this?”

Ren didn’t say anything for a moment. “…Yes. Not always, but…yes.”

I tapped my chin. “So, it’s not something special just for us? I could go over and invite the neighbors to join in?”

Ren squeezed the small towel between his hands. “…um, yeah, but this is special…and I’d rather you not invite the neighbors over for a bath.”

Am I awful? I love seeing him stumble and get all beet-red and flustered. I took his chin and made him look up at me. “All the more for me then.” Like before, I touched his nose with mine and then let my lips fall on his. This time, I pressed down first. I felt him return the gentle pressure.

We stayed like that for awhile, just pressing and repressing our mouths together. I liked tasting his lips, pulling them a little, forcing them apart, pushing in my tongue until I touched his. He finally pulled back, his breathing heavy. I took that as an opportunity to try my lips on other things, like his neck and his chest. I felt his hand on my head as I slowly moved down until I reached below his stomach, where his dangling bits had hardened. I brushed my lips against them, and his grip on my head tensed. I glanced up to find his eyes scrunched close, as if afraid of what was in front of him. I wanted to kiss each eyelid, and tell him to relax, that foxes and humans aren’t that different, that I understand our very similar needs.

Instead, I let my tongue taste him, faster and faster, over and over. His hand slipped from my head and slid across the tiles. I pressed my hand against his lower back, pulling him closer, tighter. I could feel it; it was coming. Right before he released, he tensed, his hands balled into fists, his back arched, his face up towards the ceiling. The only sound that came from him was a low, wordless moan.

“Oh my…” was what followed. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“What?” he asked, looking down, his blush returning.

“Nothing.” I sat up and put my hand on his head, bringing him closer so our foreheads rested against each other. “I’m just marveling.”

“At what?” I felt wet but warm arms wrap around my neck.

“At my elite skills of seduction, of course.”

I felt Ren pull back a little. I opened my eyes to see him looking at me, his head cocked to the side.

“Were you not blown away with satisfaction,” I raised my eyebrows.

Ren chewed his lip for a moment before responding. “So, does this officially end your wager?”

My eyes widened. “…Sort of. But that doesn’t matter anymore. I mean, look,” I leaned down towards his dangling bits. “I can just seduce you again, right?”

Ren tapped my head until I looked up. I saw in his other hand he held one of the bottles that sat near the bath. He squeezed out some of it contents into his palm and began to rub his hands together. “You know, Taman. I think it’s time that I show you a couple other things that you can do when you seduce humans.” He leaned down and pressed his lips against mine. As we kissed, I felt his hand, slick and smooth, take a hold of my dangling bits.

“But don’t worry. I think this will be a lesson you’ll enjoy.”

—–

This “bath” thing is quite nice…

I definitely have to take more tomorrow.

At least four.

—-

In the bathtub, as Ren leaned against my chest, a thought struck me.

“How did you know my real name?”

“You told me,” he murmured. “After you told me it was blueberry pancake mix.”

“No, my full name. Taman. How do you know that?”

“Oh, Sen told me.” He smiled. “While we were in the tree. He said that you had changed into something so big, it would be hard for you to keep any form after that. That you might just disappear into nothing. But maybe if I called out your full name, you would be stronger. And then maybe you wouldn’t…” He swallowed and opened his eyes. “Did you hear me? I kept calling out your name- over and over.”

I remembered, in the darkness, when I felt my shape slipping away into nothingness, I heard his voice call out my name, loud and clear. Even as my body was disappearing, it filled me up, from the inside, as if growing from my heart.

I hugged my arms around him and kissed his head.

“It’s magic, you know, when someone says your name.”

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