Jake woke up with a gasp, and hauled himself upright.
He was in a small, cramped room with walls a collage of metal scraps, a plastic roof. Assorted junk lay on the floor, arranged in neat piles in the corner. Jake craned his neck to the side, spotting a small old stove. The fire was reduced to dying embers.
He was lying on a rickety camp bed, his jacket folded at the bottom. He pushed himself up, shaking his head, trying to clear the—
He wiggled his shoulders, puzzled. Tentatively, he leaned back, resting his weight on his arms. Nothing. He reached to touch his left shoulder, pressing down with his fingertips, half-expecting an explosion of pain, and all he found was a neat round hole in a sleeve stiff with dried blood, and perfectly whole flesh underneath. He sure wasn't about to complain, but... what the hell?
He toed into his boots and made his way out of the shed, pushing the door closed behind him. A gray sky hung over a cluster of small buildings of scraped metal and plastic panels. Thin paths snaked between the shanties, crisscrossing apparently at random.
Jake stepped on, alert and on guard. The few people in the street stopped to stare at him, some uncertain, some plain curious, some with frightened, wide eyes. Jake swallowed as he took in their appearance. Broad triangular ears poked out of their hair, covered in a fine fur, red-rust colored. The same shade was matched by the long tails Jake could see poking out behind them, some held stiff, some twitching nervously. A large man caught his gaze and slowly drew his lips back, uncovering sharp fangs.
Jake swallowed. Fox people. All over the fucking place.
That did not bode well for him.
"Hey. Glad to see you woke up, man," a warm voice said.
Jake whipped around, his arms instantly raised in a guard, fists clenched.
"Whoa. Calm down, big guy." A lean fox was standing a few feet from him in worn grey jeans and a t-shirt, hands raised in mock surrender and a smug grin on his lips. His eyes were a pale gold, observing him with a cross of arrogance and amusement.
Jake lowered his hands, feeling vaguely idiotic. "And you would be?" he asked, trying to look menacing. The fox just smirked.
"Name's Liam. I also happen to be the guy who saved your ass, so you can relax. You're in no danger here."
Jake looked at him intently. The fox had long hair, the same shimmering white of the kid's. His ears were white too, twitching gently in attention, and a white tail was curved gently around his legs. A memory of bright white stirred in his mind, a gentle voice telling him—something—as strong arms lifted him up, just before everything went dark. "I think... I think I remember you," Jake said, slowly. "Thanks, then. For... yeah, saving my ass. And I suppose, for..." Jake touched his shoulder. "Whatever this is."
"Just a little healing power. It was the least I could do."
"Is-is the kid all right?"
"You can bet your ass he is," a shrill voice replied. Jake looked around, but couldn't see anyone. "Down here, you twat."
He glanced down and wound up staring into the eyes of a very tiny human, barely over a foot tall. He had his hands on his tiny hips and was currently looking up at Jake with utter contempt. His skin was a dark gray, and a long, naked tail trailed behind him. "Rat people," Jake whistled. "I haven't seen one of you in over—"
"Yeah. Spare me the story of your life," the rat interrupted. "You may want to thank me, too, you know. Liam here gets to be the hero, but without me, you'd be pushing up the daisies now."
"Mosley is right." Liam smiled, reaching down to pat the creature on the back. "It was his flying squad that sent your attackers running for their life. So, if there's a hero here, it's him."
"Flying squad? What do you—"
"The pigeons. The mutant pigeons. Like that one," Mosley cut in, pointing upward. When Jake looked up, he saw a bird broad as a bloody table circling above his head. That was new. "What, you never seen one before, you big monkey?"
"Hey. Mind your tongue, rat-man," Jake growled. The little creature just chuckled, elbowing Liam's calf.
"I like him. Stupid, but he's got balls," he said. "It will be fun having him around."
"Having me—no. Listen," Jake raised his hands. "I saved your kid, you saved me, and that's all very brave, but now I'm off back to town."
"You may have some trouble with that, mate," the fox said, one eyebrow cocked. "The three guys you clocked? That was militia. They'll be onto you as soon as you show your face around the city. You should stay with us for a while until they move on to chasing someone else."
Jake cringed. Damn it, the bloody militia. Just what he was trying to avoid. "Don't worry. I can sure as hell take care of myself."
"I'm not worried. To be honest, I couldn't give a crap," the fox shrugged. "But you saved Kye. I'm just trying to return the favor; you know, preventing you from basically committing suicide."
"How thoughtful," Jake tucked his hands in his pockets. "Now, how about I go my way and you start minding your own damn business?"
The fox narrowed his eyes. "That's fine by me."
"Fine," Jake scoffed.
"Fine!" The fox turned on his heels and stomped off, his white tail twitching angrily from side to side.
Jake watched him go, feeling somewhat deflated. Below, the rat cleared his throat.
"You know, you really can't be showing your face in town right about now."
"I know." Jake raked his hand through his hair. He knew the militia too well to even get anywhere near the city. Of course they'd recognize him. The militia never forgot a face. Especially not...
"What the hell do I do?" he muttered.
Mosley patted him on the knee. "You can go clean yourself. You stink," he said. "And then you can accept Liam's offer. Don't worry. He may seem mad at you, but he never holds a grudge."
Jake rubbed at his eyes. Damn it.
He should never have returned to the stupid city.