“Ana, I need you to bring some more plates outside.”
“Un minuto mama,” called Ana from her room.
“Ana,” her mother said with a note of exasperation.
“Sorry. Yes mom, just give me a minute.”
Ana came down adjusting the pink skirt her mother had picked out for her earlier that morning. Normally she didn’t mind Ana speaking to her in Spanish, but whenever there was a large family gathering it was a point of pride to have her daughter speak only English with no trace of a Spanish accent to be heard. Ana thought it was strange, considering her mother's accent was very thick, but shrugged it off as yet another way her mother was strange.
Her father came down right afterwards, carrying several speakers to set up on the patio. “Angela,” Fernando asked his wife, “Did Rina let you know if she was coming?”
“Titi Rina might come?” Ana squealed.
“Yes,” her mother said. She looked at Fernando and said, “And Catarina is bringing el loco.”
“El loco?” Ana asked, picturing a man in a straightjacket with foam in his mouth while he laughed like a maniac.
He then turned to his wide-eyed daughter. “He’s just an eccentric friend of your Aunt Rina’s, probably no crazier than you are mihijita."
“Sometimes I wonder which one of us has the crazier family,” Angela said. “Though it’s always funny when she’s in the same room as your sister Natalia. She’ll probably be crossing herself all day once Titi Rina arrives.”
“Because family is family,” Angela said. “Now go on and get those platters out there.”
The guests began arriving shortly after Ana’s father finished setting up the sound system. The lively music only made Ana more restless as she waited for her Aunt Rina to arrive. After dutifully kissing and hugging every aunt, uncle, and cousin she sat and picked at her food until she saw her come through the patio doors, carrying a gift bag and accompanied by the person she presumed her mother called “el loco.”
“Titi Rina!” Ana yelled, deserting her plate and propelling herself into her aunt’s arms.
“Reinita!” Rina answered, hugging her niece. Rina’s wavy, dark hair was swept back from her face by a large, colorful swath of fabric. Stifling a giggle, she noticed her Aunt Natalia look their way, making a face. She didn’t approve of Aunt Rina’s tattoo on her arm, a star in a circle surrounded by pretty flowers, which was very visible because of the sleeveless summer dress she wore. Ana knew her parents didn’t care for it either; the words “midlife crisis” were often mentioned when the topic was brought up.
“Reinita!” said the man standing by her aunt. “I didn’t know I was in the presence of royalty!” He dropped to one knee, flourishing his arm. “Milady Ana, it’s an honor. Your aunt has told me a lot about you.”
Rina laughed. So did Ana, even though she thought he was more goofy than funny. As crazy people went, he seemed pretty ordinary to Ana. His pale skin certainly stood out among the coffee and cream hues of her relatives but she couldn’t see anything she would consider crazy. She thought he looked a little like what people thought of as hippies, but older, with his salt and pepper hair pulled back into a pony tail. She noticed that the fabric of her aunt’s head band matched the fabric of the man’s shirt, a bold African print. Their purses were different though. Crazy? No. But definitely kind of weird, which was good because she liked weird.
“Ana, this is Orion. Orion, Ana.”
“What did my aunt say about me?”
“Well for one she said you liked dolls.”
“That’s true,” Ana said making a face. “But a lot of girls do. That’s nothing special.”
“She also said you were very imaginative and liked learning about different countries. So when I saw this little guy,” Orion said, reaching into his bag and pulling out a small doll, “I figured you’d give him a good home. He’s a pretty special little guy.”
“He really is,” Titi Rina added. “We got him especially for you.”
Ana took hold of the doll and looked him over. She didn’t have one like this. Many of her dolls came from stores, but considering his shirt and pants also matched the African print Orion and Titi Rina were wearing, she figured he had to be handmade. A cheerful smile was stitched onto the doll’s nut brown face. Ana ran her finger over the yarn making up the doll’s hair, studying it for a moment before a large grin exploded onto her face.
“Cool!” said Ana. “Thanks Mr. Orion! Thanks Titi Rina!”
“Just Orion, Ana. Now I’ve also heard that there were going to be empanadas at this party. Mind showing me where?”
Ana led Orion and Titi Rina to the platter holding the savory, meat-filled pockets of dough and helped herself to one as well. After she finished hers, she excused herself to go play hide and seek with her cousins.
Ana giggled as she ran towards the park across the street where her cousins were playing. Hide and seek was as good an excuse as any to take the time to examine the doll Mr. Orion gave her more carefully. She was fairly sure she knew what was so special about it, but a crowded back yard was no place to find out. She didn’t even think inside her house was a great idea, with so many people wandering in and out. That was too bad, because she would have liked to have Yuuki meet whatever was in the doll as well. She sometimes wondered if the kitsune had any other fae friends.
As she stepped up on the sidewalk leading into the park, a fox came up from behind her, snatching the doll and heading towards the more heavily wooded running trail. Ana stopped herself from yelling; she didn’t want any of the grownups nosing in on this. But she didn’t want to be left out either. She ran after Yuuki, but the fox quickly pulled ahead and out of sight. Ana kept running. It might take her a while, but she had a good idea where Yuuki was going.
Ajani figured there might be some sort of confrontation; this was just a little sooner than he expected. The red fox tightly gripping the doll’s body Ajani hid in didn’t have the feel of an ordinary fox. He waited until they were well into the path; no use in scaring the little girl or any other humans that might be nearby. Then he slid out of the doll as easily as slipping off a coat, grew to human height and leveled his favorite sword, an ida, at the fox
The fox snarled, took a step back and went through its own transformation. Red fur became long red hair, coming from a face hidden behind a snarling, bestial mask. The figure grew, also to human height, wearing a deep purple kimono tied by a yellow sash. The opposing fae had its weapon, a lethal looking katana, at the ready as well.
“I will give you one chance,” the kimono-clad fae said in a musical voice. “Leave now and do not return or I will cut you to ribbons.”
“No can do. I made a promise to make sure that little girl isn’t being bothered by anything, well, anything like you.”
“She is not being bothered,” the mysterious fae replied. “You can return to where you came from now.”
“Nothing personal, but that’s just not going to cut it. If I knew what kind of fae you are, I’d have a better idea if you could be counted on to be helpful or even just truthful. Nah, you’ll need to come with me. I have a buddy who can give me a better idea of your motives. If you haven’t harmed or don’t plan to harm the girl, there’s nothing to fear.”
The painted on eyes of the mask the other fae wore narrowed. “Leave with you? That would be convenient for any partner you had waiting for me to leave that home defenseless so they can enter.”
“Suspicious much? I’ll give you my word there’s no other fae but me interested in what’s going on in there,” Ajani said.
“As you do not know what I am, I do not know what you are. You say you are kami, or fae rather, but you dress in the form of a young human male of this era. You say you have no other fae accomplices, so if you are telling the truth, which I am far from certain about, then there is still the matter of the friend you wish me to see, obviously human and probably a mage. Mage or not, I have no way of discerning the human’s intentions and again, I am not leaving this home open to attack, especially if the human is skilled in magical arts. Whomever it is can come to me.”
“Sorry. I’m not leaving you alone and giving you a chance to get up to no good while I’m gone.”
The fae made a motion with his, her – Ajani couldn’t quite tell – hand. Immediately, the world around Ajani shifted and blended. Disoriented, he looked around. The landscape around him had become bizarre. Trees grew sideways from rocks, the small pond that had been behind him floated above Ajani and patches of grass and ground splattered in among sky. The spot he had been standing on had vanished into air and instinctively Ajani scrambled onto what looked like the nearest piece of earth he could stand on.
“Have it your way.” The fox fae’s voice floated around Ajani like dandelion fluff caught in a breeze. “Neither of us will leave. But you will answer my questions to my satisfaction or I shall see if I am still as adept with my katana as I was two hundred years ago.”
Ajani closed his eyes and the feeling of vertigo left him. He shifted his foot feeling firm ground beneath him. A glamour, and a very powerful one at that; glamours didn’t normally effect other fae so strongly. But Ajani still had the rest of his senses left, which as a fae of the hunt were very keen indeed. Though Ajani hadn’t done more than what he considered “gentleman’s hunting” with Orion in the last few decades, he was still a hunter down to his core.
And foxes? Foxes were prey.
Ajani swung out with his ida and felt the jolt of steel connecting with steel. He stepped forward, eyes closed the whole time using every instinct he had to parry the fox’s blows and strike a few of his own.
He barely noticed the first meeting of the katana and skin. Ajani definitely felt the second though. By the fifth cut, he was fuming. It didn’t matter what part of the world they came from - a fox is always going to fight dirty, he thought. A fetid smell rose up around Ajani, not only interfering with his ability to find the fox, but making him fight down nausea as well.
Before the sixth cut had a chance to hit home, a scream interrupted the fight. Ajani finally felt his ida strike a solid blow as it happened. The fox fae cried out “Ana-chan!” in a panic. All at once the rotting smell evaporated.
Ajani stumbled towards the sound of the scream. The glamour that fox put out was strong enough to severely effect a fae; any human caught in it could go permanently mad if exposed to it for too long.
“Sit tight Ana!” he yelled, not knowing if it would do any good.
“Yuuki-kun,” he heard Ana whimper. And then a new scent filled the air.
Baking cookies… snickerdoodles? Ajani thought. Mingled with the smell of cookies were the flowers.
Ajani tentatively opened his eyes. At first he thought the world had returned to normal, but patches of purple flowers were in bloom where there hadn’t been any before. The light in the clearing also changed, making everything seem softer. Ajani took a look at his sore body. Most of his wounds were superficial, though the one on his leg would require a bit of care.
He got a bit of grim satisfaction at seeing the fox fae. Ajani had managed to slash it deeply on the left arm. But that didn’t stop the fox fae from cradling the girl with the right.
“Ana-chan, are you alright?”
“Yuuki-kun, I had a nightmare while I was awake. The world was melting and rotting away…”
“Pffft. No nightmares here. Don’t you know I eat nightmares until there’s nothing left of them but my farts?”
The girl giggled. “You’re a kitsune not a baku!”
Ajani breathed a sigh of relief. At the sound, the fox fae remembered Ajani was still there and glared. Ajani put his ida down. The fox fae nodded after a moment and turned back to Ana.
“Is she going to be OK?” Ajani asked.
“Who’s that?” Ana asked, opening her eyes. In the second before she did the fox waved weakly with its free hand and both of their wounds faded from sight. Ajani could still feel his though and was pretty sure the same applied to the fox but was glad the kid didn’t have to open her eyes to anything more horrible than patches of lavender in a running path that looked like it was designed by Disney.
“Oh hey,” she said smiling. “I was wondering when you were coming out of the doll.”
“You knew?” both Ajani and the fox fae asked.
“Of course. I can see people like you and Yuuki-kun pretty easily. Do you live in the city? It’s usually city fae that dress normal. Did my aunt meet you in the city?”
“Your aunt?” Yuuki asked. “Natalia?”
“No silly! Titi Rina!” Ana laughed. “She’s the only one in the family that gets me,” she said looking at Ajani. “I always wondered if she could see fae too, but I was too scared to ask. People either think you're a baby or you’re crazy if you say you can see fae. Can she see too Ajani?”
“Not quite,” Ajani answered. “She can feel if fae are around, but not much more than that. She’s working on it though. That’s why I’m here. She could feel something fae, but couldn’t tell what it was. She asked Orion and I to help figure out what sort of fae was hanging around her niece.”
“It’s just Yuuki-kun.”
“Oh yeah, just a cross between Morgan LeFay and the Bride from Kill Bill, yeah, nothing major.”
The fox fae started laughing.
“Should I have said Darth Vader?” Ajani asked.
Just then they heard the murmur of voices a distance away, but coming closer. Titi Rina’s voice was the clearest “The scream came from over there.” Quickly Yuuki became a plush fox toy and Ajani got back into the doll. At least it was a good place to rest, Ajani thought. He was going to need it.
“Ana querida,” Titi Rina said as she saw her niece. Ana’s parents’ faces went from concern to relief as they saw their daughter sitting there safe and sound, holding her toys. “We heard you yelling and were scared. What happened?”
“I – I thought I saw a bear.”
“Dios mio!” Ana’s mother exclaimed. “Those things are getting out of hand. I read about one that was found near the supermarket last week. Thank god you weren’t attacked!”
As the chattering adults brought the young girl back to the house, Ajani thought he’d feel very sorry for any bear dumb enough to try to go after this particular kid. Real damn sorry.
Song pick: Headstrong by Trapt