The way she held his hand was light, dainty as the wings of a butterfly with the yearning of clouds upon a summer breeze. Fingers pinched gently around his massive palm, he let her lead him down the forest trail, the waning sunlight vaguely blotted out by a canopy of dark jade leaves. Each step was with a slight bounce, her eager tugging on his arm causing him to smile. In solitude together, he felt the freedom to let himself be who he had always wanted to be. His fears were suppressed by an insurmountable wave of bliss. He let those worries slip away—they could be saved for another time, when they had left their haven to face the world side-by-side.
Her azure locks danced with each step, swirling like airborne cascades as she turned to look at him. Light from the sunset outlined her, framing her beaming smile. She paused before him, the trees along the pathway thinning. The vixen’s eyes searched his for a few long moments, prying, but he could not feel her digging into his mind. She rocked back and forth—heel to toe—in a playful, inquisitive manner. The slightest tilt of her head matched the coyness of her smile. Roses had their thorns, but every part of her was gorgeous. Even the parts that threatened to cut him when he drifted too close to those topics—the ones she held inside, locked away. Her capture on Sauria, the Cataclysm of Cerinia, her old team, Andross, Fox McCloud…
“Panther, what are you staring at?” Krystal teased him.
“An angel,” Panther replied gently. “Or perhaps…” One of his strong arms hooked behind her hip, drawing her close. His breath tickled her nape as he went in for a kiss—her pleasured shiver told him she enjoyed it. “… A goddess…”
“Stop it!” Krystal laughed, voice as mirthful as ringing bells. “You’re tickling me!” She said it but she did not mean it; he knew her better than that. He kissed her twice, savoring the way her body naturally rocked into him. One of her hands caressed the side of his face, fingers moving to scratch behind one of his rounded ears. He could not deny her a rumbling purr of affection.
Their eyes met. His—burning amber, fiery as a starscape with ambition that knew no bounds. Hers – turquoise that betrayed no sign of tranquility, for she too had a soul that ever yearned for something more. He loved the way she was a contradiction; a girl that could put even the most stunning of princesses to shame but bearing a warrior’s noble spirit. Each of her strides held poised grace matched with brimming energy.
I do not deserve her, Panther mused to himself. A man such as I has no place loving someone like her. He had tried to swallow his guilt long ago—when they had first shared a kiss in that dormitory on Katina. But it was still there, lingering like a fire he could not put out. I have done terrible things. And yet… The way she looked at him, she saw through his sins. Through his own traumas. Through that mask he always wore. She doesn’t seem to care at all. It was a wholesome revelation, albeit echoed with silent bewilderment. Ever since he had been a cub, he had been told that a man was measured not by his flowery words but by the weight of his actions. It did not take much to guess all the things he had done. Rose-red blood stained his hands, even if he loathed thinking on it.
She gently kissed him—lovingly short and sweet. It brought the ebony feline from his thoughts, grounding him in the moment. Her smile made him wonder if she knew how often his thoughts ran away from him.
“Come on, I wanted to show you something,” Krystal said, gesturing for him to follow.
“Lead the way, my dear,” Panther smiled and allowed her to take the lead once more.
By the time they had broken from the tree line, the sunset had begun. They stood at the crest of a hill overlooking a white sand beach. Crystalline water gently lapped the shore in a lazy tide. The sky burned with colors, the intensity so bright that Panther had to squint as he stared out at the breathtaking view.
A hidden gem like this… and it’s on some dinosaur planet in the middle of “no where”. Hah! This puts even Zoness to shame.
“The locals call it Diamond Bay,” Krystal said. “It’s one of the two most beautiful beaches on Sauria. I thought… I thought you’d like it.”
“I do,” Panther nodded, wrapping his arm around her waist and bringing her close to his side. Her arm found his own waist and the two stared out, feeling the salt-swept wind upon their fur. Reverberating somewhere in the distance was the cry of a beast, its tone sending tingling chills across the feline’s nape. This land was so different, so alien from even Cerinia. Primal energy existed here, so pungent that even Panther could sense it sharply when he breathed.
I had long abandoned training in magical arts. Yet one breath here on this old planet and it all floods back to me.
“Want to go for a swim?”
He glanced down at her in surprise. “I didn’t bring a swimsuit.”
“Is that going to stop you?” Krystal asked with a cocked brow. Without pausing to see his reaction, she began down the hill. No hesitations held him back. He followed without question.
Ancient slabs of stone disturbed the pathway, making the descent uneven. They had eroded away over time, unkempt by the locals. Panther took care to make sure he did not trip, though he let his curious eyes wander the shambling pillars to their left and right. Elegant patterns were engraved in their sides; they were remnants of a bygone civilization, one that he sensed was far older than he could even guess. It occurred to him the magnitude of history that they were casually traversing through, yet it did not cause his pace to falter. Their lingering energies were old, stale scents left by specters in an eon long forgotten. He set his eyes on the vixen practically dancing in front of him, her feet picking each destination with precision and muscle memory. He did his best to imitate her, but he could not say his grace was anywhere in her league.
By the time their boots touched the sands of the shore, the vivid dusk colors had stretched as far as the eye could see over their heads. A mellow violet had settled on the horizon where the night would come. The waters blazed with fiery hues and Krystal wasted no time in pulling off her boots. She cast them aside carelessly, letting them plop into the white sands. When her feet had been freed, she let them burrow shallowly into the sand as she peeled her jacket off. Once she was stripped of her outer layer, Krystal turned to face him, clad only in the skintight cloth of her flight suit. It stretched from her wrists to her ankles, outlining each curve of her frame.
“In hindsight, maybe we should have brought actual swimwear,” remarked the Cerinian vixen with a slight ‘tsk’.
“I don’t mind getting a little wet. And it’s clothes. It will dry,” Panther shrugged, pulling off his jacket and tossing it next to Krystal’s. “My only concern is when Wolf realizes that we’re gone.”
“Wolf will get over it,” Krystal said with a nonchalant shrug. “It’s not like he and Leon don’t sneak off every so often.”
Panther’s brows arched with intrigue. Of course he had suspected as such. Leon was as emotional as a corpse but his pining had been written all over him. Panther had noticed it the moment he had joined the team. Where Wolf walked, Leon was in his shadow. But he preferred it that way. The feline found it amusing, but Leon’s adoration for Wolf and Wolf’s willingness to feed Leon’s clinginess made Sargasso lonely at times. Even with the copious amounts of villainy that thrived there, Panther knew that he was different from them somehow. Different, perhaps, in the same way Krystal was.
We walk the twilight line. Where the shadows and the sun meet.
Krystal waded out into the shallows, her pained expression telling him to expect the cold as soon as he stepped in. She looked back at him. A white-crested wave crashed against the back of her legs, droplets scattering into the air upon impact. They caught the light of the dying sun, glittering like a myriad of stars around her. He gave pause at the artistic perfection of the moment, letting the image burn into his memory.
“What are you waiting for?” Krystal called to him over the atmospheric roar of another flimsy wave.
He hastily stripped down to his own flight suit. It clung to his muscled torso, the fringes of his white arm tattoos peeking from beneath the tight sleeves. Feet stepping lightly on the warmed sand, he pursued her into the ocean water. Its chill sent his ears back but he kept going forward until the surface caressed his kneecaps and he was standing next to her. The vixen looked up at him, radiating that warm joy that could outshine even Lylat. It made him smile and without a second thought, he wrapped his arms around her. Despite the heat, he cherished her being close to him and he could sense that she felt the same. Her head leaned against his sculpted chest and one of her hands lightly traced the shape of his pectorals.
The sway of the ocean rushed around his legs but he kept his feet rooted into the thick sand of the shallows. They lingered that way for some time, gazing at each other as the sun set in the peripherals of their vision. Panther could have stayed there forever, to watch a thousand suns set and a thousand more rise with her in his arms. But the vixen had other ideas, her dainty fingertips gradually working their way to his shoulders. They ran over his sleeves and guided his arms away from her. Her hands ensnared his wrists and she silently bade him to follow her deeper. The water lapped up to their waists before long and he felt a small flare of fear shoot up his spine. How deep would she lead him? He had not swam in years…
Before long, she let him go, sinking into the crystalline water that reflected the sunset so beautifully. She kept her head and shoulders above the surface, treading effortlessly. He slid in after her, letting his feet pull from the sand below and letting his body submerge into the water up to his sternum.
“It feels nice, doesn’t it?” Krystal asked, voice growing from a murmur. There was a daze in her turquoise eyes—they were lost in the moment, loosely glazing over him.
“It does,” Panther agreed, swimming over to her and resting a hand on her forearm. It seemed to snap her from her thoughts and she offered him a small, apologetic smile. The feline smiled in return, resting his forehead upon hers briefly. “I did not know you liked swimming.”
The cerulean fox grew thoughtful—he could sense her unrest, her unresolved feelings. The thick aura of trauma still tainted the air around her, but spirits and stars alike knew that Panther could never have blamed her. She battled so hard to stay positive each day and he knew that it was an uphill fight. He knew that more than anyone.
"I used to do this back on Cerinia… back… back home,” Krystal said quietly as she rested on her back, letting the water keep her lithe body afloat. “There was a beach next to the city where I lived. It was much like this one.”
Back home. But that home is gone, my dear. And yet we remain.
“Ah…” Panther said, feeling his own voice falter for a moment. He let her words dwell in the air, let them be dispersed in the breeze until he found the words he knew she needed to hear. “We can do this anytime you want.”
“Do you mean that?” the vixen asked, perking up to look at him.
“I always mean what I say, my dear,” Panther replied.
She smiled, resting back onto the water’s surface with a delighted grin. He felt the warmth of her happiness radiate from where she floated. Panther swam next to her, savoring the feel of the water around him. After getting accustomed to its chill, it felt quite pleasant against his ebony fur.
“You’re going to get tired if you keep treading water, you know,” the vixen remarked lightly.
“I can still stand, I just like how it feels to be in the water,” Panther said with a shrug.
“Panther…” Krystal began, giving him a strange look. “You… can float on your back, can’t you?”
Panther’s ears turned to the sides.
Ahhh, she caught me.
“We’ll ignore how you definitely probed for that information,” Panther retorted. “No. I have never been able to.”
“Want to learn?” Krystal asked.
Panther laughed, surprised at how her innocent tone made her so much more endearing.
“I’m afraid you would have better luck teaching a rock.”
“Oh, at least give it a try.”
“… Will that appease you?”
Warily, he eyed her smug smile. Inwardly, he cursed his failure to keep his emotions bridled. For her, he would do anything. Including making a fool of himself.
“Excellent!” Krystal said, sitting up and letting her body sink back into the water. He could tell she was not bothering to mask her joy—her smile was unwavering, brimming with glee. Giddily, she clasped her hands together. “So, for starters… Lie down on your back. I’ll keep my hands on you so you don’t sink.”
He was skeptical of her instruction but he relented. He lowered himself, leaning back to let the water carry him. At once, he felt his ears submerge and a jolt of panic sent him floundering upright. Krystal backed a step as he accidentally hit the water next to her—sending a splash.
“Calm down,” Krystal shook her head. “Goodness, you’re quite the frightened kitten.”
“I don’t like this,” Panther felt himself whine but the vixen’s cross expression silenced the rest of his complaints.
“Did they not teach you how to swim in the Shadowguard?” Krystal asked. “I would have thought they would.”
“They did,” Panther said defensively. “But not float.”
“No matter. Again,” Krystal shook her head.
Panther leaned back. Her hands guided him, their touch as soft as the down from a pillow. He let her take the lead, moving in tandem as she helped him lower into the water. His ears felt the surface of the waves caress but his eyes stared upwards at where the stars were beginning to shine. The last vestiges of twilight were fading into a subtle violet and deep blue. Somewhere, on their lonely carrier, Wolf would be looking for them. Panther realized he did not care. For all the work they had been putting in lately, taking the evening off felt like a divine blessing.
It is just her and me and the water around us.
Somewhere in his pondering, she had taken her hands away from his back, letting him drift atop the water’s surface. He began to adjust his position, turning his head so that he could get a glimpse of her. She drifted next to him, floating on her back and staring at the freshly born night sky with thought glistening her turquoise irises. Her mouth drooped in a small frown, chewing upon thoughts she did not share. He could feel her wistfulness; it was a taste as light as whipped cream and as bitter as a stout beer. Gradually, he extended a hand, letting it slide atop the surface until it met her hand at her side. She glanced at him, mouth partially agape in surprise. But the feeling soon slipped from her, and the vixen smiled at him before her eyes returned to the stars.
They floated for some time, until the darkness fell upon the white-sand shore. The soft rush of waves soothed him, their rhythm causing him to lose himself for a moment. He closed his eyes, feeling the water and the cold of the breeze. Salt’s light scent decorated the air.
“We should probably go,” Krystal said, breaking the quiet.
“I could do this all night,” Panther whispered.
“Me too,” the cerulean fox replied. She let herself sink into the water up to her dainty neckline. “Come on, let’s head back to our ships.”
“We’ll have to dry off,” Panther remarked as he followed suit, swimming after the vixen towards the shore. “Wolf would kill us if we ruined the interiors of our cockpits.”
Not to mention, he would have many questions about why we felt the need to burn fuel to take a small vacation.
“Oh?” Krystal asked, walking from the shallows and onto the sand. When Panther reached her, he found that the grains had cooled from the lack of sunlight. The beach was deserted and even the primal cries of the locals could not be heard in the background. Crickets sang their high-pitched song and the waves gurgled with the tide.
“Yeah,” his amber eyes flitted in her direction. His smile slowly crept upon his maw, the tips of his fangs visible. “If we wring our clothes out, I’m sure the process will go much faster.”
“ ‘Wring our clothes’….? Panther. Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?” the vixen quirked a brow at him.
He threw his head back with a laugh, wrapping an arm around her waist. “What do you have to fear? We’re the only ones out here.”
“You’re terrible,” Krystal protested, unable to deny him an equally devious laugh.
“Am I?” Panther asked, bending down so that his rosy pink nose met hers. He was dimly aware of her hands gracefully touching his chest, sliding up his muscles with cautious grace.
“The worst,” Krystal smiled at him. She gave him a shove and his vision flooded with the night sky. His fingers tightened around her waist, bringing her down onto him. He landed on his bum, his back propped up against a small dune of white-hued sand. Krystal was in his lap, eyes wide.
“And where did you think that would get you?” Panther purred into her ear. His breath tickled her fur—a very intentional move and he savored the chill it gave her. “Although, I must admit, I do not mind this position one bit.”
“This isn’t going to get us dried any faster, you know,” Krystal remarked, leaning in to hug him. She pressed her cheek into his, kissing the damp, salted hair of his nape.
“You do not care about that,” Panther remarked.
“Nor do you,” Krystal countered, still snuggling into his neck.
“I only care about one thing,” Panther said as she broke away from her hug, looking down at him. His forefinger traced her jawline, resting beneath her chin and cupping it gently. “You.”
Her hands found his forearm, running her nails lightly over his fur. His other hand cupped her cheek, bending up to kiss her. She pressed into him, her hands finding their way up to the sides of his face. Her tongue found his and they brushed together, dancing in romantic tandem against each other as their mouths moved to the beat of their hearts. Panther’s claw tips nipped at her soaked clothes, desiring nothing more than to rip them from her. He tempered that need, releasing the tension in his hands and withdrawing his claws from the fabric of her flight suit.
When the vixen broke away from him, he felt a long-held exhale pass through his mouth. His tongue still tasted her. His eyes burned for her. Two of her petite fingers touched her muzzle, toying with droplets of his passionate spittle. She paused for a moment, searching his face. He felt the lightest tickle of her scanning his mind. The feline let his defenses down—let her probe for what she needed to. He trusted she would not need to venture far if she was wondering his intentions.
Satisfaction radiated from her as she sat back up, making for the zipper of her flight suit.
“Oh, and what is this?” the feline asked, tail tip flicking back and forth.
“You have a good point. We will want to dry our clothes before we fly back,” Krystal said. “But… it will take some time for them to dry. We’ll have to do something while we wait.”
Her tone was innocent, but her aura had shifted. Panther would have been a fool to not know what she was alluding to. The vixen rose and he did as well, pulling down the zipper of his own flight suit. He shed his clothes onto the ground, liberated of the cold, clinging fabric.
“Heh… Whatever you want, my dear.”