Firstling Chapter Thirteen: Undercover Rat

It took me awhile to fall asleep, as I was trying to puzzle out the culprit.  I knew Khit was wide-awake as well, thinking about the same thing.  But eventually, I dozed off, and when I finally opened my eyes, the sun was streaming through the window.  Slowly stretching, I looked around to find Khit scribbling furiously.  Red ink was practically dripping off the paper in his lap.  To say he didn’t look happy was an understatement.

“What are you doing?”

He turned his head, quietly regarding me.  “Grading papers.”

“I’m so glad I’m not taking any more of your classes,” I said, eyeing the stack of papers with pity.

“Not my fault they put no effort into their work.”  He continued to dye another paper crimson.

Someone had to save those poor students from the wrath of their professor.  I jerked the stack from beneath Khit’s merciless pen.

Cutting off his fuming protests, I patted his knee.  “I’ll give this back to you when you learn how to play nicely.”

The irritation drained from his edgy expression as he sighed.  “You’re right.  I shouldn’t take my frustration out on my students.”

“Why are you so upset in the first place?” I asked, straightening the papers into a neater stack.

He narrowed his eyes, as though to say, isn’t it obvious?

“Oh.”  Pushing myself up from the carpet, I walked into the kitchen to pour two glasses of water.  At least I knew the water wasn’t poisoned, since I’d just filtered it last night.

“Still can’t figure it out,” Khit groaned.  “My top suspect is still Rina, but that doesn’t make sense.  There’s no way she could have snuck in here when you were gone.”

Something about the way he said that—guilty like he was hiding something—caused me to eye him suspiciously.  “And why not?”

He spoke through clenched teeth, averting his eyes.  “Because I had this place monitored twenty-four-seven.”

“You what?”  The glass in my hand trembled, splashing water onto the floor.

“I had—”

“I know what you said.  You had people spy on me without my knowing.”

He made a frantic gesture in an effort to lower my volume.  “Roommates still sleeping.”

As steaming mad as I was, I knew he was right.  I had to control my anger before my roommates got word that my fiancé was some psycho stalker.  Marching over to the couch, I set Khit’s water down on the coffee table with a loud bang.

“Come on Caren,” he said, trying to sound appeasing.  “You know I wouldn’t have done it if someone hadn’t tried to kill you three times already.  And I didn’t want another Scyther bugging the apartment.”

The mention of that snake brought reduced my wrath by about half.  I didn’t want another snake yaojing to enter my apartment in another human guise either.  Better for Khit to spy on me than another yaojing.  “You could have at least told me.”

“If I told you, would you have allowed it?”

My silence was answer enough.  He lifted his hands in a helpless gesture, emphasizing his point.  “It wasn’t like I had anyone film you in the shower,” he said.  “I just had my mother babysit the place when I knew nobody was home.”

I frowned, sensing he still wasn’t telling me the whole truth.  “You said twenty-four-seven.  That means you sent someone overnight.  And don’t tell me it was you or Julia.  I’m a light sleeper.  I would have noticed if a white fox was prancing around the living room.”

“We’re not that obvious,” he said.  “Believe me, if Mom or I had been here, you wouldn’t have noticed.  But you’re right, I had someone else babysit overnight.”  He fidgeted guiltily.

“Who?”

Judging by the way he’d gotten uncomfortable again, I knew I wouldn’t like the answer.

“My friend.  He’s a…rat.”

That last word came out tentatively before Khit retreated back a few inches, probably fearing my reaction.  He had reason to fear.

“You brought a rat into my apartment?”  No wonder he’d panicked when he’d found the rat poison pellets.

“Let’s use our inside voices please.”

His attempt at humor did not amuse me.  I jumped off the couch and went straight for the garbage.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking for the rat poison pellets you dumped,” I said.  “Maybe it will be enough to end that vermin’s life.”

I heard him scamper into the kitchen in a second.  “You are not going to poison my best friend.”

“Your best friend cannot be a rat.  You need more human friends.”

“Apparently, I need to rephrase my original statement,” he sighed.  “He is a rat…yaojing.”

The tension in my shoulders eased up as I took this in.  Then I began to feel very stupid.  “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

“I didn’t think I had to.”  He slapped a hand over his chest, indicating himself.  “Yaojing…hello…”

“Don’t condescend to me, mister.  How was I supposed to know?  I thought maybe you had another secret power, like the ability to communicate with regular animals.  Besides, you looked guilty enough when you announced your friend was a rat.”

“I didn’t think you’d try to kill the poor man.”

Heading back to the couch, I flounced back comfortably on the cushions and gestured for Khit to sit down.  He did so, still looking a bit consternated.

I rolled my eyes.  “I’m not going to hit you.  I just want to know. I asked you before why you’ve never introduced me to your best friend, and I’m asking the same question now. Is this the same friend who works at the aquarium. What was his name?”

Khit sat on the edge of the couch, replying with a shrug.  “Yes, he’s the same friend. His name’s Mil. And I haven’t introduced you to him because as I told you, he’s a little awkward, especially around women.  Besides, you have met him before, even though I wasn’t around.”

I suppressed a shudder.  “Please don’t tell me a rat went into my room.”

“Oh no, that’s not what I meant.  You met his human self.”

A long pause ensued, in which I thought upon this.  “I don’t know anyone named Mil.”

“You do know Dr. Emil Bratsin.”

My physiology professor?  No way.  There was absolutely no way in the realm of the living or dead that that man could be a scary yaojing.  “But he’s so…unassuming.”  And that was putting it nicely.  If Dr. Bratsin wasn’t in charge of grading three hundred students, we’d probably pay more attention to the swirly patterns on wallpaper.  In fact, I wouldn’t doubt it if half the class did stare more at the wall than at the professor.

“Not all yaojing are vicious,” Khit said.  “Mil has been living among humans for a long time.  The only reason the yaojing haven’t tried to recruit him back into their society is the fact that he’s so unassuming, as you put it.  The yaojing don’t bother with rats much.  They’re considered the lowliest of the hierarchy.”

“So you put the weakest of all yaojing in charge of my safety.”  I crossed my arms in annoyance.  “Thanks.”

“I thought you’d rather not have a guard at all.”  He grinned as I threw him an annoyed glare.  “Mil might not be the brawniest guy out there, but his brains are bulkier than the world’s champion weight lifter.  If someone had tried to break in at night, he would have outsmarted the culprit.”

“And how can you be sure you can trust him?  Maybe he spiked my apple juice.”  I knew it wasn’t probable.  There was no motive for him to do so, and I knew Dr. Bratsin was too nice to do such a thing.  Plus, if Khit trusted him, there must be good reason, since Khit wouldn’t trust just anyone.  I just wanted to hear why Khit would believe in Dr. Bratsin so wholeheartedly.

“Now you’re just being difficult.  You know I would never entrust your life to just anyone,” he told me, reiterating my thoughts.  “Mil would never betray me.  He hates the Yaojing Elite even more than I do.”  A flash of nostalgia flickered across his face, as his eyes glazed over with past memories.  “Do you remember when I told you that the Elite tried to recruit me?”

Slowly, I nodded.  “You joined them for awhile before deciding that it wasn’t the life for you.”

He averted his eyes, making me wonder if he was keeping something from me.  “During that time, Mil saved my life.”

“From the dogs that Scyther and Keane set on you?”

“Sort of,” he answered, still not meeting my gaze.  “Anyway, he saved my life.  And that’s how I know he can be trusted.”

“What do you mean sort of?”

“I think your roommates are up.”  Khit abruptly left the couch, obviously trying to change the subject.  “Let’s all get brunch and look in on Liana.”

“But you didn’t tell me—”

“I want to ask Liana a few questions,” he interrupted again.  “Then maybe we’ll finally figure out this whole mess.”

Khit was definitely hiding something about his past, but he would tell me when he was ready.  I couldn’t force it out of him, and besides, I wanted to see how Liana was doing.  So I zipped my mouth and went to ask Stacy and Nia what they wanted for brunch.

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