Kickaha the foxyote helps a grade schooler with his science homework by taking him to the forest to learn about animals in their natural ecosystem.
Learning With Foxyotes
Kickaha was not the kind of person to butt into other people’s business without reason. There were many who might disagree with that statement… But what they failed to understand was that ‘because hilarity’ was in fact a perfectly valid reason. But for most! Well, for many… okay, for some mundane tasks, he knew to leave people alone. After all, he wasn’t incapable of reading the room; he was just somewhat selective about choosing to do so. And that was why on this first Saturday morning of the summer he had originally planned to walk away from this situation.
The rust colored foxyote had been crouching low against the grass outside an old two story house in the suburbs. It was one of those houses that clearly showed its age with faded paint and split driveway, but was also clearly well looked after. There was a basketball hoop hanging above the garage, a small garden of colorful flowers that never quite bloomed fully, and an honest to goodness covered front porch pavilion with an actual rocking chair sitting out on it. Seemed like it belonged to pleasant people… But Kickaha wasn’t here for the people. Though he would argue he was doing them a service.
And getting himself lunch.
The foxyote moved quietly on all fours, creeping into the side yard, the hood of his green cloak pulled up atop his ears, making him oddly difficult to focus on — an observer’s gaze would somehow slide off into the bushes lining the house. Kickaha’s ears were alert and his eyes were focused. His target was just a few feet away and hadn’t noticed him. It was a rather plump looking house mouse. Almost ridiculously so… Kickaha had to marvel at the fact that its tiny little legs could move its almost perfectly spherical body. He could see a small hole in the side of the house’s paneling that had been chewed through. He would have guessed the mouse was using that to get in and out… Except for the fact that the hole was only three inches wide. That sounded big for a mouse hole… But this mouse looked like it was twice that in width. There was no telling how many crumbs or foods it had stolen from the humans living here. It would be seen as quite the pest to the humans… To Kickaha it was a meal fit for a king. He slowly tensed up his legs as he prepared to leap upon his prey, he could already taste that delicious meat when…
A rolled up ball of paper suddenly fell from the sky and bounced off Kickaha’s head. Kickaha couldn’t help but let out a small yip of surprise… And that was all it took.
The mouse’s ears twitched, and suddenly it dove for the hole in the house. Despite what all laws of physics should have dictated, it somehow squeezed through the small opening and slipped inside in an instant.
“Seriously?” Kickaha stood up on two legs and growled in annoyance. Sometimes it felt like the universe lived for the sole purpose of getting his hopes up just to dash them. He could find breakfast elsewhere if he had to… But that one had looked so plump! So perfect. And now it was gone. Why? Because someone had decided to litter. Kickaha grabbed the paper ball and looked upward trying to see where it had come from. It didn’t take long to find the source–a window up on the second floor, with the dark brown wooden shutters thrown wide open.
Grumbling to himself, Kickaha leaped onto the trunk of a nearby oak tree that provided the house with shade. Once near the top he carefully walked out onto a sturdy branch that put him directly across from the window. He was already forming plots in his head about how he might confront the person responsible once identified. These plots ranged from just simply tossing the paper ball back at their head and running away to machinations involving monasteries run by singing yaks. His final decision would depend on whether the person responsible was generally pleasant or not… And how much they were asking for it. Except… Once he saw the person responsible he realized he couldn’t do any of those things.
On the other side of the window was a bedroom obviously belonging to a child. It had a bed in the shape of a race car, a very colorful chest of drawers, and a blue wall painted with white fluffy clouds and covered in posters of various cartoon characters. The child in question was inside the room, sitting at one of those smaller writing desks made for children, the type parents bought hoping their kids would do homework at, but seldom saw use. Against all odds, this one was seeing use.
The kid himself was a boy Kickaha probably would have considered average looking. Granted, he would consider nearly all humans average looking. How did they tell each other apart? They never had unique fur markings like the almost yellow stripe on Kickaha’s tail, cool plumage like many birds, or even expressive ears. How does one even emote without moving their ears? Humans were just… generic. And this one was no exception. He was probably about eight years old, a little scrawny honestly. Okay, sure, he was still taller than the three-foot-and-change Kickaha. The foxyote would have only gone up to the boy’s chest. But the boy still had that scrawny look of having neither muscles or even fur to puff out his body yet. The closest thing he had to an identifiable fur pattern was a neatly combed pile of short brown hair atop his head. Like most other humans, the kid appeared to be wearing those ridiculous contraptions called pants, though these ones were kind of short, going only to about the knees. He also had some kind of blue and white garment on his chest that Kickaha knew to be called a t-shirt. His understanding was that was supposed to be artificial fur, to keep humans from freezing to death. That never really explained why they still wore them in the summer months. Maybe it was to let them recognize each other — but then why did most of them wear different colors every day? Humans and their clothes. So weird.
The boy had a stack of books open on the desk next to him. Kickaha couldn’t read them from where he was, but he could see that one of them had a picture of a forest on the cover. The boy appeared to be reading through the books furiously and then quickly scratching things down on his paper. After a few seconds, he would pick up the paper and give it an intense glare. The boy made some kind of squeaky grumbling noise before crumbling the paper into a ball and tossing it over his back towards the window. This one landed in a small waste basket directly next to the window. As Kickaha looked down at it, he could see the waste basket was full, and the paper balls had overflowed onto the wooden floor, joining the more scattered balls that must have been missed shots. The boy must have been at this for several hours.
And Kickaha understood at once that it would be wrong to disturb him. It had been an accident; the boy probably didn’t even know he had done it. Of course, even with an accident, Kickaha felt like he would have been justified in tossing the paper ball at the boy and leaving… But the boy was clearly working hard on something. The foxyote may not have gone to anything humans might consider a school himself… But he understood the concept, and could recognize a child doing homework. Summer was here, which meant school was nearly out… Whatever was being worked on was likely some major end of the year project. Kickaha had committed more than a few questionable actions in his time… But he wasn’t to do anything that might make a kid fail their assignment and bring down the wrath of the ones known as parents. He silently tossed the paper ball into the pile, then turned and walked back towards the tree’s trunk.
“Arrrrgh!” The kid made another of his squeaky grunts just as Kickaha was leaving, and then he spoke out loud. “It’s hopeless. Nothing I put down is going to be good enough. I might as well accept it now, I’m going to summer school.”
Well… That was very unfortunate. Kickaha felt bad for the kid… But it’s not like there was anything he could do to help. He knew what he needed to get by, but it was doubtful that any lessons he could teach would be valued in a human school. Summer school wasn’t a fate he would wish upon anyone… But the best thing he could do was simply leave and-
“All I need… Is to write one paper about how animals live in their natural ecosystem. Why is this so hard!?” The boy slammed his head down against the chest.
“Huh…” Kickaha muttered to himself. It turned out… In this one specific case the lessons he had to teach -MIGHT- actually be relevant. Should he offer his help? Humans could be… uncooperative at times, so there was no guarantee the kid would even listen… And the boy had cost Kickaha his breakfast. He felt pretty justified not getting involved. Besides, he had a reputation for making trouble for others, not solving problems. And he had worked very hard to earn that reputation! And yet… He couldn’t bring himself to walk away from someone who needed help. It just wasn’t his nature. Besides, it might be fun. He turned back to the window before calling out. “Hey! Kid!”
“Eh?” The kid lifted his head from the table and looked in Kickaha’s direction. His eyes widened as he saw the three foot tall animal that was standing on two legs and wearing a green cloak. “Who are you?” A surprisingly practical question.
“Kickaha of the needing breakfast.” Kickaha flashed a grin. “I was passing through but… Look, I’m just going to get to the point… Do you need help with your assignment?”
“Well…” The boy seemed hesitant. “Yes… Admittedly. I need to write a report on how animals live in their natural ecosystem… But I can’t seem to figure out how to… ‘Do it in my own words.’” It was clear he was repeating that sentence from someone else. “No matter what I write, it feels like I’m just repeating the same facts in the book.”
“I see…” Kickaha moved closer to the end of the branch. He pushed down on the branch with his paws, making it sway a bit, then leaped off the branch into the window. The boy flinched slightly as Kickaha rolled onto the ground inside the house, but made no move to get up or stop him. “Believe it or not, I might be able to actually help you with that!”
“Really?” The boy seemed unsure. “But… How would you help me?”
“Do I have to spell it out?” Kickaha should probably cut the boy a break. He was just a kid… It wasn’t his fault Kickaha was constantly exhausted with the adults still being this slow. He gestured his hands down at his own body. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I happen to in fact. Be an animal.”
“Are you like a fox?” The boy asked.
“Foxyote,” Kickaha corrected without the usual attitude this time. The kid was already struggling with his biology homework. He shouldn’t expect him to be that great at mammalian taxonomy. “And as an animal I live in what would be called my ecosystem.” The boy stared at him blankly for a few moments. “And what is your report on?”
“Ohhhhhhhhhh!” The boy’s eyes lit up. “So… You could tell me what it’s like then! And then I could write that down and it won’t match what’s in the book!”
“Now hang on!” Kickaha held up a paw. He had caught a small problem in the plan. “Didn’t you say it had to be written in ‘your own words’?”
“Um…” The boy looked away.
“If you just write down what I say, those aren’t your words, they’re mine.” Kickaha grinned. “So… Instead of telling you, how about I show you! The forest isn’t a long walk from here. We could be back before sundown leaving you plenty of time to finish your work.”
“Really just like that?” The boy considered. “Technically… Mom and Dad said I’m not supposed to leave my room till I finish my report… But if I’m only gone because I’m working on the report, I don’t think they can be too mad!”
“Great!” Kickaha grinned. “Alright, let’s get going then.” The foxyote spun in place to face the window again, then in one fluid jump leaped back onto the tree branch. He turned around to look back and see if the boy was coming. It looked like he had gotten up from his chair… But he was standing by the window staring at the gap between it and the branch, eyes wide with uncertainty.
“Go down the tree just like that?” The boy asked. There was a nervous edge to his voice.
“Pretty much. I assumed that’s what it was here for. Easy access in and out the window.” Kickaha crossed his arms and studied the child. He supposed… Humans weren’t quite as good jumpers or climbers as most species. They had those useless nails in place of claws. It was only a two foot jump from the window to the branch… But even that short hop was probably a bit too much for the boy as he was now. “I see the problem… You know what, it’d probably be easier for everyone if you went ahead and got changed here first anyway.”
“Changed?” The boy tilted his head. “Are these clothes not good enough?”
“I mean they’re not, but not exactly what I meant.” Kickaha arranged the fingers form his hands to form a frame in the air as if he was looking at the boy in the picture. “Say… I don’t suppose you have a favorite animal? Preferably not a pet, something that would live in the woods.”
“A fox maybe?” The boy answered unsure why the foxyote was asking.
“Flatterer.” Kickaha snickered. “But that’ll work!” He continued to hold up the frame shape for a few seconds as he studied the kid. Then he kept his left arm in place while he waved his right hand and opened it up pointing the pad of his paw at the kid.
“What are you-“ The kid managed to ask before a beam of light struck out from Kickaha’s paw and struck him in the chest. The boy immediately began to shrink in size upon being hit. At the same time orange fur started to grow in over his entire body. The boy quickly tried to grab his shorts before they slipped off his dwindling body but froze when he saw that his hands were changing. His fingernails had become darker colored, and sharper and pads were forming it on his palms and fingertips. It turned out being for the best that he had missed grabbing his shorts, as just as they fell down around his ankles a thick and fluffy tail sprung out from the tip of his spine. Had his shorts still been on properly they likely would have ripped in two.
As the changes progressed his ears began to change position, moving closer to the top of his head as they stretched out into orange fuzz covered shapes with black tips. His nose mouth pushed outward against his face, forming a long and thin muzzle that whiskers sprung from either side. His feet were the very last thing to change, he suddenly found himself forced into standing on his toes as they stretched out longer. Black fur grew in over them just as they formed their own pads and claws like his hand. The changes were complete… He was a fox kit now, though still humanoid. He had also gone from being much taller than Kickaha to half the adult foxyote’s size.
“What… I’m!?” The boy tried to spin around in place, but most of his body was tangled up in his now far too large shirt. This only resulted in him falling flat on his face. He didn’t even notice the pain from the fall as he was still marveling at what happened. “I’m a fox!”
“Neat, isn’t it?” Kickaha grinned. “I tried to escalate the rate the shrinking occurred, get it out of the way first. You know, save your clothes from getting torn up by the changes.” It wasn’t that Kickaha agreed with or even respected the concept of being fully clothed… But he imagined if the kid went back to his parents with his shorts torn in two… Well… Kickaha wasn’t trying to get the kid in trouble.
“I… I’m really a fox…” The kid was staring in awe at himself. “This…. This is incredible!” That was nice to hear. You never could be sure how humans were going to react to both discovering magic was real, and being a new species. A lot of people, especially among adults, would have been in denial about what happened. Kickaha supposed children might just be more sensible than adults. Kids weren’t so set in their ways that they couldn’t accept new ideas that didn’t match their outlook, even when it was happening right in front of them. As for the grownups… Kickaha knew a wallaby in North Carolina who still believed they were currently a normal human suffering some sort of persistent massive hallucination. They were running a pretty successful marketing company though. Still… It was nice to see the kid not only accept the reality in front of him… But also appreciate it.
“Well, I mean you didn’t think you’d be meeting all the animals looking like you did earlier, did you?” Kickaha grinned. “Would have stood out! Now you’ll fit right in, and can talk to anyone you want while we’re there.”
“We’re really doing this…” The boy tried to get up off the floor and take a few steps. He stepped on the hem of his shirt and managed to barely steady himself by wildly swinging his arms before he took another spill.
“You might want to ditch the shirt.” Kickaha suggested. “It’s going to make it really hard to walk around, and it’s kind of a dead giveaway that you’re really human.”
“You mean I should walk around naked?” The boy asked.
There were several ways Kickaha could have responded to that. But… Unlike some other people he knew he had to acknowledge humanity’s attachment to clothing even if it seemed so silly. He decided to give a simple explanation. “You have fur.”
“Huh…” The boy thought about this for a moment as he looked down at himself. After a few seconds he came to the conclusion that indeed having fur was not the same as being naked and quickly squirmed out of the shirt. He climbed up to the edge of the window but then stared down at the gap uncertainly again.
“Relax, it’s easy.” Kickaha spoke in a soothing voice. “You weigh a lot less now, so jumping is quite a bit easier! And your new claws will help you grip the branch so you don’t fall. And… Worst case scenario… I’ll catch you.”
“Promise?” The boy asked.
“Look… Kid, what’s your name?” Kickaha asked.
“Um, it’s Tony…” The boy responded.
“Alright, Tony… Let me be clear.” Kickaha held a paw over his heart. “I promise I will not let you come to any harm on this trip, including but not limited to threats such as falling from trees, uncooperative rodents, poisonous plants or bigger predators that want you for lunch.”
“Wait! Something might eat me!?” Tony took a step back.
“What? No!” Kickaha explained. “I…. I just told you that that exact scenario is not going to happen! Look, I mean, aside from the fact that I like to think I’m clever enough to avoid all those dangers… I did just literally prove not two minutes ago that I am in fact a qualified practitioner of the Art of magic. If anything bothers you I’ll turn it into a mouse or something. It’s going to be fine.”
“I… Um…” Tony looked down at the ground, at his new size it looked like an even further drop. He then looked over at Kickaha, then back at his report, and finally down at his own fur covered body. The realization that he was having an actual novel experience, and might never have a real adventure like this again was what finally let him make his choice. He climbed up onto the windowsill, steadied himself, closed his eyes, and jumped.
“Tony.” He heard Kickaha say his name after he abruptly stopped moving through the air.
“Yeah?” Tony didn’t open his eyes and stayed perfectly still.
“You made the jump, Tony.” Tony could feel the foxyote pat him gently atop the head.
“Y… Yeah…” Tony muttered, eyes still closed.
“But you’re going to have to open your eyes and actually unhook your claws from the branch, or we’ll just be here all day.” Kickaha’s voice was as gentle as he could manage.
“Ah!” Tony slowly opened his eyes. He had indeed made it onto the tree branch. His arms were currently wrapped around it in a death grip with both his hand and foot claws pressed so tightly into the branch that cracks were slowly growing out from those points. The fox kit slowly relaxed, releasing his claws from the tree as he managed to very shakily stand up on two legs. “I… I actually did it.” He seemed amazed with himself. He looked back at the gap before the window and looked thoughtful. “I don’t suppose it’s possible to learn to turn into a fox more often?”
“Enjoying yourself already?” Kickaha couldn’t help but smile. He wasn’t sure how things were going to go when he first made his offer… But it seemed like he was going to get along alright with the kid. “It’s not impossible… I mean magic isn’t easy, but it can be studied and learned, same as any other lesson. But perhaps we should focus on the lesson at hand first, and look into that at a later date.” Kickaha slid off the tree branch and began to descend the tree with his claws.
“R-right. The paper…” Tony was still a little nervous as he started his own climb down the tree. He was a lot slower than Kickaha, pushing his claws into the trunk of the tree, testing his weight and then only going down a step when he was sure he wouldn’t fall. It wasn’t quick… But he did make it down on his own.
“Right then, forest is this way!” Kickaha pointed past the end of Tony’s backyard. “I’ll try to introduce you to as many of my neighbors as possible so you can get an idea of how everyone lives. Most of them are good people. But… The two squirrels in the tree across from me. Don’t let them housesit. I did that one time, and came back to find all my plants dead.”
“So… wait… animals take vacation?” Tony found himself wishing that he had something to take notes with… Though he supposed that would have made it impossible for him to look like a natural fox.
“Some do.” Kickaha nodded. “I personally like to travel a bit. Gets boring always working with the same targets.” Tony seemed to let that one go without question as Kickaha continued to talk as he led them on. “Got quite a few neighbors who are real characters… Let’s see, just nearby, aside from the squirrels, there’s a bear, a bluebird, oh and a very nice family of raccoons.”
Tony hung on Kickaha’s every word throughout the conversation on their way to the forest. During the stroll he was also taking the time to get used to his now fox-shaped body. Being so much shorter meant it took more steps to get places, and he wasn’t used to walking on his toes. At first, he was constantly lagging behind Kickaha, partially due to still being unsure of himself in this new form, and partially because he kept looking over his own shoulder trying to watch his own tail. By the halfway point he was keeping an even pace, his tail swishing idly as he walked upright. By the time they reached the forest he was constantly bounding ahead of the foxyote. He easily switched between walking on two and four legs and his tail was wagging a mile a minute. He would occasionally just pounce a random leaf laying on the ground before rolling around in the grass with a fit of giggles. It was clear he was enjoying his enhanced agility with the form, and by this point no one watching would have seen him as anything other than a normal rambunctious fox kit.
After a few minutes Kickaha held up a paw indicating he needed a pause. There was a large mound of dirt on the edge of a grassy hill between two trees. The mound appeared to be the entrance to a sizable hole in the ground.
“Welcome to my home.” Kickaha gestured towards the mound. “Like many other animals I live in what you’d call a burrow. You can come inside for just a second, I want to grab a thing real quick. Something of a gift, for starting your first lesson today.” Kickaha climbed up the dirt mound before disappearing inside.
“Wait first lesson?” Tony looked up from where he was crouched on all fours, somehow his tail began to wag even faster. “As in we’ll get to do this again?” That idea seemed to excite Tony more than the suggestion of a present. He quickly followed after the foxyote, but paused once he dove into the burrow. The scene before him… It simply wasn’t what he was expecting. He had pictured this as just mostly being a dirt filled hole… And while the floor and walls were certainly made of dirt, the inside was surprisingly spacious and had the appearance of a modern day living room. There were a few bookshelves, two vacuum cleaners for some reason, a couch sized appropriately for creatures of Kickaha and Tony’s size, and even a small painting of a brightly lit cave overlooking the sea. It was just so normal, once you put aside the fact that the light seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere. “Whoa… It’s just like my home.”
“Don’t act too surprised. Many of us animals are creatures of comfort too!” Kickaha called from another room he had disappeared to. “Though sadly it means we also get door to door salesmen too now. In the woods. In the 21st century.”
“Is that related to why you own two-” Tony started.
“I don’t wanna talk about it!” Kickaha shouted before returning to the room holding a green ball in his hand. “And found it! This is for you!”
“A… Tennis ball?” Tony’s ears twitched to the side as he stared at it uncertainly.
“A Spherical Mouse Simulator.” Kickaha’s voice was completely serious.
“R… Right…” Tony judged it best not to question him.
“Look, you’re studying animals and ecology right?” Kickaha fixed him with a stare. “I’m sure you’ve gotten to the part about how humans don’t exactly play nice with our natural habitats.”
“Well um…” This was indeed a concept Tony was familiar with. It took on a new context though when the displaced wildlife you read about in books was now inviting you into his own to help you with his homework. Even if he hadn’t done anything himself he couldn’t help but feel guilty. His tail and ears sagged.
“Whatever you’re feeling bad about, it’s probably not an incorrect fact.” Kickaha noted the physical reaction. “But many of us animals are clever in our own way, and we’ve learned to enjoy the fringe benefits of living close to human society. Crows and raccoons raiding trash cans. Rodents moving into your house and eating your crumbs. And of course, the thing no fox, coyote or foxyote upbringing would be complete without.”
“A tenn-” Tony caught Kickaha’s look and corrected himself. “A Spherical Mouse Simulator?”
“It’s a proper training toy for hunting. Try pouncing it when you have time, you’ll find it a far trickier foe than a leaf.” Kickaha nodded. “And once you can catch it no matter how it bounces,, you’ll be ready to hunt a real mouse.”
“I… I don’t think I want to hunt mice.” Tony looked a tad disturbed.
“Really?” Kickaha tilted his head. “But they’re one of the few meals that are both healthy and tasty! Do you know how rare that combination is? No wonder your houses are full of them — you’re missing out on nature’s delicious bounty!”
“Pretty sure I’m not going to eat a mouse…” Even if Tony was physically a fox right now, he still preferred his home cooked meals served by Mom and Dad.
“Really? Huh, maybe it’s a kid thing these days…” Kickaha literally could not comprehend Tony’s objections. “Well you can still keep the Spherical Mouse Simulator. Even if you’re not going to hunt for your food it’s important to build basic life skills. Besides, it’s fun.”
“R… Right, I’ll keep that in mind.” Tony took the tennis ball and gripped it between his paws. It really was just a normal ball, didn’t seem to be magical or special in any way. He supposed he’d have to just try to pounce upon it later and see what happened.
“Anyway, that’s all we needed to do here! My living room is part of my ecosystem, but it’s probably not what your teacher has in mind. Let’s go meet some of my neighbors and you can get their input.” Kickaha prowled to the entrance of the living room and leaped out of the hole.
Tony attempted to follow, slightly slower due to his hands being occupied. He couldn’t quite jump as well as Kickaha and instead had to jump and grab the edge of the hole to climb out. This turned out to not quite work too well with one hand, and as he fumbled for a grip the ball fell from his spare hand and bounced against the floor.
“… Huh…” Tony’s ears perked straight up and his pupils dilated as he looked down at the ball that was now in mid-air. For the moment, he forgot what he was doing, and dropped down trying to land on the ball. It shot from his fingers as he grasped at it, and ricocheted off a wall and further into the living room. Tony took off after it on all fours, leaping over the couch to pounce upon it again. This time he managed to press the ball into the ground before flopping onto his own back and it bounced away from him again. He let out a playful growl, before climbing to his feet leaping again… And this time floating in midair. “Yap?”
“Oi.” Kickaha was now standing over Tony holding him by his scruff. “You’ve got a report to do, remember?”
“Yeeeeeahhhh.” Tony sighed as he looked to the ball as it slowly ceased bouncing and began to roll again. Kickaha followed his line of sight and nodded knowingly.
“That was my fault. That first bounce is what always gets you. I should have waited till after your work was done to give it to you. I’ll just hold it for now, and you can have it before you head home.” Kickaha tucked the Simulator into a pocket in his cloak. He was doing his best to be firm. Sure, he was also a bigger fan of playtime than study time, but someone had to be the mature adult here! And it was a surreal feeling that he was volunteering. “Now come on!” Rather than release Tony right there, Kickaha headed back to the entrance again and tossed the fox kit up through the hole before jumping up himself.
“Hey! Hey Kickaha! When did you get a kid!?” A high pitched voice called from somewhere above them. Tony looked around in confusion, until he realized it was coming from one of the trees near the burrow. There were two small figures, probably close to about six inches tall standing on the limb of the trees. Squirrels, but like Kickaha and Tony they were walking upright.
“Not exactly.” Kickaha flashed a smile. “He’s not mine, I’m just looking after him for the day. Tony, meet my neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Nutter.”
“A pun based name? Really?” Tony stared up at the two.
“He says he’s super excited to meet you!” Kickaha spoke over Tony to avoid the two squirrels being insulted.
“Awwwww, at how small he is.” Mrs. Nutter chittered happily. Tony felt like reminding her that he was still three times her size. “Still just a wee babe huh?”
“I’m not a baby, I’m in second grade.” Tony stated indignantly.
“A second grade what?” Mr. Nutter asked and Tony realized he had made a mistake. He was supposed to be pretending to be a normal fox kit.
“A second grade hunter.” Kickaha came to the rescue in an instant. “It means he’s done better than all the other kits in his litter! Really good at wrestling his siblings to the ground when they play-pounce each other! Not one can escape! That’s why he’s with me today. He’s getting more advanced lessons while his litter catch up.”
“Oh my what a frightening little cutie!” Mrs. Nutter laughed. “Well, surely you have some time, we’re just about to have afternoon tea. Why don’t you come up?” Afternoon tea with a squirrel actually sounded pretty interesting. Tony started to open his mouth but felt Kickaha’s paw on his shoulder.
“Afternoon tea is a six hour endeavor with those two.” Kickaha hissed into Tony’s ear. “I did it once, and unless you want six hours of tasting different types of nuts while sipping exactly one cup of tea it’s best to pass it up.” Then much louder Kickaha spoke. “Sorry, I have a strict time limit before I send him back to his Mom and Dad! No time for tea today, maybe next time!” Then keeping a hand on Tony’s shoulder he started to walk away. Tony took the hint and kept up.
“So… You eat rodents…” Tony brought up after he was certain they were far enough away for the squirrels not to here. “Does that mean you’d eat those two?”
“What?” Kickaha looked horrified. “No! Mr. and Mrs. Nutter are my neighbors. They drive me crazy sometimes, but I’d never do anything to hurt them.”
“But animals do eat other animals?” Tony asked.
“Yes, but I mean not just any animal.” Kickaha gave a weary sigh. He supposed it probably did seem confusing to someone who was used to getting their meat from a store and had no idea how it got there. “Look, I’m sure you’ve met plenty of animals who don’t talk or walk on two legs.”
“Yeah…” Tony replied. “I was starting to wonder if that was just like… A domestic animal thing.”
“Some animals are clever like people, some aren’t.” Kickaha explained. “To put it simply, talking rodents like Mr. and Mrs. Nutter, no eat. Dumb rodents like the mouse living under your house, eat.”
“There’s a mouse under my house?” Tony seemed surprised.
“Yes, and I’ve already called dibs.” Kickaha puffed out his chest as they continued on.
It wasn’t long before they came along a stream winding through the forest. Tony, with the combined impulse control of a child and a fox, couldn’t resist leaping into the water and splashing it everywhere. It was still a hot summer day, and even if his near ears and lack of clothes helped regulate heat, it felt nice to leap in the cool water. The stream wasn’t very deep here. The water only went up to Tony’s chest as he stood in it splashing it around.
“Having fun?” Kickaha took a seat at the edge of the stream.
“Kind of wish it was deeper…” Tony admitted. “But it’s nice to get in the water in summer! And I wouldn’t have been able to do this while human.”
“Why not?” Kickaha didn’t have any knowledge of humans having any more difficult with water than foxes.
“Because I wouldn’t have had my swimsuit…” Even as Tony said it he realized how lame the excuse sounded when coming from one animal to another. He supposed maybe animals had some advantages over humans. He didn’t get to voice any further thoughts on this before the two were interrupted by a loud noise.
“ROOOOOOOOOOOOAWR! YOU! GET OUT OF THE WATER! YOU’RE RUINING MY FISHING!”
“YAP!” Tony leaped from the water and landed crouched directly behind the resting Kickaha. The sound of the voice appeared moments later. It was a furry brown giant! It would have been bigger than Tony even when he was still human! It was much bigger than either of his parents! From his current vantage, it might have been as big as a mountain.
Fun fact: both kids and foxes are prone to hyperbole.
“Hey there Grizz.” Kickaha waved a hand lazily without getting up.
“Grizz?” This interrupted Tony’s cowering just briefly for him to look minorly annoyed. “Another one?”
“ANOTHER WHAT!?” Grizz the grizzly bear roared as it strode straight through the water right up to Kickaha and Tony.
“Is he going to eat us!?” Tony asked. “Kickaha! Quick! Turn him into a mouse or something!”
“What!?” This stopped Grizz dead in his tracks. “You wouldn’t dare do that again!”
“Again?” Tony slowly started to stand up.
“Okay first off, everyone can calm down, no one is eating or attacking anyone. Tony, this is Grizz. I told you about him, he’s a bit grumpy but he’s alright. And secondly, I never turned Grizz into a mouse. I shrunk him to mouse size. There’s a difference.” Kickaha stood up and calmly patted Tony on the head to reassure him.
“We were stuck that way for three days!” Grizz grouched as he slumped over and sat on his bottom.
“Look, that was your fault.” Kickaha crossed his arms defiantly. “You were holding me in the air by my tail, shaking me around while I was casting…”
“Because you wouldn’t keep your mouth shut!” Grizz threw up his paws. “And because of your shenanigans both of us woud up spending the afternoon on the Nutter’s coffee table for tea with them constantly insisting ‘Oh we can’t possibly let you two go out there like that! There are birds!’”
“I seem to recall you somewhat enjoying yourself.” Kickaha grinned. “Especially when you climbed into the honey pot…”
“Wait, hold up…” There was a detail about this unfolding story that confused Tony. “Kickaha, you said you shrunk him with magic… But it makes it sound like you were made small too?”
“Yes well…” Kickaha grinned. “The thing about the Art is that it is well… An art not a science. It can be unpredictable. Basic species changes usually don’t have too many problems… But magic doesn’t always behave how you’d expect it… And it often seems to have its own sense of humor.” He smiled. “And if you’re serious about learning, you’ll get to experience that for yourself! But… Hey, if you’re afraid of a few spells backfiring and a life of adventure, maybe the Art isn’t for you.”
“I… I never said that!” It was true this new knowledge did scare Tony a bit… But today he had not only learned that magic was real by being transformed into a small fox kit, but he had also learned that he really enjoyed being like this. If it meant that he could learn to turn himself and maybe a few friends into foxes or any other sorts of animals to play… He could put up with suddenly being made small or any other backlashes that came with casting.
“Hey! Stop ignoring me!” Grizz shouted.
“No one is ignoring you Grizz.” Kickaha sighed. “No one could ignore you.”
“Thank you.” The bear didn’t seem to realize that was an insult. “Now, right! What do you think you’re doing splashing all about! Some of us are trying to fish for dinner!”
“I didn’t even know fish were in this stream…” Tony stared down at his paws feeling dejected. He had just been having fun, he didn’t think he was ruining anything.
“Oh leave him alone, he’s just a kid.” Kickaha stuck up for Tony. “And I know for a fact you weren’t fishing anyway. The water is too shallow here for anything big enough that you’d want to eat.”
“There are minnows…” Grizz tried. “And you’re around, so there’s a non zero chance they may suddenly seem jumbo sized to me.”
“I really didn’t plan on that today.” Kickaha smiled. “Just showing Tony here around the forest.”
“… Are you sure?” Grizz asked. “I mean I really did come on kind of strong…”
“Wait…” Tony narrowed his eyes and stared at Grizz from behind Kickaha. “Was he -trying- to provoke you into using your magic on him?”
“W… What!? No!” Grizz’s eyes widened. “That would be ridiculous! I mean… Why would I intentionally provoke someone who could shrink me small enough for me to get lost in a honey pot or enjoy minnows as long as my own body or berries bigger than my head or…”
“He is a bear of simple tastes as you can see.” Kickaha was powerless to erase his own smug grin from his face.
“That would be utter ridiculousness! I mean! I’m a bear!” Grizz kept going. “I’m the biggest toughest thing in this forest! Why… Why would anyone like me ever like being small? Must just be… Low blood sugar, from not eating enough. I guess it’s just a shame those minnows are just so small ha ha ha.”
“Wow this is so transparent it’s just sad…” Tony couldn’t believe he had been afraid of this guy just a few minutes ago.
“Grizz my good pal.” Kickaha reached up to pat the bear on the shoulder. He wasn’t quite tall enough, and so settled for his forearm. “You know I always love playing with ya, but I’m a bit busy today! Showing Tony around and all… Oh but you should be careful around the little guy.”
“I… should?” Grizz looked at Tony as if seeing him for the first time. “Wait why should I?”
“Oh… Well, Tony here wants to learn the Art.” Kickaha grinned. “And I’m very much considering teaching him. So… You should be careful.”
“But… Isn’t the Art really hard to learn?” Grizz was staring at Tony with a strange hunger in his eyes that made the Kit uncomfortable. “Don’t a lot of new students have spells constantly go wrong before they ever learn to use it properly?”
“Oh yes, indeed!” Kickaha nodded. “It can be quite unpredictable. And I believe his first instinct when you came bounding down on us was to turn you into a mouse was it not? Who knows what would have happened had he already started his lessons?”
“Why are you setting me up like this?” Tony rolled his eyes.
“That… Would have been very unfortunate…” Grizz’s tone didn’t seem to indicate he thought that was true. “I… Suppose I should let you two off with just a warning then… After all he is just a kid… And I wouldn’t want to delay any lessons.”
“How kind of you.” Kickaha grinned. “Let’s be going Tony. Be sure to dry off.”
“Dry off?” That was right, Tony’s fur was still soaking wet. He felt like his weight had doubled with all the wet fur. “How? There’s not a towel or-”
“You’re a fox.” Kickaha reminded him.
“Right but how does a-” Tony realized the answer to the question before he asked it. “Oh! Duh!” He began to shake his entire body wildly, sending water flying in every direction. This accomplished two things. The first, which was slightly embarrassing, was it caused all of his fur to poof up. The second was that was mildly horrifying after the encounter, was that it left Grizz completely soaked.
“Ugh kits…” Grizz turned away from the two without seeking any form of retribution for the sudden onslaught of water. For the briefest of moments Tony thought he saw the bear smile.
“He likes you.” Kickaha teased and rubbed Tony’s head, pushing some of his fur down. “He likes most people. Honestly, he’s just bored and lonely and willing to be involved in just about anything. You wouldn’t know it from how he talks, but he’s actually a pretty fun person. He’s just far too proud to ever admit it.” With that Kickaha started to stroll on.
“I see…” Tony muttered as he began to pat his fur down over his body and follow.
For awhile, the two were uninterrupted as they continued through the woods. Every now and then Kickaha would stop and point at something, explaining which animal lived there or what a specific plant could be used for. It was almost starting to feel like an actual educational trip. At least… Right up until soaring blue death came hurtling out of the sky and struck Tony right in the head.
“Back, vile predator!” A shrill voice erupted from the mass of blue feathers that was now atop Tony’s head. “Thou shall throw down thy arms before I cast thee into oblivion!”
“WHAT THE HECK!?” Tony shouted and began to flail about. “What’s going on! I don’t even have weapons.”
“Annnnd Cerulean is here. Because of course she is!” Kickaha seemed to recognize the bluebird currently attacking his friend. “Cerulean! Cerulean calm down he’s not a predator!”
“Dost thou think you can lie before my all seeing eye?” Cerulean demanded. She had a grip of Tony’s headfur in her talons and was flapping her wings wildly. “I see you bear both tooth and claw knave! Lay them down at once or suffer the consequences!”
“You are screaming a lot of things and I have no idea what you from me!” Tony began to run in circles.
“Must I spell it out in the plaineth of terms. Arms on the ground!”
“Okay okay!” Tony flopped over onto his belly and laid on the ground with his arms.
“Count yourself fortunate that I am of a merciful and chivalrous stock.” Cerulean finally released Tony and flew up to the brand of a nearby tree instead. “But should thou ever raise thy weapon against me again you will find mercy doth not come twice.” The bird’s feathers fluffed up as she attempted to take on an intimidating stance.
“What just happened!?” This was by far the most confusing thing Tony had experienced all day.
“Tony, this is Cerulean. She’s a bluebird, and a little old fashioned. Cerulean, this is Tony. And he is not a predator.” Kickaha already sounded exasperated.
“Do not attempt to charm me with thy silver tongue foxyote.” Cerulean bristled with anger. “I know thy true nature trickster, and thou shall not beguile me with clever wordplay.”
“Trust me… The thought had not crossed my mind.” Kickaha sighed as his own tail sagged.
“Seriously, what is this!?” Tony was still laying on the ground.
“Cerulean recently had chicks, and she’s a tad overprotective. Doesn’t want any would-be predators getting close to them, they’re still too young to leave the nest.” Kickaha glanced around at the trees. “I was trying to avoid where she set it up last time… But well, she finds a way to move the entire thing, nest, chicks and all. I’m going to take a guess and say that means your nest is around here now.”
“Clever trickster, has thou has pierced the veil to see the truth? But in doing so thy reveals thou true intentions! Do not think I will show mercy should continue this folly and come for my clan.”
“Cerulean, we’ve been doing this weekly since you laid your eggs. I’m not after them. Look!” Kickaha gestured towards Tony. “He’s just a kit. He isn’t a threat. Just a child, and like you protect your kids I have to protect him. We’re just passing through and will be gone.”
“So you claim this one as thy ward?” Cerulean seemed to consider this for a few moments as she glanced back and forth between Kickaha and Tony. “Very well. I offer this one concession. Withdraw at once and I shall spare both you trickster and thy ward.”
“Okay, okay, I understand. We’re withdrawing.” Kickaha backed slowly. “Come on Tony, time to go. Cerulean clearly has us beat.”
“Uh… Right…” Tony didn’t need to be told twice. He scrambled onto all fours and took off running full speed past Kickaha into the woods. After a few minutes he paused to catch his breath and let Kickaha catch up.
“So that was Cerulean. I think I told you about her.” Kickaha flashed a grim smile. “You haven’t lived till you’ve seen her and Grizz get into it. Though the two have thankfully never come to physical blows.”
“She would fight him?” Tony quirked an eyebrow. “She’s really intimidating. But… Grizz is a bear.”
“Yeah, Grizz is 600 pounds of muscle. He’s no slouch when he’s actually angry angry and not just ‘please pay attention to me’ angry. But Cerulean is Cerulean.” Kickaha rubbed his muzzle as he considered the two. “Honestly, it’s a tough call on who would win.”
“Okay… Next question-” Tony started.
“Why does she talk like that?” Kickaha shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“No more questions.” Tony fell backwards into the grass and let his tongue hang out of the side of his muzzle. “Think we could take a break for a second?”
“I think you have more than earned it after that.” Kickaha nodded. “You take it easy for a second. I’ll see if there’s anyone a bit more agreeable around that you can talk to for your paper.”
“Yeah… That sounds fine…” Tony nodded but wasn’t really listening. He closed his eyes, intending to just rest for a brief moment, but wound up going into a full nap. He didn’t notice Kickaha walking off. He did however wake up when his ears picked up the sounds of two voices attempting and failing to be quiet.
“It’s a human…” A boy’s voice said. “What’s one doing out here just sleeping?”
“Is it dead? Maybe we should poke it with a stick!” A girl’s voice replied.
“Not dead! No poking please!” Tony snapped awake and jumped to his feet. To his surprise the owner of the two voices turned out to be about half his size. Each was covered in brown and black fur, with a mask over their face and rings on their tails. Raccoons, very small raccoons. By human standards they both looked no more than four years old.
“The human’s alive!” The boy raccoon shouted.
“Run!” The girl shouted. The two both turned at the same time only to bonk their heads into each other and fall over.
“Are… you okay?” Tony’s tail swished slightly in concern. Also, he noticed that he still had a tail, and was covered in fur. He was still a fox. Why did they keep calling him a human?
“The human caught us!” The boy shouted.
“What if he eats us!” The girl cried.
“Or puts us in a zoo!” The boy cried louder.
“Or makes us do tricks for treats!” The girl’s cries grew even louder.
“I didn’t get you, you two ran into each other and fell down.” Tony crossed his arms and gave them a deadpan stare. “Pretty sure you’re not even hurt and you can just get up.” The two raccoons looked at each other in confusion where they lay. Then they attempted to stand up, and seemed genuinely shocked that they were in fact unharmed.
“The human didn’t get us?” The boy asked.
“He… helped us?” The girl was in disbelief.
“Why do you two keep calling me human?” Tony had to know what it was that gave him away. “I mean… Look at me. Orange fur, fluffy tail, snoot. Fox, not human.”
Both raccoon cubs stared at him in absolute silence for a solid minute. Then they spoke at the same time. “Human!”
“Okay, so not sure why you’re so sure of that…” Tony tried to consider what to do. He looked around for Kickaha but the foxyote was nowhere in sight. “Look! Alright! So you think I’m human! But… Let’s just pretend for a bit that I’m a fox!”
“Oh! Oh! I like to play pretend!” The boy shouted.
“Me too! I’m a human!” The girl added.
“Me too! I wear pants and throw food in the trash just to mess with animals!”
“And I ride metal horses that move fast because my two legs don’t work right!”
“And my body is completely bald!”
“Except for a tiny patch on my head!” Both raccoons burst into a fit of giggles.
“That’s not what humans are like at all…” Tony had to remind himself that he was talking to toddlers and to be patient.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he’s human obviously.”
“Oof.” And that reminder that they were toddlers made walking right into that trap all the more painful. “Okay you like pretend right? Let’s… Pretend to be something else!” Tony thought for a moment. “Let’s pretend we’re mice! And we have to be very quiet and not call attention to ourselves because we don’t want a predator to find us! So very, very quiet.”
“How dumb do you think we are?” The girl asked.
“We’re not babies.” The boy replied. “Not going to fall for that one.” They were slick, Tony would hand them that.
“Is that so?” But he could adapt his plan. “Because… I’m actually pretending to be a hungry fox! And you mice made so much noise I just found you! ROOOOOAWR!” He threw up his hands.
“AHHH! RUN!” Tony wasn’t sure which of the two shouted. They sounded pretty similar. But both of them took off running. They weren’t very fast. They were quite young. Tony pursued them far slower than he could, getting close to the boy first, then leaping into the air and intentionally leaping over him and missing.
“Oh noooooo.” Tony shouted. “They’re so fast I missed.” He quickly picked himself up and burst into a fake sprint again. “But I bet maybe the other one is slower.”
“Meep!” The girl giggled as he did the same with her, leaping over her and completely missing. As he rolled onto his back in the grass after landing both cubs had to stop running as they broke into fits of giggles.
“Oh you think this is funny?” Tony stood up. “Ha! You mice don’t know anything! You’re so dumb you don’t even realize you’re big enough to take me if you worked together!”
“Hey he’s right!” The boy shouted.
“Get em!” The girl shouted.
“What, what treachery is this?” Tony demanded as the raccoon kids leapt onto each of his legs. “Nooooo, this isn’t possible. You can’t possibly defeat me like this.” He flailed his arms around for a bit and then fell backwards into the grass, all three of them laughing now.
“Well, you’re having fun.” Kickaha’s voice and then his snicker rang throughout the clearing. Tony sat up to see the foxyote coming forward with an older raccoon at his side. She appeared to be about shoulder height to Kickaha and was smiling herself. “And it looks like we found your kids.”
“Mommy mommy!” Both kids climbed off of Tony and ran to greet their mother.
“We found a human!”
“I’m not a human!” Tony insisted.
“Is that so?” The older raccoon looked at Tony for a second and then smiled. “Looks like a human to me.”
“Might as well give it up kid.” Kickaha shrugged. “Raccoons travel around humans a lot. You can change your shape, but they’ve been around you enough to recognize you by other ways.”
“You’re from that old two story house with the wood paneling, huh?” The older raccoon asked. “Its scent is all over you. Were you the one who threw out half a pizza?”
“That… was my fault yeah…” Tony rubbed the back of his head looking embarrassed. “They put pineapples on it. Who likes pineapples?”
“I do too…” Kickaha seemed almost hurt.
“Thank you so much for throwing it out.” The mother raccoon smiled. “It was the first time they got to try pizza! Was quite the special night for them.”
“Um… You’re welcome?” Tony thought that was the right reaction.
“Anyway, this is Mona.” Kickaha gestured towards the raccoon. “And I see you already met the twins.”
“Huh, her name isn’t a pun.” Tony realized he probably shouldn’t have said that out loud.
“Raccoons pick their own names.” Mona laughed. “And I thought there were enough punny animals in these woods already.”
“Oh, can I use that one?” Kickaha asked.
“So what are they called?” Tony looked to the kids.
“I’m Trash!” The girl smiled proudly.
“Nuh uh I’m Trash! You can’t have my name!” The boy objected.
“Look, everyone knows Trash is the best, and I’m the best! So I get to be called Trash! You can be Dumpster or something!”
“I don’t want to be Dumpster I want to be Trash!”
“We make them wait until they’re a bit older to pick their official names.” Mona chimed in.
“Yes, I can see how that would be wise.” Tony nodded.
“So…” Mona walked up to the fox kit and in a circle around him. “Kickaha certainly did a good job on you. Completely seamless transformation. No odd marks or anything. So what are you in for?”
“In for?” Tony didn’t understand.
“Yeah, what’d you do to offend him?” Mona snickered. “What karmic lesson is he teaching you?”
“Wait, I didn’t do anything!” Tony objected.
“Isn’t that what they all say?” Mona rubbed his head.
“Really! I didn’t!” Tony insisted.
“Well… That’s not entirely true.” Kickaha looked thoughtful. “He did hit me on the head with a paper ball.”
“So you turned him into a fox and dumped him in the forest?” Mona shot Kickaha a glare.
“Hey! You make it sound like I’m just some petty jerk who turns people into animals for fun! That’s only somewhat true! I’ll have you know he was asking for it!” Kickaha insisted.
“Because of a paper ball?” Mona seemed unimpressed.
“No I mean he was literally asking! I’m doing him a favor!” Kickaha flailed his arms.
“He’s telling the truth!” Tony quickly chimed in to defend his friend. “I have to do a report for school about how animals live in their ecosystems! Kickaha turned me into a fox so I could come out here and get material for my paper!”
“So… He had completely altruistic motives then?” Mona seemed unsure.
“Hey, I’ll have you know that my motives are always noble!” Kickaha crossed his arms and thrashed his tail. That wasn’t even a lie. Comedy was a noble calling.
“Uh huh…” Mona looked between the two. “Personally I’m not convinced this isn’t part of some greater scheme.”
“No one ever trusts me.” Kickaha pouted.
“And you are completely blameless for that and any damage that has befallen your reputation.” Mona stuck her tongue out.
“Exactly.” Kickaha nodded smugly.
“Hey! Come on human!” The boy Trash was tugging on Tony’s tail.
“Human! Hey!” And girl Trash a hold of his arm.
“Come on! Let’s pretend to be mice again!” Boy Trash pleaded.
“Well, the kids have taken a fancy to you.” Mona held a paw over her mouth to stifle her grin. “If you ever decide you’re tired of being a human you might make a decent babysitter out here.”
“I’m pretty sure I could manage that as a human.” Tony said indignantly as he allowed himself to be led away by the kids.
“Is that so? I’ll keep it in mind.” Mona suddenly had an evil grin.
“Careful, you’re walking into dangerous territory kid. They seem cute and nice now, but you don’t have to feed them or put them to bed.” Kickaha had his own experience with looking over hyperactive youngsters. Some of those experiences had ended in him being a hyperactive youngster.
“Ah come on, they’re little kids, I’m sure it can’t take much to wear them out.” Tony smiled. “Watch, they’ll get worn out from this game in a little bit and be ready for a nap.”
Time is relative. What one person considers a little bit and another a lifetime could easily the same distance. However, after the sun began to set and the cubs were still full of energy and demanding the fox try to catch them again, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who believed the two raccoons’ energy only lasted a little bit.
“No more… I surrender.” Tony found himself lying face down in the grass again. This time it was just due to exhaustion. He had been chasing those cubs too much. One of the cubs was on his back chewing on his ear and the other one clung to his legs and was biting his tail.
“Alright kids, give the poor human a break. It’s time to go home.” Mona asked.
“Do we have to?”
“Now.” With one firm note both children relented, releasing Tony and coming to their mom’s side. “Well, was nice to meet you Tony. Also, just… If it’s not too much trouble. Could you maybe throw out a few cookies before they go stale? It’d mean the world to the kids.” And with those words she was gone.
“Well… Think you have enough information for your paper?” Kickaha asked.
“I think I could write papers for the entire class at this point.” Tony couldn’t believe how tired he was.
“Then the trip was a success! Now then… We should probably get you back home before your parents realize you’ve been gone all day. Come on, up we go!” Kickaha grabbed Tony by the arm and lifted him to his feet as he moaned.
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to carry me?” Tony asked. “I’m really tired.”
“Not unless you suddenly become several sizes smaller.” Kickaha released Tony’s arm forcing him to stand on his own power.
“Is that an option?” Tony couldn’t help but think of Grizz.
“Get to walking fox boy. Fun time’s over, we gotta get you home and un-spelled, not start throwing new spells on you.” Kickaha began walking in the right direction himself.
“Awwwww.” Tony’s shoulders and tail sagged. The journey back would feel so much longer. And when it was over he’d have to go back to being human and work on a paper again. Life just wasn’t fair sometimes.
About a week later Kickaha found himself wondering back into the same neighborhood and strolling up to the same well maintained house. The mouse from last time was out again, greedily devouring an acorn that had fallen from the tree. Kickaha looked at it and gave a wry smile.
“You got lucky today, punk. You’re not the one I’m here for this time.” Kickaha studiously ignored the mouse, though he made a mental note to have another go at it later. Instead he climbed up the old oak tree and out onto the same branch as last time. The cracks from where the fox kit had gripped it were still visible.
Today, the window was shut. Kickaha suspected it might have just been too hot to leave open. He quickly grabbed a small handful of acorns from the tree and tossed them against the side of the window. He repeated this process for a few minutes until the shutters opened up. Tony, back as a human and dressed in shorts and a t-shirt again, was standing on the other side. The room behind him was much as Kickaha had seen it last, though now cleared of paper balls. Instead they had been replaced by several Spherical Mouse Simulators scattered about the floor that looked well worn.
“Hey!” Kickaha waved.
“Hey…” Tony looked downtrodden. “Sorry, Mom and Dad says I’m grounded. I can’t explore the forest or practice magic today.”
“What’d you manage to do to get grounded this time?” Kickaha tried to take on a scolding tone. Secretly, he was hoping the kid had done something good. He had a certain potential.
“I failed my biology report…” Tony replied sadly.
“WHAT!?” That was not an answer Kickaha had expected. “HOW!? I took you out there to the forest and introduced you to everyone myself!”
“Well…” Tony sighed. “My teacher says animals don’t talk or walk around on two legs. She says there’s no such thing as a foxyote and there’s especially no such thing as a magic foxyote.”
“But… I do exist…” Kickaha replied. He felt personally attacked in an existential manner. “I’m right here!”
“And I told her I had met you! But she wouldn’t believe me!” Tony threw up his hands. ”Also she says that squirrels don’t sit houses.”
“Ugh. Typical human adult.” Kickaha winced. Obviously, his teacher was so established in what she knew animals were she couldn’t accept the fact they could be more.
“Yeeeeahh.” Tony sighed. “She did say it was very creative, and let me redo the assignment. I don’t have to go to summer school at least. But mom and dad were furious when they read the paper I turned in. Said I shouldn’t joke around like that in school. Now I’m stuck in here for another week.”
“That is actually tragic and just outright unfair.” Kickaha said with absolute seriousness. “Well… I guess we can’t do another field trip today.. I would not try to override your parents’ rules.” Kickaha turned as if to leave… then paused, and turned back with a flourish. “But I’m going to assign you one more piece of homework.”
“You want me to do more work!?” Tony gave Kickaha the most quizzical of looks. He was clearly already overworked and quite frustrated by that… But there was also a burning curiosity. Whatever work his magical friend assigned was bound to be more interesting than anything he did in school.
“Here are the parameters of your assignment,” Kickaha said crisply, putting on his best academic look, though with the corners of his mouth still turned up just a bit. “We have an adult, in a position of authority, who has dogmatically and unfairly disregarded your new insights into the field of animal behavior. That demands a response. But on the other hand, the adult has shown mercy and some degree of flexibility. That requires the response to be carefully calibrated. Now, knowing that you have the assistance of a foxyote skilled in the Art, what sort of retaliatory prank would restore the proper karmic balance while still being harmless and reflecting the redeeming qualities of the prankee? Be prepared to show your work.”
“You want me to prank Mrs. Rattlebag!?” Tony’s eyes grew wide.
“Her name is Rattlebag?” This caused Kickaha to break character for just a moment and arch an eyebrow.
“What if I get caught!? And… And she’d obviously recognize me!” It was clear that Tony had his reservations. Yet… At the same time he couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement well up inside him at the very idea. It was as terrifying as it was exhilarating. “She’d send me to summer school for sure. I don’t even think she’d stop there.” He paused for a moment. “They’d invent a fifth season just to send me to more school!”
“An excellent first analysis, considering your perspective,” Kickaha got back into character, the clinical tone of his voice taking on a conspiratorial edge. “You have identified the two primary concerns of the art of covert mischief: being caught, and being recognized. Avoiding being caught is a simple matter of proper planning combined with flexibility in adapting to changing circumstances. Avoiding recognition is more problematic, especially given your kind’s obsession with gadgets like cameras. But tell me this… Isn’t a sufficiently good disguise the key to avoiding recognition? And is there, perhaps, another student at your school, who might deserve a little karmic comeuppance as well?”
Tony became silent as he appeared to be deep in thought… A state that Kickaha noted with a fond smile did not last very long. Tony’s face stretched into a grin that the foxyote would have described as equal parts genius and impish. It was clear he had a couple of ideas and opened his mouth to speak.
“Don’t answer yet,” Kickaha held up a paw to interrupt him. “I’ll be back in a week. Be prepared to explain your theories, and then test them in practical application. And remember, a passing grade on your biology paper is a prerequisite to my course. Plan your week accordingly. Class dismissed.”
And with that, the game was afoot. Kickaha pulled his hood up, turned and leaped through the window in one fluid motion. If he was going to be the enigmatic mentor type it was important to put the time into making a proper exit. Rather than land on the branch like usual Kickaha dropped straight down, grabbing onto a drainage pipe to avoid an unfriendly meeting with Mr. Ground. The move was by no means difficult, but from the kid’s point of view he would have seemed to just have jumped out and vanished. A large part of Kickaha wanted to stick around, spy on the kid for a bit and see what he started to come up with… But he knew that wouldn’t be fair to Tony and resisted the urge. Instead he’d head back to the forest for a bit and…
Kickaha froze as that plump mouse came out of its hole directly beneath where he hung on the drainage pipe. Did that really just happen? Maybe the universe had actually thrown him a free one as some form of karma for helping the kid out? Kickaha supposed he would hang out here for just a bit longer… Just until breakfast was over.
Back in the bedroom Tony was back at his desk again. He shoved his school books aside and pulled out several new sheets of paper. He stared at them for a few seconds, impatiently tapping his pencil against the desk. Then he smiled, and wrote a title to his forming plan.
‘Operation: Field Trip.’