Chapter 1: Unusual Petshop
It was his love for animals that got him into this mess.
The flier he had found trampled on the ground said something about needing teachers to raise cute animals. Nikko didn't get the connection, assumed it was some kind of advertising gimmick, because since when was being a teacher a requirement for owning a pet? But the fact that he was a teacher and had just moved into an apartment building that allowed animals had his fingers tapping the address on the flier into his tablet's map application.
The office he was led to was clean, professional, and he was greeted by an attractive man in a sharp suit whose slicked-back hair was far too white for his young face and his eyes red enough to make Nikko take a step back before the word 'albino' popped into his head. The man introduced himself as Jack, and asked Nikko if he was there about the teaching position.
"Well, I really like animals, so..." It was all Nikko could think of to say. People he didn't know made him nervous anyway, and he was still a little confused.
Jack's smile showed slightly buck teeth and helped quite a bit to relieve nerves. "That's perfect. We'll get the process started, and if all goes well, we should be able to match you with a student today. Please follow me."
He was shown to a small interview room in shades of white and blue. Professional, though slightly clinical. A single potted plant was in a corner near the door, a plain desk and chairs across the way. Jack handed him an application, a pen, and a thick manual with the words 'Caring For Your Student' written across the front, then left the room for a moment.
Nikko put the manual aside. He'd had pets as a kid, and all of them had lived long, happy lives. He knew how to care for animals already, so he focused instead on the application. The paper in front of him seemed as much an application for a job as it was for a pet adoption. It asked about his teaching experience and any credentials, as well as references and a space to write why he was interested in the position. Nikko wrote again that he loved animals and wanted a companion, that he was willing to participate in any necessary training programs, and looked forward to raising a pet with care.
When Jack returned, he had a clipboard and more papers, and Nikko was surprised at just how many applications were needed to adopt a dog or cat.
"Oh, you're an actual teacher," Jack commented as he looked over the paperwork.
"Yeah, I teach fifth grade over at Shochu Elementary."
"That's perfect." Jack's polite smile turned up. "You must have a lot of patience, dealing with children every day."
Nikko returned with a soft chuckle. "Yes. It's both a challenging and rewarding career."
"What's your living situation like?"
"I'm currently single and live alone. I guess... that's part of the reason why I'm here." He could feel his cheeks warm at the admission. "It would be nice to have someone to come home to."
Jack nodded, glancing at the application. "Your address is an apartment building. Do you have enough room for your student to have his or her own space?"
It took a brief moment for Nikko to connect 'student' with the animal he would get. Their gimmick – as if pet adoption needed it. "Yeah, there should be enough space." It wasn't like he was getting an elephant.
"How many rooms are there?"
"Two," came the slow answer.
There were many more questions – a full-on interview that included whether or not he had a criminal history and if he was willing to submit to a background check – and by the time Jack declared that everything checked out and looked good, Nikko was exhausted.
"Then the last thing is to match you with a student," Jack explained as he attached yet another paper to his clipboard. "We have students in the building right now, so depending on your preferences, you could take someone home today."
Nikko perked, sitting up straighter, energy returning with excitement. "Sounds great."
"We have several species available. Did you have anything particular in mind?"
"Nothing too big," Nikko answered. "What are my options?"
"There are some cats and rabbits around if you want someone small, or a dog or fox if you're willing to go a little bit larger." Then Jack's red eyes darted over Nikko's body. "A wolf might be a bit difficult..."
Nikko's eyes shot open wide, too shocked to even note the jab at his stature. "Wolf!? People can have wolves!?"
"Wolves are one of the species approved for this program. They take well to the teaching."
The polite smile didn't falter. "So, what would you prefer?"
"I... I like foxes," Nikko answered eventually, still dazed and questioning exactly what he was getting himself into.
"Brilliant." Jack checked a few things off on his form. "Male or female?"
"Anything is okay."
After a moment of thought, Nikko answered with "Gentle, I guess. Someone I can relax with."
Smile still in place, Jack replied "I understand" as he wrote a few comments on his clipboard. Then he fell silent for a while, reading over the papers before him, before finally nodding once and looking back up at Nikko. "I have someone in mind, someone I think you'll like. He's a fennec, though a bit taller than most. And he's very sweet. Would you like to meet him?"
"Yeah," Nikko said, excitement surging through him. He adored fennecs, his favorite of foxes; their oversized ears and tiny noses has always charmed him. "That would be great."
"I'm glad." Jack's smile brightened, turning two notches more sincere, and he stood up. "Please wait here. I'll bring him to you."
Left alone again, Nikko's leg began to bounce in anticipation. Long ago he had dreamed of owning a fennec fox, but it just never seemed to be the right time. Strange gimmick or not, he was glad he let instinct bring him to this place. He would have to buy supplies, some cute food bowls, perhaps a cage. He wondered if foxes were okay with leashes; it would be fun taking the little guy for walks around the neighborhood, show him off, maybe catch the attention of that cute veterinarian who lived in the building across the street.
He had just begun to wonder about how long it was taking when the door opened again and Jack returned, this time accompanied by another man. And though this new man had a rather convincing cosplay going on, with long ears on top of his head and a furry tail trailing behind him, there was no real fox in sight. A lump of dread began to form in the pit of Nikko's stomach.
"Sorry for the delay," Jack said as he closed the door behind them. "He was a little nervous, but we got things straightened out."
"I see," Nikko replied carefully. "So... Where is he?"
Jack paused for a moment, taken aback it seemed, losing his air of professional confidence for a second before his smile slid back into place. "He is right here," he answered as he gestured to the man beside him. "This is your student, if you'll have him."
Nikko looked the strange man over. He was tall and slim and quite handsome. His hair was brown, perfectly matching the fox ears on top, and hung in multiple lengths about his face. His eyes were a striking and unusual yellow color, gentle and timid, but even those were only half as strange as the pair of horns that sprouted from his head, just in front of the ears, black and curling in a wave backwards.
"That's not a fox," Nikko finally said.
Jack looked to the man, whose eyes cast to the floor, looking as though his whole world had just been crushed. "I know he's bigger than expected and there is a reason for that, but I assure you he is a fox."
"N-No..." Nikko stood slowly, wanting out. Wanting away from these people. "That's- This is- Is this-?" He backed away several steps, then his voice dropped to a whisper. "Is this a sex thing?"
Jack's brows furrowed. "Heavens, no! In fact, sexual relations with the students are expressly forbidden. Didn't you read the rules listed in the guide?" He gestured an elegant hand toward the care manual on the desk – the one Nikko had pushed aside and ignored.
"I- Err... I hadn't gotten to that yet."
Understanding dawned, and Jack huffed a sigh as if this had happened far too many times. "You don't know what we do here, do you?"
"I thought it was regular pet adoption, but now I think I was wrong."
"You were wrong," Jack replied, his smile this time indulgent.
"So is it some kind of human trafficking? Slave trade?"
"Far from it," Jack answered. "We are a research company. Our scientists have been working with animal DNA for decades, attempting to mix traits of various animals with marginal success. Though it was only when they mixed animals with humans that things got... interesting."
Nikko glanced at the man- fox- man- thing again. His lip was trembling and there were tears in the corners of his eyes. It was almost heartbreaking how sad and pathetic he looked.
"It's extremely painful for them," Jack continued, subdued. "And once they gain language, many of them ask to be destroyed." He looked as though it hurt him to say it, and he paused for a moment. When he spoke again, though, his voice was stronger. "But some of them ask to live. They are the strong ones; the resilient. They complete the process until they have almost completely human bodies, as you can see. And then..."
"Well, that's where you come in."
"Yes." Then Jack put his hand on the other man's head, scratching behind his ears. The poor guy seemed to relax – just a bit – at the touch, his tail twitching as the long ears flattened. It really wasn't a costume after all. "They have these bodies, but they're not human. They don't know how to live or act in human society. They can't survive on their own, until someone shows them how. So we recruit teachers to give them the proper guidance. It's all there in the care guide."
"What happens when they've learned how to be human?"
"They integrate into society." The smile Jack held tilted up, buck teeth appearing from behind his pink lips. "You may have even seen some in your daily life. They get very good at assimilating."
"I fail to see how an animal could..." He trailed off, dumbstruck, when Jack's slicked-back hair began to move, to lift. He watched in awe as what he had taken for soft, white hair stood tall, revealing instead a pair of long rabbit ears. "You're one of them too," Nikko finally said after blinking away his stupor.
"I'm a rabbit," Jack answered with a nod. "I was one of the first. My teacher was very kind and patient with me, and now I can exist in society as a human. I was hoping you were kind as well."
"I am," Nikko insisted softly.
Then Jack seemed to make his move, pushing the fox-man a step forward. "This one is a bit of a special case. You see, sometimes our researchers try to mix more than one animal with human DNA. It usually doesn't work, but sometimes it does, and we end up with special batches. He is eighty-seven percent fennec fox and ten percent red fox, but also three percent ram, hence his height and the horns. Because of that, however, it's been difficult to match him with a teacher. Everyone wants cute pure-breeds, not a mutt."
The fox looked down again, looking pained, looking broken. His yellow eyes were wells of tears.
"I was hoping," Jack continued. "As an elementary school teacher, you would have an understanding heart."
For a long time, Nikko just stared. He had come here for a pet – a little puppy or kitten he could feed and teach tricks. He came for something that would curl up at his feet at night and lick his face in the morning. How could he care for a grown man with the mind of an animal?
"If you don't want me..."
Nikko's head shot up when the fox spoke at last.
"I understand..." He bit his lip, lowered his head, swallowed a sob.
Nikko's heart shattered, and he heard himself say "I'll do it."
The fox's face lit up as he looked back up at Nikko. His ears perked, standing straight, and his tail began to wag. "Really!?"
A bright smile turned to Jack. "I'm going to have a home!"
And Jack smiled softly back. "Yes."
The fox turned back to Nikko, so shining and happy he knew he had made the right choice. "Than- Yiff." He put a hand to his mouth, blush covering his cheeks, and he was so cute Nikko thought he might die. But with tears in his eyes, the fox managed to say "Thank you."
"It's... It's my pleasure." So this was happening. "What do I have to do?"
"Just sign the contract and you'll be on your way," Jack answered, going to the pile of papers on the desk and setting the contract before him. Then, as Nikko took up the pen and began skimming the document for small details, Jack asked "Have you thought about a name?"
"Name?" Nikko glanced up with a raised brow. "He doesn't already have one?"
"While some students do choose their own names, he has decided to let his teacher pick for him."
"What have you been calling him?"
He had lost count how many times he had been struck dumb since walking into this office. Yes, a real name would have to come. "I'll think about it."
"Please let us know when you do so we can update our records."
Everything seemed straightforward, so without further ado, Nikko signed the contract, binding the fox-man to him. He felt like he had just adopted a kid. It didn't take long after that for Jack to provide him with a copy of the contract, his business card in case there were any questions, and the thick care manual, with strict instructions to actually read it.
Then, before he knew it, Nikko found himself standing on the street with a bright-eyed and literally bushy-tailed fox-man smiling at him like he were his last hope in the world.
"I... guess a leash is out of the question," Nikko said, mostly to himself.
"I'll wear a leash if you want me to."
"That's... all right. Let's just go home."
And people stared, and people whispered, and people didn't understand why a man with fox ears and horns was walking down the street with a face full of sunshine, but when Nikko saw his student smiling at him like that, for once he couldn't bring himself to care.
It was his love for animals that got him this joy.
Chapter 2: In Shining Armor
He should have read the care guide from the start, honestly. From the very first page it explained the whole DNA and genetics research project; he could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment if he hadn't put it aside at that time, four days ago.
The science of DNA splicing was a whole lot further along than people realized. It must have been, if they were now going to the general public for help raising their experiments. Yet the company still kept a tight control on things. Nikko wasn't allowed to teach his student just anything – there was a strict list of topics they could cover, as well as study materials. Most of it was normal stuff – math, English, reading – and some courses were etiquette related, so the animals could learn to live as humans. And some of it was way out there and suspicious, like battle strategies and fencing, though Nikko didn't dare question it. But it again made him wish he had read the manual before signing the contract. It was a bit disconcerting, not knowing exactly what he was getting into.
On the other hand, as he looked over to his lovely fox who was working so hard on a math problem, he may very well have signed that contract anyway, even if he had known all the little details.
He still didn't have a name for his fox-man. Nothing had struck him as suitable – nothing that wasn't lame or stupid, anyway. He thought about a plain name, like Benjamin or Sam, but that didn't really suit the guy, who wasn't even plain amongst his kind. He thought about cartoonish names, like Mcavity or Frodo, but quickly dismissed those as well. Nothing seemed to fit, but the fox was waiting patiently for whatever would be bestowed upon him.
"I finished," the fox said as he held up his workbook, yellow eyes shining and hopeful.
"Let me see." Math wasn't Nikko's forte, but he could at least do long division.
The handwriting was messy, a child's scrawl, but readable. There were only a few mistakes, easily corrected, and he seemed to understand when Nikko explained where he had gone wrong, smiling with an "I understand!"
"Alright." Nikko returned the smile, handing the workbook back. "Have you finished all your homework for the week?"
"Good boy." Sometimes it took conscious effort not to coo at the adorable fox. Though he had only been there four days, he had quickly endeared himself to Nikko. He was so open and sweet, doing his best to please Nikko, acting as though his life depended on making Nikko proud. When he couldn't understand his studies, he cried, desperate and concerned, seeming terrified that he would be taken back to the research facility. They would have to work on that. "Then tomorrow I'll come straight home after work and we'll go shopping for new clothes."
"Really!?" His tail twitched, the light brown tip curling back and forth a few times. Though the red fox part of him was only ten-percent, it showed in his markings, the tips of his ears and tail a lighter shade of brown than the rest. It was really... really cute.
"Thank you, Nikko!"
It wasn't just as a reward; the fox needed clothes. He was allowed to keep the outfit he had worn at the facility, a set of plain white coveralls and a t-shirt, but that's all he had. Nikko tried lending his own clothes, but he was tiny, scrawny, and the fox was large for a fennec. Even Nikko's loosest t-shirt was tight across the fox's chest, and pants were a lost cause. So the coveralls were worn during the day, washed once, and the fox slept in his underwear and an extra blanket.
Clothes were necessary, and shopping together sounded like fun besides.
Fridays meant no teachers' meetings, decided long ago by the principal because even she just wanted to go home. So after the last student climbed into his mother's car, Nikko scrambled to get his things together, waved a goodbye to anyone still left in the teachers' room, and rushed home to his apartment and a waiting fox.
The fox was at the door as soon as Nikko came in, listing from one foot to the other. He smelled clean and his coveralls held the scent of dryer sheets; he was ready to go.
Nikko couldn't help but smile at his anxious pet. "Just let me change my clothes and we'll go."
"Yes, yes!" The fox nodded, hopeful smile in place, and he followed Nikko into the bedroom.
That had taken some getting used to. Whenever Nikko was home, the fox followed him everywhere. Though the spare room was slowly being converted into a bedroom for the fox, most mornings Nikko woke up to an extra, warm body curled up against him and a fluffy tail flopped over his waist, making him unbearably hot. If he wasn't actively engaged in his studies, the fox would stand too close to Nikko in the kitchen while he tried to prepare dinner and lunches for the following day. He had to put his foot down when the fox tried to follow him into the bathroom.
But although he had a human face and body, the fox was still an animal. Nikko reminded himself of that yet again as he undressed while his student hummed nearby.
It wasn't like he was bothered by the fox's constant presence – that was why he had gone to the facility in the first place, to get a pet to keep him company, though at the time he was expecting an actual small, furry thing. Sometimes he wondered, though, if it were normal for the students in the program to be so attached to their teachers. He wondered if all of them were so clingy, or if his student's circumstances made him like that. Or maybe he was just lonely, sitting around alone all day, every day. The care guide mentioned the possibility of veteran teachers taking on more students; he would have to look into that further when they had settled in more.
They stopped to eat first; just a pre-shopping snack at Starbucks to keep their energy up. Not that the fox needed it, given the way he was bouncing in his seat. They attracted attention, school-girls and businessmen alike staring at the vibrating fox-man. Nikko sunk in his chair; he was shy by nature, uncomfortable with people looking his way. His family had been shocked when he had decided to become a teacher, but it was different in the classroom. In front of his class, his kids, he could follow a mental script that kept him in a comfortable place until the students were no longer strangers, but his class. That worked for him.
But random people off the street, at a café, in the mall... They scared him. Their stares and unhidden whispers about the "costumed weirdo" irritated him, though he didn't have the balls to tell them to mind their own business.
"Hey," he said softly, catching the fox's attention. "Could you... put your ears down?"
That's what Jack had done at the facility. Nikko hadn't even known the man was anything other than human with the way his long rabbit ears blended perfectly with his hair when kept down. If the fox did that, it might attract less attention. If they could do something with his tail, it would be even better, though there wasn't much to be done about the ram horns. Perhaps they could pick up a hat for him.
The fox's smile slowly fell, looking slightly hurt and puzzled. "My ears?"
"Yeah. You want to be human, right? If you fold your ears down, you'll look more human."
"Like this?" His ears folded down, tucking into his hair. The light brown tips showed a bit, but it wasn't noticeable.
Nikko nodded. "Yeah, it looks good. Like a human."
The fox smiled again, his tail curling. "I'm glad."
"Now to do something about your tail." He paused, thought, and then asked "Can you fit it into your pant leg?"
"I think so," the fox answered, then reached up to unzip his coveralls.
"Not here!" Nikko grabbed his hand before the fox stripped completely. Then he stood, pulling the fox with one hand and taking up his garbage with the other. "Come on, we'll do it in the bathroom."
They were able to adjust his clothes perfectly, stuffing the long, fluffy tail along the fox's left leg. There was even a button on the tail-hole of the coveralls to keep it closed, as if the facility had anticipated people doing this exact thing when they designed the outfit. It helped quite a bit; the only thing remaining to give away what the fox really was being the black horns. Still, they received fewer stares, fewer whispers, so Nikko counted it as a success. The only looks they got were from the people who noticed two men coming out of the single person bathroom together, but that was nothing new. Nikko had endured those particular looks his whole life, being called 'faggot', being called 'twink' because of his size. And because he was gay.
"Let's go," Nikko said, leading them out of the café.
Shopping with the fox was significantly more fun than expected. While he did have some preferences, leaning towards casual and – thankfully – cheap styles, he didn't seem to feel too super strongly about anything in particular. Anything Nikko threw at him, the fox tried on, and he looked good in everything. It was like playing dress-up with a beautiful doll. With a deep blush coloring his cheeks, Nikko had to remind himself again that the man clad in tight jeans and a black mesh shirt before him wasn't actually human.
He yanked the dressing room curtain closed, yelping "That one's no good!" and found himself overly grateful that they were the only ones there.
A soft and compliant "Okay" was the only reply from behind the curtain.
"I'll go find you something else," Nikko said, taking several steps backward. "Wait right here."
A smile crossed Nikko's lips as he took another step backward, and then it dropped when he backed into something solid. Eyes wide and an apology already on his tongue, Nikko turned slowly. "I'm so sorry..." He trailed off as his gaze went up and up.
It was a large man, because of course it was, and the sneer on his hairy lip was the furthest thing from pleasant. His voice was gravel as he ground out "Fornicatin' in the dressin' rooms is illegal, ya know."
"You disgustin' fags, ruinin' our country. Now I hav'ta watch ya get married. Fuckin' gross."
Nikko's eyes turned away. He absolutely hated people like this, but he wasn't confrontational. He wanted to tell the jerk off, but words wouldn't come – wouldn't have come even if the guy weren't twice his size. So instead of saying anything or sticking up for himself, he just moved to step around the guy.
He didn't get very far. The man moved with him, blocking his path, looking to pick a fight. A club of a hand pushed Nikko's shoulder, planting a bruise, and the pained sound Nikko grunted out had him feeling even more like a wimp than usual.
"Nikko?" The fox's gentle voice questioned from behind the curtain.
So many things flashed through Nikko's torn mind. He didn't want to be alone; he didn't want to get the fox involved; he didn't even have a name to call out to.
His lack of intention didn't matter as the homophobic bully grabbed Nikko's shirt collar, giving him a shake before he sneered with curdling, rank breath "Yer boyfriend's callin' fer ya."
Nikko whimpered high in the back of his throat. "He's not..." Human. "He's not my boyfriend."
"Sure he ain't, ya sick little fuck. I bet he plows yer tight ass every night."
"Let me go, please."
"I wanna take a tire iron to yer face."
He had been lucky for thirty-five years. Sure, he had read awful comments on the internet; seen talk shows featuring zealots who raved that all the homosexuals will burn in Hell for eternity. He had seen the pictures of children holding signs that proclaimed 'God hates fags', and raptly followed every bit of news where people argued about whether or not he should be allowed to get married. But aside from the comments and stares Nikko got the few times he had gone on dates with men, he had never been directly confronted about his sexuality, and he had never been confronted so violently. He had read the stories, though, and it terrified him.
And all he could do in the face of such fury was whimper pathetically.
The curtain of the dressing room burst open and his fox stood there clad in nothing but his trunks, though it may as well have been shining armor. His yellow eyes were fierce in a way Nikko didn't think was possible from such a gentle beast. His ears laid flat on his head, but his tail stuck out straight, bristled, angry.
"Leave Nikko alone!"
The man tensed, grip tightening a moment in the face of someone almost the same height as he was, but then he put his bully face back on. "Or what? You'll sick yer AIDS on me?"
The fox lowered his head, not even giving a warning before he launched forward, proving the horns weren't just for show. The hard bone hit the man square in the chest, audibly knocking the wind out of him and sending him crashing to the floor. Nikko was caught up in the fox's arms, shielded from the blow, safe for a moment and then pulled back behind his savior.
"Ya crazy bastard," the man said as he ambled back onto his feet. "I oughta call the cops on ya."
"You assaulted me first," Nikko said, voice rising now that he had a shield. He was too weak on his own, but perhaps with his fox by his side, he could find a touch of strength.
For a moment, the bully looked like he was going to step up to battle, but when the fox tilted his chin down again, he relented. "Ya freaks ain't worth the trouble," he grunted, jabbing a pair of fingers pointed like a gun in their direction. Then with a hand pressed to his battered chest and wounded pride, he slithered away as quietly as he had appeared.
Immediately, the fox turned. "Nikko! Are you okay!?"
"I'm fine. Just..." He looked up and up into his fox's concerned face, the store's overhead light giving him a glowing halo as his lip trembled. The crybaby fox was the fox Nikko was used to, and he smiled. "I'm fine. Thank you."
"He wanted to hurt you." Said with a pout.
Nikko was silent a beat, looking off to the side before slowly replying "Some... humans are like that." Not so much better than animals, after all; perhaps worse. "Sometimes they hate for no reason." Then when the fox's lip quivered again, Nikko put on a smile. "But you saved me."
The fox's face lit up, bright with purpose. "I'll always protect Nikko!"
And then it hit him. A name. The perfect name.
He opened his mouth to speak, lifted a hand. Then he paused, unsure. Always so unsure. When he moved again it was simply to place his hand on the fox's arm. "You should get dressed before we get in trouble. We'll try another store."
"Okay." Smile still burning, the fox disappeared back into the dressing room.
All this after having worked a full day. Nikko heaved an exhausted sigh and leaned against the wall beside the dressing room. His eyes closed for a moment, brief, and he could swear he saw the name on the back of his eyelids. He tasted it on his tongue.
"Nikko?" The rustling of clothes ceased as the fox's voice drifted through the curtain. "Did you say something?"
"For your name," Nikko answered, opening his tired eyes to glace at the pink curtain that separated them. "What do you think of Knight?"
The curtain tore open again, shocking that it hadn't been ripped off its rod entirely yet, and the fox stared wide-eyed in his t-shirt, a single foot sunk into the leg of his coveralls that dragged behind him as he rushed forward. "You found a name for me!"
"If you like it..." Nikko's cheeks tinted pink.
"I love it! Because-" The fox's cheeks matched, blush for blush. "Because I want to be Nikko's knight..."
Nikko's smile was soft, yet bright. "I think... you are." He chuckled shy. "Now, go get dressed."
He would call Jack tomorrow and make it official. His fox had a name. He would have someone to call out to when he came home every day. He had someone to care for, who would care for him.
Suddenly, Nikko didn't feel so alone anymore.
Chapter 3: Lost
His tail twitched involuntarily, and he grabbed it to hold it still. He had mixed feelings on the thing. Humans weren't supposed to have tails; how could he be human if he had this stupid tail that wouldn't stay still? And it embarrassed Nikko when they were in public, so he had to tuck it into his pants, hide it from the stares of real humans. Humans who didn't have tails and thought it was weird that he did.
But sometimes, when they were alone at home, away from people and their curious eyes, when they lounged on the couch and watched TV or read books, Nikko's hand would find its way to his tail and pet it or brush fingers through it. Sometimes Nikko would just hold his tail loosely in an easy grip, idly fiddling with the strands of fur. It felt so good!
The tail twitched again. He couldn't help it; he was happy. He had woken up early and got to see Nikko sleep. Nikko was so pretty when he slept; his long eyelashes rested on apple cheeks, the usual crease in his brow softened, his pink lips parted slightly. Nikko was always so worried about everything – his job, his apartment, his family... his pet – but he seemed to be able to relax in his sleep.
He owed everything to Nikko. When nobody else wanted him, weird-looking mutt that he was, Nikko took him in. Nikko gave him a home, bought him clothes and games, taught him to be human. Nikko gave him a name.
Knight smiled, letting his tail go free so that he could bury his face in Nikko's chest. He was overwhelmed with Nikko's scent, and he nuzzled in further until a small hand plopped onto his head and scratched behind his ears. He also couldn't help the little 'yiff' that escaped his throat like a hiccup.
A gentle chuckle sounded, before a questioning "Knight?"
"Nikko smells good."
"You've got to start sleeping in your own room one of these days."
"But it's dark!"
Another chuckle, then the small hand moved to his horn, pulling it to ease Knight's head back, forcing him to look up into sleepy brown eyes. "You are a big, strong, fox-ram thing. You can't actually be scared of the dark."
"But..." It's lonely.
"And sometimes..." Nikko let go of the horn then, his hand and gaze dropping. "Sometimes I need to be alone."
Knight quickly began to scoot back. He had messed up; he had been a bother. He had taken advantage of Nikko's kindness far too much, and now Nikko was tiring of him. "I- I'm- Yiff. I'm sorry!" He couldn't see with all the tears in his eyes.
"No, Knight." Nikko shot up to a sit, grabbing Knight just as he was about to fall off the bed. "You don't need to be sorry, just..." His throat bobbed. Knight couldn't tell what he was thinking. Then Nikko just finished with "Never mind. Don't worry about it."
So small hands came up, brushed his tears away, retreated. "I'm going to take a shower."
Knight scrambled off the bed. "Shall I make coffee for you?"
"Yeah," Nikko smiled. "That'd be great."
He wasn't so good at cooking yet, the one attempt he had made ending up in burnt and cut fingers, but he could do coffee. As long as the coffee maker didn't leak all over again, he could make a passable pot of coffee. Nikko had taught him how.
Knight hummed to himself, tail twitching as he fixed a large mug with a single cube of sugar; Nikko drank his coffee mostly black. One pointed ear listened in on the brewing pot, the other stayed turned toward the running shower. It wasn't until he heard a soft gasp, while he was pouring the fresh coffee, that he paused his humming and his step.
He very carefully set the pot down, listening intently, sharp ears pointed toward the bathroom. And when he heard a pained moan, he sprang into a flurry of movement. He threw himself into the bathroom door, busting it open, and ripped off the shower curtain, tearing away anything that tried to separate him from Nikko. "Are you okay!?"
Nikko looked up at him, dark eyes wide in shock and something else. He had one hand braced against the shower's tile wall, the other wrapped around his own genital. There was no blood, nothing to indicate he had been harmed, but there was pain or something... something like fear written in his face.
Then, for the first time since they had come together weeks ago, Nikko raised his voice, yelling "Get out!" And Knight stood still, petrified, until Nikko grabbed the battered curtain and pulled it in front of himself, snapping again. "Out!"
Knight fled. Not only the bathroom – he left the apartment completely, forgoing shoes or a jacket or the hat he usually wore outside to cover his horns. He was still in the cotton pajamas Nikko had bought for him, which did little to protect him from the cool, early-spring wind that hit him as he dashed out of the apartment building.
He was a stupid fox. So stupid, and now even someone as kind as Nikko didn't want him. He didn't even understand what he had done wrong, but he knew it was his fault. He had made Nikko angry, or worse – he had scared Nikko. With his stupid mutt body and stupid ears and horns – his stupid, non-human tail – he had made Nikko afraid.
He was supposed to be Nikko's knight.
The city, the streets, everything was unfamiliar to him. He always just followed Nikko around when they went out, never bothering to learn how to get around on his own. He had relied on Nikko so much, he was useless, and in no time at all he was lost.
He stopped running when he found himself in a park; several mothers watched their bundled-up children play, but otherwise it was empty. His chest hurt, but it wasn't from exertion. His heart hurt. He wanted to cry, because on top of being stupid, he was also a crybaby. It was with a rough hand that he swiped at the tears running down his face.
A tug at his tail made Knight jump, and then he looked down to see a little blonde girl looking up at him with bright blue eyes. "Mister, are you okay? You're crying."
"I..." She wasn't afraid of him. He could talk to this child. "I'm lost. I need to find the facility."
"It's the laboratory where I was born. There are scientists, and Jack is there." He would go back, if he could find it. He would ask if he could be destroyed, since he wasn't doing anyone any good. "I need to go to there. Do you know where it is?"
The little girl gave an exaggerated shrug. "I dunno." Then she pet his tail, like Nikko did. It didn't feel as good, though. "I like your tail!"
"Jessica!" An equally blonde woman ran up to them, lifting the small girl and glaring at Knight as she chided "I told you not to talk to strangers."
"But he has a pretty tail!" the girl protested as she was carried off.
"It's a costume," the mother said, and Knight stopped listening. The woman was like all the other people who stared at him, the people who made Nikko uncomfortable. Nikko had said humans sometimes hate for no reason – the more time Knight spent outside the facility, the more he saw it.
But Nikko was kind; Nikko was gentle. Nikko had patiently put up with Knight for as long as he could, longer than anyone else would have, until Knight ruined everything.
A pathetic sob escaped him, but he began to move again. He had to find the facility.
The city's tall buildings were intimidating when he was on his own, titans looming over him, staring him down. No matter how much Nikko had taught him, he was still so far away from being able to live on his own. His shoulder accidentally bumped someone else's and he jumped, an apology on his tongue, even as the man simply glared and muttered "Watch it, freak" before continuing on.
Aimlessly, Knight wandered up and down the streets. Nothing looked familiar; he had no idea where he was or how to get anywhere. As hours went by, he grew hungry, his stomach grumbling in anger, loudly demanding sustenance. He didn't have money to buy food like a human, and even he – in all his stupidity – knew better than to try and steal. His gut hurt from hunger, and when he spotted a rat sniffing around an alley, his instincts kicked in.
He chased the rodent, quick on his feet despite his mostly human body, and yiffed in victory when he caught it. Just when he had raised it to his mouth to bite in, however, he saw the eyes of everyone in the area trained on him. Lips were curled in disgust and murmurs of "What the fuck?" drifted into his twitching ears. A few people had the cameras of their cell phones directed at him, their minds already writing the video title for posting on YouTube. 'Dude with a tail catches rat on street; eats it raw'.
He dropped the rat, feeling more than seeing it scurry away to safety.
After a moment of utter stillness, Knight ran again, pushing past the onlookers. He wanted to go home. He wanted Nikko.
He didn't have a home to go back to.
He ran for a grove of trees. Another park, maybe the same one as before, he really didn't know. Maybe he had just walked in circles all day; maybe he had walked clear across the country. But the trees would shield him, so he ran to them, a big, strong, fox-ram thing hiding in the dark shade of elms.
Then Knight fell to the ground. Curling up at the foot of a wide tree, he wrapped his tail around himself for warmth, buried his face in his arms, and cried loudly until he passed out with exhaustion.
It was freezing when he woke up, the grove already several degrees cooler than elsewhere due to the lack of sunlight, and colder still since the sun had apparently set altogether. Without the warmth of glowing sunshine, Knight thought he might freeze to death, and he shivered violently.
But it wasn't the cold that had woken him; it was his name. He was being called.
It was unmistakably Nikko's voice, though it was hoarse, as if he had been screaming all day. Knight had to use every bit of his willpower not to jump up and run to him. Nikko was better off without him. But still, his ears swiveled towards the voice.
"Knight!" Nikko called again, but it was quieter this time, choked and broken. The "Where are you?" that followed was but a whisper.
Chains creaked, haunting, leading into the screech of a neglected swing accepting a new rider. His sharp ears caught shuddering breaths, but it was the whimper that pulled him out of his ball.
Nikko was crying, and it was all his fault.
Creeping to the edge of the grove, Knight stopped where the trees did. From there, he could see Nikko, see how Nikko's head bowed to hide his face, though there was nobody around to hide from. Nikko's thin fingers gripped the chains of the swing he sat in and he shook slightly, though if it was from the cold or from crying, Knight didn't know.
The barely heard whimpers made Knight's heart hurt more. He could feel Nikko's pain, and it confused him. Nikko should be happy to be rid of him, rejoice at the freedom of having his apartment and bed to himself again. But he was sad – terribly sad – and it struck so painfully in Knight's chest that he dropped to his knees, a long whine tearing unbidden from his throat.
Nikko turned suddenly, and even in the darkness their gazes met, soaked brown meeting drenched yellow. They stared for a long time, until Nikko leapt to his feet and ran, plowing into Knight and wrapping arms around him before the fox even realized what was happening.
"Why did you leave me?" Nikko choked out as he clung to Knight, pressing his face into Knight's neck. "I thought I had lost you."
"I- I thought you didn't want me anymore..."
"I'm sorry!" The grip Nikko had on the back of Knight's pajama shirt tightened as he began to shake again. It was definitely from crying, the force of trying to hold back sobs causing him to tremble. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. I was... startled, but it was wrong of me to yell."
"It's my fault," Knight insisted. "I'm..." His voice dropped. "I'm stupid and annoying..."
Nikko pulled back then, looking Knight in the face. "No, you're not. It's my job to be patient and teach you, but I'm not doing very well with it."
"Nikko is the best teacher!"
A smile touched Nikko's lips, but it somehow seemed sad. Usually Nikko's smiles made Knight happy, but this one didn't. "Knight..." He never finished what he was going to say, though. Another abandoned thought. Eventually he just reached up and tugged at one of the long locks of Knight's hair. "Let's go home."
"You don't..." He could feel the pout on his lip, worried it made him seem clingy – clingier – but couldn't make it go away. "You don't hate me?"
"Of course not," Nikko replied as he reached up to pet Knight's ears. The smile this time felt more real; it made Knight happy. "I like you very much." Then his hand fell. He practically whispered "I like you too much."
Knight didn't understand, because how was it possible to like someone too much? Like was a good thing; from what he had seen of the outside world, there needed to be more like. "Then I like Nikko too much too!"
A look of pain crossed Nikko's face, though he didn't seem to be injured. "Knight... It's not..." Then he shook his head and shivered. "Let's go before we freeze to death."
He was super quiet as he crept into Nikko's room, not wanting to wake him. Nikko always told him to stay in his own room, but he just couldn't. It was too dark, too cold. It reminded him too much of all the time he spent at the facility, years and years of being alone, watching his friends get taken in while he was passed over again and again. Always alone. He couldn't stand it.
He was sure he was quiet as he climbed into Nikko's bed, curled up facing him, but a silent moment later Nikko's arm came up and went around him. His ears perked; he waited for Nikko to say something, but the room stayed quiet, and Knight figured Nikko must have moved in his sleep. Until-
"Yiff?" He looked up. In the darkness he could see Nikko's eyes opened to bare slits.
"Promise me you won't run away again."
Nikko sounded sad. It made Knight sad too. "I promise."
"You know what that means, right? Humans take promises very seriously."
"I... I know..." He wouldn't run away ever again. Nikko wanted him to stay, so he would protect the promise. They would be together forever. "I promise."
Knight's tail twitched.
Chapter 4: Playtime For Animals
He was, more or less, saved by the bell.
Months had passed since Knight came into Nikko's life and his home. The bitter chill of earliest spring turned into the easy warmth of oncoming summer, while one human and one fox-hybrid learned to live around each other. And with every day, week, month that passed, Nikko found himself growing more and more in-
Affection. It was affection he felt. Like one would feel for a pet, because humans couldn't feel anything deeper for an animal.
But Knight was adorable and Knight was charming, and sometimes a little 'yiff' would escape from Knight's mouth and he looked so embarrassed every time it happened. His tail curled when he was happy and bristled when he was scared; he cried at least once a day, but when he smiled, it was the most brilliant light in the world. He worked so hard on his studies and loved praise, and even if he didn't have an amazing body, Nikko would still hold all this affection for him.
He did have a nice body, though. Nikko couldn't help but notice. Knight's body – his human body – was smokin', and he often got lustful glances or even blatant staring from people who likely wouldn't believe what he was if they were told in small words. Knight never picked up on the come-hither looks, though, for which Nikko was grateful, and so far nobody had approached him directly.
It was getting harder to ignore that nice body, that delicate and handsome face. The more Nikko's affection towards Knight grew, the more his physical attraction did as well, and he had to berate himself harshly when he found his eyes lingering too long on a strong chest built from ram DNA, or that juncture at the small of his back that bled into the soft brown fur of a fox tail. But his own scrawny body, more and more often, lit up when Knight was near. He warmed, he blushed, his dick filled. Knight's nose seemed to quiver whenever that happened.
Nikko forced himself to think of other things when he stroked himself off in the shower. He thought of the cute veterinarian across the street, with his dark skin and friendly smile. He thought of his first boyfriend back in college, Aaron Smith, the blond-haired, blue-eyed übermensch. He thought of nothing at all, putting all of his focus on the pleasure he gave himself, locked away in the bathroom like a dirty little secret. But when the moment came, when he launched himself over the cliff of release, he saw sharp ears and a fluffy tail, and he had to bite scars into his own arm to keep himself from crying out Knight's name.
He was going to Hell, for sure. There was a special spot just for him in the level where animal abusers got their nuts chewed off by rats.
The oncoming summer made things worse. In an effort to put off turning on the air conditioner and save money, the amount of clothing they wore around the apartment became less and less, until Nikko came home to find Knight sprawled out on the living room floor in nothing but a pair of shorts that hardly covered him. Nikko had to excuse himself to the bathroom quickly that day, and then the air conditioner was turned on at last.
Some mornings, Nikko woke up with a mouth full of tail, because no matter how many times he told Knight to sleep in his own room, the fox didn't listen. It was the only bit of rebelliousness Knight had shown, though, so it was difficult to be strict with him.
Some mornings, Nikko woke up with Knight pressed right up against him, bodies aligned, making him overly hot despite the running air conditioner and thin pajamas. He had to disentangle before the raging erection that feeling Knight's dick pressed against his ass caused drove him out of his mind.
Some mornings, Nikko was already hard when he woke up, dreams of playful 'yiff's breaking up as he rose to consciousness.
He had become aware of Knight sniffing him, his nose running along his side, dragging lips after it. The sniffing had continued, as if on a searching quest, until Nikko asked in a rough, sleep-laden voice "Knight? What are you doing?"
"Nikko smells good," had been Knight's answer as he leaned up and over, moving from Nikko's side to his stomach.
Nikko pushed lightly at Knight's head, weak with the clinging remnants of sleep. "You always say that."
"It's different this time!" His nose quested lower. "There's something sweet, I think. It's coming from..." That perfect nose, perfect mouth, perfect face breached upon Nikko's groin, tickling at the leading hairs that peeked from above the waistband of his sleep shorts. "From here."
"Knight!" Nikko pushed harder this time, awake now, for sure. He shoved Knight's head away and scooted the few centimeters away that he could while lying down.
Knight looked up at him with furrowed brows, looking hurt, denied a treat. Then, in his apparent second act of rebelliousness, he leaned down again, shoving his face directly into Nikko's crotch, inhaling deeply. His tail began to curl in pleasure.
Nikko's erection surged and he gasped out Knight's name. His fingers flexed, but he didn't move, too scared that an attempt to push Knight away again would result in him pulling the fox closer.
And then the phone rang.
A groan escaped Nikko's lips when Knight pulled his face away to look curiously at the silver device resting on the nightstand. Several deep breaths later, Nikko pulled himself together enough to actually answer it.
It was Jack, and Nikko's heart began to pound before he even said a greeting, convinced the rabbit somehow knew what had been going on, knew what thoughts were in Nikko's depraved head. He would get kicked out of the program; he would get thrown in jail; Knight would be taken away from him. Surely his meek "Hello?" betrayed every bit of his guilt.
"Good morning," Jack returned, professional as always. He had called regularly when Knight first came here, checking in, making sure everything was alright and answering any questions Nikko had. As the months went on, however, the calls became less frequent, which Nikko took as a good sign, understanding that it meant the facility trusted he could handle things.
Sometimes, he wasn't so sure he could. He hoped his doubts didn't carry though the line when he echoed the greeting. "Good morning."
"I hope I didn't wake you. I understand you're on summer break now?"
"Yeah..." Nikko replied. Jack didn't sound suspicious; maybe he was safe for now. "But it's okay. I was up anyway." Too 'up'.
There was a smile in Jack's voice as he went on with "Knight must be happy to have you around more."
"Yeah, I think he is." He looked to the fox who was looking back, a smile on his lips as his tail flopped back and forth. They had spent almost every moment together since summer break started, two weeks prior. Though Knight still had his studies and Nikko had a lot of work to prepare for the upcoming new school year, they usually sat side-by-side or across from each other at the living room's low coffee table. Knight had definitely seemed happier as of late.
"That's good." Jack gave a quiet chuckle. It had been clear from the start that he cared deeply for his animal brethren. "I'm calling to let you know there will be a picnic for teachers and students two weeks from now. As it's the first one since you joined the program, I strongly encourage you to attend. It's a good opportunity to meet other teachers and exchange ideas."
Nikko's mouth went dry. It sounded absolutely terrifying. "Will there... be many people there?"
"Not too many. Perhaps twenty or so, but..." The line was silent for a moment, until Jack continued. "Knight hasn't had much exposure to others, has he?"
It was like a punch to the gut. It was true that Nikko didn't have any friends; he had his coworkers and a class full of students whom he saw every day, so he never felt like he was lacking in human interaction. He'd had friends when he was younger, but got fed up when they constantly declined every invitation he extended to hang out, despite the fact that he always went out of his way to accept the invitations of others. For a long time, he felt like a doll, only to be played with at the whims of others. So he had made a decision. Since he had to do everything he wanted to do alone anyway, he stopped trying, stopped bothering to invite others to spend time with him. He also stopped accepting the invitations to do what someone else wanted to do. He slipped quietly out of everyone's life, and he was fairly certain no one even noticed. It was lonely, but he was fine with that.
But he wasn't alone anymore. And while it was nice having Knight around, it also meant he had someone else to take into consideration. He got what Jack was implying – Knight needed to be around other people; he needed to interact with others and learn how to meet others. Knight needed to know how to make friends, because even if Nikko was fine – fine – on his own, it didn't mean Knight deserved to have that imposed on him as well. The point of the program was to teach knight to be independent, and he couldn't be if he became a shut-in like Nikko practically was. Knight needed to be able to live on his own.
Because someday he would leave.
Nikko let out a slow breath, and then asked "Where is it?"
"It'll be at Daniels Park. I can send you the information via e-mail, if you'd like."
"Yeah, that'd be good."
"I'll do that, then," Jack replied. "I hope to see you there."
They hung up and Nikko heaved a sigh. His erection disappeared as stress coursed through him, and incidentally Knight no longer seemed interested in his crotch. It was for the best, because Nikko didn't have time to worry about that. Right then, all he had time for was brainstorming possible conversations and writing scripts of perfectly normal replies.
He thought he had come up with every combination of words that might come his way, and was sure he would be able to handle any interaction that came up, both human and animal.
Naturally, all those preparations where blasted to useless within moments of arriving at the reserved picnic area of Daniels Park. He was greeted with a smile upon approach, ticking him one point towards comfort, and then when the woman's gaze landed on Knight, an unmistakable look of disgust crossed her eyes and curled her lip. It sent Nikko's comfort levels reeling backwards towards wanting out of there, and though he would never claim to be a lip reader, he could see the word "Mutt" on her mouth when she leaned closer to another woman sitting next to her.
Knight's ears drooped, likely able to hear it, and it drove a spike of anger through Nikko. He hadn't really thought about elitism amongst the program's teachers, but snobs were everywhere, it seemed.
Nikko turned, about to leave altogether, until a delicate hand took him by the elbow. Startled, he jerked his head to see Jack, who began to lead him back towards the picnic in progress. Jack was dressed in a suit despite the heat, and his rabbit ears were back, looking for all the world like a real human, albeit a bit pale. "They own the matching poodles over there," Jack said as he gestured his chin towards a pair of tall, Twiggy-skinny girls with poofy, white curls who watched the rest of the picnickers with clear disdain. "They also donate a lot of money to the program... Or, at least their husbands do, so we can't ask them to leave or berate them. Please just deal with them." Then they stopped walking, and Jack faced him fully, buck-teeth showing through his smile. "I'm glad you made it."
Jack smiled again, and then turned his attention to Knight. "And how are you?" he asked, stepping over to scratch behind the soft fox ears. "You look well."
"Yes!" Knight answered, happy. "Nikko takes good care of me!"
"I'm glad." Then Jack stepped back to address them both. "There's food and room to run. Help yourself to anything. Bathrooms are down that path over there. If you have any questions or need anything, I'll be around." He smiled polite, and then his red eyes turned decidedly to Nikko, though his voice was casual. "Please meet the others, and have a good time."
Nikko gave a "Thank you," and then realized he had said all of three words before Jack left them alone. Throwing them to the wolves, almost literally, Jack wasn't about to coddle him and let Nikko stick by him – he was forcing Nikko to do it on his own, and in turn showing Knight how to hold himself in social situations.
Really, Nikko was the last person who should be teaching that.
"Let's get some snacks," Nikko said, though his stomach hurt with anxiety. With his face schooled into a smile, he led Knight to the table piled with food – plenty of meat for the carnivores and veggies for the herbivores – and handed him one of the small paper plates, keeping another for himself. He smiled at everyone he saw.
Others were around the food table, conversation was made, and Nikko managed to keep up his side like a person who totally knew how to be social. When a kind-looking middle-aged woman asked "You're new here, aren't you?" he was successfully able to keep his voice from cracking like a tween.
"Yeah. This is my first picnic."
"How long have you been in the program?"
"Well, your fox is very handsome." She tossed a good-natured wink at Knight, who giggled in response.
"Thank you," Nikko replied, his smile becoming miles more genuine. Not everyone was a bully; not everyone was a snob. He knew that, even if it was hard to remember sometimes. "Do you have a student too?" Then he mentally smacked himself as soon as the question came out of his mouth. Of course she did; she wouldn't be there otherwise.
But there was no hint of judgment in the woman's face as she answered "Yes, I have two male cats, but they're off chasing a squirrel somewhere."
"I see," Nikko said with a chuckle, even as he wondered if it were a squirrel or a 'squirrel'. He left that question unasked, though.
Food retrieved, they found an empty picnic table to sit at, and for a while just watched the activities around them. By and large, there seemed to be a divide between teachers and students, as though the animals were taking the opportunity to freely play, and the humans more than happy to leave them to it and talk amongst themselves. Nikko was nothing short of amazed as he watched the students frolic. Ears and tails aside, a lot of animal traits showed themselves in the students' interactions.
The cats were more aloof, most of them looking content to just watch from the sidelines, though a few played as well, chasing the rabbits or taking turns chasing and being chased by dogs. Sometimes they rubbed their faces on the other students, and Nikko understood that that meant they were friends.
The dogs were playful, happily running and racing and chasing, playing fetch with one another or having a tug-of-war that ultimately turned into a wrestling match. They were also the most vocal, barking and yipping to show their joy. Only the poodle twins and a little chihuahua cowering by his teacher's side were quiet.
There were only two rabbits, aside from Jack, and they tried their best to stay out of the way for as long as playful kittens would let them. One of them was rather large and had the floppiest brown ears, which the smaller, black rabbit seemed to enjoy hiding under. Nikko both smiled and blushed when he saw their little cotton-puff tails peeking out from their altered shorts.
His eyes turned to Knight, who was watching the other animals with interest. The e-mail Jack had sent was clear that the area of the park would be private in order to give the students a chance to go all-out and be themselves in the fresh air. Knowing that, Nikko had allowed Knight to let his tail out, keep his ears up in their natural position, and the relief in Knight's eyes had said everything.
The few other foxes seemed to enjoy darting into other students' games just long enough to get in the way before dancing out of reach and finding someone else to pester. They were bratty, for sure, but the others took it in stride, giving chase at times. All of them were smiling.
There was one pure-breed fennec, and she was breathtakingly adorable. Her body was tiny and dainty, which made her tan-colored ears seem all the larger. She seemed very popular, with many males chasing after her, but she was nimble on her bare feet, and never got caught. Her laughter was like the tinkling of bells and her white sundress twirled around her as she evaded yet another grabbing hand, and Nikko couldn't help his persistent smile as he watched, until he caught sight of a large figure looming toward him.
It was a wolf, and a big one at that. The wolves were the ones Nikko was most wary of – second only to humans – so of course they would be the most abundant. He supposed it was an ego thing, people wanting to be able to say they were in charge of a fierce predator. Or perhaps it was compensation. Either way, a red-headed wolf had made a bee-line straight for them, and Nikko's body went rigid, caught between flight or playing dead, until Knight jumped to his feet.
The wolf gave a dazzling smile with dangerously pointed teeth as he greeted "Fox," and it finally hit Nikko that they must have known each other from the facility. Knight hadn't shown any recognition towards any of the other students, but Nikko found himself relieved that there was at least one familiar friend amongst the menagerie.
"It's Knight now," the fox replied with a bright smile of his own. "I finally have a name!"
"Nice to hear," came the reply as the wolf's golden eyes turned to Nikko. There was natural power and aggression in each of Gus's movements, and being under his scrutiny made Nikko shiver.
"This is Nikko, my teacher." Knight's smile turned up, blinding. "He's so nice to me!"
A fanged smirk appeared on the wolf's lips. "He's tiny." But then he smiled more friendly. "Good to meet 'cha."
"Y-Yeah..." Nikko managed a slight bob of his head, like a stunted bow.
Without sparing Nikko another ounce of his attention, Gus grabbed the shoulder of Knight's t-shirt and tugged. "Let's play."
Knight's enthusiasm towards his friend wavered a bit as he gave a stilted "N-nn..." Then his gaze turned to Nikko, a question in the yellow depths.
"Go," Nikko said, smile in place.
"Is it okay?"
"Of course. That's why we're here. Go. Have fun."
Knight smiled again; his tail curled. "Okay." Then he allowed himself to be pulled away, until Gus let go of him and took off running. Pausing in his steps, Knight turned and looked back at Nikko, who gave his brightest smile and waved. Only then did Knight finally perk back up, and then he was off and running after his friend.
And Nikko was left alone.
He watched them play, on edge at first, worried about Knight getting hurt. The fox had pounced on his larger friend, but was soon wrestled to the ground and the two began tumbling over each other. A floppy-eared Labrador had no qualms joining in the fray, tackling Knight, only to be tackled by Gus in return. But they seemed to know just how rough they could be, how much strength they could use to play their games without anyone getting injured or angry. Even Knight seemed to instinctively know how much to hold back as he playfully headbutted a gray wolf in the gut, making use of his horns. Poodles aside, none of the other animals seemed to care that Knight was a hybrid – a mutt – and they accepted him as another friend to play with, more accepting than humans ever were. Very quickly, Nikko realized he was smiling at their antics.
"They're cute, huh?"
Nikko jumped at the voice that had appeared beside him, and he turned to see a young woman sit next to him, taking the seat Knight had vacated. She looked to be the same age as him, or perhaps a little younger, her dark brown hair in a super-short, boyish cut. She looked stylish and had a casual air about her.
Her laugh was easy. "Sorry if I startled you. I haven't seen you around before. Are you new?"
"Yeah, I just joined the program a few months ago, so..."
"Well, welcome." She stuck her hand out, the first person to actually introduce themselves to him. "I'm Ginger."
"Nikko..." He took her offered hand for a quick, limp shake.
"Thanks... My parents gave it to me..."
Ginger laughed, taking it as a joke when really he was just being awkward. "Does it mean anything?"
"I don't know... My mom's really spiritual, so my siblings and I are all named after 'power spots'." He made air quotes with his fingers before quickly pulling his hands down again. He was talking too much; she didn't care about his family's quirks.
Nikko's eyes drew away from her steady gaze. "My brother Machu doesn't think so."
He figured she would think he was weird, but instead she laughed again. "I know the feeling, though. I have a younger twin sister name Ale. Though I guess she got the shorter end of that stick."
A smile found its way to Nikko's lips, and it bubbled until he too was laughing. It felt good.
"There it is." Ginger's smile quieted, but was no less sincere. "I was afraid you didn't like us."
Nikko shook his head slightly, falling back to shy. "No... Everyone's been really nice. Or, almost everyone, anyway."
Nikko nodded, chuckled lightly. "Poodles." Then his gaze fell away again. "I just... don't do well with people." Every 'No, I can't make it'; every 'I have other things to do that day'; every 'Sorry, I have to cancel our plans because someone else invited me to do something else, but happy birthday!'; they all flashed through his mind, stabbing like ice, reminding him that he shouldn't even be bothering talking right now. He should just go home.
"So which one's yours?" Ginger asked, a question Nikko never thought he would hear in his life. It drew his eyes up, out, towards his reason for being there.
"The brown fox with horns."
"A hybrid, huh?" Her remark was casual, not judgmental. "They're pretty rare. This is my first time seeing one." She smiled so broadly that her blue eyes crinkled. "He's beautiful."
An unwarranted and ridiculous blush touched Nikko's face as he stammered out "Th- Thank you." Then he turned redder when he realized how stupid that must have sounded. It wasn't like he birthed Knight or had anything at all to do with his looks.
"I can tell you take good care of him. He looks really healthy and happy."
"Thank... you..." That one he could take credit for. Then he asked "How about you?" to divert attention away from himself.
"I have a female dog," Ginger answered with her smile. "She's a golden retriever named Penny. I believe she's..." She began to search the park, looking for her student. When her eyes widened a bit, Nikko knew she had found the dog-girl, but then her eyes narrowed again in amusement. "Ah, there she is. And it looks like she's made a friend." Then she laughed.
Nikko followed her gaze, until he thought his head would burst with hot blush at what he saw.
The retriever was on her hands and knees, her long, blonde hair falling in front of her, hiding much from Nikko's point of view, but not nearly enough. Her dress was pushed up and her face held pure pleasure as the small, black rabbit Nikko had seen before mounted her from behind. He wore an expression of concentration as his slim hips pushed against her at a fast pace, his shorts dropped to his knees. The brown, flop-eared rabbit sat nearby, as if waiting for his turn.
"Oh, my god!" Nikko's hand flew to his eyes as he turned his head away, traumatized.
Ginger laughed again, greatly amused. "What, did you think that they didn't do that?"
"We're in public."
"I don't think they care. Have you never seen animals go at it before? They don't care if they have an audience."
Nikko was shocked at her nonchalance. Nobody else seemed to care either, as if they didn't hear the growing barks of pleasure. Only he seemed to be uncomfortable. And while he had seen animals mate in his life, it was different. Those were animals, but... "But... Their bodies..."
"Their bodies may be humanoid," Ginger said, catching his drift. "But their minds-" She tapped her temple. "Their minds are still animal, largely. This is normal and natural for them. It's good for them to socialize sometimes. Hell, if Penny goes without for a while, she gets cranky."
Knight had never shown any interest in... socializing. Aside from the sniffing, but Nikko chose to ignore that. That wasn't sexual, that was just Knight being curious. Nikko was skeptical, unsure, even as he took a furtive glance back to see the brown rabbit taking his turn... on the black rabbit. The dog-girl, Penny, laid in the grass next to them, looking satisfied.
"I know Jack probably didn't say anything about it," Ginger continued. "But it's one of the big reasons we have these gatherings and ensure private places."
"But..." His next protest already hung on his tongue. "But we're supposed to be teaching them to be human..."
Ginger regarded him for a moment, studying him. Surely the judgment would come next. Instead, she asked "Do you always let him run around with his tail out in public?"
"But you did today. Why?"
He got it. "Because... I knew it would just be people in the program here."
He got it, but Ginger explained anyway. "It's the same thing. The students know, or they should know, that these events are special, and that they can only do this here. They have a freedom here that they can't have on regular days; a freedom that humans can never have." Then she gave a one-shouldered shrug and smiled. "I know it's surprising at first, but you get used to it. And, yeah, by the time they graduate they don't do it anymore. You'll never see Jack going at it." A laugh sprang out of her then. "Though he probably needs it more than anyone."
Nikko looked to Knight, who was still playing with the others, though he and Gus seemed to have separated from the rest. They were lying in the grass together, nipping at each other. Knight didn't seem to have noticed Penny or the bunnies at all, for which Nikko found himself grateful. "What if she gets pregnant?"
"Then I guess I'll have puppies!"
His eyes bugged at how okay she seemed to be with the idea of having a whole litter of them. Knight was enough of a handful; Nikko was sure he would go crazy having many more following him around like ducklings.
Ginger didn't wait for a reply – which was good, because Nikko had gone speechless – but she laughed again. Apparently she found teasing him hilarious. "Actually, they can't breed. Technically they're all hybrids, human and animal, and hybrids can't reproduce. That's why there aren't many ligers or zonkeys. They're sterile."
That made more sense than anything he had heard so far, and he said as much.
"It's kind of a shame, though, ya know? I'd love to see one of them as a baby."
An image of Knight as a baby – fat and soft, with tiny horns – came to Nikko's mind, and he chuckled, relaxing at last. "That would be cute."
"Right? But the public isn't allowed in the actual laboratories, so nobody's ever seen what they look like young. The rumor, though, is that they're born with animal bodies and have to have their genes, like... zapped or something to start growing human limbs."
Nikko flinched, feeling a pang of sympathy. "That might explain why it hurts them so much."
Ginger nodded, looking more solemn than Nikko had seen her in the whole hour they had known each other. But then her eyes lit up, and she smiled. Looking past Nikko, she said "Hey, Pen. Have fun?"
The golden retriever trotted up, wrapping arms around Ginger's neck and sitting on the bench next to her. She seemed cheerful and cuddly; her tail wagged happily. "Yep! Big fun! Now I'm hungry."
Ginger laughed, and then leaned back to reveal Nikko. "This is Nikko. He's new. He's teaching the hybrid fox over there."
"Nice to meet you!" Penny said with a broad smile.
"What's his name?"
"Ah... His name's Knight."
"He's a cutie!" Penny bounced. "I want to socialize with him next."
Nikko's face went red; his chest squeezed. His mouth opened, but no words came out.
Luckily, Ginger seemed to notice his distress. "Maybe next time, Love."
"Aww." Penny pouted even as she laid her head on Ginger's shoulder. They seemed affectionate with each other, as any person and their dog would be, Nikko supposed. Rubbing her nose against the fabric of Ginger's t-shirt, Penny went on to mutter "Feed me."
Another good-natured chuckle sounded from Ginger. "Alright, alright. Come on." They stood up and she looked to Nikko before heading off to the snack table. "Want anything?"
"No, I'm good," Nikko replied with a polite smile. "Thanks." He waved them off.
There was a wet spot on the bench where Penny had been sitting.
Nikko recoiled, though it was mostly out of shock. Still, he was glad nobody was there to notice his probably immature reaction. They were still animals; he had to get over it.
Left alone again, his eyes instinctively sought out Knight once more.
And almost bugged right out of his head.
Gus had pinned him. Knight lay on his side and Gus kneeled over him, straddling Knight's hip and holding himself up on strong arms. And he was pressing his groin against Knight's hip, dry-humping him. Knight didn't seem to understand, brow crinkled in confusion, but he also didn't seem to mind at all. He smiled and his tail curled when Gus leaned over to bite at his ear, and when Gus's hand slid forward a bit, Knight rested his chin on it.
Nikko turned away, jerking around to face the picnic table he had been sitting at. His arms came to rest on the table, his fingers gripping his forearms, digging nails into his flesh. His chest hurt; it hurt so much. It was jealousy ripping through him, tearing him up, but he had to quash it.
This was good for Knight. It was normal and natural. He needed to spend time with other animals like this.
He had to accept that this was natural for Knight, and any feelings he had for the fox were not. So Nikko brought his hands up, burying them into his hair as he hung his head, trying to block everything out.
Until he heard a familiar and distressed 'yiff'.
Nikko was on his feet in a flash, turning to Knight's direction. His heart went cold, ice.
Gus wanted more. He had a tight grip on Knight's shorts, yanking them, trying to get them off though Knight clearly didn't want that. Knight was trying to push Gus away, trying to scramble out from under him, but the wolf was bigger, stronger, baring fangs. When Knight gave a displeased growl, Gus snarled, sending Knight's ears flat.
Taking a step forward, Nikko opened his mouth to yell, to tell the wolf to stop, to protect his student. But his throat clogged with fear, terrified of drawing attention – because what if he was wrong? What if this was normal too? – as much as he was of Gus's large canine teeth. He wanted to rush forward, grab Knight, and take him home, but Nikko's feet were rooted in place, unbudging. He was stuck, and all he could do was croak out an unheard "Knight..."
"All right, all right. Knock it off." A stocky man in a football jersey lumbered up to the pair, bopping Gus on the head, completely unafraid. Even when the wolf's head shot up, growling low in the back of his throat, the man didn't flinch. He just put on a stern look, warning "Don't you dare." And Gus relented, letting go of the cloth in his hands and sitting back. Knight scurried free and Gus lunged for him, but the man admonished again. "Leave him alone."
Knight ran for Nikko, tears in his eyes. He was scared, and rightfully so, as he took hold of Nikko's shirtsleeve. "I- Yiff. I accidentally ripped my clothes! I- I'm sorry!"
That was what he was worried about?
"It's okay," Nikko replied, reaching up to tug at a lock of Knight's hair. "It was an accident. Are you... Are you alright?"
"Your friend seemed to be... getting a little rough."
"Gus was playing," Knight said, wiping the tears away with the back of his hand. "But his playing got weird. I didn't..." Then his head drooped. "I didn't mean to let him rip my clothes... So-Sorry..."
Nikko took Knight by the horn, pulling his head down to tuck it against his chest, though it meant Knight had to bend down more than a little. Knight seemed happy and relieved at the touch, wrapping his arms around Nikko's waist. "It's okay," Nikko said, soothing, as he glanced around the picnic. Nobody paid them any mind; nobody seemed to find it strange. Everyone seemed to show great affection to their students, and for that, Nikko was grateful. It made it so much easier to calm a concerned fox. "It's not your fault. We can buy you new clothes." Next paycheck. "Okay?"
Knight nodded into Nikko's chest and gave a tiny 'yiff', which made Nikko smile.
It was a smile that slowly dropped when he saw the stocky man, obviously Gus's teacher, heading toward them, one hand gripping the back of Gus's neck, though the wolf was larger than he was. Nikko pulled back a bit away from Knight, and as Knight stood back to his full height, the other pair stopped in front of them. Gus wouldn't make eye contact, instead keeping his gaze averted, his ears drooping. He was in trouble.
"This guy has somethin' to say," the man said, pushing Gus forward. And when Gus was silent, the thick fingers at his neck flexed. "Gus."
"I'm sorry," Gus said, face turned away and voice gruff.
"He got carried away," the man continued for his student. "It's one of the tough things 'bout wolves; they don't know when enough is enough."
"He ripped Knight's clothes..."
"I'm sorry, man. I'll pay for 'em."
Nikko looked up quickly. "No, I just meant... That's why he's upset. Not because of... the other stuff..."
Finally, the man smiled, stern draining away from his face. "I gotcha. Well, I'll pay for 'em anyways. It's only right." Then he stuck out his hand, as Ginger had done before. "I'm Buck. This is Gus, though I guess you've met."
"Yeah... Ah, I'm Nikko." He took the offered, meaty hand. "He's Knight."
"Nice to meet ya." Buck seemed like a good match for a wolf, a nice guy overall, patient, but able to be strict when necessary, and completely unafraid. Most of those were traits Nikko seriously needed to work on. "So, who brought ya in? Anyone I know?"
Nikko's brows drew together. "Brought me in?"
"Yeah. Who introduced ya to the program?"
"Nobody..." Nikko answered. "I just-"
"Hey, Buck!" Ginger's voice interrupted as she and Penny approached, waving with the hand not balancing a plate of food.
Penny immediately rushed to Knight, standing too close. "You're Knight, right?"
"Yes," Knight answered.
"I'm Penny." Her tail wagged like crazy. "Let's be friends!"
Knight smiled. "Okay."
"Let's be mates!"
"Oy," Gus growled, stepping out of Buck's loosened grip. He stood on Knight's other side. "Mine."
"Liar." Penny stuck her tongue out at Gus. "Nobody would be mates with a stupid wolf who can't even use a human toilet yet."
"Shut it, ya dumb bitch." Gus's long canines bared again.
"Oh, I'm so scared of the big, bad wolf."
They continued to argue, Knight caught in between them, while Ginger and Buck caught up on each other's lives, always considerate of keeping Nikko involved in the conversation. And while Nikko gave his attention to Buck as he regaled them with his acquisition and subsequent losing of Super Bowl tickets, he briefly thought that this must have been what it was like to have friends. It had been so long, the feeling was almost completely forgotten, but a glimmer of it was there.
He never would have guessed taking in a fox would reconnect him with people.
Chapter 5: Separation Anxiety, part one
The most important thing the picnic had cinched for Nikko was that, despite the human faces and bodies, the program's students were animals. All the other teachers felt so, to the point of not thinking any more of the students mating at the park than they would of two cats – actual, furry cats – going at it. The students were learning to be human, yes, but they weren't there yet.
It meant, without a doubt, that the growing feelings Nikko had toward Knight were wrong. They were wrong and despicable, and they were a recipe for heartbreak, because Knight could never feel the same way.
He had to put a distance between them, to keep his feelings from spiraling out of control. He had to draw a line between teacher and student, and be strict about it.
He started two nights after the picnic, after he had made his decision. After they had gone to bed in their separate rooms, as Nikko always insisted they did, he stayed up and waited. And when Knight carefully pushed his door open, Nikko put on his strictest voice, warning. "Knight."
"It's dark..." Knight replied quietly, a protest, though he didn't try to come any further into the room.
"Go to sleep. When you wake up, it won't be dark anymore."
Somehow, Knight's voice became even quieter, saying "It's lonely..." Nikko was surprised he even heard it, and it was a much harder point to address.
"Well... You'll have to get used to it."
"Knight. Maybe someday I'll bring someone home who I'll want to be alone with. Then you will have to sleep alone. You should get used to it now."
"Someone... Someone else? Another student?"
"More like... Like a boyfriend or lover. Okay?"
"Oh..." He couldn't see Knight's face in the dark, but if it were nearly as crestfallen as his voice, Nikko may have relented.
Strict. Strict. Strict. "Do you understand?"
"Y-Yes," Knight responded, followed by a choked "Yiff."
"Good. Now go back to your room and stay there. Go to sleep."
Knight whimpered, and Nikko almost took it all back right then. But then the fox whispered "Okay..." and backed out of the room, closing the door gently behind him.
Nikko breathed a sigh, one high hurdle jumped clear. He turned over, onto his side, ready to spend his first night in months sleeping alone. His eyes closed, silence and calm again blanketing the dark apartment.
Until, through the thin wall that separated them, the heart-wrenching crying began. Knight's devastated sobs tore through the night like a gale, carrying a world of pain and loneliness and sorrow. Gods and angels alike would weep at the tale of woe Knight's cries told.
Nikko pulled his pillow over his head, pressing it to his ears as his tears began to fall.
Knight didn't try to come into Nikko's room the following night. He didn't cry either, or if he did, it was too silent for Nikko to hear. It was good, Nikko told himself, repeated like a mantra. They were on their way to becoming proper teacher and student. And if his bed suddenly felt a little too big, he would get over it. He had spent years sleeping alone in that bed, bringing it with him from his old apartment when he moved to the current one. He would get used to it again.
He should have put his foot down about this from the start. It would have saved him a small handful of sleepless nights.
Other new rules were imposed as well. Most of them were rules Nikko gave to himself. Knight wasn't allowed to stand too close or hang off of him – especially when Nikko was cooking – and they couldn't cuddle on the couch when watching TV, because teachers didn't do that with their students. Nikko berated himself every time his fingers itched to seek out Knight's tail or hair – no petting, no cooing, no jerking off while thinking of Knight. Proper, proper.
Knight never questioned the change, seeming to trust Nikko completely, but he was considerably more subdued. He still smiled when he did well with his studies, but his eyes didn't light up like they used to. When they went out shopping with Ginger and Penny, Buck and Gus, one Saturday afternoon, Knight just followed quietly, ignoring the other students' bickering and complaining about having to hide their ears and tails. When Penny latched onto his arm, Knight snapped at her, but was otherwise silent. Even when Buck paid for a new outfit of Knight's choice, to make up for the one Gus had ripped, his only response was a barely-heard "Thank you."
When they went to Buck's house for coffee afterward, Knight turned down the invitation to play, only sitting on the couch and staring out the window while Penny and Gus attempted to destroy each other at Mario Kart.
"Is he okay?" Ginger asked, tossing a worried glance to Knight through the doorway that separated living room and kitchen.
Nikko's eyes fell, staring at the dark coffee in front of him. He clasped the mug with both hands; it burned. "I think... he's mad at me. I've had to be a bit strict with him lately."
"He doesn't seem angry; he seems depressed."
Buck cut in with "He looks like he's lost weight."
"Why have you been strict?"
Nikko's gaze moved from the coffee to a spot on the table, unable to look at the other two. The weight of their accusations, their judgment, pulled his shoulders down into a slouch. "It's just... I've..." Then he scowled. "He's been annoying. He's always underfoot, when I'm cooking, when I'm cleaning, when I'm working. It's a pain." It was a complete lie. Nikko never once found Knight's constant presence annoying. "I'm trying to establish some boundaries."
There was a beat of silence, then another, and then Ginger softly said "Well, I hope he feels better soon."
The grand opening of a new school year had Knight further withdrawing. No doubt being left home alone all day added to the loneliness he was already feeling, but Nikko didn't know what to do for him. He had to work, and it wasn't like he could take Knight to the school with him. When he suggested that Knight spend the days with Penny or Gus, Knight turned the offer down. He only wanted to be around Nikko, and it was as heartbreaking as it was affirming that this needed to be done.
It wasn't exactly easy for Nikko, either. He worried about Knight constantly, spacing out at the most inconvenient times, wondering what Knight was doing, if he would be okay, if he would still be there when Nikko came home. So caught up in his concern he was, he lost track of his script in class. He tripped over his words and misspoke; he introduced a lesson on Ancient Egypt by talking about "The child pharaoh, King Butt," which the kids found hysterical. At least he could make them smile, even as they affectionately nicknamed him 'Professor Buttertongue'.
If nothing else, in the very least, Knight was still there to greet him when he came home every day. When he pushed the apartment's mahogany door open, he would find Knight waiting for him at the end of the short hallway that bottlenecked from the doorway to open into the living room. Usually Knight would nod with a small pout. They would greet with 'I'm home's and 'welcome back's. Until one Wednesday evening, Nikko returned to find Knight in tears, and he immediately dropped his bag and rushed to the fox.
"What's wrong!?" Nikko asked, eyes scanning Knight's body for injuries. There were band-aids on Knight's fingers, applied haphazardly, half of them crumpled or hanging off his knuckles. "Did you get hurt?"
"I-" Knight sniffled as fat tears rolled down his cheeks. "I'm sor- Yiff. Sorry."
The only answer was Knight bursting out in loud sobs and pressing his bandaged hands to his eyes.
"Knight, I-" A lump corked his throat, dry and tough to swallow, but he got it down. "I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong."
Knight moved a hand to silently point into the living room, and Nikko followed the lead, slipping past Knight in search of what, exactly, was so distressing.
He found it immediately.
In one corner of the living room, near the large, glass door that led out to the balcony, the carpet had been shredded. Off-white shags of yarn were strewn about the area like snowfall; torn fragments of what was once pristine rug seemed to spell out 'You're not getting your deposit back'. The dirty wooden floor beneath showed its naked self, gouges bared like scars.
Knight had taken up a new habit – digging.
Nikko turned to the sniveling fox hiding behind the entryway, his heart breaking again and again when Knight cowered at his approach. But his touch was gentle as he took Knight's hands, analyzing the poor attempt at first-aid. It was a tremendous effort to keep himself from kissing the battered fingertips. "Did you hurt yourself doing this?" And when Knight only nodded and sniffled, Nikko gave him a downy smile. "Come on. Let's fix you up."
He led Knight into the bathroom and had him sit on the closed lid of the toilet while he perched himself on the edge of the bathtub, first-aid supplies at the ready. Then, one by one, he took Knight's fingers and removed the band-aids. Underneath, Knight's fingers were torn and red, blood smeared from where his nails had torn. One nail was ripped half off, and even Nikko winced as the bandage was eased off. Knight's instinct to dig didn't seem to have conferred with his human body. Unfortunately, it was the body that suffered the consequences.
The dangling remnant of nail was clipped away and peroxide was applied to clean and disinfect. Each finger was given the same careful treatment, delicately re-dressed in Johnson-and-Johnson's finest. The worst ones were swathed in gauze. Knight's cries had dwindled to sniffles and whimpers, and when he gulped, Nikko looked up at him, meeting red-rimmed, yellow eyes.
"I... I didn't mean to," Knight said, voice forced. "I didn't realize what I was doing, and then it hurt and I saw what I did and... And..." He trailed off into a keening whimper that probably would have turned into sobs again if Nikko hadn't put a hand to his cheek.
It was soft and warm. They'd had barely any physical contact since Nikko made the decision to put distance between them. He missed touching Knight; he missed the energy that flowed between them when skin pressed to skin. He wanted so badly to stay just as they were forever – he wanted so badly to lean forward.
Body warming with blush, Nikko yanked his hand away.
"It's okay." Nikko's eyes pulled away. "You couldn't help it."
"I won't- I won't do it again. I promise."
"Okay." It took a sheer force of will not to reach out and finger Knight's soft hair, comb through his limp tail, kiss his downturned lips. "It'll be okay."
It wasn't okay.
The following day, Nikko returned home to no Knight, and his heart leapt into his throat so hard he almost puked. There was no way to mask all the fear in his voice as he called out a weak "Knight?"
A moment later the tip of a black horn and a single yellow eye peeked around the corner. Nikko breathed a premature sigh of relief, and then the crying started. "I- I- I broke-" Knight couldn't speak through the sobs, and he really didn't need to.
"Are your hands okay?"
Knight stepped into the entrance hall, hands held out. Most of the band-aids were gone, crimson fingertips almost glowing with visible pain. The two wrapped in gauze were still protected, the cushy bandaging secured by medical tape. Perhaps they should all be done up like that, though it would make feeding himself difficult.
"Okay," Nikko said, again and again. "It'll be okay." Because he didn't know what else to say.
Then it was back to the bathroom, Nikko making it a point to not even glance at the living room as they went by. The fingers were again cleaned and dressed, now five of them bad enough to need the thick gauze. Afterwards, he sent Knight to bed for a nap, promising a nice dinner when he woke up. Only when the door to Knight's room was softly shut did Nikko go to inspect the damage.
The new rips were right next to the old, making one big hole in the carpet. The strands of rug that were cleaned up the night before had been replaced, and the area was dotted with blood.
Nikko's eyes went wet as he began to clean up again. He just didn't know what to do for Knight. The digging was due to anxiety, that much was obvious, but it wasn't like he could quit his job. And he couldn't let Knight start sleeping with him again. He had hoped with time Knight would get used to the new arrangement, but instead he seemed to be getting worse, leaving Nikko at a loss.
His own tears fell to the carpet, mixing with the drops of Knight's blood.
Over the weekend, Knight seemed fine. Or, as fine as he had been, anyway. While on Friday Nikko didn't even need to say anything when Knight greeted him with a hung head, leading him straight to the bathroom, immediately reaching for the gauze that he hadn't bothered putting away, on Saturday he didn't wake up to the mess he expected. Instead, he woke up to a mess in the kitchen. A blanket of dark sand spilled over the counter and floor, three crumpled filters littered like decoration, and a pouting fox sat on the floor, sniffling while trying to comb coffee grounds out of his tail with fingers trapped behind layers of bandaging and tape.
Nikko actually smiled at the scene. "Thanks for the attempt."
There were no other incidents all weekend. Knight didn't dig – didn't even look like he wanted to – and by Sunday afternoon his fingers were healed enough to replace the gauze with thinner band-aids. By Sunday evening a new rug had been bought to cover the digging spot.
By Monday evening, the rug had been flung aside and more of the carpet and flooring shredded. Knight's fingers were bloodied and raw; his whimpers were of pain, fear, and self-loathing.
"We'll do something about this," Nikko promised as his thumbs rubbed circles into the backs of Knight's hands. "We'll figure something out."
He hadn't felt this lost since junior high school, when he realized there was probably more to his desire to see the most popular boy in school blatantly naked than a want for friendship. When it occurred to him that he just might be gay, a million and seven questions bowed before him, and he gave each of them fair attention over the course of his life. Some of them he still hadn't gotten to, like if he would ever get married, if he would have children, if he would be lynched in a mob. Some of the questions were difficult to answer, taking much of the time he offered, but finally received resolution. He came out to his family in high school and was eventually accepted after the initial shock had dissipated.
He didn't even remember that popular boy's name anymore, which was almost funny, considering what a catalyst he was. Nikko snorted a laugh, not that it was really funny, as he stared blankly at the scratching pad for cats in his hands.
"Is it really that amusing?" a voice asked from beside him, making Nikko jump.
Dark axinite eyes flecked with laughter smiled down at Nikko when he looked up. A gorgeous grin stole away Nikko's voice, leaving him mute.
It was the hot veterinarian from across the street.
Hot Veterinarian From Across The Street chuckled, even as he apologized. "Sorry to frighten you. You just seemed lost."
"N-No, I..." Awkward struck again. "Thought of a funny joke suddenly."
"Perhaps you'll tell it to me someday."
"Ah... I would probably ruin it."
The guy smiled deeper, chuckled again, voice like a soothing summer day. Then he said "You live in the building across from mine, don't you? I've seen you around."
"Yeah... And you're a vet, right?" When a dark brow was raised at him, Nikko's eyes turned away, cheeks warming. "I've seen you around as well..." Then his eyes widened, darting back to the handsome face before him. "I mean, I've seen you at the animal clinic. I'm not, like... a stalker or something..."
"I figured that was the case." Sometimes Nikko hated that it was so easy to tease him. At that moment, though, he didn't mind so much. Not if it allowed him to see those perfect, white teeth. "I'm Darryl," those teeth said. "It's nice to finally meet you."
"I'm Nikko. It's... nice to meet you too."
"What kind of cat do you have?"
"Huh?" Not the most intelligent sound he had ever made. And when Darryl gestured to the scratching box still in his hand, Nikko finally remembered where he was. "Oh! No, I don't have a cat. Actually, I have a- A fox." Kind of. "A fennec fox." Sort of.
"Wow." Darryl's face somehow managed to brighten further, his love of animals shining obvious. "They're pretty rare."
"You have no idea..."
"I've never actually seen a fennec before. Do they need scratchers?"
"Ah..." Nikko looked at the thing again, then set it back on the shelf. "Actually, he's started digging, and it's tearing up the carpet. I was looking for something that would keep his hands- ... Paws busy."
"Have you tried a covered litter box?"
"I don't think he'd fit..."
Darryl's head tilted a bit; his brow crinkled. "Fennecs are pretty small, though, aren't they?"
"Knight is big for a fennec."
The smile and amusement came back in force. "His name is Knight?"
Nikko could feel his cheeks flush further, and he became positive Darryl would soon be convinced he was a lobster-hybrid. "Yeah... Because he tries to act tough."
A hearty, brilliant laugh drew a smile to Nikko's own face. "Well, let's go check out the dog section. I think they have sandboxes for little diggers that might work for Sir Fox."
They were able to find a suitable box, one that would fit well in the apartment, giving Knight enough to play with, but wouldn't be in the way. Darryl was kind enough to drive Nikko to a hardware store to pick up a bag of packable dirt and a narrow tarp to control any spillage, and then drove him home. He offered to help carry everything up, shining axinite telling how much he also wanted to meet the purported fox, but Nikko refused, citing a messy and embarrassing apartment. There was no way Nikko was about to let the man meet the fox hybrid.
Before Nikko could exit the car, Darryl's voice hitched up an octave to say "This may be a bit forward, but..." Then he paused, glanced away for a moment, showing something other than complete confidence for the first time. It was charming. "Are you seeing anyone?"
For a long time, Nikko wanted to hear that from someone. He had even dreamed of hearing it from this man. That hint of interest; that promise of more to come; that prayer, a twin star for each of them. Hearing it now, at last, after so long without any sparks coming his way... Nikko wasn't nearly as excited as he had thought he would be. There was no giddiness, no elation, only an instant worry about Knight.
It was because of that worry that Nikko answered with "No, I'm not." Because he wasn't seeing anyone. He wasn't seeing Knight – he never would be; he never could be. Knight was an animal, Nikko's student and kind-of pet, and teachers didn't date their students, and they certainly didn't date their pets. "I'm single."
Darryl's smile gleamed. "Then, would you like to get coffee sometime?"
Nikko's own smile was timid. "Sure."
Numbers and smiles were exchanged, with a heaping serving of thanks on Nikko's part for the help and ride. Then, with the sandbox and tarp under one arm and bag of dirt under the other, work bag across his shoulders, loaded like a pack horse, Nikko lumbered his way up the three flights of stairs to his apartment.
Knight was waiting for him, as usual, when he opened the door, and the heavy heartbeat he should have felt minutes ago finally began to thud in his chest at the sight of a miserable fox. "Sorry I'm late," Nikko started as a greeting. "I was looking fo-" Then his heart stopped completely, the pervert. "Where are your pants?"
"In the bathroom," Knight answered. The length of his shirt was the only thing keeping him from being indecent. "I couldn't get them back on because of my fingers." Each of Knight's fingers had been covered in gauze and tape, divesting him of any dexterity, but also preventing further damage to the abused digits. He had been left with sandwiches and carrot sticks, finger foods and juice boxes with the straws already inserted, and strict instructions not to try holding anything glass.
Nikko couldn't help a small smile. His fox was too cute.
Too... too cute.
His smile dipped as he told Knight "Go get them. I'll help you."
Knight turned and headed into the apartment, his tail hanging limp behind him. Nikko began to drag his purchases in, leaving the bag of dirt by the door to carry to plastic sandbox and tarp to the living room. The carpet didn't have any more damage than it had the previous day – the gauze worked well; even if Knight had dug, there wouldn't be any more effect than if he had hit the spot repeatedly with a pillow. It worked, but it wasn't a long-term solution. Knight could never live independently with permanently taped fingers; he couldn't graduate; he couldn't leave.
Knight returned just as Nikko broke open the plastic wrapping that contained the tarp.
Nikko took the bundle from him and fished the trunks out of a pant leg, not even using up the energy to wonder how they got in there. "Turn around," he instructed, and when Knight did he crouched down, holding the underwear open in spread fingers. "Now step in." Knight did so, and Nikko pulled up the trunks, thumbs wrapped around the elastic waistband. He got a glimpse of Knight's bare ass as the cloth rounded the soft globes, eyes lingering too long on that precise place where the fox tail grew out of human flesh. It made Nikko's cock jump, and he bit his lip. His hands made a wide berth in front, making sure all of Knight's bits and pieces were covered before setting the elastic against the fox's waist. He just had to feed Knight's tail through the hole they had sewn in before they moved on to the pants, which were a much easier affair.
Once dressed, Nikko turned Knight's attention to the sandbox, speaking as he opened and laid out the tarp over the damaged portion of carpet. "I hope this helps. Since the digging is instinct, perhaps diversion will be more effective."
"Oh." Knight watched on, clearly not understanding what Nikko meant, which was just as well, since Nikko hardly understood it himself. It was Darryl's solution to the problem Nikko had outlined, and he trusted the suggestion of a vet, even if Knight wasn't quite the same as Darryl's usual patients.
The sandbox was placed on the tarp, looking like any other pet owner's setup, and then Nikko fetched the bag of dirt. Knight watched curiously as the box was filled, and then Nikko waved him over.
"Here," Nikko said, running his own hand through the dirt, balling a clump of the coarse grit in his fist. It was rather soothing, he had to admit. "When you feel the need to dig, dig in here. It'll feel better on your fingers."
Sitting next to the box, Knight dug his bandaged fingers into the dirt, pulling up handfuls and letting them fall again. Then his other hand dove in, raking through the dark soil, seeming to take great pleasure in moving it around. It made Nikko smile, hopeful. This just might work.
"How is it?"
"I like it," Knight replied, tiny smile coming to his own face.
"I'm glad." He really was. "And don't worry about making a mess." The carpet would have to be replaced if he ever moved anyway. "Just be sure to wash your hands afterward."
Nikko stood, brushing his hands off against each other. "When your fingers are healed more, we'll take the gauze off and you can try it for real."
"Okay." Then Knight looked up at him, a measure of relief in his yellow eyes. "Thank you, Nikko."
He wanted to touch. He wanted to touch so bad, to run his hands through that uneven hair, to pinch a foxy ear between his fingers, to tug on that twitching tail that bled caramel over the white carpet.
Instead, he grabbed up empty wrapping, holding it in a too-tight grip as he smiled.
Chapter 6: Separation Anxiety, part two
The call came on Friday.
Knight's digging box seemed to be working so far. On Wednesday evening they took the gauze off his fingers, with Nikko inspecting the torn nails and skin. They were healing nicely, scabs and new skin growing quickly to replace what had been ripped away. On Thursday, Nikko came home to a few granules of dirt in the carpet, but by and large the area was clean. Knight proudly proclaimed that he had used the box when the urge to dig hit, and had even cleaned up after himself. Nikko rewarded him with a quick pat on the head and an extra serving of meatloaf.
On Friday morning, Nikko secretly hid some chocolate sealed in a Ziploc bag and a card praising Knight deep in the dirt to act as positive reinforcement, a reward for digging in the box instead of the carpet.
On Friday afternoon, his lunch break was interrupted by his cell phone buzzing in his bag, indicating an incoming call. There was a flash of worry as Nikko dug his phone out of his bag, afraid that Knight had some kind of emergency. He couldn't think of any other reason someone would call him at work.
It was Darryl.
Surprise coursed through Nikko as he pressed the icon to answer, greeting with a tentative "Hello?"
"Hey," Darryl greeted. "Am I calling at a bad time?"
"No... It's fine. I'm on lunch right now."
Both the relief and the smile were evident in Darryl's rich voice. "Oh, good. I was afraid I would end up bothering if I called during the day."
"Nah... You have impeccable timing."
"Awesome." Darryl's chuckle was like honey. "So, would you be up for coffee tonight?"
Nikko ran though everything he had to do, which was nothing. Nothing that would justify refusing. He could pick up some take-out on the way home to feed Knight and probably have enough time to change his clothes and freshen up a bit. "Yeah," he said at last. "I'd like that."
"How does six sound?"
"Great, it's a date then."
Nikko's grip on his phone tightened. "Is it?"
"Is that alright?" There was no tension in Darryl's voice; no awkwardness. Only patience, as if he knew what he was getting into with Nikko.
Two heartbeats and a breath passed, and Nikko answered, "Yeah. It's a date."
Darryl's vocal smile came back. "Alright. I'll pick you up at six, then."
"Yeah, I'll... I'll be waiting outside."
They hung up, and Nikko was left staring blankly at his phone until the bell rang.
He came home to the rare sight of Knight smiling, and it made him miss the days when Knight smiled all the time.
Knight held up the card Nikko had buried, polka-dotted with dirty fingerprints. "Nikko! Thank you for this! It-" He started to cry then, silent tears spilling down his cheeks, leaving Nikko at a loss. "It made me really happy."
Ah. These were tears Nikko could handle. "Well, you deserve it for being good."
"I'll be good!" Knight rushed forward as he spoke. "I'll always be good! So-!" But he stopped when Nikko took a step back, pressing himself against the door.
Knight would say he would be a good boy, so please let him back into Nikko's bedroom, Nikko's bubble, Nikko's life. He would say he was sorry for whatever it was he did to make Nikko stay away from him. He would accept any punishment, any atonement, if Nikko would only cuddle with him again.
But Knight hadn't done anything wrong. Nikko was the one at fault. Nikko was the one who couldn't see an animal for an animal, couldn't keep his thoughts about an animal appropriate. Nikko was the problem, and Knight had to suffer for it, because Nikko had no idea what else to do.
"I- I bought some kung-pao chicken from the Chinese place for dinner," Nikko said, gathering himself and stepping past Knight into the apartment. "Tonight I'm going out with... with a friend, so it'll be a little early."
Knight had followed him to the kitchen, but stopped at the entryway and watched Nikko take the styrofoam boxes out of the bag he carried. "A friend?" Any trace of smile Knight held before was gone. "Is it Ginger?"
"No," Nikko answered. "It's a friend I met the other day."
"Is it... a lover?"
Nikko's face warmed and he turned to pull some plates out of the cupboard. "Not... yet. Maybe someday, but... We only just met."
"Someday?" Knight's voice was a whisper.
"Maybe." When he turned back around with plates in hand, however, Knight was gone.
He sighed, dished out the cheap Chinese food, and carried the plates to the dining table. He found Knight in the living room, chin resting on the armrest of the couch as he watched the purple-painted sky out the sliding glass doors. They ate in silence, and then when Nikko retreated to his room to change his clothes, Knight didn't follow. He rarely did these days.
As he exchanged his suit and tie for a gray sweater and slacks, Nikko wondered if he should call the date off. Knight was clearly upset, hurt, and lonely. But this was something they both needed to learn how to navigate, and making phone calls was far too terrifying besides.
He would make it up to Knight, somehow. He would buy him clothes or toys or take him somewhere or something.
Six o'clock neared. Nikko passed by the living room, found Knight back to laying on the couch. The TV was on, but the fox wasn't watching it, attention turned back out the window.
"I'm leaving now, Knight."
"Okay." Knight didn't bother to look at him.
"I have my cell phone, so if you need anything, just call."
"Knight..." He let out a breath, thought about cancelling the date again, then walked out the door.
Darryl was already waiting for him at the bottom of the building's stairs, looking sharp in a long, black coat. He stood up straighter when Nikko approached, and after a longer glance asked "Is everything alright?"
Nikko had to wonder what he looked like right then, to prompt such a question. "Yeah," he answered. "Everything's fine."
"Are you sure?" He began leading the way to his parked car.
"Yeah," Nikko said again. "I just... think Knight is mad at me for leaving him alone again."
"I see. Separation anxiety?"
"I think so, or something like that."
"How did the sandbox work out?"
"Like a charm," Nikko replied, a hint of a smile coming to his face.
They talked their way to the car and they talked through the drive. They made it to Starbucks and talked there, too, about animals and fifth-graders and families. Nikko learned that Darryl was married for a short time – no kids – until he finally came to terms with his sexuality. Darryl learned that Nikko hadn't spoken to his own family in two years. They talked a lot, got to know each other well, and every step of the way Nikko was sure Darryl would get that look on his face indicating he had just really realized exactly what he had gotten himself into before politely excusing himself and leaving in a hurry.
Instead, they had to be politely told by the staff that the place was closing.
When they were back at the bottom step of Nikko's apartment building, Darryl gave a soft, sweet smile. "So... Can I kiss you? You can say 'no' if you want; I won't be offended."
"Yeah," Nikko replied slowly, unsure. He was anxious to get back to Knight, worried that he had left the fox alone for longer than he had meant to, but he also wanted to pursue this thing with Darryl, for his sanity, if nothing else. "It's okay."
And Darryl moved in, invading Nikko's space, breathing Nikko's air. The kiss was short and tame, plush lips pressing gently into thin. It was a kitten's paw of a kiss, and then it was over. They stared for a moment, a meeting between brown eyes, faces close, and then Nikko stepped back.
"Th-Thank you, for tonight. I had fun."
"Me too," Darryl said, smile glowing like embers. "Can I call you again?"
"Yeah. Please do."
"Alright." Then Darryl began to back up, a twinkle in his axinite eyes and silly grin on his face as he tried to hold Nikko's gaze, all of which was ruined when he backed into a bench. Nikko held back outright laughter, managing to keep it at a polite giggle as Darryl somehow majestically kept his balance and righted himself.
Nikko watched until Darryl was at his car, parked at the curb of the street that separated their buildings. When Darryl was seated behind the wheel, Nikko finally turned and headed up the stairs.
The apartment was the same as it had been when he left, hours before. He could hear the TV on in the living room, but no foxes appeared to greet him.
"Knight?" Nikko called softly as he stepped further into the apartment. No response came, and his heart sped up, numerous awful things flitting through his mind in an instant, until he reached the living room.
Knight was asleep on the couch, curled into a ball, most of his face buried into his fluffy tail. He was breathing deeply, oblivious to Nikko's presence.
For a moment, just for a moment, Nikko allowed himself to be weak. He kneeled by the couch, gazing at Knight's sleeping face. There were tracks running from the softly closed eyes into the depths of the furry tail, a treasure map made up of Knight's tears. It broke Nikko's heart, and he reached up to run a finger over Knight's cheek, which led the way to his hands raking through Knight's hair. He rubbed a soft fox ear between his thumb and forefinger – his Knight was so beautiful – but when the urge to lean over and kiss that furred ear hit him with an overwhelming force, he let go and stood up.
A blanket – plaid, blue, synthetic-fluff – was pulled from the back of the couch, laid over Knight. The sleeping fox didn't stir.
A week passed, then another, and then maybe another or more. Nikko continued to see Darryl. They went out every Friday night, sometimes Saturday too. An occasional Tuesday, Wednesday. Their relationship progressed slowly. Being a gay, interracial couple brought on a share of stares and sneers, and it took a few dates for Nikko to grow comfortable enough to let Darryl take his hand in public. Though Nikko spent a few dinners at Darryl's apartment, they hadn't had sex yet, but Darryl was patient and kind and never asked or pressured him about it.
Darryl did ask about when he would get to meet Knight, though. After weeks of dating, he had of course caught on to how important Knight was to Nikko. He clearly wanted to meet what he thought was a small, furry animal. Nikko had no idea how to tell him that his image of Knight was surely very wrong. If their relationship continued to progress, Nikko decided, he would explain everything and introduce them, but for the time being, he dodged the suggestion that he play host one of these nights. He claimed his place was messy, or being repainted, or that he had accidentally left food out for too long and the whole place stank of rotten fish. He lied, and then offered to pay for dinner at a family restaurant instead. If Darryl was suspicious, he never said anything.
And Knight. Knight continued to withdraw. His smile was extinct but his tears were in abundance. He continued to lose weight, picking at his meals with little interest, despite Nikko's insistence that he eat more. His studies were okay, but even praise for a job well-done brought little reaction from the fox. Nikko worried about him so much, he spent his nights half sick.
Nikko didn't know what to do for Knight. Several times he considered calling Jack for advice, but each time he became so terrified that Knight would be taken away from him that he didn't dare. In the end, in an attempt to ease Knight's loneliness, Nikko called Ginger and asked if she would babysit for a night, just as a trial, to see how it went.
Ginger and Penny arrived with smiles and 'my pleasure's, and for once Nikko was able to go out with a small measure of comfort.
His ease came too soon.
Dinner had just been placed in front of them when his cell began its tune, and with a brow creased in curiosity, he tossed an "Excuse me" to Darryl while fishing the device out of his bag. His chest squeezed painfully in fear when the display showed Ginger's number.
"You need to come home," she said straight away after Nikko's tentative greeting.
"What happened?" His stomach dropped; it was a good thing he hadn't eaten yet.
"Knight bit Penny."
"What!?" Nikko was already on his feet, grabbing for his coat.
"He's really agitated and I don't think he should be alone, but we need to go before a real fight breaks out. Please, just come back."
"I'm on my way." He shoved his phone back into his bag and pulled out his wallet, hands shaking so hard it was difficult to keep hold of anything. The whole time, he sputtered apologies to Darryl. "I have to go. I-I'm so sorry. I'll make it up to you." He pulled several bills out of his wallet, far more than the cost of dinner, but he didn't have time to figure out the tab, and he didn't want to dump the cost on Darryl. He practically slammed the money on the table in his frantic haste.
"Knight is- He's in trouble."
"Oh, my God." Darryl stood too, genuine concern in his voice. "Is he sick?"
"No," Nikko answered, throwing on his coat, flinging his bag across his shoulders. "But I- I need to check on him."
"Do you want me to drive you?"
"No. I-" He was wasting time. "I've got to go. I'll call you."
Then he bolted, tearing out of the restaurant and towards his apartment building as fast as his twig legs would take him. He didn't even have the wherewithal to worry about how rude he had just been to Darryl, how it probably would have actually been faster to accept the ride. He didn't know what he would find when he got home, he just knew he had to get there, now.
He was out of breath when he reached his door; his hands clawed at his key, trying to get it in the lock, but he dropped it. Cursing, he kicked the door, a tiny tantrum, before bending to pick the key up.
The door opened, then, Ginger holding it for him as he slid in past her. "What happened?"
"Pen just wouldn't leave him alone, so he lashed out and bit her. Got her arm."
Nikko's throat choked up and he stepped into the living room. Knight was on the couch, slightly curled, his tail bristled and stiff. His chin was tilted down and his eyes were narrowed, glaring death at Penny, who was on the other side of the room, growling and holding a blood-stained towel to her arm. But when Knight saw Nikko come into the room, his eyes widened, fear and shame darkening the yellow irises. His head dropped, lying in a tight ball on the couch, and he covered his face with his tail.
With a faint sigh, Nikko turned to Penny. She had stopped growling, but her face rested in a deep frown, nose crinkled. "Are you okay?" Nikko asked, but the only response he got was a whip to the face with long, blonde hair as Penny whirled and stormed off towards the door.
"She'll be fine," Ginger said, taking up her leather coat from the arm of the couch. She gave a smile to Knight, but there was no way he could have seen it with his entire face hidden behind his fluffy tail.
"I'm so sorry about this," Nikko said. "If there's anything I can do to make up for it..."
"Don't worry about it." Ginger put a hand to his arm, smile sad, but sincere. "It's partially her own fault. I told her to leave him alone, but she wouldn't listen. I'm sorry I couldn't control them and it ended up ruining your date."
Nikko thought of Darryl – lovely, kind Darryl – and felt sorry at last about how embarrassed he must have been, being run out on like that. He wouldn't blame Darryl if he never wanted to see him again, but Nikko, for once, trusted that wouldn't be the case. Not with Darryl. He would have to make it up to him.
He apparently had to make a lot of things up to a lot of people.
Nikko shook his head. "It's not your fault. We just..." He looked over at Knight, heart breaking over the still fox. "We just need to figure this out."
"Well, good luck." Ginger smiled again and patted his arm. "Call me and let me know how he's doing, okay?"
With agreement, thanks, and a wan smile of his own, Nikko saw Ginger and Penny out the door.
Knight was still in his ball of sorrow when Nikko returned to the living room. "Knight," Nikko said, trying to sound strict. "Knight, you can't do that." There was no response. "Why did you bite her?"
"She bothered me too much."
"Knight, this isn't like you. What's gotten into you?" As if he didn't know. "I thought you were a good boy."
Finally, Knight unraveled, uncurling and standing up in a flurry of fur and grace. "If I'm a good boy, then why-!" His fists clenched and the fire in his eyes wavered, flooded with tears. "Why do you leave me alone all the time!?" Then he bound over to his sandbox, flinging himself to the ground and burying his fingers into the dirt. In an attempt to comfort himself, Knight's hands clawed at the soil, digging deep trenches before ultimately gripping clumps of dirt in tight fists and falling forward. He landed face-first in the sandbox, his arms moving to wrap themselves and dirt around his head, hiding.
Nikko could only watch his fox have a breakdown, trying desperately to hold on to himself. "Knight-" he croaked, and then finally managed to make his feet move. He kneeled beside Knight, hands reaching, but held back from touching. "Knight, I'm sorry. I know you've been lonely; that's why I invited Penny over."
"I don't want Penny!" Knight raised his head just enough to yell, dirt and mud covering his face as his tears dripped to the box below. His fists pounded once into the soil. "I want Nikko! But-! But Nikko doesn't want me anymore!"
"Yes, I do!" In ways Knight could never understand, and it was terrifying. "I do want you, Knight. But I need to be around humans sometimes, too."
"I want to be human!" Knight was facing him now, tears pouring a flood down his cheeks, mud-drops falling to the hopeless carpet.
"I know," Nikko said. "That's why you're here, to become human. And you're doing so well. Someday, for sure, you will be human and then... And then you'll leave me, and I'll be the one left alone. So before then, I need... I... For now, while I have a chance-"
"No!" Knight stood then, hurt and betrayal in his yellow eyes. "I will never leave Nikko!"
"Knight... You'll have to. That's how it works. You know that."
A whimper escaped from Knight's throat, and then his brows drew into a scowl. He shouted "No!" once more, and then bolted, running to his room and slamming the door behind him.
Chapter 7: Separation Anxiety, part three
Nikko turned his head, pressed his face into the strong shoulder beside him. It wasn't the body he really wanted to be leaning on, but it was there and it was warm and it was normal.
He had barely seen Knight at all since their fight a week before. The fox just stayed in his room, refusing to answer Nikko's calls. The few times Nikko barged into Knight's room to check on him, he found Knight in bed, staring at him with orphan eyes. When Nikko tried to talk to him, Knight's only response was to roll over, turning his back to him.
He was worried sick, hardly able to sleep at night, relying on a constant supply of coffee and energy drinks to get him through the day. The only thing keeping him going were the small, dirt fingerprints he would find in the kitchen and bathroom when he came home from work, so he believed Knight was at least eating during the day.
Darryl hadn't been angry about being ditched, bless his heart. And he understood about Nikko not wanting to go out during the week. Nikko agreed to go out on Friday, though. He needed a distraction to calm his nerves and settle his turmoiled stomach, at least for a little while. So they went for coffee at their Starbucks, kept their conversation off of foxes and on world news and recent scientific discoveries, and then they headed back to Darryl's place for dinner.
But always – always – in the back of his mind was Knight. He was pretty sure Darryl knew it, too, even if the other man didn't bring it up. Darryl didn't force him to talk, for which Nikko was eternally grateful, and when they settled on the couch, Darryl put his arm around Nikko, held him close, and didn't mention the teardrops that soaked into his crisp dress shirt.
Nikko leaned up and kissed Darryl's neck, his jaw, the bottom of his lip. The quiet, still comfort wasn't enough of a distraction. He needed more, needed to be taken out of his mind completely.
"Take me to the bedroom," he whispered, more forward and desperate than he had ever been in his life.
Darryl pulled away a bit, eyes searching Nikko's face. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. Please. I... I need you."
For a long time, what seemed like forever, Darryl studied Nikko, as though looking for some kind of confirmation. In the end, though, he was only a man, and eventually he gave in, scooping Nikko up with ease and carrying him to the dark bedroom.
And as Nikko was laid upon the bed, he worried. He worried as his sweater was pulled over his head and his pants slid free from his body. He worried as touches and kisses were caressed across his body, warming him and making him rise. He worried as slickened fingers entered him and stretched him, and he worried through the tearing of foil and snapping of rubber. He worried about what the punishment for his transgressions would be, yet each and every time Darryl paused and asked if this was alright, if Nikko was sure, his response was always a "Yes," or a "Keep going," or a "Please."
He only stopped worrying when Darryl finally entered him, pushing in slowly, with the utmost of care. The burning pleasure pulled his thoughts away from everything but the intense feeling of being filled. And when the gentle, careful thrusting took up a steady rhythm, Nikko couldn't think of anything at all. His arms and legs wrapped around the body above him; his lips kissed any bit of flesh that came close enough. He panted and moaned involuntarily, and he heard his own voice say lewd things – "Yes, right there." "It's so good." "Harder!" – without his permission.
Darryl's thrusts became less gentle. He sat up on his knees, pushed Nikko's knees to his chest, pounded into the raised and exposed hole. It was perfect. The only things in Nikko's head were hot pleasure and the erotic sounds of flesh slapping flesh, rocking him out of his mind and into a world where only physical gratification existed.
He was mewling in pleasure when Darryl's hand moved to take hold of his cock, and then Nikko screamed out his orgasm, hands clutching at the sheets beneath him as he painted the night white.
Hardly a few thrusts later, Darryl's hips pressed one last time, lodging himself inside Nikko and grunting out his own release. And then the room went quiet.
Nikko's body was gently lowered to the bed. Darryl's softening dick slowly pulled out, and he moved away, presumably to toss the condom. Nikko hadn't even caught his breath before the week's – month's? – stress and fatigue caught up with him, pulling him fast asleep.
He woke up at a time that was too early to say he had spent the night, too late to say he hadn't. Darryl lay next to him, looking handsome even in his sleep, and the covers had been pulled over them.
By all rights, it would have made perfect sense for him to roll over and go back to sleep, but the incessant, gnawing worry that he had been carrying for weeks had returned, chewing a hole in his gut and pulling him out of the warm bed.
Darryl woke up while Nikko fumbled into his clothes in the darkness, his honey voice thick with sleep as he asked "Are you leaving?"
"Yeah, sorry. I... I need to get home."
"Do you want me to walk you there?"
"No, it's alright," Nikko answered, even as Darryl slid from the bed and pulled his boxers on. "You should go back to slee-" He cut off when Darryl embraced him from behind, burying his face into Nikko's hair. They were silent a moment, and then finally Nikko said "Thank you, for everything."
It felt so final.
Darryl walked him to the door, Nikko gathering his things along the way. They kissed, Darryl promised "I'll call you," and then Nikko turned and left the apartment across the street behind.
It was still dark outside; a cool autumn wind rustled Nikko's coat as he hurried to his own building, like icy fingers that pricked at his spine. The street was an intermission between scenes, and he wondered what he would find in the next act.
There was one light on in the apartment, which was strange, and no Knight to greet him, which was regrettably less so. It would be totally normal for Knight to be asleep at this hour, but the single light shining in the depths of the apartment had him calling out softly "Knight?" No response came – expected – and he continued into the living room.
His heart stopped. Fear and panic ripped through him, tearing at his soul, and for a moment he knew what it felt like to lose everything.
Knight lay face down on the living room floor, four paces away from his beloved sandbox. He wasn't moving at all, not a breath, not a flutter, and his complexion was deathly pale. And, god, when did he get so thin?
Nikko dropped everything in his hands as he rushed to Knight's side, shaking the immobile fox and crying out "Knight! Knight!" There was no response, no pained moan or injured grunt, no words or sighs. "Knight, wake up!"
Vision going blurred, Nikko sat back, hands stilling as he tried to calm himself and think.
Leaning down, Nikko listened. It was barely anything, but there were soft pants of strained breaths. Knight was alive; he was breathing, but overall unresponsive. With trembling hands, Nikko rolled Knight over, unbuttoned his pajama shirt, and put an ear to the fox's chest. His heart was beating softly; that was a good sign, but Nikko was no doctor.
Nikko's own breaths came in sharp gasps. He had to keep himself together. There was no way to get a hold of Jack at this hour, and the facility itself would be closed even if there were a way to drag Knight's limp body there. The care guide listed a 24-hour phone number for emergencies, but as soon as Nikko had his phone in hand he froze.
If he called, they would know what a screw-up he was. They would take Knight away from him, and he was selfishly not ready for that to happen yet. He needed Knight.
But if he didn't call, he could lose Knight in an even worse way, and a loud sob escaped from him as he punched his code into the phone's unlock screen.
He didn't deserve Knight anyway. He had abandoned Knight, pushed him away because he couldn't deal with his own feelings, left him alone, and now Knight lay dying and he didn't even know if he should call a doctor or a-
He dropped his phone and was out the door before it even hit the ground.
Nikko pounded on Darryl's door without mercy, crying and yelling to please open up. Darryl looked startled and concerned when he flung the door open, asking with wide, axinite eyes "Nikko!? What's wrong!?"
"Knight is sick! He's not moving and he's hardly breathing and I think he's dying! Please! Please help him!"
"Okay, okay." Darryl's voice was controlled, as though he understood the situation. He likely encountered desperate pet owners on a regular basis; his instant professional demeanor calmed Nikko by the barest fraction. "Let me get dressed and grab some things."
"I'll be right back." Then Darryl disappeared.
Nikko paced in the building's hallway and it seemed like a millennium had passed before Darryl rushed out the door, dressed in dark sweats and carrying a black bag. He had the door locked in a flash, and then they both took off running.
He didn't think about anything as they flew. He didn't think about how he was going to explain Knight to Darryl; he didn't think about how they might not be able to do anything; he didn't think about how it might be too late, and how it would be all his fault. He just ran, leading the way, moving faster than he ever had in his life.
Knight hadn't moved in the moments he had been gone. Of course he hadn't. And without looking back to spare a single glance at Darryl, Nikko dropped by his side again, stroking hands over his face and pleading "Knight. Knight, please wake up. Please."
"Yes," Nikko answered, looking up at Darryl with desperate eyes. "Please help him."
"I thought he was a fox."
"He is. Please!"
Darryl looked a blended mixture of stunned and as though he just realized the person he had been dating was mental. "Nikko... That's a human."
"He's not human." A fresh batch of tears spilled hot down his face as he lifted Knight's head, wrapping fingers around one of the soft fox ears. "Look. These are his ears, and he has a tail. They're real, I promise! He's- He's a hybrid. A science experiment. I promise I'm not lying. I promise he is a fox. So-" He sobbed, choked, croaked out one last "Please..."
Darryl's jaw set and, despite whatever was going through his head at the moment, he nodded and moved forward. "What has he been eating recently?" His hands moved over Knight's body, feeling for something only a doctor would know. He pressed fingers to Knight's forehead, then slid them down into Knight's mouth, along his gums and tongue.
"I don't know," Nikko admitted. "We had an argument last week and I haven't-" He swallowed a lump. "I haven't seen him eat anything at all. I assumed he was feeding himself, but... he's gotten so thin..."
"I doubt he's been eating. Fennecs- If that's what he is..." He glanced at Nikko, but continued. "Fennecs are desert animals, and they don't need to drink water at all. They get all their hydration from the food they eat, but he's severely dehydrated." The he stood again, moving to pull his bag over as he instructed "Put him on his side and take his pants off."
"I need to take his temperature."
Of course. Of course. It was a standard procedure, and even if Knight had a human mouth, he couldn't exactly hold an oral thermometer under his tongue while unconscious. Nikko knew that, but he still flushed with embarrassment as he followed the orders. There wasn't time to be shy. He yanked the flannel pajama pants down, slid Knight's trunks to his knees after, and pulled the limp body onto his side, whispering "I'm so sorry, Knight. I'm so sorry..."
Darryl returned with a prepared thermometer, and there was a crystal clear moment when absolute belief spread through his eyes as he looked down at his patient. But all he said was "Hold his tail out of the way," as he kneeled back down.
Nikko gathered up the furry tail and held it tightly, averting his eyes while Darryl went to work, gazing at Knight's slack face. His free hand ran through Knight's hair, pulling his bangs away from his forehead a moment before moving to cup his cheek. He only turned away when he heard the electric thermometer beep.
"He's got a fever," Darryl announced. "Let's put him on the couch. We'll put a cool towel over him, then try to get some fluids in him."
"My- My bed would be better," Nikko said. Then he added "It's bigger."
"All right." Darryl stood, taking Knight up easily in his arms. "Where is it?"
"Down the hall there, last door on the right."
"Okay. You get a large towel and soak it in cool water."
Nikko did as told, rushing to saturate his largest bath towel, not sparing a thought to the water that spilled onto the bathroom floor. It became heavy and unwieldy as it absorbed the cool water, but Nikko did his best to hurry to the bedroom with the dripping cloth.
Knight was laid nude on the bed, all of his completely human body bared to Nikko for the first time. Nikko didn't stop moving to make note of it; he spread the towel as best he could as he hurried to the bed, laying the cloth over Knight. Darryl helped him arrange it, and then looked up at Nikko again. "Do you have any bottled water?"
"I think so."
"Get a bottle. And he'll need some taurine."
"Fennecs need it or they might have seizures or go blind. Do you have any energy drinks?"
"I have some Red Bull..."
"Bring that too."
Nikko was off again, gathering the drinks and returning to find Darryl taking Knight's pulse. More importantly, however, was that Knight's eyelids were fluttering. He was waking up.
Nikko practically slammed the items he carried on the nightstand in his haste to climb onto the bed and sit by Knight's side. "Knight!" He took the fox's hand, held it tightly, pressed it to his chest. "Knight, please be okay."
"Nikko...?" Knight's voice was weak, cracked, void of its usual vigor. His yellow eyes were slits, but they were opened.
"I'm here, Knight. I'm here."
Then Knight smiled, a whisper of a chuckle, and his eyes closed again. "Nikko..."
"Give him water, very slowly," Darryl said. "It'll be easier if he's at least a little bit conscious."
Nikko nodded, and together they sat Knight up, resting his back against Nikko's chest. Nikko tilted Knight's head back, brought the water bottle to his lips. "Knight."
"You need to drink water, okay? I'll give you some, so drink it properly. Got it?"
The water was tipped in, just a sip flowing into Knight's mouth. Knight's eyes stayed closed, but his throat worked as it should, taking the water in. After the first swallow, his mouth opened wider, a silent request for more, which was given.
"Slowly," Darryl reminded softly, almost a coo. But then he smiled. "I think he's going to be alright."
Nikko finally looked up, directly into Darryl's face, though his vision had gone wet and blurry again. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
"Hey, it's what I'm here for. ... Sort of."
A tiny 'yiff' came from Knight, and it was enough to make both Nikko and Darryl chuckle softly. For a while, things fell silent, with Nikko slowly giving Knight water, Knight taking it obediently, sometimes asking for more. And then, to Nikko's immense relief, Knight took a deep breath. His breathing was steadier, stronger. Darryl took his pulse again, and Knight's eyes cracked open again to watch him silently. Darryl smiled at him, drawing Knight's eyes up to his face, but then all Knight did was take another deep breath like a sigh, and then closed his eyes again.
Soon, Knight's breaths evened out and his jaw slackened, letting his mouth fall open. He fell asleep leaning against Nikko, a peace that had been missing for weeks erasing the crease in his brow, and for a long time the room stayed quiet. The only sounds were of Knight's gentle breaths, while his body, now replenished with life-giving hydration, worked at reducing the fever. And Nikko only stared, grateful beyond belief that his beautiful fox had been saved.
It was only when Darryl moved again that Nikko remembered the rest of the world.
"I may as well go," Darryl said, looking weary. His voice was subdued. "The rest is up to him, but he'll be okay."
"Nn." Nikko nodded, eased Knight back down onto the bed, and then got up to see Darryl out.
"Don't leave the towel on him all night," Darryl advised as he got his things together, cleaning the thermometer with an alcohol swab and packing it away. "Give him the Red Bull and more water when he wakes up, but don't let him guzzle it."
Nikko took everything in. Hopefully he could at least do this right. "Okay."
"The fever should break soon. I believe a fennec's core temperature is 100.8, so if you have a thermometer, you can check."
"I... just have a regular one... For the mouth..."
Darryl smirked, but it was amused. "That'll work fine, if he's awake."
"And... I think that's it." Then Darryl picked up his bag, raising a shoulder strap as if to sling it around himself, but then he paused. Slowly, his arms fell. "What... What is he?"
Nikko's eyes slid to the side, not looking for anything in particular, but ending up staring at the dark hallway that led to the bedrooms. He didn't know how much, if anything, he was supposed to keep under wraps, or if he was free to say whatever about the program. He had never been sworn to secrecy, had found the facility by chance himself, but the way everyone – even people who couldn't care less about the stares of strangers – hid their students in public gave the impression they didn't want the program widely advertised.
But Nikko trusted Darryl. Darryl was okay to tell; he wouldn't shout to the world about Knight's existence, and he deserved to know besides.
"There's a whole company of researchers working on genetic splicing. They're combining DNA, making hybrid... things. Part animal, part human. They have traits of both."
"That's... That's impossible."
Nikko shook his head. "It's not. Knight is one of them, and he's even a hybrid amongst hybrids."
"Yeah, he's also part ram."
"How did you end up with him?"
Nikko shrugged, a stilted, lapsed movement of his shoulders. "By chance. The animals are paired with people to teach them how to live as humans, and I was approved as a candidate. But..." Then his shoulders, his expression, his gaze fell. "Apparently, I'm not very good at it."
A smile sounded from Darryl, and he finally completed the movement to get his bag around his shoulder. "I think you're doing fine. You've taken care of everything that needs taking care of. You got him a sandbox when he needed it, I see lots of toys and games to keep him entertained, and I already know you're a great teacher." Nikko snorted, but didn't respond, and Darryl continued. "There was one little hiccup-"
"-And you took care of that too. And, Nikko... It's obvious he adores you very much." The smile remained in that honey voice, and it was a comfort. He tweaked Nikko's chin, then headed to the door while saying "Did you know that fennecs mate for life?" He reached the door, opened it, and spun around.
"You know an awful lot about fennecs for a guy who hadn't ever seen one before."
Darryl leaned on the doorframe. "Well, see, I met this cute guy who has one, so I studied up on them in hopes of impressing him."
It was cute, clever, sweet. Nikko's eyes pulled to the floor, his head bowed, studying his shoes in silence until he couldn't see them anymore, and then his heavy, unwanted tears began to fall.
"I'm sorry," Nikko choked out, a sob hitching his breath. "I can't- I can't do this anymore."
"Can't do what?"
"I can't see you anymore." He sniffled loud, embarrassing crybaby that he was. "You're great and wonderful and so damn nice, but I can't. I- I have to take care of him. I have to be here for him and stay by his side and- And I'm so sorry!"
There was no response. They stood silently with only Nikko's sniffles serenading them, and he didn't dare look up at Darryl. He had no way of knowing if the other man was angry or heartbroken or really just sick of him; he was almost too scared to find out.
And then Darryl's gentle, honey voice simply stated, "You're in love with him."
"No!" Nikko looked up then, eyes wide, afraid of those words. "I- I can't! He's not human!"
Darryl smiled, profound, knowing. "He's human enough."
"No... He's an animal."
"Do you really think that?"
Nikko's mouth floundered, but nothing came out. Because that was the wrong line. That wasn't in the script, and he didn't know how to ad-lib. His next line telling the audience that he knew humans and animals couldn't have romantic feelings between each other was out of place now, and all he could eventually come up with was "It's not like that..." It was lame and pathetic, but at least he had stayed in character.
Darryl's smile deepened one more time. "You deserve to be happy, Nikko." Then he turned around. "Please don't hesitate to call me if you ever need anything." He exited stage center, leaving Nikko to grip the doorframe alone.
Chapter 8: Separation Anxiety, epilogue
Warmth like sunshine wrapped around him. He hadn't felt this warm in a long time; it was more difficult staying warm since he lost his fur. Human skin wasn't as good at regulating temperature.
But when he woke up, he felt warm, and everything around him smelled good.
His body felt heavy and he couldn't really remember what happened or where he was. He remembered being exhausted; he remembered his heart hurting. He remembered being scared and alone and desperately looking for any hint of Nikko's scent.
He remembered Nikko holding his hand – so warm! – and crying for him. Nikko had returned to him and saved him, which was funny because Knight was the knight, but maybe sometimes Nikko was a knight too.
Knight opened his eyes to a sunlit room. An arm was around him, something pressed against him, and he looked down to see the top of Nikko's head. He was in Nikko's room.
His eyes popped wide and he began to squirm. He had to get out. He had to go back to his own room, or Nikko would get upset, maybe kick him out for good. He tried to slip out of the bed carefully, but the movement jostled Nikko too much, and large, brown eyes looked up at him before he even had the blanket off.
"I'm sorry!" Knight said straight away. "I'm sorry! I don't know how I got here, but I didn't mean to go into your space! I'm sorry! Please don't-"
"Knight." Nikko calmed his brewing fear with a touch to his arm as he sat up. "It's alright. I brought you here. Or, well... Had you brought here..."
He felt his ears go flat, submissive. "So... I'm not in trouble?"
"No, you're not." Then Nikko turned, his eyes looking at something on the blanket that his hands kneaded. "You... You did nothing wrong, Knight. This whole time, the way I've been so strict with you... It was because of me. I thought it would be better if there was a distance between us, as student and teacher. I thought we needed to be professional. So I pushed you away, and I'm so sorry." He looked to Knight then, and he looked so sad. "It hurt you, and it hurt me. Hell, even Darryl got hurt in the end, and it's all my fault. I'm sorry."
Knight moved then, reaching forward to wrap his arms around Nikko. Perhaps he was taking a risk – perhaps – but Nikko looked so sad, he wanted to hug the hurt away. And then Nikko hugged him back, and a smile spread across Knight's face as his tail began to twitch. He felt so warm, and he realized that warmth came from Nikko.
Finally, finally, Knight simply said "I didn't run away."
Nikko laughed and sniffled in one breath. "No. No, you didn't."
"I kept my promise."
"Yes." Then Nikko moved back, the space between them quickly cooling, though Nikko's smile kept Knight warm. "You're a good boy."
Knight's tail wagged outright, ecstatic. "So! So! So... Can I sleep in Nikko's room again...?"
Nikko snorted and shook his head, but his smile held. "You should still try to sleep in your own room, but... If you need to come in here, I... won't kick you out."
"Thank you, Nikko!" Then Knight wrapped the other man in his arms again. He was sure – so sure – that he wouldn't be alone any more.
After some moments, Nikko pulled away again. He twisted, turning to reach for the nightstand behind him, saying "Here" before turning back. He had a can and a bottle with him, and he handed the can over to Knight. "Drink this, and then this. Take your time, though. I'm going to get a thermometer. Stay here."
"Okay." When Nikko had slipped out of the bed and padded off down the hall, Knight looked at the can he had been given. None of the words printed in excited red meant anything to him and he had no idea what it was, but Nikko told him to drink it, so he did. It was sweet, fizzy, not great but not bad. He had a few gulps down when Nikko came back with the thermometer.
The drinks were returned to the nightstand and Nikko arranged himself so he was sitting on the bed, facing Knight with his legs crossed in front of him. "Hold this under your tongue until it beeps," he said as he pushed a button on the meter, and Knight nodded. When Nikko held the thermometer up, Knight opened his mouth, lifted his tongue, and let Nikko put it in place.
A staring contest ensued then, the two of them watching each other, eyes meeting and then quickly darting away. Finally, Knight asked "What about your lover?" and the thermometer fell right out of his mouth.
The thermometer was reset and placed again, this time Nikko holding it there for a moment. Then his hand moved slowly, as though afraid, to touch Knight's hair, his ear, running over his horn. Knight liked those touches. He wanted to tell Nikko not to be afraid, but he needed to keep his mouth closed around the thermometer.
Then, as his fingers played with the locks of Knight's bangs, Nikko quietly said "I'm not going to see Darryl anymore."
Knight's brows drew together, the best he could do for an apology at the moment. He may be a stupid fox, but he knew it was his fault. He was selfish, got angry because he didn't have all of Nikko's time anymore. But it was so lonely and cold without Nikko.
"Don't worry about it," Nikko said, as if he could read Knight's expression. He likely could; Nikko was really smart. "You're my number-one priority, and... I'm okay with that. More than okay; I'm glad." Then Nikko smiled, and Knight felt his own heart beat heavy with joy.
The thermometer beeped and Nikko pulled it free from Knight's lips. Looking at the small display, he announced "You've still got a bit of a fever" before sliding off the bed. "Well, we can just relax for today. Do you want to watch a movie? I'll grab my iPad."
Beneath the bedcovers, Knight's tail wiggled out of control.
It was scary being outside alone. Everything looked so monochrome and intimidating when Nikko wasn't by his side, and he hoped he could get this over with soon so he could go back home and dig in his sandbox. Maybe Nikko had hidden chocolate again.
On Mondays, Nikko had extra long meetings at work, and didn't get home until late. It made a good chance for Knight to do this. Not that he wanted it to be a secret, per se, but he did want to do it alone, even if he didn't understand himself why.
He hid in a bush, tail stiff against his leg, confined within his pants. His ears and horns were tucked under the hat he wore, what Nikko called a 'newsboy cap'. He must have looked completely human, totally unsuspicious as he parted the greenery in front of him with one hand, clutching a small package with the other.
His target came up the walkway, keys in hand, wrapped in a long, black coat with a bag slung across his shoulders. Knight had never met Darryl before, but for some reason he looked familiar. His scent was certainly familiar, in any case; that scent that had clung to Nikko's clothes for weeks.
Knight leapt from his hiding spot, landing in front of the man, who stopped dead in his tracks. They were both still for a moment – Knight had instantly forgotten all the things he was going to say – and then the man smiled and his posture relaxed. "I see you're feeling better," he said. "It's nice to finally meet you, Knight."
"You're... Darryl?" That was the name Nikko had said.
"Then... Here!" Knight thrust the package forward, holding it at arm's length for Darryl to take.
And he did take it, slowly. "What is it?"
"They're cookies. I made them myself." He had even used the fox-shaped cookie-cutter Nikko had. "Ah, but some of them might be burned..."
Darryl laughed; his smile was really amazing. "Well, thank you."
Knight shook his head. "It's to say thank you to you, because you saved my life. Nikko told me. And! And... I'm sorry..."
Darryl looked at him for a long time and Knight couldn't tell what he was thinking. He still smiled, though, so it must have been nice. When he did speak, it was with sincerity. "I'm happy to help. You and Nikko... You guys have something special. Take care of each other."
"I- I'll always take care of Nikko!" Knight said as his back straightened, standing taller.
Smile tilting, Darryl gave a nod. "I know you will." Then he raised the small bundle of cookies. "Thanks, for this," and disappeared into the building.
Somehow, Knight felt like he had gained a new ally.
He turned back to his own building, his home, wondering as he walked about what he should try to make for Nikko's dinner.
Chapter 9: Trick-or-Tails, part one
"Nikko, what's Halloween?"
He received a question instead of a greeting when he walked in the door. Seemed Knight had gotten the memo too. "It's a holiday," he answered. "Where people put on costumes and go around asking strangers for candy."
"Eh... Well, it's an old custom to celebrate the dead."
"But now it's mostly a community event, for fun." He headed towards the kitchen to see what Knight had made for dinner – a task he had recently decided was his duty – and figure out what he would have to do to salvage it. Cooking was absolutely not the fox's strong point, but he got an A for effort. Hopefully he didn't end up burning the whole building down some day.
Knight followed, tail twitching curiously. "Sounds scary."
"Nah," Nikko chuckled. "It's just for fun."
"Does Nikko get candy?"
"Not anymore. The candy is for children. They go door-to-door and say 'trick or treat', and adults give them candy." The 'stew' on the stove was more like a paste, and it held fast to the wooden spoon left in the pot. Nikko decided to order a pizza instead, and slid open the coupon drawer. "I'm too old for trick-or-treating, but I enjoy passing candy out to the kids. Their costumes are really cute."
"If I put on a costume, will I get candy?"
"M... mm..." Nikko looked over Knight's body, nice as it was. He still wasn't as built as he had been before... before their trouble spot, but he was starting to gain weight again. Evening trips to the park, where Knight was let loose to run and play on the monkey bars and jungle gym, were building muscle. His natural build – the lucky fox – would have him fit in no time. "I don't think anyone would believe you're a child."
Knight's ears drooped. "No fair..." But then he sniffed, and perked right back up again. "Nikko! Your sweet smell is coming back!"
"Never mind that," Nikko said quickly as he turned away. He shouldn't have lingered on Knight's body so much. "What do you want on your pizza?"
"But... I made stew."
"Ah... Yes, but I'm really in the mood for pizza tonight. I'll take the stew for lunch tomorrow. Is that alright?"
"I see. It's okay." Then Knight smiled broadly. "Then, I want meat!"
Nikko returned the smile. "Meat it is."
They ate right out of the box when the pizza came, and Nikko finally remembered their conversation from before. "So, did you get the message from Jack?"
"Yes," Knight answered. "Halloween party!"
"Do you want to go?"
"Um... I suppose... If it's okay for Nikko..."
His fox was observant, sometimes. It was true that Nikko didn't care for parties; he wasn't fond of new situations where he would be stuck facing new people. But this wouldn't be a completely new situation, and the people there wouldn't be complete strangers. He had met some of them before – some of them had become his friends. These parties hosted by the facility seemed to be pretty regular, and Nikko would become more and more comfortable with each one.
And besides, Knight would be with him.
"Yeah, it's okay," Nikko smiled. He had already RSVP'd with Jack when he returned his voice mail earlier in the day. "You'll have to wear a costume, though."
"What kind of costume?"
"Anything is okay. You can be anything you want."
"Then I want to be human."
Nikko smiled, amused and endeared by Knight's simplicity. "You'll have to be a little more specific than that."
"What kind of human? A police officer? An astronaut? A mad scientist? Or you can be an angel or a fairy or a vampire. Anything. For one night, you can be anything you want."
Time passed. Seconds went by, then a minute, a little more. Nikko was curious about what Knight would choose, given the option to be anything for a night. In the end, however, Knight just smiled and said "I'll think about it."
The answer, of course, was obvious.
Decked out in metal, half-plate armor that cost enough to make Nikko seriously regret saying "anything," Knight was, appropriately, a very dashing knight. While they went ahead with the bracers and greaves, they forwent the helmet, both to save money and because it wouldn't have fit on Knight's head over his horns anyway. A replica sword completed the outfit, and Knight looked amazing. Worth every cent.
What was not so amazing was that, while browsing websites for the armor, Knight got it in his head that they should do pair costumes. And what was a heroic knight without a princess to save? So, despite his initial protests, on the night of the Halloween party, Nikko found himself stuffed into an atrocious pink taffeta dress, complete with cone headdress. He really needed to say 'no' to Knight more often.
They walked to the event, which was held at a rented out hall in the city center, and through the entire trek Nikko was as pink as his dress. He received several catcalls from creeps loitering on the streets, most probably mocking, but a few possibly not. Nobody approached him, though, likely due to the tall knight escorting him, and he was glad for that.
Knight had his ears down, but his head was left uncovered. They would get stares from walking around in costumes anyway, even if it was Halloween weekend, and people were likely to assume the black horns on Knight's head were part of the ensemble. His tail was tucked into his pants for now, with a promise that they would set it free once they arrived at the hall.
Nikko started seeing people and students he recognized a couple blocks away from the event space. Though he hadn't had the chance to meet many of the other teachers at the summer picnic, he gave a smile to those he made eye-contact with, integrating himself little-by-little.
A lot of the others also seemed to have gone for pair costumes. The older lady and her two cat boys were dressed as Mrs. Potts and a pair of teacups from Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast', while the fennec girl was dressed as a maid, her teacher a matching butler. The poodles and their teachers were all done up in full-on Marie Antoinette attire, complete with white makeup and powdered wigs. Even one of their outfits must have cost as much as Nikko earned in two months. When one of the women saw Nikko in his pink taffeta, she sneered and leaned over to her gossip partner. Nikko's eyes pulled down, looking away, feeling foolish.
"Yo, Nikko!" Buck stood by the entrance of the hall, wearing plain jeans and a t-shirt that read 'This IS my costume'. Gus stood next to him, dressed in what Nikko could only guess was a Viking costume, with a plastic, horned helmet and flimsy armor.
"Gus!" At seeing his friend, Knight took off running, bounding up and headbutting the wolf's shoulder. How he managed to move so easily in the metal armor was a mystery, when Nikko could hardly walk in the stupid heels he wore.
When Nikko reached the group, Buck was patting Knight's head, saying "It's good to see ya in high spirits," and Knight beamed at the touch. Then Buck's attention turned to Nikko, and he let out a whistle. "Sexy," he said with a laugh.
"It was Knight's idea..." Nikko replied with a blush.
"Well, he knows what's up. If I didn't know what was under that skirt, I'd-"
Buck laughed, finding great amusement in Nikko's embarrassment, like everyone did.
"Nikko! Nikko!" Knight tugged at a puffy, pink sleeve, and when Nikko gave his attention, he turned, the almost unnoticeable lump in the back of his black pants dancing left and right. And without further prompting, Nikko unsnapped the fastening to open the hole they had created, feeding Knight's tail through until the long appendage was free. It went stiff for a moment, then relaxed, stretching as one would stretch a cramping leg. His ears were already up, standing at attention.
It wasn't long – only enough time for Buck to have to admonish Gus about swinging Knight's replica sword around haphazardly twice – before the distinct sound of a Harley Davidson roared up the street, pulling easily into the parking lot. Nikko saw Penny perched on the back of the bike – identifiable by the braid of too-long blonde hair snaking out from under the helmet she wore – and even from a distance he quickly recognized the Princess Leia outfit – slave version, of course.
He was already grinning when their friends approached, and so was Ginger. "I see I'm not the only one who was coerced into cross-dressing," she said, hand resting on her toy blaster.
Nikko chuckled. "Yeah, but you make a much better Han than I do a princess."
"Are you wearing bra under-"
"No." But he still smiled.
Penny had sidled up to Knight, but didn't say anything, only looking away from him. Knight looked in the opposite direction, frown touching his face, and Gus looked confused between the two of them. After kicking the dirt underfoot a bit, Knight finally said "I'm sorry... for biting you..."
"Well," Penny replied, purposely obstinate. "I don't know if I can forgive you."
"Hmm... Okay." And then she smiled, turning to him. "Only because it's you."
Knight smiled back, painted with happiness and relief. "I'm glad."
"If it were a stupid wolf, I would never forgive him!"
Gus's ears perked and he looked back and forth between them. Then, slowly, his eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute..."
"Ruka!" Penny bounced away, finding someone new to tease, giving Nikko and everyone a view of the back of her outfit. Instead of a single panel of cloth, as Leia's slave outfit should have, hers was split in two for her tail to hang through. The long fur of her tail was basically the only thing keeping her from flashing the world.
Ruka, it seemed, was the little black-haired rabbit that Penny had socialized with at the summer picnic. Nikko never did get any of the other students' names, something he resolved to do soon. Both of the rabbits were dressed as druids, wearing heavy-hooded cloaks that put their faces in shadow. Holes were cut into the hoods for their ears to poke free from, but Ruka, whose ears usually stuck up straight and long, seemed to be holding his down, like Jack always did.
Nikko guessed the young, blonde woman in a matching robe was their teacher. Penny paid her no mind as she took hold of Ruka's arm. "Ruka, do you like my outfit?"
"It's fine," the rabbit answered, hardly sparing her a glance. His voice was soft but held little inflection.
For a brief second, Penny looked put-off, but then she smiled again. "I hope we can play again later."
"Not interested." And with that, Ruka pulled his arm free and continued into the hall.
Even Nikko had to raise a brow at that. The rabbit had been so enthusiastic last time, but now had shot Penny down instantly, straightforward to the point of rude. He wouldn't have blamed Penny if she were hurt, but instead she looked pissed.
The larger, brown rabbit gave her an apologetic smile as he passed by, while their teacher said "Sorry about that" as she followed.
Angry and dejected, Penny returned to their group. "Better luck next time, Pen," Ginger said as she wrapped an arm around the retriever's shoulders.
"You could always try for the brown one," Nikko added, still unnerved by the whole idea but wanting to be helpful. He felt like he owed her at least that much.
His words, however, just made Buck laugh out loud. "That is the worst thing you could'a said."
"What?" A hot blush colored Nikko's cheeks as he blinked in confusion.
"Toto won't socialize with anyone but Ruka," Penny spat out. Nikko got the impression she had found that out the hard way. "He wants to marry him."
"They have... a relationship?"
"They're brothers," Ginger answered casually.
Nikko felt his stomach sink. "Brothers!? You mean... like..."
"Brothers from the same mother," Buck sang like he thought he was clever. Then he scowled. "Gus! Put the sword down! No! Give it back to Knight!"
Nikko's mind was still reeling. "They're brothers... But they..."
"They're animals," Ginger said. "They don't think about such things. And those two are a special case besides."
"Siblings ending up at the same facility is unheard of, much less with the same teacher. But they've always been together. According to them, they refused to be separated, even at the lab."
"They remember their time at the lab?"
Ginger shrugged. "Some do, I guess."
He had never thought about that possibility. He wondered if Knight remembered his birth, his growth. He wondered if he should ask Knight about it, or if it was a time the fox would rather forget. If it was as painful as he kept hearing, Knight might not want it brought up at all.
Before he could think on it further, though, Buck turned to the hall, inviting. "Shall we go in?"
The hall was large and decorated with cute Halloween motifs, orange and black streamers everywhere and pumpkins in each corner. Immediately next to the door was a long table stacked with food, and in the far opposite corner was a stereo playing some kind of pop music. There were round tables, some of which were already covered in jackets, purses, and bags, some of which already had people sitting at them, chowing down from overflowing orange or black paper plates. And on the other side of the door, opposite the food table, was Jack and a line of other facility workers, each in a suit with matching small witches hat perched on the sides of their heads.
Jack was the only staff from the facility Nikko had ever spoken with. He had served as Nikko's coordinator from the moment he walked in the door and into this world, but it made sense that there would be others. He hadn't noticed who was staff and who wasn't at the summer picnic, but with them all matching now, it was easier to distinguish them from the rest of the guests. Nikko wondered if they were all graduated animals, or if any of them were human. He honestly couldn't tell.
He greeted Jack, as did Knight, though with much more enthusiasm. Then Knight moved on to greet all the other staff members, calling them each by name. "Jeff! Baily! Marcus!" And each of them had a fond smile for Knight in return. More than a couple also turned their glances and smiles to Nikko, and he felt like he could read gratitude in each of their eyes. He could see their appreciation for him taking Knight in, and it made him feel strangely warm.
Though, honestly, as his own fond gaze turned to the smiling Knight, he couldn't see how anyone else could have passed up such a lovely creature.
"Nikko," Knight said as he gripped Nikko's arm while they followed Buck to an empty table. "That pumpkin is scary."
He followed Knight's gaze, seeing a jack-o-lantern carved with menacing eyes and pointed fangs. "It's a jack-o-lantern," Nikko answered with a smile.
"A jack-o-lantern. A pumpkin with a face."
"Why is it scary?"
"Halloween is supposed to be spooky."
"I don't like it."
Nikko laughed and patted Knight's hand. "Then just stay away from it. If you leave it alone, it'll leave you alone."
"Let's get some grub!" Buck and Gus both bee-lined for the food, two of a kind, while Nikko and the others followed at a more leisurely pace.
They ate and talked and talked some more. Ginger and Buck introduced Nikko to several of the other teachers and students they were friends with, and shared gossip about the ones they didn't care for as much. Nikko learned that the older woman he had spoken to before was named Alice, and her cat-boys were Ben and Jerry. There were a few years between the boys, but they got along well, with the older Ben lending a hand in teaching Jerry, who was but a kitten.
Ruka and Toto's teacher was Noella, who was actually much older than she looked. She was a professor of psychology at the nearby university, and the rabbits were actually her second set of students, having seen a trio of bunnies graduate a few years prior. She seemed to be one of the best teachers in the program, but worked exclusively with rabbits, saying she just couldn't resist their little cotton-tails.
Another man made his way up to their table, prompting Buck to stand with a loud "Ayy!" that led into bear hugs and back pats. Then Nikko was introduced to Reece, who seemed friendly enough, and Reece's dog, Axle.
He wasn't sure if he would say Axle was big or not, as he was shorter than Knight, but as stocky as Gus. His short, black hair was straight, and had two blonde spots in his bangs that Nikko's eyes got stuck on. He couldn't help it – the golden-blonde spots really stood out against the black that was the rest of Axle's hair. Then all of a sudden it hit him, and his jaw dropped. "You're a rottweiler."
Axle's brown eyes turned to him, and for a moment Nikko was afraid, until the dog smiled. "Yep."
Nikko smiled back. He liked Axle. "I adore rottweilers."
Axle beamed. He looked like he should have been wagging his tail, but Nikko realized there was no tail to wag. Axle had been docked, and it made a pinch of sadness swirl through Nikko's heart. He hated the practice, and hoped it wasn't Reece's doing. But Axle was full of a toothy grin – all sharp fangs – and said "Thanks."
Penny sauntered by then, catching Axle's attention before quickly bounding away. Axle took off after her like a shot, dodging other party-goers on agile feet as he chased his prize. So Penny had found someone to socialize with after all. Good for her.
Beside him, Knight pouted. "What's wrong?" Nikko asked while pressing their shoulders together.
"I thought Nikko adored foxes."
Ah, he was jealous. Cute. "I do adore foxes."
"But you said you adore rott- ... Rote- ... Rottwankers."
"Rottweilers?" Nikko chuckled when Knight only pouted more. "I do. I adore many things. I also adore birds and fish and ice cream."
Somehow, Knight's pout pulled down even more, and he sniffled. So before the fox started bawling right there, Nikko took his hand.
"But you know what?" Then he leaned in closer, a secret just for the two of them. "I adore Knight most of all."
Like magic, Knight was smiling again. "Really!?"
"Nikko!" Then Knight grabbed him up in a hug, knocking the headdress off Nikko's head and squeezing the air out of him.
"Knight." Nikko pushed him back, though Knight's eyes continued to shine. A furtive glance around the hall and of course nobody cared. Nobody paid any more attention to them than they did the two dogs mating in the corner. He heaved a sigh, relieved, and then ran his hand through Knight's hair, scratching behind his ears. And quietly, he repeated "I adore Knight most of all."
A butler approached their table, grabbing attention, and Nikko realized belatedly that it was the fennec-girl's teacher. He had a gorgeous smile with which he greeted their little group, and Ginger took the liberty of introducing. "Kent, this is Nikko and Knight."
"It's a pleasure," Kent said, and Nikko wondered if it were an act for the costume or if the guy really was that proper. "I remember seeing you at the summer picnic."
"Yeah," Nikko replied. "It's nice to meet you."
"And this is Tina," Ginger finished the introduction, gesturing to the tiny girl. Nikko was again struck by how adorable she was, all ears, tawny hair fluffing out.
"Good to meet you as well," Nikko said with a smile. His circle widened a bit more. "Right, Knight?"
"Un..." Knight nodded, but then turned his face away. His voice was a whisper when he said "She's a real fennec..."
Tina must have heard – she probably heard everything with those satellite dishes on her head – because she smiled, soft and kind. "Hybrids are good too." Every bit of her was as sweet as she looked.
Knight turned back, smile and eyes shining. "Thank you."
Then Kent extended a white-gloved hand to Ginger, smile charming. "I was wondering if you'd like to dance."
Ginger looked stunned and pulled a face before taking the offered hand. "Sure," she said, then tossed a grin and a wink back as she was led to where the music played.
"I'd like to dance with Knight," Tina smiled, reaching for Knight's hand. "And Gus-Gus too," she added as she took the wolf's hand as well.
Knight smiled as he was led away, saying "Nikko! I'm going to dance!"
"Have fun," Nikko called back, ignoring the squeezing in his chest. Then he turned to the other guys at their table. "Can they even dance?"
Buck laughed and gave an exaggerated "Hmm..."
"Sometimes, some of them can," Reece answered, grinning. "The more attentive ones can if they watch people dancing. Axle is a lost cause when it comes to anything other than chasing things down and knocking things over." Then he cocked his head towards Nikko. "Never play football with him."
"I've never played football in my life."
The other guys laughed. Nikko had been serious.
Nikko looked to the area where people were dancing. Ginger and Kent made a nice pair despite their contrasting costumes. He twirled her around and she laughed, moving gracefully with him. Close by them, the trio of students stood in a circle with their hands joined, swinging their arms to no beat in particular. It was a far cry from dancing, but they looked to be having fun all the same. Knight's smile was dazzling, full of happiness and fun. It took Nikko's breath away.
"Ginger sure is a looker, isn't she?" Reece said, and Nikko turned to find the man grinning at him knowingly. He thought Nikko had been looking at Ginger. Nikko's blush probably didn't help the assumption, but he wasn't about to admit whom he had really been mooning over.
"Hey, mate, you got a girl?" Buck asked. It was a topic they had never breached before; Nikko wondered if it meant he was one of the guys now. He also wondered whether or not he should let on that he wasn't interested in the fairer sex. Even though he had hung out with Buck a few times and knew the guy was fairly laid-back – and he certainly didn't seem to give much thought to Gus's apparent crush on Knight – Nikko never could be too sure. Not with humans.
In the end, he just answered "Nah, not right now. I was dating someone a few weeks ago, but..." He thought of Darryl. Darryl had been great, possibly perfect, and very astute. They had only seen each other a few times since their break up. They waved when spotting each other from across the street, each at their own apartment building, but they hadn't spoken. "But it didn't work out," he finished.
"That's too bad."
Nikko shrugged. "How about you?"
Reece raised his left hand, gold ring shining, and simply said "Married," effectively taking the attention off of himself.
"Single, kinda lookin' but not too seriously." Buck took a gulp of his punch, and then added "Got a few chicks I'd like to get to know better, but nothin' for sure yet."
"Well, that's okay," Nikko said, feeling like that was stupid. Did guys even talk like that? He hadn't boy-talked in so long; even longer since he chatted with straight guys.
But Buck only smiled. "Yeah, it is."
Before they could delve into more embarrassing things, Gus lurked over to them, listing from one foot to the other. Nikko glanced to see Knight and Tina still 'dancing', having been joined by a flushed-yet-pleased-looking Penny and Axle, and the group of them were bobbing their knees, still attempting to get the concept. Knight and Tina kept watching the humans around them, though, began copying the movements they saw. There was hope for them yet.
"Hey, Buddy. What's up?" Buck asked.
"I..." Gus continued to rock, blush touching his cheeks in a rare display of embarrassment. His hand moved to grab at his crotch. "I have to..."
"Gotta piss?" When Gus nodded, Buck set his plastic cup down and stood up. Seemed Gus really didn't know how to use a human toilet yet. "All right, let's go." And as they began heading towards the bathrooms, Nikko heard "Ya could do it yourself if you'd stop liftin' your leg."
"I can't help it."
Nikko was left alone with Reece, a man he just met and didn't know. Terror rose like bile in his throat, but he swallowed it down. He had to act like a normal person. So he asked "Does your wife help with taking care of Axle?"
"Sometimes," Reece answered. "But mostly he's my responsibility. I had him before I met her, and shit, that was tough to explain."
"I bet," Nikko said with a chuckle.
"She wants a student of her own now, but we're waiting until we move into a bigger place."
"That's a good idea."
And then silence fell. Nikko didn't know what else to say or ask, and Reece didn't seem inclined to add anything of his own. After moments, minutes, ticked by in awkward quiet, Reece took a drink from his cup and stood. "Well, I'm gonna go say hi to a few people. See ya around."
"Yeah," Nikko replied with a smile he didn't feel. "See ya."
Then he was left alone. As usual. And it was fine; he didn't expect to connect with everyone.
He grabbed his own empty cup and headed to the food table, intent on getting more punch and looking like he was just refilling his drink, not sitting alone and abandoned.
The door next to the food table was open, letting in cool October air, and it felt good compared to the stuffiness inside the hall. Voices drifted in from outside, some party-goers taking a breather, and Nikko thought that was a really good idea, until he got closer and heard exactly what they were saying.
"Well, that little slut won't win, that's for sure." It was a woman's voice, haughty.
A stereotypically stuck-up laugh responded. "Did you see that outfit? She may as well not be wearing anything at all. It'll be a hundred years before she graduates."
Nikko reached the punch bowl, filled his cup slowly, listening. Perhaps it was rude to eavesdrop, but he could tell they were talking about Penny. She was the only one there dressed overly provocative. He could also guess who the likely speakers were.
"How about the hybrid, though?" Number Two said. "He actually looks... really good."
Nikko's hand tightened around his cup, the flimsy plastic crinkling in his grip. They were talking about Knight.
"Better than our girls?" the first voice asked, offended.
"Of course not! Just... Maybe he'll take third."
"That mutt will come in dead last!" Then the voice turned dark, malicious. "In fact, we'll make sure of it, won't we?"
A dark giggle. "Yes, we will."
Then the two women slithered in through the door, startling Nikko to stillness. It was the poodles' teachers, as he thought. Victoria and Marie were their names, if he remembered correctly. They both stared at him, looking him up and down, sizing him up. Marie actually looked ashamed at being caught, but Victoria was stronger – rather, richer – and simply curled her lip.
"There's nothing you can do about it," she said, and then the two women walked away.
Nikko watched as they separated, each going to speak with different teachers, and his stomach dropped. He felt nauseous.
Nothing good would come from this.