41 Baern, 2799; The evening of October 28, 2047.

Tarioshi paced up and down the hallway of the dormitory, pausing occasionally as she passed a single door, never quite finding the courage to announce her presence. All she had to do was knock on the door, tell him it was over, and that would be that. Life would go on.

Her fear was irrational, she knew. There was no reason to be afraid.

She was scared shitless.

Lenard was a nice mel, for a human. Twenty-two years old, five-foot-seven, a hundred and fifty-five pounds - soaking wet. Icy blue eyes pierced her soul every time she found herself falling into them. A tousled bit of short, dark blond hair topped his head. Light skin hinted at his scandinavian heritage. All in all, he was average looking - he definitely didn’t stand out as a poster child for either end of the scale.

Yet, beyond all reasoning, in two months’ time he’d stolen her heart. Accepting that she was in love with him had been a hard thing to admit to herself. When had drawing him out of his lonely, antisocial shell turned from a simple amusement to pass the time into a serious relationship? It hadn’t been that long ago that he couldn’t connect more than half a dozen words together in a conversation unless it directly involved help with her ‘homework.’

But now… Tonight, Lenard had promised to make her a wonderful dinner, commemorating the anniversary of their first month of dating. Even out in the hall she could smell the oregano and parmesan laced with welcoming scents of crushed tomatoes and basil. The warm aroma of home cooking was well on the way of preparing her appetite for a good meal. But at the same time, her emotions were tearing her apart inside. Keeping up her facade as she found herself caring more and more for him… She was lying to him by doing no more than being in view. Telling him the truth wasn’t a viable option, but neither was maintaining the charade.

That left the lone alternative. Walk away.

The door opened as she hesitated outside once more; she jumped back, a startled squeak of surprise escaping her lips. “Len!”

“Tari? I’ve heard you pacing the hallway for the last half hour. Thought someone was moving in. Come in?”

Tarioshi nodded, stepping inside his dorm room and shedding her jacket. It was a double bedroom with a small kitchenette; he’d lucked out and didn’t have a roommate for the semester. Decorations were few and far between - there was a picture of his mother and father on his computer desk and a retro-geekish ‘binary clock’ sitting on a shelf above the wafer-thin DTV beside the door. An ugly green couch, a matching ugly green chair, and a low, scratched-up wood coffee table sitting between the furniture and television completed the bachelor-student decor. Missing were empty beer cans and dirty clothes hanging from anything that couldn’t move out of the way. He wasn’t fond of alcohol, and he actually cleaned up after himself.

“You okay?” Lenard questioned, hanging her jacket on the back of the door. A light snow had fallen over the weekend, winter creeping ever closer as November approached. She didn’t need the coat, but it would look suspicious if she wasn’t wearing it.

“I’m… Yeah, I’m okay,” she lied, plopping down on the couch.

“If you say so. Want something to drink?” He stepped back to the stove, stirring the contents of a steaming kettle. “Pop, juice, water, other?”

“I could use a beer,” she mumbled under her breath, wishing for once that he kept such beverages around. She could have made some herself but she wasn’t in the mood to break out the very thing causing her emotional turmoil. “A can of diet whatever cola you found on special would be great.”

Lenard nodded, reaching into the fridge for two light blue cans, along with a tray of ice cubes. Pouring two glasses, he brought them over to the couch. “I’ve never seen you this gloomy. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m… No, I’m not.” Tari sighed, shaking her head as she took a glass from him. “Thank you. I’m just really worried about what someone is going to think of me tomorrow morning.”

“Something happen?”

“Have you ever had to lie to anyone? I don’t mean the ‘no, you don’t look fat in those pants’ kind of fibs you’d do to make someone feel better. I’m talking life-altering, I-can-never-look-at-you-the-same, outright fabrications of reality. Things you tell people when you’re sure the truth would hurt them more than the lie, but at the same time you know that if they ever find out that you lied about it they’d probably never talk to you again, they’d cross the street just so they wouldn’t have to walk past you, all that…”

“I… don’t know. I don’t think so.” He jogged back to the stove, stirring the boiling pasta as starchy foam bubbled angrily over the rim of a steel pot. “Oops, making a mess… I guess the biggest lie I ever told was when I accidentally shot my father’s dog. I was probably thirteen or fourteen… Buried the pup off along a shelter belt, told dad I hadn’t seen him all day. I’m sure he knows what really happened but he’s never said anything about it. He brought home a new puppy a week or so later.” Lenard sighed. “Guess that’s not really what you’re looking for, is it?”

“Not exactly.” She swirled the ice and cola in her glass, letting the sound of the cubes clinking together echo in her ears. “Damn it anyway, it’s not supposed to be like this.”

“Tari…” he began, then grunted and sucked on a finger as he poured boiling pasta through a strainer into the sink. “Shit, that’s hot.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’ve got this. Just splashed a little on my hand.” He dumped the pasta back into the empty pot, adding a splash of olive oil with a few pinches of various spices, and stirred things together with a wooden spoon. “So, you lied that badly to someone today?”

“I’d go as far as calling it a complete miscarriage of the truth. And it’s been ongoing…”

“And it’s someone you care about.”


Lenard set the pot on the table, covering it with a glass lid, then quietly walked to her side and knelt down. “Was it me?”

She gazed into his icy eyes, feeling water welling up in her own, and nodded. His fingers traced over her cheek lightly, concern in his face as he brushed aside her tears.

“Is it that important?”

“Oh, Gods, Len… You can’t imagine,” she bawled, misery consuming her. Lenard sat down beside her and held her close as she cried. “It shouldn’t have been this big a deal… I never expected I was going to fall in love with you… And now… I’m so deep in the lies I don’t know how I can dig my way out…”

“Shh,” he whispered in her ear, his fingers drifting along her back. “It’s okay, Tari… This isn’t just because you’re not a student here, is it?”

“No,” she sniffled. “When did you figure that out?”

“Four weeks ago. Your supposed Intro-to-CS instructor had never heard of you when I went to ask him about an assignment. Student records didn’t have anything on a ‘Tari Kitanaka’ when I misplaced your phone number and tried to look it up in the directory.”

“And you didn’t say anything?”

He shrugged. “You’ve helped me realize that I’ve been torturing myself for no good reason over the last four years. I thought I wanted to get away from the rest of the human race, all the morons out there… Then, you showed up and just wouldn’t leave me alone. You annoyed the hell out of me but I couldn’t figure out how to tell you to get lost. After a while I wanted to get to know you better and figure out why you took on the once-hopeless crusade of pulling me from my little fortress of solitude. You never talk about your family, or where you grew up, or anything… I figured when you were ready to tell me, you would. I’m patient.”

“Too patient…” Tari exhaled slowly, absently rubbing her thumb against her index finger. “I’m ready… but…”

“You don’t think I am.”

She shook her head, feeling the tears creeping up on her again. “I had every intention tonight of walking through your door and telling you it was over. I thought that walking away would be easier than telling you… Who I am. What I am. I… I just don’t know how to do it without driving you away, and… I really don’t think I can handle losing you…”

“Tari, please.” Lenard took hold of her hands and looked into her eyes. “I can’t think of anything that you could possibly say about yourself that would scare me off.”

“Then you’re not trying hard enough,” she snapped, biting her lip at her unintentional snarl. “That didn’t come out right…”

“You the daughter of some old kook that’ll chase me down with a shotgun if he hears I’ve been looking at his little girl?” he joked, trying to lighten her mood.

“No.” Tari swallowed. “My father would have liked you, I think. If he was still alive.”

“Oh… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean -“

“He died almost two hundred years ago.” His eyes narrowed, watching her face as she continued. “I’m not human, Len. Not entirely.”

Lenard was silent for the better part of a minute, his gaze not leaving her own. Slowly, he stood up, and walked over to the stove.

“Lenard?” she asked quietly, wondering if she’d just lost him.

“You came here tonight needing to talk. Even if I don’t understand what you’re saying, I think I’d better listen. We can warm this back up later.” He clicked off the electric range, pensive as he returned to the couch. “What do you mean, ‘not entirely human?’”

“My father was a farmer in Japan in the nineteenth century, as human as you are. I was his only child. My mother isn’t even remotely human.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What else is there? An alien or something?”

Tari smiled slightly, shaking her head. “No… You told me you spent a couple of years in Japan, right? Your mom was stationed there for a while?” Lenard nodded. “Did you ever learn about any of the mythology?”

“Not really. I was pretty young. Barely knew any Japanese when we moved back to the States. Best I can manage is hajimemashite at this point, and I know I’m mauling the pronunciation.”

“Not terribly so… There’s a lot to Japanese mythology, but the pertinent bit is this… Inari, the god of rice, is a major Shinto deity. Inari’s messenger is a magical shape-shifting fox. My mother is such a spirit-fox. A kitsune. As her child, I am as well.” Tari took a slow breath, watching the skepticism building on his face. “There’s no reason for you to believe any of this.”

“I… Yeah, it’s…” Lenard inhaled, gathering his own thoughts. “I know you’re being the most candid you’ve ever been with me, but… Do you have any idea what that sounds like?”

“Yeah. I’ve been in that boat once or twice.” Tari’s gaze fell to her hands, looking at her skin and thinking. “I suppose I should just take the direct route.”

“What do you mean?”

“Promise me something? Don’t scream.”

“What? Why would I -“

“Promise me?” she insisted.

“I… Okay. I promise, I won’t scream.”

Tari nodded, calling forth her blood gifts. A breeze picked up in the room, chilling her skin; two heartbeats later the sensation was that of wind whipping her fur. She felt her trio of tails appear as her body shifted to her natural kitsune form. Lenard’s heartbeat grew louder in her sensitive foxen ears, the muscle trying repeatedly to leap out of his chest and run away. She could smell his sudden fear, even more powerful than the spices in the air from his cooking.

“You have no idea how hard it is to not break that promise right now,” he squeaked from the far end of the couch. “My God… You’re… You weren’t kidding… What are you?”

“I’m kitsune, Lenard… I have some of the magical abilities that humanity lost access to centuries ago. I’ll live for easily over a thousand years so long as I don’t get myself killed doing something stupid. And… Uh… I have a bad habit of playing generally harmless pranks on people. Sorry about the repeated desecration of your laptop…”

Lenard frowned, not understanding, then pointed accusingly as the connection came together. “You… You’re the one who keeps rearranging the keys?”

“I was really proud of alphabetizing them phonetically,” she admitted softly, eyes cast to the floor. “I do care about you, Len… Deciding to tell you this was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a hundred years. I’m sorry that I put you through this tonight of all nights. If you’d rather just part ways here, I’ll understand. No hard feelings.” That wasn’t true and she knew it. She’d be an absolute mess for weeks if he tossed her out on her tails. And it’d be her own fault.

Lenard studied her for a time, his eyes eventually falling shut as his mind worked. “If I tell you to leave -“

“I’ll step through that door and -“

“Don’t interrupt me.” His eyes shot open, brimming with fury. “Don’t you fucking dare. I’m… God, I don’t even know. Why in the hell should I be angry? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the one person I’ve ever felt the tiniest thing for isn’t even fucking human?

“Len -“

“Get out.”

Tari swallowed, letting her human form emerge as she stood up. Lenard didn’t even look at her as she walked to the door and took down her jacket. Taking a last glance over her shoulder, she pulled on the handle and stepped into the hall. Tears streamed down her cheeks as the latch clicked shut behind her.

An hour had passed before she felt any semblance of sanity return. She discovered she had stopped walking at a bench outside the dorms, but had no memory of leaving the building. The light snow still drifting down from overcast skies had long since erased any trace of her footsteps leading to where she sat. Rubbing her eyes did little to alleviate the burn of the tears that would not stop welling up.

What in the hell did you expect, you dense, ignorant vixen? That he’d just say ‘oh, that’s okay, let’s go eat dinner and talk about this’? I should have known better… Sensei was right. There’s just no way a kitsune and a human could ever have an open and honest relationship. Gods, I’m such an imbecile…

Tari nearly jumped out of her skin as the bench creaked beside her.

“Aren’t you cold, sitting out here in just that jacket?” Lenard asked, staring across the sidewalk at the far building.

“It’s not as chilly out here as it was inside,” she whispered, biting her tongue after she heard it outloud. Like that attitude’s going to improve your situation…

“I don’t entirely understand what happened in my room an hour ago,” he began, after several minutes of quiet. “I know what you said and I know what I saw on my couch. I don’t understand any of it and I’m not entirely sure I believe it, but I’m pretty sure I actually saw something that my interpretation of reality says shouldn’t exist.”

Tari sat in silence, the beat of her own heart thundering in her ears.

“Before you interrupted me, I wasn’t asking a question. You barged blindly ahead, completely certain that I was going to throw you out and you assumed I just wanted to confirm that I’d never have to look at you again if I did. Right? Right?

Her eyes tightly clamped shut in a futile attempt to stop the tears from falling, she gave a single short nod.

That’s why I was mad,” he explained. “That you’d presume to know me so well after only a month that you could possibly have any idea what I was going to do when you dropped that kind of bombshell on what was supposed to be a special night.”

Tari flinched as his hand fell upon her own and gave it a gentle squeeze. She opened her eyes to find him looking upon her, no longer with anger, but with uncertainty and apprehension.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her gaze falling back upon the dusting of snow. “There was no good way to tell you.”

“No, there wasn’t. I realize that. It wouldn’t have mattered when you told me, either - when we met, a month from now, a year - there’s no way I would have understood it. I think it would only have hurt more if you hadn’t done it tonight.”

“I’m not even supposed to tell you at all. One of our cardinal laws is that humans shouldn’t know about us… Sure, a friend or two may find out, and our elders tend to ignore those minor deviations since it’s really not practical to do otherwise… It’s absolutely forbidden to tell those we’re close to. It’s grounds for punishments up to permanent exile from our society.”

“You trusted me enough to break that rule… And I acted like a complete asshole and hurt you even more than you were already hurting.” Lenard rubbed his eyes, a wry laugh escaping his throat. “Christ. If it’s not one thing with us, it’s another.”

A chill shot down Tari’s spine as Lenard stood up and took a step away from the bench. Steeling herself for the worst, she looked up to find herself staring at his back.

“When you get cold… Come back inside. Dinner will be ready.”

“W-Wait,” she stammered, getting to her feet as he started to walk back to his building. “What… What were you going to say, upstairs?”

“‘If I tell you to leave, I’ll be making the biggest mistake of my life.’” He glanced over his shoulder. “I still think so. Don’t be long. We’ve got a lot of talking to do this evening.”

She didn’t knock when she approached his door, finding it standing open and waiting for her arrival. Lenard glanced up from the stove as she shut and locked it behind herself; she leaned back against the door, watching him.

“Sauce isn’t so perfect, anymore,” he observed, reaching down to the controls. “I didn’t get that burner shut off and it got a little overcooked. Everything else is almost warmed back up.”

“It still smells good,” she replied, hanging her jacket back up before resuming her stance. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“I’ll just have to do it again another night so you can try it at its best.” He exhaled slowly, giving her a glance. “Which one is the real you? The fox, or this?”

“Both… neither… Sometimes I just don’t know anymore. What’s real to a shapeshifter? If I completely relax my self control and don’t concentrate on being anything in particular, I become the fox-woman you saw before. This appearance is one I created on my own after spending a lot of time in the States. I haven’t used the human form I was born into in over a hundred years. Japanese-looking people weren’t entirely welcome in American society for quite some time after Pearl Harbor was attacked.” She peered at her hands. “I grew up looking human, acting human… I never even knew there was anything else until I started going through the same changes all little girls do when they grow up. Mine were just… a lot more difficult to deal with. My mother wasn’t there to help me cope. She abandoned my father and I shortly after my birth when her true nature became apparent.”

“That was two hundred years ago? It’s a wonder you survived at all if she left that soon.”

“I can’t even begin to think of all the things my father must have done to get me through infancy and still keep up with the farm, all by himself. That he didn’t kill me the moment he realized I was the child of a demon-fox…” Tari sighed. “Mother eventually came back when my foxen side was growing dominant and tried to force me to go and learn who and what I really was. Father wouldn’t let her take me. I’m not entirely sure how but he managed to get her to agree to let me choose who I wanted to be with.”

“That’s a hell of a choice to make a kid pick.”

“As far as I was concerned, some strange woman who I’d never seen before was insisting she was my mother and was trying to take me away from the only family I knew to learn about the monster I didn’t want to be. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I believe I called her a demon and implied her parents were goats. Later that week she tried to kill me by burning down the barn while I was inside.”

“And I thought my family was nuts,” he muttered, placing several pots on the table.

“She’d sworn to not take me if I chose not to go. She hadn’t said anything about letting me live as a human. I’m pretty sure she was so full of herself she didn’t believe I’d actually choose to stay and miss out on what she was offering.”

Lenard took his apron off and walked to the door. Tari felt her throat tighten as he bent over, his face inches from her own.

“First and foremost, you’re a friend. I wouldn’t give that up regardless of how hairy you might be.”

“It’s fur,” she countered, a grin tugging at her lips. “Big difference.”

“It’s good to see you smile again. Fur, hair, skin, scales, whatever - you’re still you underneath it all, aren’t you?”

“I am.” She leaned forward, her nose brushing his. “Despite what I may look like at any given moment, I’m still the woman who has an incredible crush on you and who hopes you can forgive her for being too afraid of the worst possible scenario to tell you the truth before now.”

“I think she’ll be forgiven, if she doesn’t let my dinner go to waste.” He pulled her into a warm embrace, sharing a long and quiet kiss before gazing into her eyes. “One condition.”

“Name it.”

“No more lies. No more half-truths. Either be completely on the level with me from here on out or you really can leave, right now.”

“And let that fabulous dinner go to waste? No way.” Tari gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ve lived most of my life around humans surviving on willful deceit and half-truths. I can’t just shut it off at the drop of a hat. I will do my best to dial it back a few notches. Consider it… a work-in-progress. I wouldn’t do it for just anyone.”

“Fair enough. Had you agreed outright I probably wouldn’t have believed you.” Leading her to the dining table, he helped her to her seat before casting open the covers on the various pots before them.

“Oh, it smells even better than I thought. And full service?” she asked as he started to ladle out the pasta - ravioli. “Such a deal…”

“You’re more than worth the effort.” He smiled, filling his own plate before taking a seat beside her. “You mind me asking all sorts of dumb questions?”

Tari shook her head, gnawing on a slice of garlic toast. “I’ll try to answer anything you want to know, but if you’d rather to do some reading first and get a general idea, just grab a bunch of the myths and stories about Japanese foxes off the ‘net. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there and about three-quarters of it was invented by irate villagers in need of a scapegoat to avoid responsibility for their own stupidity. There’s usually a little grain of truth in each one, though.”

“Okay, I’ll ask you something different for now. You said your father would have liked me.. What about your mother? I take it she’s still alive?”

“I’d…” Tari frowned. Dodging the subject was the last thing she needed to do, now. “Yeah, she is. We still don’t get along well.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. She’d absolutely hate you. As her daughter I’m partly her responsibility even if she doesn’t care to acknowledge I exist. Had I followed the rules and kept up the human facade, she probably wouldn’t care one way or the other. If we’re going to continue this relationship with you knowing exactly what I am…”

“She’d really get pissy over that?”

“Not just her. Imagine for a second that I hadn’t told you tonight. I waited another month, or a year, or… hell, I don’t know. I was a complete wreck after you told me to get out. If I’d been of clear enough mind to actually leave, how much time would you have spent pining about how it could have gone different? How many days or weeks might you have spent searching for me? Now think about how it would have been with another year of emotional investment in this relationship. Try again with two, or ten, or forty. Discovering our truth can cause so much psychological damage to someone who’s just discovered the one they’ve loved isn’t who they thought … And you can’t even talk to anyone about it. Who’d believe you? They’d break out the rubber room. ‘Really, she turned into a furry monster and ran away!’”

Lenard grimaced. “I see your point. You’re hardly a monster, though.”

“I know. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I’m not. I honestly hated what I was for a very long time after it came to the surface. Mother came back to me again after father died, and I did go with her then - just so I could learn how to suppress the beast taking me over. She promptly dropped me in the lap of someone else I’d never met before, and that was the last I saw of her for another fifteen years.”

“Wow… And this other… person? Is that an okay term?”

“It’s acceptable,” Tari confirmed around a mouthful of pasta. “It tends to have a human connotation, so saying ‘kitsune’ outright makes a little more sense. I’ve kind of fallen into using ‘mel’ and ‘fem’ for the same reason, instead of ‘man’ and ‘woman.’”

“Okay… This… other kitsune didn’t mind teaching you when your mom just took off?”

“It’s his path in life as a sensei to teach the young about what it is to be kitsune. There are those of us born as humans, as I was, unwilling to accept the new truth of our existence… There are others who from the moment they enter the world they are taught what they truly are inside. I can’t even call them the lucky ones - they tend to grow up the most conceited and hedonistic of all of us. At least with a few years of human experience we can relate to you better as we’re out here sharing the planet with you. My sensei was there to help make my transition away from a human life into a kitsune one as smooth and painless as possible.”

“How’d that go for you?”

“Not so well. Even abhorring myself, I learned more about my gifts in my first month under his tutelage than I had in seven years of solo trial and error and more error and lots more errors. He was patient and did eventually get it through to me that the only way I could be a monster was if I proved it in my actions to others.” She speared the last chunk of pasta on her plate, pondering it as it dangled off her fork for a time. “I kind of feel like I did that a little, earlier.”

“I don’t think you really did.”

“Mm… I don’t know. More importantly for my education, my sensei shared my elemental alignment and could actually teach me about my gifts in a way my mother couldn’t. My mother is a Fire kitsune. She’s got the shortest fuse… Can provoke her ire by blinking wrong. I’m considered a Forest kitsune. I tend to form a sort of symbiotic relationship with the plant life around me. I can draw energy from them when I’m not feeling well, and I can share mine when they’re not. I can even hear their spirits speaking to each other and share in the conversation.”

“You literally talk to your houseplants.”

“Other stuff too. There’s a shrub out by the student union that I had a chat with about once a week before it went dormant for the winter. I usually wound up there when I was in the mood to cause some hate and discontent. Did you hear about the wallet someone nailed to the concrete?”

Lenard shut his eyes, restraining a laugh. “Yeah, yeah I did. That was the afternoon we met, come to think of it.”

“I nearly stole your lunch and walked away.”

“I’m glad you didn’t. Am I in some way forcing you to choose between me and your people, though?”

“No. They’re not ‘my people’ anymore. Not to me. I’m really not sure they ever really were… I’ve always identified better with humans. There’s maybe half a dozen kitsune I know that I can actually stand to be around for any length of time, and only a couple of those I really consider close friends. Most of the other kitsune I’ve had the displeasure to associate with are elitist, xenophobic cunts. I’ve been in a mindset like your recent ‘hide behind a laptop’ phase. Only, I went out to see the world instead of hiding from it.”

“My method was working just fine.”

“Says you. Presuming they even catch wind of us, I don’t see spending my time with you as a loss. At most, I’ll be barred from returning home for a few hundred years. I haven’t been back since I left, save for just after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so there’s really no hurt for me there. There’s tons of other stuff to see and do in the interim anyway. Absolute worst case, they demote my status to the bottom - which also doesn’t matter if I’m not associating with them.”

Tari looked at him sincerely. “I won’t make you promise me anything because then I’d have to follow some cliché and terrorize you if you reneged on it… But please, don’t break this off just because you think you’re doing what’s best for me. Let me deal with the consequences of my own actions with my own kind, okay? I just wanted to make sure you had some sort of idea of what we’re both getting into.”

He sighed quietly, finally nodding after a moment of silence. “Okay.”

“Thanks.” Tari inhaled, looking at the empty dishes before them. “Wow. We really powered through this.”

“Good thing. Don’t have much room for leftovers in the fridge.” Lenard collected the dishes, depositing them into the sink and turning on the hot water tap. “Wish this place had installed a dishwasher.”

“Oh, here. After you did all the cooking, let me at least do the dishes.” Tari shooed him away from the sink, stealing the sponge out of his hand. “Can’t let you do all the work after the trouble I caused this evening.”

He laughed, snagging a dishtowel. “I’ll at least put them away.”

“I’ll begrudge you that. Oh, don’t let me forget. I need to buy you a better vacuum cleaner. That clunker you’ve got won’t do.”

“Why’s that?”

“You ever been to someone’s house who owns cats? Unless you want all your furniture upholstered in fox fur, I highly recommend a new vacuum.” Tari grinned as he laughed. “You think I’m joking? Wait until spring comes and I shed all over. I’ll start with that chair over there. It might just make it look halfway decent.”

“No, no… Just the mental image… I mean, you know how cats rub on everything. Be weird to walk in and see you doing that.” Lenard snickered, polishing water off of a cooking pot as she washed the plates. “So, does that mean you’re going spend time… er, fuzzy?”

“I might. Depends on what you’re comfortable with. If you’d prefer I stay human around you, I will. I’ll even age gracefully with you.”

“I think I’m not yet qualified to make a decision one way or the other. I haven’t been around your shedding side enough to know.”

Tari grinned, rinsing off the silverware and laying it on a towel. “Maybe I’ll indulge you later. Let’s see if we can’t find a movie or something.”

“You want to watch anything in particular?”

“Not really planning to watch it at all,” she confessed. “It’s just more fun to have a seedy chickflick in the background when you’re making out on a couch.”

Lenard woke up to daylight streaming into his bedroom window. Sitting up and squinting at the unwelcome intrusion, he focused on his alarm clock; it was nearly nine in the morning. With a tired yawn he plodded off into the bathroom to brush his teeth and relieve the pressure in his bladder. When he finally came back into his bedroom he nearly let out a screech of surprise, only managing to muffle it down to a muted squawk before it left his mouth.

“What-?” Tari sat up abruptly in his bed, looking at him groggily before scanning the room. When nothing stood out, she glanced down at herself. “Oh. Whoops.”

“Sorry… Saw a mass of fur in the bed… Caught me off guard…”

“My fault.” She yawned, stretching her arms slowly over her head. Her snow-white fur shimmered in the morning sun, shadows playing over her chest as rays of light slipped around her petite breasts. “I almost always wake up like this around people that know. It’s like my body just finds the most comfortable position when I’m sleeping, and part of that is returning to this form if I’m comfortable around the people I’m sleeping beside. I can flip if you prefer.”

“No, it’s fine.” Lenard smirked. “You know… Not many men would be thrilled with the idea of dating a woman that has more hair on her chest than they do.”

“Mmm… Glad you’re not in that distinction.” Tari sighed, flopping face down in the bed and shoving the sheets away with her feet. Her tails drifted lazily around her legs as she stretched. “Hrrrrr… Mmm-blah. I’m still sleepy…”

“Then go back to sleep. I’ve got class in an hour.”

“And as much as I’d love to make you late, your studies generally should come first until you graduate in the spring. After that, I’m going to show you the world.”

“I can’t afford much of a trip.”

“It’ll be my treat. Reminds me… I’ll have to call a few friends and get a new passport made up… I’d rather not travel in cargo-class. Mmmph,” she grunted, rolling onto her side and watching him dress. “Last night was lovely. Are you sure that was your first time?”

“I appreciate the ego stroking, but even I know I was terrible -“

“Tut, tut. You can overcome that shortcoming with more experience and practice, something I intend to make sure you get a great deal of. I honestly wasn’t expecting more than that out of a first-timer. I meant more of everything in the lead-up. You didn’t seem to be completely clueless. There must have been someone who just didn’t want to seal the deal?”

“Not so much as a kiss on the cheek. I’ve really never been comfortable around women until you showed up. Idle acquaintances, a couple friends, but nothing even remotely close to a relationship.” He laughed. “I used to watch a lot of porn when I was in high school. Maybe I learned something from all that garbage.”

“Porn, blah.” Tari stuck out her tongue. “So boring. Watching a live filming drains the little magic it holds right out. I’ve got a friend in L.A. that could get you a studio tour if you’re still into it.”

“No thanks. I grew up and realized there was more to life than nipples on a screen.”

“Yes. They’re now in your bed.”

“They look better, too.” Lenard buttoned the last clasp on his shirt, checking himself in the mirror, then turned and looked at her. “How’d I get so lucky?”

“How do you mean?”

“You.” He leaned over, kissing her on the cheek, then made a face. “It’s like kissing grandma’s cats.”

“Just don’t start coughing up hairballs,” she scolded, tapping his nose with a finger. “Four classes today?”

“With a reprieve for lunch in the middle.”

“Maybe I’ll come and watch the second one. We can go scrounge up something after that. Jefferson computer lab?”

“Yeah, we’re there today - hey.” Lenard eyed her suspiciously. “You just want to wreak havoc, don’t you?”

“Who, me?” Tari cooed innocently. “Always. There’s thirty-six computers in there and twenty-six letters in the alphabet. I’m thinking the first keyboard in the room gets all the A’s, then all the B’s on the next… After all the letters, I can start in with the numbers… It’ll keep me busy for ten minutes or so.”

“I’m going to be laughing so hard they’ll think I did it.”

“I’ll wait until the end of class. Last five minutes should actually be enough to set up the switch. I could probably preserve the QWERTY layout in terms of position in the lab, I think… Mostly.” Tari’s eyes glimmered with mischief. “At least it’s just the keytops. I bet I could make them all register as the appropriate key if I worked a bit more. It’s more fun to see how long it actually takes people to notice. Picks out the poor typists in a hurry.”

Lenard laughed, shouldering his backpack. “This is going to be an adventure, isn’t it?”

“You have no idea. At least if I keep myself busy your personal notebook may remain a non-combatant.”

“Well then, we’ll have to keep you busy, by any means necessary.” He blew her a kiss as he walked out of the bedroom. “Later!”

“Bye,” she called, listening for the dorm’s door to shut. “What to do with yourself for the morning… Wide awake now, though. Ugh.”

Tari hauled herself out of bed and plodded into the bathroom. Eyeing his shower warily, she shifted back to human form to bathe. The dorm showers barely managed enough pressure to wash human hair decently. Doing her whole pelt was out of the question. The fact she could wash her skin and then shift and have clean fur would probably puzzle Lenard to no end. She idly wondered if he’d notice.

After cleaning up and dressing she wandered off through the campus to find something to keep herself amused for an hour. The day was sunny, the air crisp and cool. Approaching quickly was the end of October; before long there’d be even more snow than the light dusting already clinging to the grass. The browning lawns and bare deciduous trees were silent in her ears, already sleeping through the coming winter months. Pines and spruce standing beside some of the university’s buildings still whispered back and forth but their conversations were quiet and subdued.

“Did you hear about the Ares mission?”

Tari glanced up from her quiet walk as she heard two students talking. With human missions to both the Moon and Mars finally realized, space was once again on everyone’s mind… Except her own. Space was something she’d personally tried not to think about for the last fifty years. The bracelet computer-slash-commlink that T’bia had given her had continued working just fine. The only lasting disappointment was the notable lack of a live connection every time she’d turned the thing on. She’d used the glorified notepad for her occasional reports about happenings on the planet and marking them for transmission; she’d also taken the time to write a few letters to Jadyn and T’bia, tucking them safely away into the bracelet’s memory. Occasionally, when she’d gone back to read them or delete them altogether, a few had mysteriously been marked ‘Received by Addressee via direct link.’

“Yes! God, that’s so horrible… I hope they’re still alive.”

That had puzzled her the most. The reports all saw different statuses - ‘Relayed via transceiver’ or ‘Queued by transceiver’ and other, more cryptic and nondescript notes describing why a given message had or had not been transmitted yet. Confirmations for their receipt were replies attached to the originals. But her letters, the ones she had intentionally not sent over the transceiver?

Jadyn had been very clear that they wouldn’t be back to Terran space for at least a half a century, yet somehow the bracelet had found a direct window of opportunity to send her messages out when she hadn’t been looking. He’d cited needing research permits to even approach the star system since the area surrounding Terra was tagged as a no-fly-zone, and came up with a rash of excuses to avoid the area altogether.

She knew better. The Serin could get in and out without being noticed if they didn’t want to be seen. It was the warning sitting in the back of his mind about their relationship… He had to let whatever could happen between herself and whoever else was out there to actually happen before he -

Gods, she suddenly realized. Was he picking up on Lenard?

“It’s not like the ISA1 can mount a rescue! The most they’re going to be able to do is just sift through wreckage…”

She lost track of the conversation as the two students entered a building. Dwelling on things she couldn’t control or change was a useless waste of energy, but curiosity about the news slowly got the better of her. She found herself wandering into the Student Union cafeteria to see if there were any reports on the DTVs there. Normally the cafeteria was abuzz with activity, even when the service line wasn’t open. Today, every set was tuned to the same news channel, no sound other than the anchor’s deep baritone echoing in the room.

“… and our thoughts this October morning are with the families of the crew on board the Ares II. If you’re just joining us. An explosion rocked the Ares II spacecraft early this morning as the crew began making the initial preparations for landing on the surface of Mars. The twenty-five men and women aboard were scheduled to supplement and partially replace the original Ares I crew, who first arrived on the red planet three years ago and established the initial Ares base. The International Space Authority has been unable to contact the crew of the Ares II since the explosion. Their status is presently unknown. There have been no official statements beyond the initial announcement, but several sources inside the organization tell us that the shuttle’s orbital path is decaying. A press conference has been scheduled for this afternoon at four. We go now to Rich Stevens, on site at Kennedy Space Center. Rich, what is the mood at mission control?”

“Well, Peter, as you might expect, everyone is a little unsettled…”

Tari shook her head sadly, turning and walking out of the Student Union. Her mood of mischief had evaporated - there’d be enough stress on the campus without her adding to the frustration. Stepping around a corner, she paused, making sure no one was in sight. She touched a finger to a familiar point on her bracelet and took hold of the holographic tablet that promptly materialized in her palm. The unit looked Terran enough in her hand, although the main projection was of a PDA from nearly fifty years ago. Lenard had seen her with it a couple of times and wondered why she’d been carrying an antique. She’d never bothered to update the image.

A small line of icons danced across the top row of the screen, showing the bracelet’s status. A little blue battery advertising a full charge sat beside a yellow star indicating that solar power was in use. A blue-green raindrop noted that the bracelet had an adequate supply of water stored away - which made sense, since she’d just gone through the shower not long before. A radio antenna was present and lit up in bright green, showing that she had a good wireless connection to the planetary internet. The icon had never faded past yellow in the time she’d been back no matter how far from civilization she’d gone. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was connecting through but it had always worked when she needed something.

Second to last, a pair of little satellites, had gone dark after the Serin broke orbit and left for home. The silhouette was still present, showing where the icon would appear should a signal suddenly be found. Parked along side the icons was a small rendering of Terra’s moon, confirming the linkup to the relay station; exactly where on the lunar surface the transceiver had been placed, only T’bia knew.

Wonder what you’re up to, Jay… It’s almost been fifty years… How am I going to explain you to Lenard?

How am I going to explain Lenard to you…?


1. International Space Administration

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