Bird’s Eye View: Chapter 7- Shapeshifter’s Creed


 

Artwork by Yoghurt Stripper

“Perri, I’m really really so-”

I don’t even get a chance to apologize as Perri’s right wing shot out and she delivers me the harpy equivalent of an open-handed slap.

Yeah- I definitely had that coming.

“You ass! What are you even doing!?” Perri hisses as I rub my cheek. Even though she doesn’t raise her voice, the harpy’s anger is still palpable.

Well, damn- that’s the million dollar question right there.

So let’s review: I just threw my homestay up against the wall before kissing and fondling her in a town that was literally crawling with cops and M.O.N. agents. Even the fact that Perri seemed to be (very briefly) into my assertive display is hardly any consolation.

“Perri….I can explain….” I begin, but she cuts me off as her left wing shoots out and I’m on the receiving end of another harpy-slap.

Come on now- I can’t explain if she’s going to keep smacking me. Still, I should be extremely glad she hasn’t decided to use her talons or capoeira acumen on me.

“What’s wrong with you!?” she asked, never raising her voice, but making her agitation quite apparent. “That was m…my first……”

“But you had a leaf on your head….j-just like Miss Tachibana.” I said as I rub my jaw.

Perri reaches up and gingerly pulls the green leaf from her head before examining it. 

“I stopped on the way over here and had some of your bison jerky- I used a branch on a really tall tree for a perch while I was eating.” she replied. “By the way, you’re almost out of jerky.”

“I’m sorry- I thought you were Ms. Tachibana in disguise.” I plead. “I really did. What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you were staying back at the ranch today.”

Wait…what’s this about my bison jerky?

“I was, but then I remembered that Zombina said I might get to see you beat up by extraspecies police officers, so I thought that might be worth seeing…..”

Gee, thanks.

“How long have you been doing weird things with Mr. Host while impersonating me?” she pointedly asks, turning to Akagane.

“Perri- I was only roleplaying as you for the sake of the training exercise.” the Tanuki explained earnestly. “Granted- Buckaroo and I have had some fun with my shape-shifting before, but the whole time I made it a point to not mimic you…..I didn’t want to create any unnecessary friction or tension between you two.”

Let’s see- Annoying rat fuck TV lawyer from Albuquerque, the late Bettie Page, voluptuous black businesswoman and a cheerleader. 

God damn it- she’s right. 

The trickster raccoon dog youkai seems nothing short of deflated as she tells the two of us this, even though this is the sort of trickery that made her kind infamous in Japan.

“It’s a little late for that, cur!” the harpy growled. 

“Perri?” the Tanuki asked.

“What do you mean?” I follow up.

“It’s just that…I-” the harpy stammered as she looked away. “I…..I’m not saying that I like- that I have these feelings….for…..Mr. Host…..you know. But….what I should say is….”

“Perri- what are you trying to tell me?” Akagane asked.

“You know very well what I’m trying to tell you!” the falcon harpy snapped as she tried regaining her composure. “Before you showed up…..Mr. Host was really trying. He’s a lazy fool and a loudmouth, but he really was doing his best to make me feel welcome, little things like showing me where I could eat burritos and introducing me to the people he knew in town….”

“Perri, I-” I speak up.

“No- let me continue.” Perri cut me off. “But ever since you showed up, he’s like some stupid mongrel in heat constantly sniffing after you. Do you even remember you have a homestay, Mr. Host?”

“So what are you saying, Perri?” Akagane asked, her tone and posture now a little more confrontational than before.

That can’t be good- this dame literally argues for a living.

“You!” she points an ironing board-sized wing at Akagane as a few errant charcoal and white feathers flutter to the ground. “You’re taking advantage of some loophole to go after Mr. Host while I can’t do anything…..”

“So you’re telling me you’re jealous of the kind of relationship I have with your host.” the Tanuki declares smugly as she gives an exaggerated shrug.

“Yes- no….I mean……that’s not what I meant. You can use your position as part of the exchange program to go after any man you want while homestays like me are told to be on their best behavior and …..and….no….you know….Fu…..fu-funny business.” Perri trails off.

This whole time I’m pretty sure I was having an out-of-body experience as it’s finally sinking in that I have two gorgeous women fighting over me.

“Perri- if you harbored these feelings towards your host, why didn’t you say anything?” Akagane’s tone suddenly shifted. “I would’ve respected your privacy…”

“I….I don’t  harbor these feelings with Mr. Host.” she sputtered somewhat unconvincingly. “It’s just….”

“Just what?” I manage to speak up.

“Sh-she’s this bigshot lawyer who gets to travel the world and meet all kinds of interesting people. Others look up to her, but I….I get called a ‘problem child’ by the program and shuffled from one home to the next.” she says to me.

“Perri- it’s my job to help out others in your situation.” Akagane began. “But acting like a petulant child isn’t going to help either one of us.”

“I…I’m not a child!” Perri stammered defensively. Just like an angry child, ironically.

“Another thing- I worked hard to get where I am and my life is nowhere near as glamorous as you’re making it sound.” the Tanuki added. “Sure, the pay is good but I spend long hours in courts or arbitration offices with hardly any free time. On the other hand, you can take to the skies and soar above it all whenever you want…it must be nice out here.” The tanuki woman swept her left arm towards the sky to punctuate her last remark.

Almost as soon as I came to terms with the fact that I had two beautiful extraspecies women arguing over me, I realized that I needed to put a halt to this before one of them did or said something they’d regret.

Although it looked like she had something to say to Akagane, I cut my homestay off.

“C’mon, Perri- you really think I could forget you?” I ask. “You haven’t even been here a whole month and I can easily say it’s been the most eventful month in my life.”

“Mr Host?”

I seemed to have caught her off guard as I leaned down to pick up one of her feathers from the pavement.

“May I?” I ask as I hold up the feather for both Akagane and Perri to see.

“What are you doing, Buckaroo?” Akagane asked.

If Perri tells Smith or one of the MON agents about what just happened, I could kiss my participation in the Exchange Program goodbye- maybe even be looking at some jail time. 

Or even worse, they could end up deporting Perri for a situation where I was completely at fault. And as vexing as Perri can be, it wouldn’t be right if she was punished by the Exchange Program because I couldn’t tell the difference between Akagane going incognito and my homestay with a leaf in her hair.

Also- to be blunt, no Perri means no Akagane.

The thing is, I’m not ready to pick sides in this particular dispute but it should go without saying that I still needed to make things right with Perri. And I have to start somewhere.

Without saying anything right away, I went about tucking the feather into the band of the hat- it was a surprisingly delicate task.

“Well- between work and you guys from the program dropping in, I don’t want Perri to think I’ve been neglecting her.” I tell Akagane as I nod towards the flustered harpy. “So I thought maybe I could keep this with my hat- I mean, I still have my day job. But whenever I’m wearing this, I’ll have a little something to remind me of her.”

“Bry….Mr. Host?” Perri asked. I looked over and could see that she was beet red, with one of her wingtips pressed to her mouth.

As sharp as Akagane is, I seemed to be the only one who noticed the harpy’s little slip of the tongue. 

Without saying another word, I finished tucking Perri’s feather into the band above the brim on my Stetson. I had to admit, even though I liked the Stetson as-is, the solitary charcoal grey and white feather from Perri’s wing made it look even more sharp.

“Perri- I’m sorry. What I did just now was way out of line.” I say apologetically. “And if you’re really worried about getting shuffled from home to home, you’re welcome to stay with me for however long you’d like.”

I meant it too- but she needs to know I meant it.

“Things have been pretty crazy these last couple of days. I know I’ve made some mistakes and haven’t been the best of hosts with everything going on. But I hope you’re willing to stick around- maybe give me a chance to make it up to you.”

“Make it up…how?” Perri asked.

“Well- that’s going to be up to you. I understand that you need plenty of open space so that you can spread your wings and fly, but I think I’m also supposed to show you around so you can learn a little more about life out here and honestly- I haven’t really been holding up my end of the bargain.”

I gotta admit that at face value, my offer doesn’t sound particularly enticing. But I had to assume there would be much more for Perri to do in the nearest town that’s big enough for a Walmart or multiplex theater- even if it was almost a 50 mile drive away.

“There’s all kinds of places we could go see- things like Wild West ghost towns, Old Route 66, Carlsbad Caverns… or even just head into town get some burritos from La Olla.” I continue. “It’s up to you- you just gotta speak up so you can give me a better idea of what you want.”

Shit- it sounds an awful lot like I’m asking her out- right in front of Akagane, too.

“I….I’m not sure what I want.” Perri said quietly. It seemed like it wasn’t lost on both Akagane and myself that the harpy sounded quite conflicted. “I like the serenity and freedom and the open skies here, but I do get a little bored sometimes….” she mumbled before trailing off.

I didn’t notice it until I saw Akagane looking around, but it appears that whatever review or meeting that all of the cops and MON agents had gathered in this former mining town has just concluded.

I should probably take it as a good sign that Perri seems to have noticed this as well, but instead of telling the nearest agent what I did a few minutes ago, she’s still engaging with Akagane and myself.

“I…I’m not saying I want to leave or don’t like it at your place.” she quickly corrected herself.

That’s actually pretty reassuring to hear coming from her considering the crap I pulled just now.

“Perri, I’m going to be blunt.” Akagane began. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked to accompany Smith to a host or prospective host’s place- so as far as hosts go, you have it pretty good. Now as far as pursuing a relationship with your host, I’m going to let you know that-”

“Akagane-san.” a meek voice quietly interjected. “P..pardon me, but we should get ready to leave soon.”

It was the monoeye- Manako. The girl was quiet enough to have slipped in next to the pointy-eared tanuki and eagle-eyed harpy unnoticed. Seems like she’s pretty good at that.

“Ehh? The rotten girl is ready to leave already?” a rather surprised Akagane asked her.

“We have a few more things to take care of, but um…it shouldn’t be very long.” the monoeye said timidly. I’m not sure if that was normally how she carried herself or she was still embarrassed from walking in on me and Akagane in such a compromising position earlier.

Before I could say anything else to the women around me, I heard an excited voice call out from a distance.

“Oh my gosh- it really is you isn’t it?”

The four of us turned and saw a woman in tight pants and snug tank top with a beret jauntily atop her frosted pink hair along with a pair of feathery wings behind her.

It was the cupid who shot me in the back earlier.

I’m pretty sure it isn’t me that she’s greeting so enthusiastically.

“I heard you might be overseeing this week’s exercises here, but I thought that was just a rumor.” she exclaimed as she leapt off the ground and flew towards the four of us.

Pretty sure she wasn’t addressing Perri or Akagane, either.

“Let me just say what an honor it is….” the cupid gushed as she clasped Manako’s hands. “That thing at the Toraoana bookstore…the way you took out those Orc hostage takers…..and from more than a klick out? Freaking epic!”

“Um- well, you see….” Manako fidgeted, looking away from her new admirer. “I took care of the long-range work. Zombina and the others….they did most of the work up close.”

Holy shit- this timid and quiet dark-haired monoeye already had enough combat experience to have dropped multiple orcs in a real life hostage scenario?

Appearances could be deceiving. 

“I’ve always wanted to know whether or not you used any special optics as a monoeye. Do you have a preferred caliber? Bolt-action or semiautomatic? Did you bring your rifle with you?” the cupid asked in rapid fire, not quite respecting Manako’s personal space.

“Well….um….no, not really. The Simunitions aren’t really suited for long-range use, and the purpose of today’s exercise was more about dynamic entry.” Manako paused- still appearing uncertain.

“H-have we met?” the dark haired monoeye asked nervously.

“Oh goodness! Where are my manners?” the cupid said apologetically. “I’m Valentina D’Freccia- I know, kinda cliche for my parents to name me that.” the cupid shrugged “but most people call me Val.”

“I-its a pleasure. I…I’m Manako, but…I guess you already knew that….” the monoeye said nervously.

“Oh my gosh- how could I NOT know that? Normally I have my Barrett .338 with me, but Big Bad Bruno’s over in the armory sitting this one out since they had me leading one of the entry teams today….it’s not weird that I name my rifle, is it? I mean- I’m sure you have a name for yours, right?” the increasingly nervous cupid was beginning to ramble.

“No…I…I really haven’t come up with a name for my rifle.” the monoeye said meekly- as though she was the weird one for not assigning a name to an inanimate object.

“I mean- don’t get me wrong.” Val began. “A Remington 870 is great for what we had to do today, but a bit too utilitarian for my tastes. And how’s our big, bad interspecies trafficker holding up after getting dropped by little old moi?” the cupid asked, turning to me.

“Trafficker?” Perri asked, clearly astonished.

“Oh- you know. Nothing a little TLC can’t fix.” I sigh.

“I’m sorry- what?” Perri asked incredulously.

“It’s OK, Perri….just a shotgun blast to the back.” I try and reassure her, only I realize how bad that sounds once I say it out loud.

“Oh- we were shorthanded at the facility, so Butch Cassidy here was roleplaying as a baddie and hostage-taker for today’s excercise.” the cupid tried assuring my homestay. “And we were the Bolivian Army.”

“But you were sooo brave, Buckaroo.” Akagane gushed as she threw her arms around my neck and pressed her considerable chest up against me. “So defiant! Ready to lay it all out on the line in the face of overwhelming odds- Don’t you know girls love a bad boy?”

Upon seeing this display from Akagane, Perri shot me a glare that could pierce titanium. The playful tanuki seemed to sense this and eventually back away.

“Still- those simunitions fucking hurt….” I say absently as I rub my lower back.

“That was just a love-tap.” the cupid teased. “But if you really did get hurt, every officer here knows first aid and CPR.”

“But how would they know I was actually injured instead of just hamming it up?” I asked her.

“Oh….they didn’t say anything about it in the briefing?” Val looks perplexed. “Well- the way it’s supposed to work is that you keep shouting a nonsensical phrase completely unrelated to the exercise- like ‘Thirty-one flavors!’ or ‘solid granite countertops!!’. Something that’s agreed upon ahead of time.”

Shit…they probably did say something like that at the briefing, but I really wasn’t paying close attention.

“You mean like a….. Safeword?” I ask the cupid.

“A what?” she asks. She looks genuinely perplexed.

“Y’know- a safeword.” 

“What’s that?” 

Damn- only now do I realize my mistake of bringing this up not only in front of my homestay but also Akagane and at least two MON agents.

“Well…uh…” I begin. “You see…um…when a dominatrix has a session with someone who likes it rough, just saying something like “That hurts!” or “Please stop!” might be mistaken for part of the roleplay, but yelling out some random shit that was agreed upon earlier- like “Peach cobbler!”….well, th-that REALLY means ‘Time out- you’re actually hurting me for real’.”

I should’ve just stopped talking at ‘safeword’. Now that I had managed to explain what it was, that seemed to raise more questions than answers from the women gathered around me.

Akagane’s lips had curled into a wicked grin as she gently bit down on her index finger, trying to stifle a laugh.

“Oh. My. God…..This explains soooo much now, doesn’t it Buckaroo?” the raccoon-dog lady tittered salaciously.

“Wow, Aka-chan….you sure do like ‘em kinky, don’t you?” Val asked with a knowing wink.

My homestay, however, looked a bit perplexed.

“What’s a Donna-Matrix?” she asked nobody in particular.

“I’m not sure, Perri….” the tanuki says, her tone somewhat mocking and facetious. She’s clearly enjoying this new predicament I’ve gotten myself into. “Maybe you should ask Buckaroo about it, since he seems to know a thing or two.”

“I’d like to know more, too.” the cupid said, playing innocent.

Perri, Akagane and Val are all looking expectantly at me while Manako looks like she wishes she could find a nice hole in the ground to bury herself in. 

Can’t say that I blame her.

“What can you tell us about Donna-Matrixes, Mr. Host?” Perri asked.

“Well, you see….” I began nervously. “I guess you could say that they’re sort of like apex predators. D-d…dominatrixes are kinda unusual in that they…um…. they appeal to a certain kind of m…man.”

“What kind of man?” the harpy asked me earnestly.

“Perverts?” the cupid asks.

Fuck…maybe I can get out of this shitshow by goading the cupid into shooting me again.

“Jesus- you’re a talkative one, Strawberry Shortcake.” I snap, shooting the cupid a scowl before turning to my homestay. “Men who are more interested in….er……well, um…intimacy with a much more assertive and demanding partner, I guess.”

Fuck- I mean that is a very basic and bare bones answer to Perri’s query, but my delivery sounds so forced and lacking confidence. Of course she’s going to have her doubts about-

“Are you one of those men, Buckaroo?” Akagane asks.

“Not interested enough to track down a professional dominatrix, thank you very much.” I snap, perhaps a bit too defensively.

“Sooo….an amateur, then?” the cupid quietly chortled.

“Assertive and demanding how?” Perri asked. “I’ve demanded you cease spending Exchange Program funds at that tavern, but you certainly haven’t listened to me.”

“Have you tried telling him while tying him up and spanking him with a riding crop?” the cupid with the frosted pink hair speaks up, biting her lower lip after asking the question. 

Damn it- no matter how hard I glare at her, the cupid isn’t bursting into flames. Akagane seems amused as well, but gives the winged handmaiden of Eros a swift punch in the upper arm.

“Wh-what does that have to do with anything?” the raptor harpy stammered nervously.

Son of a bitch- the smartass Cupid forced my hand. I may have to spell it out for Perri after all.

“Some people find the idea of subjecting themselves to corporal punishment or being physically restrained by their romantic partner, well….enticing.” I explain.

“Buy….why?” my avian homestay asks, clearly still bewildered.

“There’s a trust component to this too, I guess.” I shrug. “It’s kinda hard to put into words.”

“Is that the sort of thing you’re into, Mr. Host?”

Maybe it was my imagination, but Perri’s question now seemed to have a more taunting and salacious edge to it that her previous inquiries didn’t. As though- like the Cupid and Tanuki- she was enjoying every second of watching me squirm. 

“Couldn’t tell ya, since it’s something I never tried.” I answered honestly, no doubt disappointing the gossip-ey Exchange Program and MON personnel gathered around us. Yet I decided to leave out the rather recent part where I seemed rather excited while being handcuffed while Akagane was straddling me in the interrogation room.

However, Perri was the one to ask the question that was no doubt on everybody else’s mind. 

“How do you know about this, Mr. Host?”

“Well- I think anyone who considers themselves a fan of the late, great Bettie Page has to know about her dabbling in BDSM photography with Irving Klaw. Plus there’s the internet.” I explain. “This topic comes up once in a while on Redbit or Bourbon dictionary, you see….”

“I bet it does.” Akagane teased.

“What’s Bee Dee SM?” Perri asked innocently. 

Fucking hell, did I ever bite off more than I could chew today.

“Well…” I sigh. “Think of it as basically rough but consensual intimacy with a partner that includes things like restraints and physical discipline.”

“Sounds kind of like the Night Elves idea of courtship.” the cupid mused.

“Beg your pardon?” I ask, genuinely curious. I suppose I should be glad the cupid seemed like she was finally giving me an out.

“Oh…well…. You see….” the cupid began to trail off. “It’s purely speculative at this point, but the Night Elfin or drow race is a matriarchal society with some rumored courtship traditions that are kinda…… how can I put this?”

“Kinky?” another voice spoke up. All of us turned to see Zombina.

“Well, nothing’s been proven one way or the other.” Val said, seemingly walking back the certainty of her earlier words. “But it’s said their whole concept of finding a romantic partner is more akin to hunting or bandits raiding a village. Their idea of ‘love’ supposedly is to completely and utterly control someone and keep them close at all times.”

“Those are just centuries-old rumors, though.” Manako added quietly. “Not much is really known about their society or customs to begin with.”

“But they’ve reportedly made overtures to us about participating in the Exchange Program.” Akagane added.

“Huh…” I muse.

“What is it, Buckaroo?” the bespectacled canine-eared lawyer asks.

“I just thought all the extraspecies that wanted to come forward did so already.”

Most of them have- but there’s some isolated species who makes communicating with them pretty difficult.” Zombina is quick to point out. “Plus some species are still on the fence about even participating. They’ve been taking more of a sort of wait-and-see approach.”

Oh my- all this talk of bondage and tying naughty boys up and you didn’t include me?” a voice huffed from a few feet behind me.

I could see the facial expressions on some of the girls change. Perri and Val looked startled and once I turned around I understood why.

Standing a few feet behind me clad in a revealing black top was an imposing but beautiful spider woman with short lilac hair, six crimson eyes and a supremely confident smirk.

You….” the arachnid woman loomed over me, her voice accusatory. “You’re the filthy chikkan that’s been groping our sweet and innocent Akagane-chan.”

“Not this….” Akagane sighed as she removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Wh-what are you talking about?” I ask my accuser nervously. The arachne woman certainly wasn’t small- she looked bigger than the one from earlier and to my astonishment, she had managed to get within a few feet of me, Akagane, Perri and the others completely undetected.

“Don’t play innocent with me. You had your hands all over her- probably feeling her up and fluffing her tail….”

Confronted by a pissed off Arachne after getting shot in the back by a cupid- but only after kissing and fondling my homestay in a town full of cops and MON agents. 

I’ll be honest, this is not how I envisioned today’s activities working out.

“Did she let out a little moan when you played with her ears? I just figured Akagane-chan is a moaner.” the assertive spider woman pondered absently before directing her attention back to me. “What did her lips taste like…? I bet they tasted like strawberry. Or maybe raspberry.”

“Who are you…? What the hell is going on here?” I honestly wanted to run, but my legs are rather slow to register that fact. Plus this spider woman with a skull-like marking on her abdomen is every bit as intriguing as she is intimidating.

The way this arachne was behaving, I almost thought she was a possessive ex-lover. Is Akagane even bi? That was something I had never even considered. My mind was racing at the boundless possibilities if the curvaceous tanuki was indeed playing for both teams when the voluptuous spider woman spoke up again.

“My name?” the spider woman asks daintily. She seems to be enjoying my disbelief and confusion. “Why it’s Rach-”

“Give it a rest, Doppel” Akagane interrupted.

“Hey Counselor- who is this spider woman and why is she calling me ‘Chicken’?”

Chikkan” the sultry arachne added with emphasis. “It means a good for nothing, no account pervert who likes to grab and molest innocent girls on the crowded subway.”

“But there’s no subways here….” Perri- the girl I got quite grabby with not too long ago- is quick to point out.

“It’s a good thing for sweet little Aka-chan then, otherwise this pervert would be shamelessly fluffing her tail or blowing in her ear non-stop.” spider-woman huffs.

“Seriously, Doppel….You can drop the femme fatale act now.” 

The spider was tittering before her short lilac hair suddenly lost its color and began growing longer- curling around her while her arachnid legs began retreating into her body. The additional pair of eyes on disappeared as her skin grew noticeably darker. It seemed like there was no end to her hair, which had a mind of its own and was moving around the no-longer-spider woman as her body rapidly continued shrinking.

The whole astonishing transformation couldn’t have taken more than three seconds and standing before us with an impish grin was a dark skinned little girl with blackened sclera who was completely-

Oh my God! Aren’t you cold, little girl? PLEASE- put on some clothes!” I shout involuntarily, averting my eyes.

“Doppel doesn’t really do clothes.” Akagane began to explain.

“Except for that one time with Loverboy. Man, that was the stuff of legends- we still talk about it to this day.” Zombina interjected.

“OK- Counselor? Patch Adams? Any of you care to tell me who this weird little girl is?” I ask hopefully.

“This is Doppel.” Akagane sighs. 

“Aww….don’t be mad. You know I gotta mess with you and your little friend- shapeshifter’s creed.” the strange little girl tittered.

“Pleased to meet you……I guess?” I trail off.

“So you’re the guy who charmed our top lawyer out of her business suit, huh?” the smirking girl prods me.

I can see Perri looking even more displeased at the direction this conversation is taking.

“Well- I think the name of the fella who managed to do most of the work is ‘Jim Beam’.” I try and deflect as I can see the raccoon dog lady fidgeting.

“Who knew Aka-chan had a ‘type’?” the strange little girl teased as she leisurely walked around me in a circle, casting an appraising glance the whole time.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh- all those bronzed surfer studs coming up to her when she was reading or sunbathing at the beach by headquarters….” Doppel said before her hair whipped up, briefly engulfing her until she morphed into a tall, tanned, muscular surfer dude complete with a shark;s teeth necklace and swim trunks.

Hey beautiful….” Doppel continued in an exaggerated beach bro accent. “Whatchya reading? Need me to help put some sunblock on ya?”

“C-c’mon, Doppel.” Akagane pouted. “The only reason guys like that would come up and approach me is if they were on a wild pig hunt…”

“A what?” I ask.

“Pig Hunt. Dog Fight- take your pick… It can go by a couple of different names, but there’s stories that human males sometimes do this- a contest, basically. The object is to find an unsuspecting woman that they consider homely or unattractive and ask her out as their date. When they meet up later on, the one with the ‘worst’ date wins.” Zombina explains.

“Whoa- that’s pretty messed up.” I reply. ”You gotta give yourself more credit, Counselor.”

“That’s what I was thinking. With all due respect, I think you’ve seen too many movies.” the cupid said to Akagane.

A guy? Try maybe a dozen guys! Are you telling me they were all participating in some kind of pig fight or dog hunt?’ the pint-sized shape-shifter asks Akagane incredulously. “All of them wanting to get to know you, go somewhere quiet and maybe fluff your tail….”

The tanuki lawyer quietly shook her head ‘no’.

“Let me guess- you weren’t even shape-shifting when Wild Bill here went ahead and put the moves on you.” the strange little girl follows up.

Shit- how did she know?

I mean, there was the little demonstration where she was a cheerleader, Bettie Page and some rat-fuck As Seen On TV ambulance chaser from Albuquerque for awhile. But the two of us didn’t get really handsy until well after she was done showing off.

Maybe it was shape-shifter’s intuition on Doppel’s part.

“You’re not wrong.” I affirm quietly.

Perri looks increasingly annoyed as this conversation continues.

“Having said that, ‘Extraspecies Bingo’ is a thing in some places.” Zombina was quick to add. 

“Hold up- what the hell is ‘Extraspecies Bingo’?” I ask, nodding towards Zombina since she’s the one who brought this up to begin with.

“Something else we’ve seen on social media. Kinda like our raccoon dog’s Pig Hunt’ in that the girls involved have no idea they’re taking part in some sort of competition.” the stitched up redhead began. 

Akagane shot the undead MON operative a glare but said nothing as Zombina continued. 

“Bunch of guys get together and make a scorecard listing different liminal species and whoever sleeps with the most species listed on the scorecard in a certain timeframe is declared the winner in the group.”

Charming. I figured humanity would have some issues with the newly ‘discovered’ extraspecies when word first got out, but I was cringing hearing about some of my fellow homo sapien’s rather vindictive and mean-spirited pranks or contests targeting the new arrivals.

“OK- that’s pretty messed up, but for different reasons.” I observe.

“Might seem counterintuitive, but for some cases it may actually be beneficial.” Val remarks. “I mean, there’s some species that have an accelerated sex drive, so it allows them to blow off some steam without violating the exchange program’s rules.”

“But there’s other species who prize their chastity or being in a monogamous relationship.” Manako spoke up quietly. “Imagine a pan faun finding out that her first time was with a human who only was with her to win a bet with his friends or classmates.”

“Ooof…yeah…” I hiss after inhaling through clenched teeth. “Sorry, ladies- don’t know what to say.”

“Mister Host would never do something like that.” Perri spoke up suddenly.

She seemed so adamant and steadfast when she said that the rest of us were left speechless.

“I don’t think any of us are saying he would, Perri.” Val began.

“It takes a considerable amount of effort to be one of these asses that would take part in something like what you’re describing.” My raptor harpy homestay continued as she addressed Zombina and the others.

Her observation was met with quiet nods of approval from the others.

“And while Mr. Host may be an ass, he’s also very shiftless and lazy.” Perri adds. 

Zombina seems to be quick to concur with that statement, but the others seem bewildered and wondering where Perri is going with this.

“Mister Host would never be like any of these humans who would go out of their way to hurt or humiliate extraspecies because it’s way too much effort for him.”

What the hell, bird woman who’s living under my roof?

On second thought, Perri’s statement is kind of subdued given what I did to her earlier. This whole time, she is literally surrounded by MON agents and could truthfully tell any one of them that I had just grabbed her, threw her up against a wall and began kissing her while copping a feel and chances are that would be all she wrote for my participation in the Exchange Program- and perhaps the start of my participation in the New Mexico state prison system.

“That’s….um….” the quiet monoeye began. “That’s certainly flawless logic.”

“Well really- it makes sense when you put it like that.” the stitched up zombie woman guffawed. “Can’t argue when you put it like that- right, Custer?”

Before I could think of a witty rejoinder to the redhead’s taunting, we were interrupted by a sharp, piercing whistle.

Everyone’s attention was drawn to a quartet of figures still clad in ballistic helmets and armor just up the street and in front of what I had to assume was the command post for today’s exercise. I didn’t recognize any of them, but one of the figures had an arachnid lower body while another towered over the rest. The only reason I knew it wasn’t Tio was because Perri said she was still back at the ranch.

“Yo! Val- you ready?” one of them called out from a distance.

Val didn’t react right away, but we could see her eyes light up when one of them held up what looked like a rifle case. This must’ve been the sniper rifle she was speaking so fondly of earlier.

“Well- that’s my cue to get going.” the cupid said as her wings suddenly fluttered to life, lifting her a few feet off the ground. “Pleasure meeting you, Manako! And don’t do anything too perverted, Akagane’s boyfriend! Toodles!”

Val gave a quick tip of her beret to us before flying over to her colleagues. Right away, I noticed her flight pattern wasn’t as rapid or graceful as Perri’s, although I suppose it didn’t need to be for the scenarios we were in earlier this afternoon. Simply getting from Point A to Point B without having to touch the ground would be enough.

“She seems nice.” I muse.

“I should get going as well.” Perri coldly remarked before anyone else could speak up.

“You heading back to the ranch already?” I ask, trying not to sound nervous.

“Perhaps….” she said while turning away, getting ready to take flight.

“Perri!” I call out before the harpy can take off. “Hang on!”

“Yes, Mr. Host?”

“N….nothing.” I begin nervously. “I just wanted to say… just…y’know… be careful around those wind turbines off route 46. I mean…you probably know better, but still….I worry sometimes.”

Looking back at me, the raptor harpy hesitated before replying.

“I’ve managed to avoid those windmills so far, but I appreciate your concern Mr. Host.” she said to me with the faintest trace of a smirk still on her lips. “You take care not to lose that hat.”

Oh damn- that’s probably another reason I mistook her for the tanuki in disguise at first. Perri showed up here without snatching my hat from above- the unofficial greeting that I had been getting accustomed to.

“I’ll see you back at the ranch.” she said, quickly turning and sprinting a few paces before leaping into the air. With a few swift flaps of her wings, she was off and gaining altitude rapidly.

“Everything all right, Custer?” Zombina asked as she began ushering the rest of us to the parking lot.

Even though she may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, it’s clear that the undead redhead sensed something amiss.

“Oh- it’s just that I didn’t expect to see her out here this afternoon.” 

I mean- that’s technically true.

Seemingly satisfied with my answer, the stitched up redhead stopped next to the Suburban we drove down from Fort Quinn in.

“All right everybody, hop in.” Zombina said as she held open one of the back doors of the Suburban. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here- this means you, Custer.”

I’m about ready to climb in when I notice the pint sized exhibitionist has already taken her place behind the driver’s seat.

“Uh….no offense, but could you maybe change into a ladybug or something for the ride back?” I ask.

“Oh?” Doppel pouted. “I notice you’re not asking your little bright eyed and bushy tailed girlfriend to change into a ladybug.”

“Well, she hasn’t taken the form of a naked minor, so…”

“Don’t get so worked up, Custer. That’s just how Doppel is.” Zombina said as she started up the Suburban.

Call me crazy, but I was not looking forward to the ride back to the ranch. I got in the very back row while Akagane sat next to Doppel, with Manako in the front seat riding shotgun.

Akagane could probably sense something was amiss while Doppel kept herself amused by intermittently changing into different extraspecies women and- inexplicably- Vince the Sham Wow guy and looking back at me to gauge my reaction.


Uncertainty seemed to be a feature of both the ride to and from Las Orillas. I had no idea what was waiting for me at the ghost town and it turned out to be the same for the ride back home.

Upon arriving at the ranch, my heart sank when I saw that Smith was already out on the porch waiting for us.

Since Perri could pretty much fly in a straight line while we had to traverse twisting roads through the mountains for at least part of the way, it seemed like almost a given that she’d get back at the ranch before us.

This heavy knot formed in the pit of my stomach as the interspecies coordinator called out to me while I trudged up the steps on the front porch.

“Oi- got a minute, cowboy-kun?”

A bit like today’s activities at Las Orillas, I know that I don’t really have a say in the matter as I trudged up the front steps to the porch.

The woman in the dark suit was holding onto something in her right hand.

“We checked. The threats look like they came from a throwaway account. The user’s been suspended, but they could start up another bogus user profile.” she clarified as she held up the tablet, showing me the social media post from the other day.

Smith held up her phone and showed me the selfie of the cheerleaders with Perri.

Wait- that’s what she wanted to talk to me about? I guess I should be relieved.

“Could you do me a favor?” I ask Smith, although the fact remains that I’m clearly not in a position to be asking any favors from her. 

“What is it?” 

“Can you hold off on telling Perri this?”

“How come?”

“Those girls from the high school- the cheerleaders. They thought Perri was the coolest thing since sliced bread- hell….one of ‘em even made that nice little sundress for Perri at Charlotte’s place. I don’t want Perri…..” I’m stuck on how to describe what I want from Smith. “I….don’t want her to shy away from meeting new people because of some random, anonymous, dumb shit troll on social media.”

Smith contemplates my words after adjusting her shades.

“Tell you what, cowboy-kun. Perri has to find out one way or another, but I’m going to leave it up to you to tell her.” she sighed. Smith clearly seemed uneasy with the compromise, but at least she was willing to do so.

“Come on- there’s something else we want to show you.” she continued as she ushered me into my own home.

We’? I swallow hard as I follow Smith into the living room- I’m not sure I like the sound of that.

Right away, it’s pretty apparent that some work has been done in the room and-

Holy shit, it’s Tio.

More to the point, it’s Tio in a pair of burgundy overalls and seemingly nothing else, gently clasping a power drill that looks like a dollhouse toy in one hand and wiping the sweat from her brow with the other.

At the sight of the lovely, buxom ogress spilling out of her overalls, I must have looked like that horndog wolf from those old Tex Avery cartoons with eyes jumping out on cartoonish springs and my jaw hitting the floor.

“Oh? You’re back already, Billy!” Tio said, seemingly pleased to see me. 

I had several questions about what was going on, even though I’m clearly happy to see the good natured blonde ogress. As I got a little better look at her, I could see some straps for what looked like a bra or bikini top slipping out from beneath her overall straps- so she wasn’t quite au naturel beneath those overalls. It also wasn’t lost on me that the gentle giantess was slightly stooped over- no doubt attempting to prevent her horn from damaging my ceiling.

It took me a little while to notice it, but there was something on the coffee room table. It looked kind of like an old-timey microphone or a rounded speaker.

“Yeah…uh, hi Tio. What’s this?” I ask. 

“A little something called MONa that we set up.” Smith spoke up.

“What does it do, exactly?”

“It’s kind of like your average smart speaker, but it also provides a direct line to either us or MON Southwest in case you or Perri need to contact us for any reason. You can also access a comprehensive, real-time continuously updated database regarding extraspecies.”

Sounds good, but I remembered Akagane’s discreet warning from the other night about Smith putting me and Perri under increased scrutiny. There’s no doubt that MONa could do what Smith described, but it seems almost a foregone conclusion that it could be used to eavesdrop on the two of us. 

“Hey MONa….play Sing Along by Sturgill Simpson.” I order the smart speaker.

The speaker doesn’t say anything right away, but a light comes on and flickers as though in response to my command.

After a few seconds of silence, I hear the distorted guitar intro for the song I just requested.

Well, I know you know that you’re killing me

But it’s worth it just to see you smile

Tell ’em to carve my name in the bar stool, baby

You know I’m gonna be here a while.

“MONa, pau-” Smith attempts to command the device.

“Hell yeah, MONa- crank it up! This is my jam!” I interrupt, my enthusiasm only slightly exaggerated, but now savoring the chagrined expression on Smith’s face. If she’s going to ‘gift’ me a trojan horse that’s almost certainly going to be used to keep me and Perri under near-continuous surveillance, I might as well have some fun with it.

“A single strand of spider’s weave

Just dancing in the sun

Please don’t turn around and leave

You are my only one

I can’t go on living alone now that you’re gone

You done me wrong, so here’s your song

Now sing along”

“MONa, pause.” Smith interrupts.

Damn- I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Smith can override my voice commands on this device.

“OK- so what else can it do?” I ask as the music stops.

“It can directly link you to headquarters in case the landline isn’t working.”

“I programmed our numbers in there too in case you have any more questions for us, Billy.” Tio beamed.

Damn it- how can I stay mad at that face?

“What about tech support if something crashes?” I ask.

“It’s not likely, but you can get a hold of our regional offices if something goes wrong- we have a number of subcontractors we can send out.” Smith said.

Shit- I’d rather just call or skype with Tio.

“How much does it cost?” I ask.

“I believe that amount has already been deducted from your monthly stipend.”Smith remarked while Tio went about putting away some of the tools.

Really? I didn’t notice any money missing from my monthly MON check.

“Speaking of which, I assume you’re keeping current with your loan payments?”

“Ah…heh…yeah.” I chuckle nervously in a poor attempt to hide my irritation at this particular topic. “They haven’t been paid off yet, but I have been able to take a pretty big bite out of them since I started getting that stipend.”

I mean- it’s the truth, but I’m not sure if that’s enough to get Smith off my back about that particular subject.

“All right then. Looks like our work is done here.” she said as she looked appraisingly at the smart speaker before turning to leave the room with Tio in tow. To my surprise, Smith bowed slightly.“Thank you for your hospitality. We’ll be on our way shortly.” 

I was sure I had seen Akagane get out of the Suburban to stretch her legs and left the room to see if I could find her when there was a very sizable obstacle blocking my path in the hallway.

A sizable and buxom obstacle.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Tio asked in a menacing snarl.

“E-excuse me?” I asked- more incredulous than anything.

“I heard about what you did today, you dirty boy…” she said.

“Hang on a sec, I…I can explain!”

“And I saw the way you were looking at me just now. Bad boys need to be punished in Mistress Tionisha’s Tickle Dungeon.” she said with a confident little smirk.

Hold the phone. Even from up close, this is a very convincing likeness of Tio. With that said, even without the whole shitshow involving Perri, it dawns on me that I rode back in an SUV with no less than two shapeshifters.

Jesus I hope it isn’t that weird dark skinned girl with the sentient hair. 

Eyeing this more aggressive version of Tio a little closer, my eyes are drawn to her right breast.

Pocket! 

Her right breast pocket! I certainly wasn’t ogling her pumpkin sized mammaries as they were trying not to spill from her overalls or anything like that.

The thing is, I couldn’t help but notice an oak leaf tucked into the pocket. 

“As shucks…. I’m awfully sorry, ‘Mistress Tio’- I already booked an appointment at Lady Akagane’s Parlor of Sensual Torments.”

I’ve already been burned once by spotting what I thought was one of Akagane’s leaves, but here goes nothing as I deftly pluck it out from the pocket while hardly touching ‘Tio’.

With a little puff of some sort of whitish, odorless vapor, ‘Tio’ was gone and I was now standing face to face with the ring tailed lawyer- this is exactly what I thought would’ve happened when I pulled a leaf from Perri’s hair back at the ghost town.

“Aw…you named a parlor of sensual torments after me? I’m flattered.” she teased.

“Ran it by the gals in marketing and got the thumbs up- although I never said who was getting tormented, did I?” I cautioned her.

She flashed a coy little smile as she reached into her blouse and pulled out a small pad of paper. If I had to guess, Akagane didn’t seem too upset about my antics with Perri earlier.

“Promises promises, Buckaroo.” she said, looking down as she wrote something on the pad.

I was about to ask her what she was doing when she held up the little pad of paper.

SMITH AND THE HIGHER UPS WILL PROBABLY USE MONA TO EAVESDROP ON YOU TWO.”

I stopped myself from reading it aloud and nodded quietly before mouthing ‘Why?’.

“Well, I’m a man of my word.” I said, trying to keep our conversation going as Akagane began writing something else down.

“Oooh- that’s what I like.” she cooed, not looking up from the notepad until she was done.

YOU ACED THE INTERVIEW THE OTHER DAY, BUT I BET SMITH IS STILL SUSPICIOUS. TAKE CARE IF YOU AND PERRI DECIDE TRY AND DO ANYTHING

Nearly forgetting our conversation, I sputtered for a moment. Akagane seemed to be giving me too much credit with PerrI- especially after this afternoon’s dumpster fire. Still, with that written warning, the flirtatious tanuki seemed to indicate that she at least tacitly approved of me hooking up with Perri.

“Not as much as I like putting a collar and leash on naughty tanuki ladies who clearly need some disciplining.” I say to her after finding my voice.

Akagane had started writing something else down on her notepad when she looked up at me in surprise. She acknowledged my remarks with a wry little grin before resuming her writing.

“Oooh- I’ve been such a bad girl, too. Maybe I do need a big, strong man to discipline me.” she purred while finishing up her next written sentence.

JUST BE CAREFUl.- ASSUME EVERYTHING YOU DO OR SAY IN HERE IS BEING MONITORED. LET PERRI KNOW, TOO. I DON’T WANT YOU IN ANY TROUBLE OR PERRI GETTING DEPORTED..”

“Trouble is my middle name.” I begin to brag before realizing I’m replying to her written note and not our conversation that may or may not have some electronic eavesdropping taking place.

Shit shit shit shit…..wait- don’t freak out just yet. My remark isn’t completely out of context for anybody who might be listening in.

“Just think of all the trouble you and I can get into next time.” I continue, somewhat pleased with how my smooth recovery applies to both the conversation we’re having out loud and the discreet notes Akagane is writing to me before motioning for her to give me the pad.

I was halfway through writing “WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?” on the pad when I was startled by a presence behind me. A whiff of formaldehyde gave it away as Zombina before she even said anything.

“There you are.” the undead woman spoke up as I hastily pocketed the little notepad. “You and Custer need to wrap up your little tryst. We’re almost ready to go.”

“I’ll be right out.” the tanuki said with a pout before turning to me. “Buckaroo- next time I’m here, we’re going to have to stay at a nice, private B&B and make sure there’s no interruptions.”

Sounds promising.

“Just so we’re clear, I’m not turning the ranch into a bed and breakfast.” I say to the tanuki as she excuses herself.

“As for you, Custer…..we have some unfinished business.” Zombina said menacingly once she was sure the tanuki lawyer was out of earshot.

Uh-oh….I’m not sure I like the undead girl’s tone. Did Perri say something to Zombina? Or maybe the stitched up MON agent is sharper than she lets on.

“I’ve got something here with your name on it.” she grins, sharp teeth bared as she reaches into her jacket pocket.

Oh shit- she’s gonna kneecap me after what I did with Perri! 

Before I can really flinch, I see that she now has a rectangular slip of paper clasped between her fingers as she hands it off to me.

A check for just over $200 made out to me.

“Stopped by the payroll office on our way out. Your salary for today.” she remarks before looking at me quizzically as I cautiously take the check from her. “Why so nervous, Custer? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Oh, ha ha- Very funny. I see what she did there.

“It’s nothing…” I reply as I laugh involuntarily. “Today’s been a pretty long day and I forgot all about that.”

“Obviously. Oh- almost forgot.” Patch Adams snapped her finger suddenly. “Smith wanted me to give you this.  It’s a little something the Exchange Program is giving out to participating households.” 

She hands me a cardboard packet that looks just big enough to contain a CD or DVD.

“Take care of yourself.” the undead MON agent grinned fiercely. “You keep stressing out like that you won’t be any good to you or your homestay, Custer.”

“Custer?” I hear myself ask- a little bewildered by the moniker.

“Oh yeah….In way over your head and it’s only a matter of time before someone with feathers ends up taking your scalp.”

“Thanks for the DVD.” I sigh while the redhead zombie chortles on her way out. “Sorry you have to be leaving so soon.”


Turns out my property had been quite the busy little beehive this afternoon, although Perri and I had gathered outside to see off MON as well as the lady lawyer.

“We’re ready whenever you are, Counsellor.” Smith said.

“One more thing, Buckaroo.” the sly tanuki said, walking towards me and away from the SUV. “A bit of pro-bono legal advice before I hit the road.”

“What is it?” 

The tanuki didn’t say anything, but quickly nudged me so that I’d follow her around the corner.

“I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. You and Perri? I’m not saying ‘don’t’- I’m just saying ‘wait’.” the tanuki said in a normal tone.

“Huh?” I didn’t have to play dumb- I really didn’t know what she was getting at.

“The prohibition. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before the courts strike it down, but in the meantime, there’s no point in either you or Perri getting in trouble over it.”

“I appreciate the heads-up, Counsellor.” I nod in the direction of my homestay. “But I think you’re overestimating my appeal with Perri.”

“There may be more to that than she’s letting on. From what I saw, she didn’t object too much to the way you were handling her.” she said before removing her glasses and wiping them with the bottom of her blouse. 

Well- there was the not-insignificant fact that Perri didn’t disembowel me with her talons after I grabbed and kissed her. But then again, Akagane walked in on the two of us and the harpy may not have wanted any witnesses.

“Different species have different ways of showing interest in a potential partner. You both are fairly young and attractive, and I imagine it gets kind of lonely out here….and I highly doubt she flew all the way out to the facility just to watch you get used as a chew toy for the latest batch of MON trainees.” she said as we continued walking around the exterior of the house.

Well shit, on the one hand she’s right about our circumstances. But on the other hand I need to be realistic and temper my expectations with both Perri and the exchange program.

“What about you, Counsellor?” I ask.

“Hmm?”

“You’ve got your youth and good looks-”

“Pish posh, Buckaroo.” she said coquettishly. “I’m not exactly cover girl material. I’m just an old maid of thirty ffff……..” the tanuki bit her lower lip as she trailed off, only to find her voice after a moment. “Twenty seven.”

 “Still, ever thought about putting your career on hold for a bit and maybe staying somewhere out of the way to unwind?” I hint.

“Here?” She scoffed. “I’d love to, honestly..”

“Maybe you could work remotely?” I ask earnestly. “Seems like that’s all the rage these days.”

“Oh wow.” the bespectacled tanuki said as she began fanning herself. It wasn’t lost on me that it was actually pretty mild out. “Y-you’re giving me a lot to consider here, Buckaroo.”

“Key word is ‘here’. Doesn’t have to be right now, but still…” I add, gently tapping my foot on terra firma. “Something to think about.”

“I wish it were that simple, Buckaroo. But a lot of what I do can’t be done remotely. And I just can’t hit the ‘pause’ button on my work right now.”

“How come?”

“Well….How can I put this without breaking attorney-client privilege?” she pondered.

I look at her quizzically. 

“Let’s say you’re a wyvern new to the country and not used to interacting with humans.” she began. “You’re out shopping at the farmer’s market one day and you see something shiny that catches your attention- a nice, shiny, hand-crafted silver necklace on display.” 

“Is this your way of telling me you want a necklace?” 

“Bear with me, buckaroo.” Akagane sighs. “So you try this necklace on and instead of putting it back on the display rack, you go off to find your host family to show them how it looks- because you’re unfamiliar with the concept of cash transactions. The thing is, before you can find them, there’s these men in blue uniforms telling you to put your hands behind your back and calling for a paddywagon to take you downtown. And because the necklace is valued at more than $200, you are now looking at felony larceny charges.”

“But there’s gotta be some leeway for new arrivals, right?” I ask. Seems like the sly tanuki is being rather specific with this hypothetical.

Ignorantia juris non excusat.” the tanuki said.

It took me a moment to realize that she was speaking Latin, not Italian. My confusion must’ve been pretty apparent, since she continued after a brief pause.

“‘Ignorance of the law excuses not’- basic legal tenet.”

“So….kind of like getting a ticket for doing 70 when the speed limit is thirty- even if you didn’t see the signs.”

“In the most abstract sense, yes. The speed limit didn’t stop being thirty just because you weren’t paying attention.” Akagane paused as she pursed her lips and her eyes scanned the horizon. 

“The thing is, Buckaroo, I have to approach all my cases with the mindset that the judge and prosecution wants to throw the book at my client each and every time I set foot in the courthouse. Otherwise I’ll get complacent….and that won’t do my clients any good.”

Good point. Unfortunately, this conversation also drives home how unlikely it would be for her to put her career on hold to stay at the ranch.

Something else occurs to me- something I should probably ask her while she’s still in front of me and can provide an answer.

“Hey- one more thing I’ve been meaning to ask you.” 

“Hmm?” 

“What’s the difference between your shape-shifting and Doppel’s?”

“Hmm….” she pondered. “Well, I can’t give you the full Discovery Channel: Tanuki Week rundown, but I think Doppel can do that any time she chooses. Believe it or not, magic really hasn’t been my strong suit, so I can only do that a few times a day.”

“Do you need the leaves to do that?”

“Not always, but I find it helpful to use those as a focal point.” The sly tanuki nodded.

“You must be pretty good if you were able to pass yourself off as human for so long.”

“Well….yes and no.” she said hesitantly. “I think I was able to get away with that for so long because people assumed talking, shape-shifting tanukis were just something from folklore. That gave me an advantage. But nekomata’s out of the bag, now. A lot of people would have some idea of what to look for.”

Makes sense. If even two short years ago somebody had said ’Hey, heads up- your classmate is a talking raccoon dog hybrid thingey’, they would’ve been considered some crazy person spouting random gibberish- or just high.

“And honestly, I can only hold another form for so long.” the youkai woman continued. “Other than that, I’d say the biggest difference between me and Doppel is that I can use a combination of the leaves and ofuda to apply illusory spells to some inanimate objects. As far as I know, Doppel can’t do that.”

Well- that might explain why she was carrying those birch logs in her purse.

“Ever thought about shapeshifting in the courtroom to keep things a little lively?” I ask.

Right away, the ring-tailed canine woman shook her head ‘no’. “Tempting, but that’s just begging for the whole case to get thrown out on a mistrial.”

“Well- guess you have more willpower than me, Councilor.” I muse as we’ve made one full revolution around the house and are back under the appraising glares of Smith and MON.

“Says the man who’s charming secrets that youkai have kept hidden for generations out of this city-slicker.” Akagane ponders.

“Oh damn- you didn’t just break some kind of a non-disclosure agreement with the tanuki guild, counselor? Wouldn’t want you getting in trouble.”

“That’s what I like about you, Buckaroo.” she chuckled as she shook her head. “Considerate to a fault.” She heaved a little sigh, knowing she had delayed her inevitable departure as much as she reasonably could expect.

“It’s been a lot of fun, but I have to get going. We really should do this again, sometime.” Akagane said as she deftly produced a business card from her cleavage.

Damn- those tits of hers really were magical.

Taking the card with one hand, I was a little caught off guard when Akagane abruptly swung her other arm around my neck and deftly pulled my face closer to hers. Before I knew it, our lips met… although her eyeglasses mashing up against the bridge of my nose and upper cheekbone kinda detracted from the otherwise sensual moment.

I break the kiss with Akagane long enough to remove her glasses, which were crooked. 

Naturally, they lack templepieces on account of her pointy canid ears, but were instead held in place by a small, thin chain that’s draped around her neck when she isn’t wearing them.

“You never know when I might stop by again.” she added with a coy wink. “Hopefully under different circumstances.”

Knowing full well she has an audience now, the mischievous tanuki gets up on her tip-toes and gives me another quick kiss on the lips before playfully biting my bottom lip. Akagane didn’t bite particularly hard, but it surprised me enough to let out a startled yelp.

As she began to pull away, I realized I was still holding on to her eyeglasses and feeling rather mischievous myself. With a gentle but firm tug on the lanyard her eyewear was attached to, I pull the saucy raccoon-dog lawyer closer to me for one final kiss. It wasn’t until our lips met again that it occured to me that it seemed like Akagane was making a point to do this in front of everybody- both MON and my homestay.

Was she showing off in an attempt to make her Exchange Program coworkers jealous or….could she be throwing down the gauntlet with Perri?

Or maybe she was giving me an enthusiastic sendoff before heading back to what she considered her humdrum office job wherever and I’m overthinking my good fortunes. Even if she was laying down some sort of challenge with Perri, I think the Tanuki is still giving me way too much credit on my appeal in the eyes of my avian homestay.

“One for the road, counselor,” I say, giving her a relatively quick kiss on the lips before gently blowing on her left ear. Unfortunately for me, she turns away before I can take in her reaction.

I savor the alluring sight of the tanuki as she sashays towards the Suburban’s open door . Zombina and Doppel don’t say anything, but they appear to be rather surprised at the tanuki’s bold display. Manako seems to have been blushing and is averting her eyes…I mean eye singular.. while Tio has her hands tented in front of her mouth and she seems to be smiling as though she’s happy for the lawyer tagging along with them. Before she gets in, Akagane turns to me one more time and holds up her right hand to her cheek- thumb and pinky finger extended as though mimicking an old school phone headset.

“Call me, Buckaroo.”

“Yeah- Will do…” I heard myself say breathlessly.

Ja ne!” she winked at me before climbing into the SUV. Zombina shut the door behind her before moving around to the driver’s side to get in while Smith and the others filed in. The vehicle’s tinted glass denied me one last look at the bespectacled youkai before it drove off.

And almost as quickly as she entered my life, the ring-tailed force of nature that called herself Akagane Tachibana, esquire, had departed.

It was a tradeoff- since Akagane’s departure coincided with Smith’s departure, but one must take the bad with the good.

After watching the Suburban negotiate the dirt and gravel driveway and fade off into the distance, I belatedly realized I was still holding the laminated business card Akagane slipped me.

Perhaps I was still convinced the last three days was still just a dream as I ran my finger across the card’s surface. Nothing magical about it- it didn’t feature any talismans or change into a jack-in-the-box suddenly jumping out to startle me. Just an embossed copper script with the Exchange Program logo and a Phoenix-area address and phone number on it.

And something else I noticed as I slowly traced my finger across the middle.

Moisture? Not a lot- just enough to grab my attention.

I wasn’t going to give it a second thought until I realized where the tanuki woman was keeping that card. 

The fine sheen of moisture had to have been Akagane’s boob sweat.

Without even thinking, I bring the card up to my nose to see if I can get a whiff of the tanuki lawyer’s perfume.

“Seriously? What are you doing, Mr. Host?” a disapproving voice asks.

Startled, I do a double take as I see Perri standing by the steps to the porch, no more than five feet to my left.

“Perri! Ah….I didn’t see you there.” I begin.

“I’ve been standing here this whole time.You can’t even control yourself around one of her business cards, I see.” she scolds. “Would you like me to give the two of you some privacy?”

Oh ha ha- very funny, bird girl.

“Well, you see Perri….the thing is….” I stammer. Damn it- I’m a man with needs of my own! Why should I even be explaining myself to her?

“That woman is a bad influence on you, Mr. Host.” the falcon harpy says matter-of-factly.

A whole carload of women just left, but I didn’t have to ask her which one she was talking about. We both knew. Still, it stung a little to hear her say that.

“I wouldn’t say that, Perri.” I protest halfheartedly.

“You can be a good host when you want to.” the falcon harpy mused. “That’s what I told Smith and that woman- and it’s the truth. However… the problem is the whole time that woman was here, you were more interested in doing perverted stuff with her than being a good host.”

Shit. This sounds familiar.

The reason it sounds familiar is because Akagane had said something similar in passing earlier.

“Perri- I know you may not like her, but that’s exactly what Akagane told me earlier.”

The falcon harpy seemed rather perplexed as she looked at me.

“She didn’t use those exact words, but she said there’s more that I could be doing as your host. I mean it’s great that you have all these open skies to fly around in, but….you and I should think about different places we could be going to.”

As Perri considers my words, I contemplate how much I could really use a cigarette or fifth of Jim Beam right now. But as gratifying as it may be, I know that trying to patch over the problem with booze and smokes isn’t going to solve anything in the long-term.

Bracing myself for an answer I probably wasn’t going to like, I turned to the falcon woman.

“Perri?” I ask. “Why didn’t you tell Smith or the others about what happened back in that ghost town?”

There’s no answer right away as the beautiful raptor harpy shifts her piercing gaze towards the sky, seemingly lost in contemplation.

“If I thought for a second that you were one of these perverts trying to take advantage of me, then Smith and the others would be the least of your worries.”

The clarity and lack of emotion in her words made my blood freeze.

She didn’t really need to go into much more detail than that. I weighed Perri’s words for a moment as she continued to focus intently at the heavens above.

I’ve already apologized to her, but fucking things up as badly as I did earlier seems like it requires more than just an apology on my end. On the other hand, bringing up those earlier events unsolicited is guaranteed to just make things even more awkward.

“Mr. Host?” Perri asks, her gaze no longer focused on the skies above.

“Yeah?”

“It’s been a pretty long day- I think I’ll grab some leftovers and turn in early.” she announced before turning to me with just a hint of a scowl. “Must I lock my door, or can I trust you to keep your hands to yourself?”

“If you know I’m up to no good, then I’ve already lost the element of surprise and you have me at a disadvantage.” I explain to her.

She’s looking at me with her lip curls ever-so-slightly in a little smirk after I said that. However, If she’s being this coy with me right now, perhaps she’s contemplating forgiving me for what I did with her this afternoon. 

“Don’t worry- I’ll be on my best behavior.” I continue, trying to reassure her. 

“Very well- I’ll give you and the ring tailed cur’s card some privacy, then.”

“Hey, uh…You need a hand reheating dinner?” I offer.

“I should be fine.” Perri assures me. Finding out what appliances or household items she may or may not need assistance with has been an ongoing process of trial and error for the past few weeks.

“Alrighty then- bon appetit and g’nite.” I call after her as she heads inside.


What can I say? Today had been nothing less than a clusterfuck inside a shitshow inside a dumpster fire on top of a train wreck, but at the end of the day here I was in my home- not incarcerated by MON or disemboweled by an irate raptor harpy.

Hell- I even got a check for an additional $200 on top of my highway department paycheck and monthly stipend from the Exchange Program.

One really should savor life’s little victories.

And that’s exactly what I planned on doing while I unwind from a hectic and eventful day. I had even gotten as far as getting some generic-brand ginger ale out of the fridge so I could unwind with a couple of homemade cocktails. 

But inevitably, my mind would end up going back to the various escapades with the extraspecies women earlier in Las Orillas. There was the legal (but frowned upon) antics with Akagane, the verboten kissing and heavy petting with Perri…..hell, even that lilac-haired Arachne dominatrix was pretty intriguing. At least she was until she changed into a naked minor using her sentient hair to preserve her modesty.

After grabbing a quick bite to eat, I noticed something on the kitchen counter. It was the DVD case that Zombina handed off to me earlier.

Like the box of seed I tossed in the junk drawer, there was a handwritten note attached.

“Bryce-

Although Perri is most likely remaining active during her stay and won’t need this, I’m enclosing a complimentary DVD. This is a gift from the Interspecies Exchange Program to all host families and households.

XOXOXO

-Smith”

I peel the sticky note off and am immediately greeted by the visage of a perky and fit chestnut-haired canine woman in a sports bra and volleyball shorts. She looks like the same girl from the mock ‘WANTED’ poster I first saw at the post office.

Sweating to the Kobold-ies

The disarming countenance of the canine girl on the DVD’s cover is just about the only thing that prevents me from leaving the house right then and there to track down and cock-punch whoever came up with that title.

She is a cute one, though.

I’ll have to remember to watch this a little later. In the meantime, I need something to take my mind off of today’s events.

Or rather…..

I absently stroke my chin in contemplation before heading to the living room.

Maybe what I really could use is a cold, hard, objective and analytical look at things from a fresh perspective.

Smith and the others are gone, but they left something behind. Might as well use it for its stated purpose.

“Hey MONa….” I said quietly, just in case my harpy housemate was still awake. “What can you tell me about tanuki youkai?”

At first I thought the device didn’t hear me, but the speaker’s little blue light winked on and flickered back and forth for a few seconds.

Tanuki- canid species of youkai indegenous to the Japanese archipelago.” MONa began in a cool monotone. “Considered by many to be cunning tricksters, tanuki are distinguished by pointy ears and a tail with markings similar to a raccoon’s. The most intelligent and magically adept tanuki have been known to adopt human names and practices, such as gambling, drinking, even administrative or religious activities.

“Or lawyer-ing.” I muse quietly.

It is possible for Tanuki to live their entire lifespan among humans without their true nature ever being detected. In human form, there are numerous documented instances where tanuki have proven to be as corruptible as the humans they emulate. Some tanuki have well-earned reputations as thieves, drunkards, liars, and cheats.”

OK, that seems a bit harsh.

But…..then again, if one puts those talents towards pursuing a law degree, that does sound like Akagane. The thing is, maybe I’m bad at reading people…or youkai, or monstergirls, but I didn’t detect any malice in her actions. She just seemed like an overworked professional who wanted to cut loose and have some fun.

Regardless of the form a tanuki may take, most tanukis typically enjoy human pursuits such as eating, drinking, carousing, gambling and flirting with humans who have caught their attention.” MONa continued.

OK then- that definitely sounds like Akagane.

Well damn. This is a bit like reading up on tornadoes after an F-5 twister levelled your hometown.

Tanukis also tend to be cunning and extremely diligent. Despite their perceived laziness and hedonistic nature, a tanuki will almost always see through any task they’re determined to accomplish.”

Although MONa seems to be giving a vague general description of the species, I can’t help but think of how perfectly this sums up our recent ring-tailed visitor. Assuming her law degree from Stamford wasn’t actually printed on the back of an oak leaf, that would explain the drive and determination it took for her to graduate from one of the west coast’s leading universities while disguised as a human.

I wait for MONa to continue, but it seems like she’s done reading the tanuki entry from her database.

A thought occurs to me as I sit in the quiet room.

I would be better served using MONa to find out more about my homestay who’s just down the hall (and raptor harpies in general)- not the tanuki woman who’s probably halfway back to Phoenix by now.

But it’s getting late and I have to go back to work tomorrow. As eventful as today was, it’s time for some shuteye.


Before I knew it, it was back to work.

This week’s project had been cutting rumble strips on the approach to an intersection with Route 79 and Doña Ana Road a few miles outside of Copper Ridge. There had been a fairly alarming number of accidents and near-misses at that junction within the last two years and the county decided to experiment with strategically placed grooves etched into the pavement at one quarter and one eighth of a mile intervals from each direction.

If these rumble strips didn’t work, there would have to be a traffic light installed, which would be pretty pricey and lead to the county and town of Copper Ridge bickering over which outside contractors to hire, the bidding process and the inevitable cost overruns. The real test for this arrangement would be to see if it could make it through the winter without damaging the road or messing with the snow clearing equipment.

In the meantime, that meant at least four full days worth of work for me and my coworkers at the Llano County Highway Department adding some ‘enhancements’ to the intersection’s approach from each direction.

Hooray job security.

Of course, my job was to once again flag traffic through the work area and realigned lanes while the grooves were cut in on each side and the speed limit was posted on the pavement with reflective pavement.

All of us showed up at the job site on Monday and began work shortly after 8:00. The morning seemed to fly by, and the motorists delayed or inconvenienced by the project seemed to understand on some level that our attempt to nip this problem intersection in the bud was better than letting this fester indefinitely.

Now granted Copper Ridge isn’t exactly the crossroads of the world, but it was big enough that it had things like a Wal Mart, a cinema, some fast food chains and a couple of full size grocery stores.

Things that Ft. Quinn lacked, in other words. And plenty of places to stop by on my lunch break or after work.

One of those places turned out to be a thrift shop called Back in the Saddle. I’m not sure what compelled me to stop in on my way to the grocery store after work that Tuesday, but I was glad I did.

I felt that the lingering animosity from my homestay required more than a simple (if sincere) apology on my part. I’d like to think of it as less a ‘bribe’ and more of a ‘super sorry I threw you up against a wall and felt you up’ peace offering- but I was stumped as to what exactly to get her.

However, thrift shops seemed to be excellent for those offbeat, hard-to-find yet inexpensive gifts.

While a nice hand-me-down dress might be a pleasant surprise for Perri, I have to take her body type into account. Plus I think I’d be better off having Amanda create something from whole cloth over at Charlotte’s place.

Towards the front, they had a bunch of board games. Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly….etc.

Hold the phone- this is perfect. Akagane said I should be spending more time with my homestay, and what better way to do that than with a game night?

The question is- which game?

This might require some trial and error. 

After some contemplation, I pull a word game off the shelf that looks like it’s mostly dice with letters in lieu of numbers that gets shaken until the ‘dice’ settle into a tray. My guess is you have a certain amount of time to find words all the letters could form.

“What’s the story with this one?” I ask as I hold up the Big Boggle box for the clerk.

“Oh, that? It’s got everything but the timer.” she replied. “But you can use the stopwatch on your phone instead.”

“OK- so what’s the difference between Boggle and Big Boggle?” I ask.

I didn’t get an answer right away- the cashier was looking at her phone, searching for the answer online.

“It says here that the original Boggle had 4 by 4 trays while Big Boggle has 5 rows, which allows for longer words.”

Is that a fact? Lady, you just sold me a gently used Boggle game.

Since I didn’t have to worry about a 40 year old word game spoiling in the cab of the truck, I took care of my grocery shopping once I was done at Back in the Saddle.

There would basically be two experiments tonight. The first one was to see how receptive Perri would be to a ‘game night’ with activities like word games while the second would gauge her reaction to having chicken quesadillas for dinner. 

As glad as I am that Perri found something with protein and easier for her to handle like the burritos served up at La Olla, she can’t be eating them every night. So I was going to make chicken quesadillas with grilled Hatch chilies and shredded cheese. That way, she gets something a little lighter but still easier for her to grip with her wing-hands and using similar ingredients as the burrito.

I got home from Copper Ridge a little bit before sunset. Instead of swooping down to steal my hat, Perri was already inside when I came in. 

“Hey- have you been here all day?” I ask.

“I wasn’t sure when you were coming home, Mr. Host…so I made it a point to come back before the sun went down.”

A little help bringing in the groceries would’ve been nice, but no point in complaining since I managed to bring everything inside in one trip.

“We’re working over in Copper Ridge all week, so my commute’s gonna be a little longer than usual.” I explain as I put the grocery bag on the counter. 

“But I got us a treat.” I continue as I handed the falcon harpy the Boggle game.

“I…is this dinner?” she asked, gingerly shaking the box and listening to the rattling coming from inside.

“No- that comes after dinner. I thought we’d try having game night.” I explain. “But in the meantime, I figure you and I have quesadillas for dinner tonight.”

“Kay Show Dee Yes?” 

“Yeah….figured I can’t have burritos from La Olla every night.” I explain as I get a bowl and frying pan out from the cupboard.

“Are you saying that I’m getting fat?” the lithe falcon harpy asked me abruptly.

I’m caught flat-footed by her churlish question at first.

“No, it’s not that.” I say a touch defensively. “It’s just that it’s not practical from a nutritional or budgetary standpoint to be having burritos every day.”

Without any further delay, I get the package of chicken from the grocery store that had already been cut up into little strips and put it in the bowl before cutting and squeezing a lime and then adding some garlic and chili powder.

Perri seems interested enough in what I’m doing that she’s set the game box down and is now watching over my shoulder.

After adding the spices, I get a bottle of off-brand tequila from the cupboard and add a little to the raw chicken, spices and lime juice.

I can sense Perri’s disapproval without even looking.

“This is just to give it a little ‘oomph’…the alcohol will burn off once I start cooking it.” I try to reassure her.

“Have you done this before, Mr. Host?” she asks.

“Yeah- but never for a guest.”

“I’ve never had Kay Show Dee Yes before.” she muses.

Before long, I add the raw chicken, spices and lime juice to the frying pan and almost right away the kitchen is filled with a savory aroma. Perri seems to have picked up on this before me and although she doesn’t say anything, she seems to approve.

“These flour tortillas are too small to really use for burritos” I tell Perri as I get another frying pan and some sunflower seed oil out from the cupboard. “But they’re just right for quesadillas.”

After drizzling some of the oil onto the second pan, I put it on the stovetop at low heat and let it warm up before I add one of the flour tortillas. Once I’m satisfied that it’s warming up evenly, I tend to the chicken, giving it the occasional stir. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that Perri’s watching me like a magician who pulled a rabbit out of their hat.

Before I can ask if something is wrong, my taciturn housemate speaks up.

“It must be nice.” she remarks. “Our kind can hunt down almost anything, but there’s no way we could make anything this palatable when it came time to eat. Not without help, at least.”

I can see what she means. I assume the relative lack of dexterity in her wing-hands is typical of harpies in general and doesn’t lend itself well to cooking and food prep.

Before long, the edges of the tortilla are turning a golden brown. That’s my cue to start adding the shredded cheese and before long, the zesty chicken and peppers are getting scooped from the frying pan onto a bed of shredded cheese before I cautiously put the second tortilla atop the cheese, chicken and chilis. 

The melting cheese slowly oozing out along the circumference of the tortillas is my cue to start pressing down on the top tortilla so the melting cheese will act as an adhesive once when I flip the whole concoction over.

Satisfied that the first quesadilla was done, I slid it out of the pan and sliced it into quarters before getting to work on the second one.

“Go ahead and give it a try.” I tell Perri as I repeat the process for my own dinner.

Right away I can see she’s having an easier time with the quesadilla than she had with the burritos from Las Ollas.

“How is it?” I ask her.

Perri continues chewing before speaking up.

“It’s good- Zesty.” she remarks before taking another bite.

Perhaps the only downside of tonight’s dinner selection is that I have way more grilled Hatch chilis than I know what to do with.

In what seems like no time, my quesadilla is ready as well and the two of us make quick work of our dinner before I clear the dishes and put the Big Boggle game on the table.

“So how about give this thing a try?” I offer.

“What is it? How does it work?” she asks.

“Well….there’s a bunch of cubes with letters on each side. You put the cover on the tray like this and give it a shake until all the cubes fall into place. Then you and your opponent have two minutes to find whatever words might’ve been spelled out once you pull the lid off.” I demonstrate.

“I’m not very good at writing, though.”

Hmm….good point.

“We won’t keep score tonight. Think of it as a practice run.” I offer as I give the cube a few shakes before putting the tray down between the two of us and pulling the lid off.

Oh damn. This wasn’t a good shake on my part. Not at all.

Right away I can see ‘TIT’, ‘TITS’ and ‘SHIT’. Probably not the words I want to single out given what happened the other day. Other than that, it seems to be a throng of vowels on one side and useless consonants on the other.

Perri seems to have found a couple of words and proceeds to start writing them down.

Just when it seems like I can salvage a couple of decent words from our first attempt, the timer goes off.

“OK- what did you get Mr. Host?” she asks.

“Uh…I got ‘HIT’, ‘HITS’ and uh…. ‘HILT’.” I say.

This is certainly pretty anticlimactic.

“How about you?” I ask her.

“I found ‘TILT’, ‘TITTER’, ‘HILT’, ‘HILTS’, TILTS’ and ‘TITLE’”.

“OK- so we can both cross off ‘HILT’. Still- if we were keeping score tonight, you would’ve won this round.”

Already she’s better at this game than me. Getting bested in Boggle by a bird with above average intelligence- I swear this happened in an episode of King of the Hill once.

“Do you want me to go next?” she asks as she’s cautiously examining the tray.

“Yeah- go ahead and give it a shake. Make sure the cover doesn’t go flying off.” I say as I hand it to her. I don’t plan on getting on my hands and knees looking for letter-dice all night. “I don’t think Boggle is supposed to be a contact sport.”

Perri gives the covered tray three cautious shakes, satisfied the letter dice loudly tumbling around inside have rearranged themselves.

 

Unlike our first attempt, this is pretty good and I don’t know where exactly to start. Perri seems to be more selective in her word choice while I try and write down what I can find as soon as I can find it.

In what seems like no time at all, the timer on my phone goes off. Just like that, our two minutes are done.

“Okay…” I said. “What words were you able to find, Perri?”

The falcon harpy gives me a sideways glare before grabbing her list to read off of it.

“I found ‘FREAK’….” her wing hand points to where the cubes were arranged.

“Also ARSE, PEEVE, OVERT, CREEP, CREEPY, DRUNK, LOSER and PERVERT.”

The quiet but caustic tone that Perri is addressing me with along with her rather cutting selection of words seems to indicate not all is forgiven- despite my peace offering of homemade quesadillas and an attempt at game night.

After what felt like weeks in the raptor’s reproachful gaze, I finally managed to find my voice.

“uh… oh wow. You got ‘CREEP’ but not ‘CREPE’?” I inquire, doing my best to try and ignore Perri’s passive backhand.

“I also had ‘ENDURE’ and ‘SEVER’. I could use those in a sentence if you’d like.” she continues.

“You don’t have to-”

“How much longer must I ENDURE living with this drunken pervert? If he tries sneaking into my room tonight, I may SEVER something of his.”

“Th-that was oddly specific.” I observe nervously.

“Your turn.” Perri said, her tone slightly more upbeat now.

“OK, I got ‘RUNE’, ‘TASK’, ‘REEL’, ‘PEEL’, ‘TEST’, ‘SOLE’, ‘LURE’, ‘STARE’, ‘START’, ‘SEAR’, ‘TEST’-”

“Really milking that one corner, I see.”

“Like a dairy farm.” I reply. “I’ve got two more…..”

“Oh?”

Two can play this passive-aggressive game.

“‘RUDE’ and ‘CRUEL’.” I say nonchalantly.

Perri furrows her brow but instead of saying anything right away, she turns her attention back to the randomly arranged row of letters before the two of us.

“It’s not rude or cruel to point out that you seem to be wasting your potential when you go off and do dumb things…is it, Mr. Host?” she asks me earnestly.

I have no quick-witted rejoinder as I can feel the harpy’s gaze still upon me. After a few moments, she turns her attention back to the game.

“I’m a little surprised you got ‘CRUEL’, but not ‘CRUDE’.” she points out after further scrutinizing the letters.

“I saw ‘ARSON’ just when time was running out, too.” 

“There’s a whole bunch you and I missed, though. ‘LEVER’, LEVERS’….” she spoke up after a moment.

“‘EVER’” I add.

“‘SOLVE’”

“RESOLVE, SOLVER…..PLUNK….not sure if sound effects count.”

“DELTA” Perri observes, pointing it out to me.

Perhaps I’m misreading things, but now it seems like the two of us are having more fun picking out the words we missed than the words we marked down when the clock was running.

“DELTAS, LENS, DUNE” I reply.

‘SOUND, RULER’

“‘LOVE, LOVES, LOVER, LOVERS…NUDE’.” I point out- perhaps a bit too eagerly.

The falcon harpy’s eyes widen a little and I can detect the faintest trace of a blush in her cheek before she resumes speaking. It seemed as though she considered saying something else but decided against it when she spoke up, suddenly putting the tray containing all the words back in the box.

“Per-perhaps where you sit makes all the difference, though.” she ponders, putting the lid back on the box. “Different words and arrangements become more obvious from another vantage point.”

“Yeah- we both missed a bunch of really good ones, even though they were right in front of us. Wonder how come we couldn’t come up with these when the clock was still ticking.” I chuckle nervously. “Kinda frustrating when you overlook something really obvious, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps next time we should set the timer for more than two minutes, Mr. Host.”

I hesitate as I give her statement some thought. 

Next time’ would indicate we’d play again and she’d use the game for something besides passive-aggressively belittling me.

I would like that very much.

“Mr Host?” she asks while I’m still staring at the game in contemplation.

“Y-yeah. We should do that. I mean….we both left some really good words on the table…. Maybe we should give ourselves a little more time.” I reply as I put the game on a shelf in the pantry. “But still- you did pretty good for your first time.”

The falcon harpy nodded. I’m not sure why, but now she seems much more agreeable after a few games of Boggle.

“So we can mine for more words later on, right?” she asked me.

I laugh. Granted I haven’t heard too many alternate names for the various word games out there, but ‘mining for words’ certainly seems fitting for Boggle.

“What?” Perri asks self-consciously. “Did I say something?”

“Oh- no, it’s just I’ve never heard it called that.” I explain. “But it fits perfectly.”

“What should I do with the other pencils and scratch paper, Mr. Host?” She asks.

“You can go ahead and put those in the junk drawer.”

I can hear the soft ‘tick tick’ of her talons as Perri walks across the linoleum surface and slides open one of the drawers in the kitchen.

“No…that’s silverware and cutlery.”

Another drawer opens.

“These look like cooking utensils.” she observes.

Before I can tell her which one is the right drawer, she manages to find it on its own.

“Did you misplace something, Mr Host?” Perri asks me accusingly after a moment’s silence.

Oh shit- there’s that tone again. What did I do to get her pissed off now? 

I look up to see her holding a little cardboard DVD case with the perky brunette kobold on it. The one Zombina gave to me when they were visiting.

“Oh- that? Smith said that was a gift from the program. A fitness DVD put out by an extraspecies gym they work with, I think. But since you’re already so active, I wasn’t sure we really needed it.” I explain.

“I see you decided to hang on to it regardless.” Perri remarks.

“Thought it would be kind of rude to just toss it right away.”

“How considerate. I’m beginning to understand why you refer to it as the ‘junk drawer’.” my homestay deadpanned after a moment’s hesitation.

Ha ha- good one, bird girl.

“C’mon now….I’d like to think I do a better job of hiding my porn stash than that.” I joke- only I’m not sure if Perri knows I’m joking.

“I’m going to go to bed.” Perri said as she excused herself from the kitchen. “Let me know when we can do more mining for words.”

“Will do- G’nite, Perri.”

“Pleasant dreams, Mr. Host.”

I pour myself a small nightcap as I give Perri’s words some consideration. I honestly didn’t think the Boggle idea would be paying dividends right away, but it’s an activity the two of us can enjoy in the comfort of our home when I’m not working or out at the Spur and she isn’t out flying to and from Lord knows where.

I really should be telling Akagane or even Tio about these developments, since I’d no doubt be trying to get a hold of them had things turned even more to shit. But even if they’re an hour behind me in Arizona, it’s still pretty late.

Guess I’m gonna have to save that phone call or skype for another day.

In the meantime, I notice that the DVD with the svelte and perky kobold in very form-fitting Spandex is still on the counter.

Might as well get my money’s worth.


On the one hand, it seems like I’m no longer in the doghouse with Perri.

She’s more or less spoken her piece with me during tonight’s Boggle game.

But on the other hand, there’s still the Exchange Program’s prohibition on fraternization. Even if Perri and I were as thick as thieves, we would still be prohibited from intimacy.

This is still quite the conundrum.

It’s actually been awhile since I’ve had….well…any sort of release. Ever since Perri’s arrival, rubbing one out is more or less out of the question. I’m usually too tired from a full day’s work or too wary of the falcon-girl’s far superior hearing to do anything in bed, but tonight is a different story. 

Getting cock-blocked almost the whole time I was with Akagane didn’t help much, either.

Perri turned in early, so now I have the place to myself- I can just watch this captivating and engaging little video with the sound turned down.

I pop the DVD into the desktop in the den and in no time, the credits begin to roll.

Sports Club Kobold Nippon, LLC in cooperation with the Interspecies Exchange blah blah blah…..

Fast forward to the cover girl and two other monster girls on a lush green hilltop flanked by palm trees, overlooking an azure ocean and rocky shoreline. Between the ocean view and the three monster girls in tight, revealing workout clothes, the view is nothing short of breathtaking.

Although the camera starts out mostly focused on Polt, I can see the two demihuman girls in the background pretty clearly. One is a fairly tall woman with jet black hair, light red skin and two horns protruding from her forehead clad in a tiger-print sports bra and matching bottoms.

Next to her was an olive-skinned woman with distinctly feline features- pointed ears atop her head, a longer and slightly narrower tail than Polt and normally proportioned arms and legs that tapered off into beastly looking paws where her hands and feet are. Besides the sports bra and revealing athletic shorts, the cat-girl was wearing gold bracelets and had a golden hairband atop her head.

“Hello there!” the kobold said exuberantly while looking right at the camera lens. “My name is Polt and we created this program to encourage healthy habits and an active lifestyle for extraspecies guests during their homestays. We’ll be producing more of these videos for extraspecies with different body types soon, but for now we’ll be focusing on those with a more humanoid body type.”

Should I be wary of the exchange program putting eye candy like this front and center and then expecting hosts to adhere to a capricious and arbitrary ‘hands-off’ policy? Damn it- I should not be this turned on by an exercise video. But still- after a week like this, it’s not hard to understand why my eyes are immediately drawn to shapely extraspecies women in tight workout clothing.

Clearly I’m overthinking things- might as well relax and watch the perky, fit kobold woman in form-fitting shorts and a sports bra limber up a little more.

Polt unfurls the towel that was draped across her neck as she walks back a few paces before placing herself on top of it.

“Joining me for today’s workout is Rudi and Kinu.” she says as the cat woman and statuesque red demoness each quietly nod at the mention of each of their names.

“Now!” Polt shouts excitedly as she claps her hand-paw looking things together. “Warmups are key, so let’s start out with some stretching.”

“Whew doggies, you are a flexible one- ain’t ya?” I marvel out loud as the chestnut haired kobold begins her stretching.

“That’s it! Feel yourself getting nice and limber now…” Polt calls out to the camera. “You don’t want to get too stiff before your workout.”

“Oh but you don’t understand- I’m already getting stiff, Miss Polt.” I pout softly.

“All right- lets really get that blood flowing by jogging in place.”

“Oh my God, Yes…..please do.” My blood sure is flowing somewhere, all right.

The best part about the bouncy and lithe beast girl was that I didn’t have to listen to her give me any shit because I knew about things like dominatrixes or what the acronym BDSM stood for or second guess how I’m doing as a host. 

The camera cuts away from Polt to focus on the toned but still very feminine red oni as she flashes a captivating smile and gives a little wave while jogging in place.

Damn it- why couldn’t I have spent all day traipsing around a ghost town with those three instead of Patch Adams and that mouthy cupid?

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it seemed like the Exchange Program was putting their most attractive participants front and center (and in skintight workout attire, no less) to help generate good publicity for the program. But then again, I haven’t really seen that many extraspecies women that could really be considered homely. 

Fuck it- I’m overthinking things again. My attention shifts back to the screen as my right hand makes its way down past the waistband of my trousers. After all this time, I really do need some release before my dick winds up getting me into even more trouble.

Now I suppose when all is said and done, it’s a harmless workout DVD

But still- imagine waking up to that red oni hottie under my roof every morning. I can’t help but wonder if her breast milk might taste like sake or a White Russian….or do onis even lactate?

Ooof…that little Egyptian kitty has it going on, too. She seems to have a mischievous glint in her eyes and I find my vivid imagination contemplating whether or not she had a scratchy tongue and how it might feel against my body.

The little mental screenplay of the tanned catgirl playfully licking and nibbling at me was brought to an abrupt halt when I’m pretty sure I hear someone else in the house speaking.

“Mr Host? Is everything all right?” I hear a voice on the other side of the door ask. “Are you talking to someone?”

Oh shit…..of all times, why does Perri decide to check on me now?

“I’m just…..wa-watching a video, Perri.” I call back to her.

“About what?” she asks.

“Oh….um…..” Shit! I should probably come up with something really dry and mundane-sounding. “It’s a documentary absout…Uh….the old Rio Grande narrow gauge railways in Colorado.”

“I see. I was having a hard time sleeping. Would it be all right if I joined you?”

What? Come on…of all the times she asks me this? Really?

“N-no! That’s all right- thanks, though.” 

“Everything’s fine- honest!”

“Are you sure? It sounded like you were talking to yourself earlier and I thought maybe some sort of delirium had set in.”

“I’m fine, really!”

That didn’t seem like it would be enough to dissuade the taciturn bird girl, but for the time being I was treated to a few additional moments of silence.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing”

“Were you talking to someone?”

“No!”

“Are you in pain? I’m pretty sure I heard you moaning just now and you seem short of breath….”

“I’m fine!”

The door opens. “If it’s about earlier, I just wanted to say-”

Anything else Perri had to say is immediately cut off as she takes in the sight of the screen paused as the spandex clad kobold girl is on all fours and me with a handful of my arousal.

“Do you need me to-“

“Shut the door already!”

She does as I say- only now I’m looking at her and she’s looking at me, no less bewildered than she was a few moments ago. Meanwhile; Polt, Kinu and Rudi remain in suspended animation on my desktop screen. 

“I meant….shut the door with you on one side and me on the other.” I explain, doing little to hide my exasperation.

“I see. That makes much more sense, I suppose….” the falcon harpy pondered.

Good Lord, she cannot be this dense.

As if to confirm that she was in fact NOT this dense, she turned around with a little smirk on her lips and nods towards the computer screen.

“Although….I suppose this is a step up from that ring tailed cur’s business card.”

Ouch. I really set myself up for that, but still….

“Wh-what I do in the privacy of my home is none of your business!” I stammer haplessly.

“But I’m your homestay- and this is my home, too. So in a way, it is my business….” she was quick to point out.

“I was just blowing off some steam.”

“Is that what you call it?”

I falter…..god damn it, my homestay is having way too much fun with this.

“Just be careful you don’t get any ‘steam’ all over the furniture, Mr. Host.” she says coyly as she closes the door, leaving me to seethe.

6 votes, average: 5.00 out of 56 votes, average: 5.00 out of 56 votes, average: 5.00 out of 56 votes, average: 5.00 out of 56 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (6 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.
Loading...
898 Views

One thought on “Bird’s Eye View: Chapter 7- Shapeshifter’s Creed

Leave a Reply