“Good morning,” the kid said pleasantly.
“Hello,” I replied. “May I help you?”
The kid’s eyes traveled down my entire length, and I silently cursed, only now aware that I was still only clad in Khit’s white shirt. I could only imagine what this kid was thinking.
“Well,” he said. “I’m a friend of Khit’s, from La Jolla High School. He tutors me sometimes. May I come in?”
“Um, sure.” I opened the door wider, and the teenager scampered in eagerly. “Where’s Khit?”
“He’s taking a shower,” I replied.
The kid plopped himself comfortably onto the couch, resting his feet on the coffee table. However, he still did not remove his shades.
“So what’s your name? Are you Khit’s friend? I’ve never seen anyone come to his home before.”
Somehow I didn’t think Khit would appreciate the fact that this kid had his dirty shoes on the coffee table, but I answered easily, “My name’s Caren, and yes, I suppose I am his friend. What’s your name?”
“Ss—cyther Nice to meet you.”
I blinked. Was it just me or did Scyther have a slight stutter? And who in the world named their kid Scyther? “Uh, nice to meet you.”
“So Caren, what are you doing at Khit’s so early in the morning?” He flashed a knowing grin. “And wearing that?”
OK, this was embarrassing. “I—I just accidently fell asleep here last night.”
“Fell asleep, eh? Is that what you kids call it these days? Although, sleeping is far too inactive a word to describe hot s—”
“All right,” I interrupted quickly before he could finish that thought. I didn’t need him to verbalize the word. I was already embarrassed enough. This kid was such a busybody. Eager to turn the topic of conversation, I decided to focus on him. “What are you doing here so early? Khit didn’t say he was expecting company.”
“Like I said, he tutors me,” Scyther replied. “I’m taking the SATs in a week, and I just wanted to see if he could give me a final review today.”
That was strange. Scyther didn’t bring a backpack. In fact, he didn’t even seem to have paper or a pencil. “What part of the SATs does Khit help you with?” I asked.
“Khit helps me with everything. Of course, being an English professor, he helps me mostly with the verbal and writing sections, but he’s also really good at math. He graduated from med school you know, and he was actually valedictorian from his high school.”
Why was I not surprised?
“Wow, you certainly know plenty about him,” I said.
Scyther grinned. “I know plenty of s-secrets about him. Including the one about his parents. Do you know about that?”
My eyes went wide with shock. “Secret? What secret?” I asked a bit too nervously.
The kid laughed. “You look way too serious. I was just talking about how his parents were separated since Khit was two but never officially divorced.”
“Ohh.” I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Or do you know another secret about him? Maybe about his mother?”
Before I could be shocked all over again, I heard Khit’s footsteps treading from his room. “It’s you!”
And right in front of my eyes, Khit’s clothes dissolved into shreds as his skin became white fur, and his features blurred from human to animal. Before I could fully grasp it, he was charging at me, and I winced.
The sound of a lamp breaking caused my eyes to open again, and I saw a green serpent slithering around the fox that was supposedly Khit. Scyther, however, was nowhere in sight. I could only put two and two together to assume that the serpent was Scyther.
I jumped out of the way as the two animals crashed into the coffee table. The fox, or Khit rather, had clenched his jaws over the main body of the serpent. To my relief, it looked like Khit was going to win this round. He threw his head back, tossing the snake across the room. Scyther hit the wall hard and transformed back to his human self. I averted my eyes to the left, realizing that he was naked, only to avert my eyes again to the ceiling as Khit transformed back, also naked.
In a voice as chilly as the top of the Himalayas during the winter, Khit said, “Get out.”
A disgruntled voice came from Scyther. “Let me at least put my pants back on…geesh.”
I heard the rustling of clothes and wondered if it was safe to look yet. My eyes were still on the ceiling when I heard Scyther speak again.
“It was nice to meet you, Caren. I have a feeling we’ll meet again…soon.”
“Out!” Khit yelled. “And Caren has nothing to do with this, so don’t even come close to her, or I’ll kill you!”
The sound of footsteps followed by the slam of the door told me that Scyther had left. It was a good guess that Scyther had lied about his SAT tutoring sessions.
I risked a peek at Khit’s face and could tell that he could barely contain his anger. He breathed deeply, the calm before the storm. Then the yelling began.
“Didn’t anyone tell you never to open the door for strangers? I swear…you have such a propensity for endangering yourself.”
Oh dear, he had moved so that the couch was no longer shielding him. And he was only using a sofa pillow to cover his pertinent parts. I couldn’t talk to him this way. “Before you start lecturing me, do you mind getting fully dressed?” I blushed profusely.
He looked down at himself. “Oh, sorry.” He turned so his back was to me and picked up his shredded clothes. I couldn’t help but notice that he, like Keane, also had a tattoo of the Chinese characters for fox. What was different was that the characters were on his left shoulder blade, not his face, and they were marred by a gnarly bite mark.
Once, when I was little, I’d been playing with my older cousin in the street, and a vicious stray had wandered our way. She’d gotten bitten trying to protect me and had to go through a whole series of rabies shots. Ever since then, she’d been horribly terrified of dogs, and that was the reason I knew what the term “cynophobe” meant.
I’d seen the scar the bite had left on my cousin’s arm, and it was the same shape as the one on Khit’s shoulder. But that was strange. I thought yaojing were supposed to heal quickly. Then I remembered that fox yaojing had a bad reaction to dogs.
“When did the dog bite you?” I blurted out before I could think.
He turned back to me, a strange mix of emotions playing on his face. It was as though he’d forgotten about the scar and was horrified that I’d seen it.
“Back in my college days,” he replied. “I was careless.”
He looked ashamed, and I wondered why.
I was about to ask what happened when a dog bit a fox yaojing, but he interrupted. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to put on some clothes. Unless you’re secretly admiring the view.”
I turned bright red, remembering he was still naked. My curiosity about his yaojing half had gotten the better of me. I gestured for him to go. He ran to his room, and in less than thirty seconds, came back in jeans and a black shirt.
My head was reeling with questions. Khit knew this because he immediately began enlightening me before I could ask. “That guy you just met is the snake I’ve been telling you about. You know, Keane’s big brother.”
“But he’s so young,” I said.
Khit brushed a hand through his hair, his face taut with tension. “Not really. Snakes can become anyone they want—an old man, a high school student, a police officer. His most recent guises have been a drug dealer or a student. If you’ve watched the news lately about drug dealings at local high schools…you can be sure that he’s involved. It’s his new way of extracting life energy from wannabe gangsters, eager to sell drugs for money.”
Alarmed, and becoming very paranoid, I asked, “Why did he come here today?”
“Like I told you, he wants information…about my mother. He must have been spying on us last night and decided to try and extract information from you.” Khit drew his lips tightly, looking incredibly frustrated. “Listen Caren, he most likely thinks you’re my girlfriend, and now he’ll start spying on you too. He wants to see if you know about my parents’ secrets, and he’ll trick you in every possible way to get you to slip up and reveal something. Even if I tell him you don’t know anything, he’ll try to use you to get to me. He’s an excellent fighter, and he’ll kill to get what he wants. Like a real snake, he revels in choking his victims to death, or until they reveal the information he wants.”
I stood there, reflecting upon my close encounter with the snake. For the first time since I had known of the yaojing’s existence, I began to feel afraid.
“But you just said he can pretend to be anyone,” I exclaimed. “How am I supposed to keep an eye out on him?”
“You saw his green-spiked hair right? In his snake form, his skin is bright green, so whatever disguise he chooses, he’ll always have something green somewhere on his body—his hair, his eyes, his coat. He also has a weakness. He’s blind, so he needs to use his sense of smell to see. If you confuse his smell, he won’t be able to sense you.”
Khit saw my troubled face and reached out to pat my shoulder. “This is why I didn’t want you to know anything, but now that you do, I promise to keep you safe. As long as you don’t go out alone and you make sure you get home before nightfall, everything will be fine.”
A horrible thought came to mind. I knew Khit could fight, but he was still only half monster. Was he stronger than Scyther?
“Has he ever tried to kill you before?”
Khit’s eyes suddenly became haunted, as though he’d conjured up a memory of a bad dream. But in the next instant, he masked his emotions, making me wonder if I had imagined it. Then he scoffed, waving a hand in dismissal. “In a fair fight, he can’t kill me.” I noticed he mentioned nothing about whether Scyther had tried to kill him in the past, and I wondered what secrets he was still hiding from me. But it wasn’t my business to pry. He’d already told me enough.
Also, what happened if the fight wasn’t fair? It was on my mind to ask, but Khit saw my hesitation and spoke first. “You don’t have to worry. I’d kill him if he tried to hurt you.”
His fervent promise was a comfort, and for some reason, my heart had started beating faster. We stared at each other a long moment, but I was the first to turn away. I tried to think of a way to break the awkward silence and started to wonder if Khit, who was only a half yaojing, could really take down the snake, a full yaojing. He obviously thought he could, and I’d seen him take down Keane at the party with one blow. Plus, Scyther had fled as soon as Khit had come into the room. That had to be a sign that Scyther was scared of Khit. But what if they cheated? What if they did something, like held a loved one hostage, to rile his emotions so he couldn’t think clearly during the fight?
Now I was curious if he had any other supernatural powers to help defend himself against the full-blooded yaojing. He had to be able to do more than experience premonitions and have naturally bleached hair. “Can you fly?”
He stared at me for a moment as if trying to process my question and then started laughing. “I’m glad you don’t seem scared anymore, if your thoughts have randomly flickered to my superpowers. But no, I can’t fly.”
“Then what other powers do you have?” I persisted in asking.
“Actually, white foxes are pretty boring compared to the other animals,” he said. “Snakes can transform into any persona they want, wolves can hear voices from long distances, and cats and falcons have extremely good eyesight, some even X-ray vision.
“Foxes aren’t as cool. But they do have certain advantages. They’re the fastest of the yaojing, and most foxes have mystical powers to predict the future. They can also transform leaves into any object they desire.”
Hmmph. White foxes were boring? That was like saying, I’m not a genius, but I know how to make an atomic bomb.
“Of course, I’m only a halfling,” Khit added. “So I’m not as strong as the full-blooded foxes, and I definitely can’t change leaves into money or video games, a definite disappointment when I was a teenager.”
“That sucks,” I put in. That would definitely be a nice talent to have.
“It’s not too bad,” he chuckled. “In some ways, a halfling has more advantages than a full-blood. I get the best genes from both sides. I might not be able to full-out predict the future, but premonitions are still cool. And my wounds heal quickly.”
All the cool powers were from his fox side, but he hadn’t mentioned anything about his human side. “So how does your human side benefit you?”
“I have the ability to live for more than my own desires.”
I frowned, a bit disappointed that this was all the human side had to offer. It just proved how weak we humans truly were. “That’s not a superpower.”
He gave me a half smile, one not filled with humor, but rather more like regret. “It is a superpower by my standards, but I guess I’ll have to explain.” He froze for a moment, trying to think of the right words.
“Most yaojing are not like my mother, who decided to change from her old life to become permanently human. The yaojing do anything they can to feed on the humans’ life energy, which they need to remain immortal.”
Khit went on to explain that there were two ways to kill a yaojing—to physically kill them, or to cut off their supply of life energy, which would make them age. If they never received life energy again, they would age like normal humans and die of old age. The yaojing fed off of humans’ negative, sinful energy—lust, greed, anger, et cetera.
“All they think about is how to get more life energy. They’ll trick humans in any way possible and commit crimes themselves. At least because I’m half human, I have an easier time controlling myself from being addicted to humans’ negative life energy, from driving humans to sin, from becoming evil like the yaojing. But the yaojing don’t care. All they want is their life energy.”
His clouded eyes were drawn together in self-loathing, suggesting that Khit did not like the half of him that was a fox. It made my heart ache for him, and I wanted to correct his thinking.
I didn’t agree with everything Khit was saying. It sounded as if he believed all yaojing were bad, and that was why he hated that part of himself. For being born half evil.
“What about your mother?” I asked gently. “She decided to change. And what about the Yaojing Elite? If they just needed humans for the sake of life energy, they wouldn’t have told your mother to complete nine good deeds for humans.”
“The Yaojing Elite assigned her that task for their own entertainment. They didn’t believe she would actually degrade herself by doing it, but since she did, they had to adhere to the rules and give her the nine tails. As for my mother, she’s a rarity, and I doubt that any other yaojing will ever abandon their lifestyle the way my mother did.
“Besides, she only changed because of my father. Even though my father and I can’t stand each other, I still have to admit that he did some good by being the one to change my mother. But all he got in return was a scarred heart.”
I was not convinced. “If you ask me, everyone has a choice. Your mother had the choice to redeem herself, and she did. Your father had the choice to overcome his bitterness, but instead, he blamed everything on you.”
“It’s still the Yaojing Elite’s fault,” Khit shot out. “If they had just left my parents alone, my father wouldn’t have gotten bitter in the first place, and I would have grown up in a normal family. So I still prove my point. All yaojing are evil.”
“I don’t think you can group all yaojing together and say they are bad,” I continued to argue. “Just as you can’t group all humans together and call them good. You have to look at the individual.
Then I purposely looked into his eyes. “Just like you. Maybe it’s true that most yaojing are bad, but it doesn’t mean you’re bad for being half. Look at the way you use your premonitions to save other people. You’re a good man.”
We stared at each other again, and in that moment, I felt like I had just seen a part of his soul. He had revealed more about his feelings today than he had that day I found out what he was, and I felt the same reaction in my heart. That certainty that Fate had put me in Khit’s life to help him and his parents. To help his parents get back together, to help his father heal his damaged heart, and most of all, to help Khit learn to love himself.
He took a step toward me, and my eyes widened, thinking that he might be intending to kiss me again. I wasn’t ready for that again. I wanted to be friends with Khit, but nothing more. And yet, if I backed away, I might hurt his feelings.
To my relief, my stomach growled loudly just in time.
He broke out in loud laughter.
I pouted. “You don’t have any food in your kitchen, not even cereal. What do you eat every day?”
“I eat out most of the time.”
He gestured to the clothes washer and dryer in the corner of the room. “Your clothes should be dry by now. Go ahead and change, and I’ll treat you to breakfast before taking you home.”