Guy sat down with his laptop to write another piece for one of the magazines he wrote for when he got a call from the editor of a nationwide vacation magazine. 'Mister Grimm.' Guy said.
'Hello Guy.' came the voice from the other end. 'We want to do an issue on local inns and onsen quickly. I've sent you a list of several places to visit so can you leave tomorrow? I've arranged a car for you.'
Guy opened the email and read the list. 'Wow. Rather sudden, but I have no plans so I can go.'
'Great! Give me a call when you arrive at the first inn tomorrow.'
'Will do.' Guy said and looked forward to seeing a few new places.
Mister Grimm hung up the phone and glared at the Gazer page with the search result for most popular writer in the land, and Guy's name above his own.
The next day Guy packed his stuff together and went downstairs when the car arrived. The mechanic handed him the keys and papers.
'The car's gassed up.' he said, getting his folding bike quickly out of the trunk. 'There should be no problem taking it for the long trip. No problem at all.'
'Okay? Thanks?' Guy said, watching the mechanic cycle back in a hurry to his garage.
He put his bags in the trunk, got behind the wheel and checked the list of places and routes. The first one was in the middle of a large area with steep hills. He'd have to get going to reach it in time before dark and started the car.
'All right, the inn and onsen Guy tour of the year starts.' he said and drove off.
The weather was pleasant and he kept his window down to enjoy the fresh air in the forest covered hills. He tapped his fingers in rhythm with the dance music he played on the car stereo until he noticed a strange sound when taking a bend.
It was faint squeak and didn't sound bad, but Guy dialled the number for the garage to inform him before he'd be back from his tour.
'Hello?' answered the mechanic.
'Hi, this is Guy. the car you gave me this morning has a faint squeaking noise when I drive through a bend. It's nothing loud, but I thought I'd inform you already before I bring back the car.'
The other side stayed silent.
'Can you hear me?' Guy asked, thinking the connection might have gone dead suddenly.
'Stop the car!' the mechanic said. 'You're in danger!'
'What!? What do you mean!?'
'The brakes are faulty! Mister Grimm threatened to write my garage and my wife's flower shop into the ground if I didn't tamper with the brakes on your car!'
Guy stepped on the brakes and felt a snap in the pedal. 'SHIIIT!' he shouted as the car kept going downhill.
He tried to think of a solution quickly, seeing a sharp bend in the road coming on. The car was an automatic so downshifting was no option. There was no wall against which to drive the car to slow it down, just trees and he went too fast to safely hit them. He could only think of rolling the car, hoping it would end well enough and gave the wheel a jerk.
The mechanic heard rubber squealing for a moment, then metal and plastics crashing before the line went dead. He stared at the phone for a while, then put it down carefully.
Guy came to with his face on the ground, part of it in his mouth. While feeling several aches all over his body he got up on his hands and knees, spitting out leaves and sand. Slightly dizzy he sat up, trying to get a bearing on where he was.
A little up the hill laid the car on its roof, stuck between two trees. By the looks of things he figured he must have rolled over the edge, then down the slope, bouncing off of several trees before the seatbelt gave way on the final stop and dropped him further down.
He checked his clothes to find them only slightly torn. He was glad enough to not find major blood stains.
With some effort he got up and crawled back up far enough to get his bags. Too tired and aching too much to go all the way back up the road he decided to go down and follow the bottom until he'd reach a road.
He took a few deep breaths to gather strength and went down carefully.
Dark came soon at the bottom. He watched the last light of the day on top of the next hill. Without his phone he had no source of light, which would mean he'd have to spend the night out here in complete darkness and shuddered at the thought. He put as much energy as he could muster into walking along the stream he found between the hills.
Just before losing the last bit of light he found a row of lights going uphill from the stream. He walked up to them to find a path going up with crude steps formed by short logs inserted into the ground. Feeling glad he found a way out of here he went up the path, ignoring the aches in his feet and legs. At the end of the path he came onto a small clearing with an old cottage.
It wasn't in great condition but it seemed there might be people living there.
'Hello?' he said, walking up to it. 'Anybody home?'
There was no answer and he knocked on the door. 'Hello!?'
With no answer again he tried the door and found it open. And inside a mess.
He slid his bags off his shoulders at the door. A couple of lit lamps revealed books, magazines and papers strewn all over tables in the kitchen corner and what might be the living room area, with more on the floor around a couple of couches and chairs. Clothing accessorised the room further and the area around a large screen looked like a battlefield of game consoles and controllers trying to strangle each other with wiring.
Some items were hanging from the ceiling in thick webbing.
The kitchen held a collection of dirty dishes almost up to the ceiling. A quick look through the open door of one bedroom told him enough about those.
He pondered about going back into the dark and staying outside for the night, but the high probability of rain tonight made him stay.
He looked around the room again and sighed. 'Well, as long as I'm here..' he said and rolled up his sleeves.
'Hold up.' said Cani as she and Feli, Ara, Mami, Avia and Tobias arrived at the cottage. She sniffed the air again. 'Something smells strange.'
The others sniffed too.
'Something smells flowery.' said Mami.
'Yeah.' said Feli. 'It reminds me of something.'
'I smell something bad.' said Tobias.
'Hang on.' said Ara, looking through the window. 'Something has happened inside.'
They stormed inside to find the whole place cleaned up.
'What the..' said Tobias.
'..hell happened here?' said Cani.
They looked at all the books stashed neatly on the shelves, magazines sorted in stacks underneath, papers all on the long lost desk in a corner.
'How?' asked Mami, seeing the game consoles in the right place underneath the screen, the games next to them.
'Even the kitchen.' said Avia.
'And the laundry.' said Ara, looking at the assorted piles of laundry and a running washing machine.
'Damn.' said Cani as she looked into the bedroom she shared with Feli.
Feli looked into it. 'It's.., clean.'
'Ours too.' said Mami.
'No way.' said Tobias and ran to his bedroom.
They took a look as he stared silently into his room.
'Who's that?' said Feli, seeing a pale faced Guy asleep on top of Tobias's bed.
'I have no idea, but I'm going to have to smell him for weeks now.' Tobias said.
Mami went up to the bed. 'Smells like he's been cleaning up here.' she said, then shook his shoulder gently. 'Hello?'
Guy groaned a little and tried to open his eyes. '..eh.., hello..?' he mumbled and ached trying to sit up. Still feeling dazed he rubbed his face. 'I found this place after my accident. Have no idea where I am.'
'Well, the best way to describe it, in the middle of nowhere.'
He blinked his eyes. 'Where?'
'We're here studying nature, so we're pretty far away from civilisation.'
'But the road.'
'The only road close to here is hardly used. You've only gone further away from help if you came from there. The delivery truck only comes once a month and leaves our supplies at a special place next to the road.'
Guy ran his fingers through his hair. 'Ah shit..'
'At least you were lucky enough to end up at this place.'
Guy saw his vision getting sharper again, looked up and stared at them for a moment.
'I'm lying next to the stream, hallucinating while dying, right?'
Feli came closer, taking off her beanie. 'We're a special project. Doing more research together between our species.'
'Ah.' he said without really understanding what was going on.
'Did you..?' she asked, gesturing behind her.
That he understood. 'I have this habit of organising any mess I see. Gomen.'
She smiled and held up her hands. 'No. It's great actually. We're horrible at chores.'
He curled up one corner of his mouth in amusement. 'I'm Guy, by the way.'
'Feli.' she said, then gestured at the others in turn. 'Mami, Cani, Tobias, Avia, and Ara.'
'And Mouse.' said Mami, holding up a large grey mouse plush.
Guy nodded. 'Nice to meet you.'
'I guess you'd better sleep for now. We'll talk further in the morning.' said Feli.
'Yeah. I accidentally fell asleep here. If you have no objection I'll take the couch.'
'Please do.' said Tobias. 'Then the smell won't get wors-Ouch!'
Guy looked at Cani who held Tobias's ear between her teeth and growled.
'Don't mind him.' said Ara. 'Or her. They're siblings.'
'Right.' Guy said and stood up feeling worn out.
Mami and Feli helped him get to the couch while Avia brought pillow and blankets. He fell asleep the moment he laid down his head.
'Let's have a quick bite and get to bed.' Feli said. 'Tomorrow's going to be interesting enough.'
'Good morning.' said Ara when Guy woke up.
He watched her sit on her legs next to the couch and smiled sleepily. 'Morning..'
She studied his face for a moment. 'You're not scared?'
He moved his body a little to feel what aches were left from the day before. 'About what?'
She raised an eyebrow. 'The usual reaction from others who wake up with our species next to them is to scream in terror.'
She stretched a leg. 'You know, scary spiders?'
He looked at her leg. 'Hmm. I don't think you're scary. You look good. But I could scream if it makes you feel better.'
'How's our guest?' asked Feli coming into the room.
'Nuts.' said a blushing Ara, and left for the kitchen.
Feli looked puzzled at Guy.
He shrugged. 'All I said was that she looks good.'
Feli chuckled. 'Yeah, that'll do.'
'Thanks for letting me stay.'
She shook her head. 'Thanks for cleaning up this horrible mess.'
He sat up and ruffled his hair. 'I need a shower.'
'I guess I won't have to tell you where it is. I'll make breakfast in the meantime.'
'Arigatou.' Guy said, then took some clean clothes from his bag and went to the bathroom.
During breakfast he told them about his editor sending him on a trip and the mechanic sabotaging his car.
Cani growled. 'I just want to bite and spit out those kinds of people.'
'I can understand the mechanic, trying to keep his business and family safe.' said Guy. 'But I have no idea why Grimm would do this.'
'Maybe you should lay low for a while?' Tobias said. 'Maybe the reason will come up by then.'
Cani looked at her brother.
He looked back at her. 'What!?'
'You actually said something smart.'
Guy thought that over while the siblings poked each other. 'That might actually be a good idea.'
'Don't you start as well..' said Tobias while Cani chewed on his ear.
'No, no. If I can still connect with my laptop I can watch what happens at the magazine and all. It must have something to do with that.' Guy said. 'I just need a place to stay for a while where he won't find me.'
'Then this place is the best.' said Mami.
'I don't want to bother you.'
'If you help with keeping this place tidy, you can stay as long as you like.' said Feli.
Avia, Ara and Cani nodded. Mami nudged Mouse into a nod.
They all looked at Tobias. He sighed. 'Fine. he can stay.'
'I'm sure miss Tesha won't mind either.' Mami said.
'Miss Tesha?' Guy asked.
'Our human supervisor. She comes down once in a while to see how we're doing.'
Guy nodded. 'I see.'
'Well then, let's see what will happen in the near future.' said Feli.
'Gazer, Gazer on the grid, show me who's writing is the best.' Grimm said, firing up the search engine.
He looked furiously at the search results. 'He's been gone for a week now! How can I still be second!?' he said, tossing his pen across his desk.
He started pacing his room. 'Relax.' he told himself. 'It takes some time. Give it another week.'
'Don't you feel bored?' Cani asked as the group came back home for lunch, hanging their seven beanies on the wall.
'I've never been able to get bored.' Guy said, putting the bread on the table. 'I've been writing since forever. And I had to deliver a few articles to a couple of magazines I work for.'
'How do you keep writing?' Feli asked.
'A huge imagination. And getting inspiration from real life.' he said, sitting down. 'I just wrote an article about spending time in a completely different environment as advice for someone who's creative flow is stuck.'
Cani hugged his head from behind. 'I wouldn't mind if your flow got stuck more often and makes you come back here.'
'Cani!' said Feli, seeing his face turn red.
'What?' asked Cani. 'I'm just saying how great it is to get taken care of by him.'
Guy cleared his throat, trying not to think of the soft bumps pressed against the back of his head. 'I wouldn't mind coming back here. It's fun being around you.'
'As long as I haven't beaten you in Top Rally 5, you have to come back.' Mami said, slicing the lump of cheese.
He grinned. 'Deal.'
The other girls agreed, then looked at Tobias.
'What!?' he asked, his muzzle white with milk. 'He grills a mean steak so it's fine with me.'
While Guy spent the days gaming with Mami and Cani, learning about crafting web figures from Ara, shooting aerial photographs with Avia, competing with Tobias in sports and talking books and art with Feli in between writing, Grimm felt even more frustrated with every check on the Gazer search site for his popularity.
'Damn!' he said after another disappointing search. 'Why won't you go down!?'
He rolled his chair back, tapping the back of his pen on the armrest. 'Are you mocking me from beyond the grave?'
He moved back to his computer, browsing the different magazines he knew Guy wrote for.
After reading through the last articles he stomped his fist on his desk. 'Son of a bitch! You must still be alive!'
He reread everything he could find from the last two weeks. 'Where are you, you piece of shit?' he said, then read about retreating into nature as an example, and spending time around foreign visitors. An idea hit him and he scrolled through a list of article titles from the magazine's back issues. 'There.' he said, finding "Combined Nature Project Started".
He noted the issue, then went through the archive stacks on the shelves behind him. After pulling it out he read the article, remembering it mentioned the location where several students from around the world would stay on a long term project studying nature.
'Found you..' he said with a nasty grin.
Guy opened the storage just off the road which held the groceries delivered on schedule that day. He stashed the bags and boxes in the cart he had brought, then headed back to the cottage.
Grimm felt pleased with himself for having guessed correctly where to find Guy. He waited a bit, then followed the path Guy took, holding a bag close to his chest.
Back at the cottage, Guy took the bags and boxes one by one inside, unpacking and storing everything in the right place. When he came back to the cart he noticed a bag had fallen over and several apples had rolled out. He gathered them and put those in a large bowl on the table, taking a bite out of one of them because these were his favourite. He continued unpacking, then started feeling dizzy.
'Whu?' he said, fell on his knees, tried to grab the table for support but fell flat on the floor.
Grimm walked cautiously inside, making sure nobody else was around.
'Sleep tight Guy, by the time you wake up you've missed several deadlines.' he said, nudging Guy with his foot and headed back quickly for the road.
'Guy!' Cani said, entering the cottage just before lunch time. 'Come meet miss Tesha and her assistant Natalie.' She looked around for him. 'Guy?'
Ara saw a few cans lying on the kitchen floor as she came closer, then Guy.
'Guy!' she said, kneeling next to him, checking if he was still alive.
The rest of the pack hurried closer.
'Is he dead!?' asked Feli, grabbing one of his hands.
'No, looks like he's asleep.' said Ara, feeling the heartbeat in his neck.
'What's going on?' asked Mami.
'What do you have there?' asked miss Tesha, seeing Avia sniffing and checking the apple she found on the table.
'Something's not right with this.' Avia said.
Cani sniffed it. 'I smell something strange. Cinnamon like.'
'Hang on.' miss Tesha said, checking Guy. 'Looks like someone spiked the apple with a powerful sleeping potion.' she said, finding bits of apple in his mouth. 'It's probably Sleeping Ugly, a potion that can put you under for days, even more than a week. It's usually only used by professionals in the government or criminals.'
They stared at her.
'What?' she said shrugging. 'I just happen to know some things.'
Feli and Cani moved Guy onto the couch.
'Is there an antidote?' Feli asked. 'Something we can do to wake him up?'
'Well, luckily I happen to have a generic antidote in the car, so we can use that to reduce the effect and wake him up sooner.'
They stared at her again.
'It's a coincidence! A friend who knows biochemistry had some.' she said, then looked at Natalie. 'Can you get the kit from the car?'
'Sure.' Natalie said.
'I'll come with you.' Tobias said, grabbing a frying pan. 'For protection, you know?'
She smiled at him. 'Thanks.'
Cani saw his wagging tail as they left. 'And all of a sudden he's such a gentleman.' she said, rolling her eyes.
They checked the groceries and found that only the apples had been tampered with.
'It must have been that Grimm.' said Feli. 'Just, why?'
'Didn't Guy mention an award festival coming up?' Avia asked. 'He was a nominee for one.'
'Right.' said Feli, then took Guy's laptop and searched for festivals. 'Got it. It's at the end of the week and Grimm is on the same list as Guy. He must want that award really bad.'
'I'll shove it down his throat.' Cani growled.
'Let's do that after we wake up Guy.' miss Tesha said.
Natalie and Tobias arrived back soon and miss Tesha mixed some in a glass of juice. 'It can be used with water, but juice gives the necessary nutrients to keep him fed in the meantime.' she said. 'All that's needed is to feed it to him mouth to mouth every two hours since he can't drink himself.'
'Mouth to mouth?' asked Feli.
Miss Tesha nodded. 'Well, he's quite cute so I don't mind.' she said and held up the glass.
Before she could drink from it Feli grabbed her hand. 'I know kissing is special between a human man and a woman, so maybe it's better that I, as non-human, do it. Just as thanks for what he did for us, and showing me so much great books.'
Cani put her hand on Feli's. 'Then I get to ki-, feed him too. As thanks for playing with me.'
Mami pushed Mouse in front of her. 'Mouse wants to help him too. But since she can't do it, I'll do it in her stead.' she said, looking away.
'Count me in.' said Ara.
'And me.' said Avia, hiding her face partially behind her wing.
Miss Tesha looked at Tobias.
He held up his hands. 'I like the guy, but not that much!'
'Well, looks like I won't have to keep waking up during the night to feed him then. You'll just have to take turns.' miss Tesha said and looked at Guy. 'Aren't you one lucky bastard.'
Grimm felt satisfied as he heard no mention of Guy during the award ceremony. He knew the judges would not hand over the award if a nominee or replacement couldn't show up. With the others scoring lower in popularity he was sure the award was his.
He sat up when the award for best columnist was announced.
The judge opened the envelope. 'And the award goes to..'
Grimm got ready to stand up.
He nearly slipped out of his chair.
Guy walked up the stage from the side, waving at the crowd. 'Thank you, thank you.'
Grimm stared at him, eyes wide open.
Guy shook the judge's hand, thanking him, then took the stand. 'I want to thank you all for supporting me, and especially mister Grimm from Castle magazine, who provided me with the opportunity to meet some people who became very dear to me.' he said, gesturing at the girls and Tobias, standing next to the stage. 'Please welcome our foreign guests.'
The crowd applauded while Cani grinned at Grimm, juggling an apple.
Grimm felt sweat building up and looked at the exit to see police officers standing outside them.
'Please give mister Grimm an applause as thanks for what he made possible.' Guy said, gesturing at Grimm to stand up.
Grimm swallowed, looked nervously at the crowd and stood up, smiling as best as he could.
'Looks like you'll have plenty to write about for now.' miss Tesha said after the ceremony.
Guy nodded. 'Yeah. So there has been at least one good thing coming out of all this.'
'Looks more like five.' she said, looking at the girls keeping close to Guy.
Guy blushed while they waved miss Tesha goodbye.
I overheard the owner of Castle magazine wanting to make you the new editor.' Feli said.
'Yes, but that would mean I can't come to the cottage often.'
Cani leaned closer. 'Our study of nature is nearing its end, so we applied for a new study of human society, something involving staying a long time in this town.'
'Really?' Guy said, feeling cheerful.
Feli nodded. 'So, we'd be grateful if we could get some help on that..'
Guy smiled. 'I had in mind baking a pumpkin pie for you at the cottage, I guess I'll still get the chance.'
Ara woke up hearing voices and the sounds of cups coming from the kitchen. The man Guy talked to was new to her.
'Hey.' she said, nudging the other girls awake. 'we've got a visitor. Wake up.'
'Sounds interesting, I'd love to do that.' Guy said, looking at the list in front of him.
He heard soft footsteps and saw the girls. 'Ah, perfect.' he said and gestured at the man sitting at the table.'Girls, let me introduce you to mister Grimm. He asked me if I was interested in taking a road trip to write about tourist attractions around here.'
The next moment he found himself covered by the girls while they glared and growled at a surprised Grimm.
Grimm laughed out loud after Guy got them to tell him why they reacted like that.
'That's the funniest thing I've ever heard.' he said. 'I would love to write about it if it wasn't so embarrassing.'
'Gomen.' Feli said and bowed. 'We overreacted from a stupid dream we had while watching the Fairy channel.'
'Don't worry.' he said, waving it off. 'But it's quite something for all of you to have the same dream.'
Guy nodded. 'Looks like external stimuli has a lot of influence on dreams in some circumstances.'
'Something to add to the list of subjects to write about.' Grimm said.
Guy let Grimm out after discussing the road trip and the article. He walked down the street to pick up his car at the garage, pulled out an apple from his coat pocket and looked at it.
'Next time then.' he said and tossed it in a trash bin.