Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 7: Close Encounters [old edition]

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NOTE: This is an old version of Inhuman, which is currently undergoing extensive revisions that include a stylistic overhaul and several chapters’ worth of new content. Stay tuned for the final version, due out whenever I finally slay the procrastination demon that’s taken up residence in my brain. (The bastard.) Meanwhile, please note that the following may not be representative of my current writing skills and is kept here primarily for archival purposes.

As Sean’s position amongst the anthros solidifies, he finds that village life can also have its twists.


— CHAPTER SEVEN —

Close Encounters

Sean stood perfectly still, all senses on alert. He strained to detect any hint of movement, any sign of a presence, yet the woods around him were perfectly still and silent except for the multicolored leaves drifting down from the fiery-colored trees, or the occasional bird taking off from a fruit bush. The air was quite cool, even though the golden skies indicated the evening was only just on its way, and Sean inwardly felt grateful that he was once again in his combat suit, which was stitched up to near-prime condition by Kira’s skilled hands. It was still covered in dark patches where he had bled, but after two months spent in loose-flowing robes and loincloths, he was quite happy to be back in his more weatherproof military clothes in the cooling autumn climate.

His eyes and ears peeled for any suspicious sound or motion, Sean slowly started forwards, taking care to avoid stepping on branches or fallen foliage to try and avoid giving off his location to anyone lurking in the area. He looked around in every direction, his sharp eyes detecting every detail of the trees and shrubbery around him, knowing full well he was most likely being watched by unseen eyes. He just had to find them before time ran out. That was the game, after all … and his adversary was very good at this.

But, so was he.

He paced for a few more minutes, hyperalert, before he finally caught a break: his nostrils flared as a peculiar scent, rich, musky and slightly sweet like peppermint, filled his nose. It was quite unique, and Sean grinned as he realized he had just won without even having yet found his target. Sniffing like a bloodhound, he followed the trail, honing in as it grew stronger the nearer he drew. Stealthy as a cat, he finally arrived at a large tree trunk, several feet across and shrouded in shrubs; the scent was at its strongest here, enough to practically become drunk on it. He heard a tiny rustling sound from directly behind the trunk; he pounced.

Gotchya!’ he said triumphantly; Aki squealed in shock and jumped about ten feet back, stumbling over a protruding root. He hurriedly grabbed her around the waist to prevent her fall as they both broke out laughing.

‘How’d you do that? I never even knew you were there!’ she said, amused yet disappointed at having lost the round.

‘You aren’t the hardest girl to find,’ said Sean with a smirk. ‘Not with the kind of trail you leave wherever you go.’

‘Oh, no fair!’ she said grumpily. ‘How am I supposed to hide when anyone with a nose can find me so easily?’

‘Well, just wash more or something,’ said Sean with a shrug.

‘Yeah, sure, I’ll just wash my heat away,’ said Aki with a roll of her eyes. ‘I tried,’ she added with a grumble. ‘Been bathing and rubbing like crazy for a week. The smell’s not going away. It’s just getting stronger.’

As Aki had told Sean while he was in the infirmary, the anthros’ physiology differed from humans’ when it came to their reproductive cycles, adopting an animalistic biannual estrus period – ie. they went in heat twice a year, during spring and autumn, a period where males would continually rut for the females who, themselves, were more inclined to allow themselves to be taken. Everyone fought their impulses down, though, vying to keep village life as calm, peaceful and ordered as they could. This cycle was the same in all the anthros, leading Sean to assume that they (or, rather, their ancestors) had been bioengineered by the humans who had spawned them centuries earlier into running along such a biological timetable.

The result was that every single anthro in the village suddenly became much keener on mating, a phenomenon that left Sean feeling distinctly uneasy. The air around the village felt heavier and thicker than usual, filled with the pheromones and scents of dozens of different types of anthros falling into heat, and the result was an intoxicating blend of smells that left Sean slightly lightheaded all day long, particularly at midday when the peaking heat of noon only made things worse. The pheromones’ effects were clearly felt, both by the anthros, and in him, who felt himself become distinctly more giddy and aroused, something he manifestly tried to hide as best as he could. But, with the way the anthros were staring at each other with a clear note of lust in their eyes that wasn’t usually present, and particularly with his already privileged status as the only human in the tribe, he couldn’t help but feel like a gazelle walking around in an area filled with lions. And, to be frank, he couldn’t help but notice both how continually aroused he felt, and how attractive many of the anthros suddenly looked. Though, again, he fought these thoughts down as soon as they emerged.

‘It’ll be over in a few weeks, sis, just hold on,’ came Nessi’s voice as their third playmate arrived through the trees, her yellow spotted fur coated in dirt and leaves, indicating she had lied on the ground to hide from Sean. With her arrival, Sean suddenly detected a whiff of her own unique odor, an odd but not unpleasant scent resembling a mixture of grass and lavender.

Aki scoffed, looking to the skies in exasperation. ‘Why don’t I just build a fire and dance around naked screaming “I’m here, come and get me!”?’ she said grumpily.

‘I’d like to see that,’ Sean commented. Aki looked at him for a moment, then slugged him on the shoulder.

‘Shut up, or I’ll make you naked,’ she shot at him with a grin.

‘Ha! I’d like to see that,’ Sean fired back, sneering amicably.

Aki’s eyes flashed, a precursory sign that Sean had learned preceded her moves: indeed, in a blink of an eye, she had jumped at him and they found themselves wrestling on the ground like children, any sense of dignity evaporated. Nessi just stood at their side, laughing at the incongruous spectacle.

‘You’re just like any other horndog, all you want is to see me naked!’

‘That’s all your fault! Stop being so damn sexy!’

Even tangled together on the ground, Sean saw Aki’s face grow slightly redder, before she yowled at him and they tore at each other with renewed vigor.

‘All right, you two, come on,’ said Nessi, playing the mature part of the trio as she usually did. After some coaxing, Sean and Aki fell apart, lying on their backs, staring at each other with wide toothy grins, very much like cubs. Then, as if to emphasize Nessi’s point, they heard Kira’s voice through the trees, calling them back to the village for suppertime.

‘And don’t make me wait on you again!’ she finished.

‘Well, stop waiting around, then,’ snickered Aki, not loud enough to be heard by Kira a few dozen yards away at the edge of the trees. The three of them broke into a fit of suppressed laughter at the idea of how Kira would’ve reacted had she heard her daughter address her so insolently.

Nessi helped them to their feet and they brushed the debris off their clothes and fur, still grinning and flushed. They headed out towards the village, their noses and minds already filled with scents and images of the feast to come.

‘I am not looking forward to being in that crowd when I – when I smell like this,’ muttered Aki glumly. His attention brought to it, Sean noticed her scent was indeed wafting around her like a beacon.

‘Oh, don’t worry about it, everyone smells anyway, no-one’ll even know yours from anyone else’s,’ reassured Nessi, putting an arm around her friend’s shoulders. ‘And besides, Sean will defend you,’ she added, glancing sideways at him with a smirk.

‘Oh, protect me, Sean!’ wailed Aki theatrically, pretending to swoon into his arms like a damsel in distress. ‘Save me from the evil horny masses!’

‘Have no fear, my dear, for I shall smite any frisky horndogs who come too close,’ proclaimed Sean in a noble tone.

All three were still laughing by the time they reached the village, its many façades radiant in the early evening’s golden glow and a calm breeze ruffling the canopies of the various trees that stood out above the tops of cabins and huts. The sweet, sweet aromas of the feast to come were already wafting through the air, even managing to mask the anthros’ musk, eliciting salivating mouths from the villagers as they made their way to the town square, the large bonfire already crackling merrily.

Supper in the village was always a pleasant affair, and that evening was no different. Sean and Aki sat together at the front lines as they always did, if only to make sure Sean was one of the first to reach the food. He continually amused and exasperated Aki with how much he ate, even though it was scarcely more than average for regular humans. Nessi would often join them with her own father as they ate, the gemstone of her mating necklace glinting in the firelight as did everyone else’s. Sean couldn’t help but notice Aki eyeing it every now and then with a curiously vacant expression. He still noticed her scent in the air, yet as Nessi had said, it was suitably masked by all the other smells in the air, from the food and the other anthros’ own scents. He did notice several male heads glancing at her perhaps a little too insistently, particularly a young bull who was a veritable mountain of muscles and who was seated a few yards away, glancing at her a few times too many for Sean’s taste. Thankfully, no-one made any moves on her as she ate in peace. He idly wondered if he being her friend had anything to do with it.

Once the food had disappeared, they spent the rest of the evening as they always did, lounging about, conversing, telling jokes or playing around with cubs as they seized upon their last bid at exerting themselves before their bedtime was inevitably called. The hours passed and the sky grew progressively darker until Sean and Aki decided it was time to head down to the river to clean up before going home for the night. Supper didn’t usually last as long as Sean’s first evening had, which usually left them with enough time for a little last-minute fooling around in the riverwaters before going to bed.

Aki took her time in scrubbing her fur vigorously, particularly around her nethers (Sean steadfastly looked away and Aki smirked at him, still amused at his continuing discomfort around nudity), trying to get the scent out as best she could. She gave up a few minutes later, disheartened and slightly frustrated, and Sean could still smell her with little difference. If anything, he mused that her rubbing herself had only made the scent stronger, for obvious reasons.

Once properly cleaned up and any traces of the day’s activities washed from their skin and fur, they ambled back up the sloping shore up to the grasslands leading into the village. The sun had disappeared by now, leaving only faint traces of fading violet in the few clouds that jotted the skies, the twinkling stars already shining brightly across the velvety black. Even as they walked, holding hands casually and engaging in idle chatter about the day’s events, Sean still couldn’t help but feel both incredibly small and peaceful as he took in the sights and smells of his new life.

Nighttime was still a slightly awkward moment for Sean. He was becoming more and more used to seeing anthros without clothes, particularly Aki and Kira as they disrobed in preparation for bed, but he still felt that familiar flush creep up his face every night nonetheless. The two vixens certainly didn’t make it any easier for him, taking their own mischievous pleasure in taunting him with just the sorts of poses to make him blush all the more. Even worse, was how he couldn’t even bother to look away, his eyes helplessly drawn to their beautiful, tempting curves. Especially Aki’s. Far from making her uneasy, though, it only made her smile wider as she evidently took his attention on her body as a compliment.

Sean didn’t feel happy about it, however; rather, he felt dirty, staring at the nubile body of a young girl in such a manner. He couldn’t tell if it was due to his upbringing and previous New Corinthean culture, or if it was just a “human” thing, but he couldn’t help but feel distinctly unsettled at the sight of a sixteen-year-old girl who obviously took enjoyment in posing for him – and knowing that behind his bluster and feeble protests, he certainly did enjoy it as well, much more than he would even admit to himself.

Eventually, though, he’d be in his cot under the thick protective blanket, the candles would be blown out, and silence would fall between them like a shroud as thick as the darkness around them as the two vixens fell asleep in a matter of minutes, leaving Sean awake and thinking for a long while, his mind slowly filling with the ever-enticing scents of Aki and Kira’s heat until he finally slipped under.

*

As usual, the first thing that brought him back to the waking world was a sliver of sunlight shining in his face, right across his closed eyes. He rolled over lazily, trying to avoid the glare, but now that he was awake, he knew he’d never be able to get back to sleep once the day had begun. With a low groan, he sat up in his bunk, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, and looked around.

He was alone in the hut, and by the manner the sun shone in through the sides of the curtain covering the entrance, it must’ve been no later than nine in the morning by Sean’s estimation. Aki and Kira must’ve left for their chores earlier than usual. He almost wished they’d waken him up; one of his guilty pleasures these days was taking an early morning stroll through the woodlands, feeling the crisp ground under his feet, taking in lungfuls of that deliciously cool air, and observing the early sunrays as they filtered through the trees, creating a dazzling array of golden curtains through the woods. It was a truly magnificent sight when it occurred.

Smiling at the thought, Sean got out of bed and stretched. As he did, he caught a subtle whiff of a rich, peppermint scent – Aki’s. Smiling a little too giddily and feeling his skin start to tingle, he pushed these thoughts out of his mind once again as he slowly headed out the hut into the already warm outdoors.

It was indeed a few hours ’til noon, judging by the cool morning breeze and the aura of faintly golden light that shone upon the village. The villagers had only started waking up and he could see them leaving their homes, many of them yawning and stretching before departing to attend to their assorted tasks. Village life had started.

Sean looked around yet didn’t see Aki anywhere. For them, meeting up for a quick “hello” before starting the day had become a treasured custom, and it just didn’t feel right to start the day without her warm smile seeing him off. Figuring Aki might still be trying to remove her persistent scent, he started down the paths leading eastwards to the Neyrin where villagers typically went to freshen up in preparation for the day’s activities.

He was suddenly distracted as something bumped into his legs; looking down, he saw a cheeky-faced goat kid holding onto him, grinning playfully up at him as several of his little friends came running towards them.

‘Hi, Sean! Wanna play?’ he invited as they stood expectantly, looking excited.

‘Sorry, Kobi, I can’t play just now,’ said Sean, ruffling the goat-boy’s furry head as he gently but firmly broke his embrace and pushed him away. The cubs all whined in unison; roughhousing with Sean was one of their favorite pastimes.

‘Now, now, I’m not saying I won’t play with you, I just can’t play right now,’ assured Sean. ‘Actually, maybe you could help me. Have any of you seen Aki?’

‘Uh, yeah, I saw her go down to the river a while ago,’ piped up a young gazelle girl.

‘All right, thanks, Nela,’ said Sean with a smile; the little girl beamed up at him. ‘I’ll see you guys later, all right?’

‘Bye, Sean!’ they called in near-unison as Sean continued down the street. They soon broke into roughhousing with each other and proceeded to crash into and overturn a wheelbarrow full of logs that was being pushed by a horse. The equine whinnied in annoyance as the cubs scrambled to help pick up the fallen wood, babbling incoherent apologies. Sean laughed softly to himself as he continued walking, greeting passers-by with a nod and a smile. The scent of the anthros’ heat was already detectable in the morning air, and Sean could already feel that familiar sense of light-headed arousal rising in him. He was quick to squash it down for now and concentrate on finding Aki.

He finally reached the banks of the Neyrin, where a handful of villagers were already present, washing their grogginess away or taking a few moments to swim around lazily before attacking the day’s workload. Sean searched, but Aki was nowhere to be seen amongst them. Then again, he thought, she probably wouldn’t want to try washing herself in the midst of a bunch of anthros, especially when they themselves were also in heat.

Some of them waved at Sean; he waved back, wondering where to look next. He could wander the streets, maybe? That could take a while … Maybe head to the orchard? He knew that of all the menial chores around town, picking fruits was one that Aki preferred over others as it was less strenuous, in addition to the taller plants providing shade in the midday sun.

He turned around and took a few steps towards the outskirts of town, towards the orchard visible in the distance, when he realized where Aki most likely was. Suddenly feeling rather silly for not having thought of it sooner, he changed course and headed into the woods. He suddenly felt certain Aki would be at their secret place, that enchanting little pond deep in the woods; as if to prove him right, he could swear he could detect the slightest traces of her scent as he trudged through the undergrowth, an enticing aroma that grew stronger and stronger as he advanced. He soon came across the old, overgrown trail they used to find the secret pond, and followed it, noticing as Aki’s musk only got even stronger. Not that he would ever tell her, but it really was a terribly enticing aroma; he blushed at the thought.

A few minutes later, he finally arrived at the location he sought, slowing down and approaching silently. He stood at the edge of the tall section of bank overlooking the deep-blue waters of the pond below. However, as he realized what he was looking at, he stopped in his tracks.

Aki was certainly there, and she was indeed bathing luxuriantly, her clothes discarded on the sloping shore a few feet away from where Sean now stood. Even though he was half-hidden by the trees that grew around the pond, shielding it from view quite effectively from outsiders, he nonetheless shrunk his posture a little, intent on not being seen as he watched, simply transfixed, almost entranced.

He had seen Aki nude, now many times as she prepared for bed and sometimes in the morning before she dressed; he had been with her plenty of times as she bathed and washed up in the river; yet he had always been careful to show some respect for her nudity, his sense of modesty kicking in. Yet now, somehow, he found himself staring openly at the naked young foxgirl below as she busied herself, scrubbing her fur everywhere she could reach.

She was up to her tail-base in the water, facing away from him so that he could see her in profile. Her smooth, pleasantly toned, white-furred abdomen glistened like silk, and her chest heaved noticeably; whether she was breathing in so deeply from the exertion of scrubbing herself so energetically or from something else, Sean didn’t know. Her eyes were closed as she moved her hands all over her body, rubbing deeply into her muscles, scratching with her claws, and especially rubbing over certain sensitive areas more often than the rest. The shimmering reflections on the surface of the water masked the rest of her body and lower abdomen beneath, though Sean could still make out the general forms and curves.

A combination of the sight and that ever-present, intoxicating scent that imbibed the area seemed to be making his mind slow down to a crawl, dulling his inhibitions. The only thought crossing his mind was about how utterly beautiful she was. An angel in tangerine fur.

He honestly didn’t know how long he stood there, eyeing the oblivious foxgirl as she tended to herself without any thought of turning around, or even looking away. He was completely enchanted by the spectacle … until he shifted his position a little and accidentally stepped on a twig, which snapped under his boot with an unexpectedly loud crack.

Time stopped. Sean froze, his breath stuck in his throat. The crack seemed to echo around the clearing, and Aki’s ears immediately flicked towards the source of the disturbance. She glanced around, using her arms to shield herself slightly, her eyes peeled for any sign of an intruder; yet inexorably, the great blue orbs found Sean’s half-hidden silhouette. She stared at him, a startled expression on her face.

Sean didn’t remember what happened and he didn’t know what took him; all he knew was that he was suddenly running through the forest, barely keeping to the barely visible trail, jumping over roots and crashing through undergrowth. He could vaguely recall shouting something, rather incoherently, sounding something like “Sorry!”; he could still hear Aki’s voice calling after him, telling him to wait, not to go … Most of all, though, he could still see her face in his mind, her magnificent blue eyes fixed into his, looking stunned to see him there.

As stunned as he was to find himself staring at her so unrestrainedly.

He didn’t know what to think, his mind reduced to a confused mess. He just focused on running as fast as his legs would carry him, breezing through the trees and soon finding himself at the treeline, the Neyrin River stretching before him.

*

Aki stood still, the water quite still around her lower trunk, still gazing at the area in the trees and brush where she’d caught Sean staring at her only a moment earlier. Her arms hung limply at her sides as she just stared, flummoxed.

Drinking like a fish the previous night and neglecting to urinate prior to bedtime had forced her up unusually early that morning, before even Kira, who was usually the one to wake her sleepyhead daughter up in the mornings (if the sun didn’t first). Figuring she likely wouldn’t get to sleep that much more anyway as the sun was already rising, she decided to use some of the time she had before village life started to sneak down to the pond for a quick little bathe – and to try and scrub her ever-increasing scent out of her fur. She was nearing the height of her heat, and to be honest, the growing smell she gave off was only one of her problems with being in season, now that her body was gearing up for mating despite her not having any intention of doing so.

At the moment, though, the only thing Aki was preoccupied with was Sean and his abrupt, almost panicked, departure. What had gotten into him? He’d seen her naked before, plenty of times, in the river and especially at bedtime. Why had he looked so shocked, so … horrified, when he saw that she’d spotted him? She could tell he hadn’t just been surprised at being caught; that alone would have made him jump, maybe squawk an apology, but afterwards they would just have laughed it off as they always did.

She slowly started rinsing herself off again, her moves quite absent-minded. She was aware, thanks to Sean, of how different the anthro culture and lifestyle was compared to humans’, particularly when it came to their attitudes towards nudity and physical intimacy, and especially in public. She still wasn’t entirely used to Sean’s stubborn resolution to remain fully clothed at all times (though admittedly he now had a good excuse with the chill that lingered in the air as the season drew on). It was a subject of many of their jokes, where she would tease him or pass along some dirty comments, only to break into laughter at the sight of his face invariably growing red.

However, as deep as the need for privacy ran in human culture, which Aki could at least understand, it still felt quite unusual to her to need to protect one’s intimacy at all costs, especially as Sean had shown. Surely, humans didn’t just run away at the mere sight of someone else’s nude body?

So why had he run from her, looking so terrified?

As she pondered all this, still inattentively scrubbing her fur, she suddenly thought of something. Could it be that he hadn’t been offended or disturbed at seeing her naked, as in the nudity itself, but at seeing her naked? Maybe it had something to do with herself, and the relationship she shared with Sean? After all, they spent every day with each other, talking and playing, sharing their secrets, their fears and their memories, their dreams … She had always regarded him as a very good friend, a very close friend, maybe even closer than she was with Nessi, despite having known the latter her whole life.

But even then, she couldn’t deny to herself the feelings he gave her, especially when she noticed him staring at her, the look in his eyes, or the way he speaks to her when they’re alone …

She could feel her face heating up at these thoughts; with a squirm, she bent over and sank into the pool, washing herself vigorously, trying to clear these thoughts and feelings from her mind. She couldn’t be falling for him – no more than he could be falling for her … could they?

Shaking her head forcefully, she waded to the shore and clambered out, stretching and feeling the tingling of the cool air on her wet fur. She sniffed around and at herself; to her frustrated exasperation, she noticed her scent had lessened somewhat, but only a little. It’s not that she thought it was a particularly repulsive smell by any standard – if anything, she had to admit she found it rather … comfortable, familiar, even pleasant. But she had enough problems as it was with the males in the village and their attitude towards her, being a nubile foxgirl whom no-one had yet claimed as their own. She didn’t need to be giving off an extra signal to attract attention.

And anyway, there was no-one she’d rather be with at the moment. None of them interested her, really …

Except …

Her eyes widened and she gave an uncomfortable squirm as she once more forced the thought out of her head. Really, what was getting into her? Was that human really that charming? Or was she just longing for the company of someone other than Nessi?

With a sigh, she picked up her clothes from the ground, so close to where she’d seen Sean, and put them on before starting down the faint trail back to the village. She couldn’t let the issue of Sean’s puzzling behavior towards her rest; it would torment her endlessly until she spoke to him about it. She was already wondering just how she would word her thoughts as she emerged from the woods and headed up to the village.

*

The water was as pleasantly cool as it always was when Sean hurried into the river, sinking to his waist as he taking a dunk. He rubbed his face, sweeping the sopping hair out of his eyes and taking deep breaths, trying to clear his mind. He was vaguely thankful that no-one else was there at the moment; he needed time alone with his thoughts.

He was furious with himself, to the point where had he been someone else, he would probably have kicked him in the balls. What in the hell had taken him to ogle Aki like that? He felt like a pervert, or like an old man who hadn’t seen a young girl naked in too long. What was wrong with him, to stare at Aki – his best friend! – so unashamedly as she washed herself in private?

Of course, however angry he was at himself and as much as he tried to avoid thinking back on it, he still couldn’t prevent thoughts and images of what he’d seen from creeping before his mind’s eye, blocking out everything else and leaving him staring at that nude, gorgeous young foxgirl. She was just so sexy, so pretty … He couldn’t tell which attribute he focused on more: her person, that kind spirit and soul, which made him want to be with her and make her happy, see her smile … or her physique, so gorgeous, which attracted him in ways that only made him blush harder –

He groaned in frustration, feeling beleaguered and trapped by thoughts he both wanted out of his head, and simply couldn’t resist.

Even after several months, he again felt his training and conditioning kicking in as it used to whenever he felt stressed or confused. Calm down. Nothing ever works when you can’t think straight. He forced his body into a limp posture, closed his eyes, and took several deep breaths, holding them for several seconds. It always worked wonders on him, and before long, he opened his eyes again, feeling considerably more composed and confident.

Assess the situation. It was an old psychological exercise soldiers were trained to perform whenever feeling disorganized, or grappling with a situation that they didn’t quite comprehend: identify the problem, analyze the components, and find a solution that dealt with all of it. Now calmer, Sean could think quite a bit more clearly.

The issue was Aki, and how he felt towards her.

Analyze. How did he feel about Aki?

Sean’s mind seemed to jam as a flood of contradictory and ambiguous thoughts and sentiments suddenly welled in him. On one hand, she was his best friend, a ravishing young foxgirl, and just a fun anthro to be with. However, she was also the only anthro whose company he really enjoyed to the point of desiring it so much. He didn’t just like her; he liked being with her. He loved to see her smile, to hear her laugh, to hold her hand as they usually did when they walked around. He’d always figured it was a casual gesture, something unremarkable … or maybe he’d just used that as an excuse, to rationalize doing it and liking it as much as he did.

Their friendship was the strongest he’d ever known; that much he was certain of. But, could it be that it was developing into something … more? Could his affections for her be transcending the stage of mere amity?

Could he be falling for her?

He found himself entertaining the thought for a moment, even relishing it, before casting it out with a shake of his head. He couldn’t be falling for her – he mustn’t. She was far too young for him! For crying out loud, she was only sixteen – a kid! He was twenty-five, probably approaching twenty-six. More than ten years of discrepancy. A decade. He would already have been preparing to fight in the Corinthean War before she was even born.

There was also the issue of her being, well, an anthro. A half-human, half-animal hybrid. How could that be right? His mind suddenly flashed all sorts of absurd images of humans kissing animals; he groaned and cleared them out at once. It wasn’t that ridiculous; she was half-human, after all. If anything, more than half, given her overall appearance, her intelligence, her emotions … The way she spoke with such sense and wit, seemingly beyond her years at times … The way she would gaze at him with those gorgeous cerulean eyes, eyes that had the uncanny knack of feeling like they not only stared at him, but into him … Her smooth fur, so soft; the feel of her hands, her cute round muzzle, those perky ears, that big fluffy tail, that engaging smile …

He blinked forcefully, trying to clear the images flashing before his mind’s eye; he plunged his hands into the river and started rinsing his face, rubbing deep, trying to distract himself from the thoughts swirling in his mind. To his chagrin, it was of little use; no matter how much he tried to deny them, images of what he had seen at the pond kept coming back.

It was a full ten minutes later when he finally stepped out of the river, now a soggy mess, still in his suit, which he only now noticed he’d forgotten to take off, to his mild annoyance. He had bigger issues on his mind than chilling in wet clothes, though, as he hiked up the sloping bank and headed towards the village, where he guessed Aki would be by then. He had a feeling she would’ve returned to the village soon after she caught him – if not at once, to try and talk to him, perhaps accuse him of stalking her, of spying on her at her most intimate … His breathing accelerated slightly at the thought and he started searching for a way to explain what he had done, all the while wondering if she would even want to see him just yet …

He had reached the outskirts of the village and was approaching the outmost street between two cabins when he heard a short, terrified scream. He stopped dead; that voice, though muffled, was familiar – too familiar –

‘Get away from me, you perverts! No – no! Let me go! HELP!

Sean went cold with horror. It was Aki’s voice.

His mind suddenly wiped blank of all previous thoughts, he rushed forth, bursting onto the street. What he saw stopped him in his tracks. It was easy enough to understand what he was looking at.

There she was, in a narrow alley between two neighboring huts, partially out of sight thanks to the fence and trees blocking the view from the street. There were four anthros with her, around her. Sean’s lightning-quick examination, a skill acquired from his years in the military, immediately picked up on the fact that they were all males, all of them late teens or young adults by the looks of it. One of them, a vaguely familiar-looking and particularly colossal young bull, looked like he could pick her up and throw her twenty feet should he wish to. At his side, a mahogany-furred stallion stood with his tail swishing in excitement, leering at her; next to him, two wolves, so similar they were most likely brothers, were grinning at the smaller foxgirl, their long canines bared menacingly and their black and grey fur bristling in anticipation.

Sean quickly glanced around and down the street, but the place was deserted. All the anthros were busy towards the center of town, where they were probably enjoying dinner by now. No-one would be able to come to Aki’s help – not in time.

The aggressors were circling around Aki, moving in such a way as to pin her against the wooden wall of the shack behind her with no way to escape. By no means was Aki short or frail-looking, but these males looked like they could’ve been twice her weight, decked out in impressive muscles and carrying themselves with an air of confidence, even arrogance. The way they were leering at her and moving towards her, and the way she glared back at them in mixed terror and defiance, only made their intentions too obvious.

‘We’re getting tired of seeing you prance around with that human,’ the bull taunted in his deep voice. ‘You haven’t forgotten which species you’re a part of, have you? Or is fur not your thing anymore?’

‘Fuck you! Get away from me!’ Aki snarled back, hackles raised and fangs bared in defensive rage. But the anthros didn’t appear to be concerned in the slightest. If anything, they only grinned wider, turned on by her aggressive spectacle.

‘Shut up, bitch!’ spat one of the wolves. ‘We’ve all been waiting for you to lift that pretty tail of yours for someone, but you just keep ignoring us like we’re scum! Well, too bad for you, it’s time to breed. Your body’s making sure everyone knows … we can’t let that go to waste!’

They were obviously enjoying demeaning and goading her, spurring her on into a terrified rage as they moved in on her, slowly but surely nearing their desired goal – until a sudden crack of her arm sent the wolf who’d just spoken stumbling backwards, holding his muzzle in his hands and groaning in pain.

Sean stood rooted to the spot, unable to move with pure shock and awe as he witnessed Aki put the relatively simple combat techniques he’d taught her to full use. She fought like a demon, like her life depended on it (which it somewhat did), throwing punches and kicks in every direction, nailing the hitherto unsuspecting aggressors in the chest, the face, the groin, behind the knees, everywhere Sean had taught her to aim for. A jab of an elbow to the stallion’s solar plexus and a swift kick at the bull’s gut later and they seemed to be stumbling back in disarray – but it was over; they were too angry, too eager, and too aroused with pent-up sexual frustration to care. They ganged up on Aki, who, despite her fierce blows and moves, could no longer hold them back and was overpowered; they grabbed her, pinning her arms behind her back, throwing her against the wall; she struggled with all her strength, screaming in pain and in terror, as grabby hands started fondling her, playing with her breasts, and tearing her clothes off …

What happened next was a bit of a blur: overwhelmed with horror and rage, Sean finally came to and less than a heartbeat later, he found himself rushing forth. He was upon them in a second; his combat skills surfaced without a thought and he first struck a knee right into the small of the bull’s back with pinpoint precision; he barely registered the massive beast snapping back with a strangled roar of pain before he landed a sharp jab into the bovine’s exposed throat. The male never had time to do anything more than gag, his vocal chords stunned into silence, before Sean had hooked his leg and yanked it out from under him, sending the mountain of muscles crashing to the ground, his cracked back rendering him unable to move. Barely even noticing the suddenly stunned faces of the others, Sean went for his next closest target and jackhammered a powerful punch right into the stallion’s gut; the latter doubled over, gasping for breath, and Sean immediately piled a fierce blow to the back of the equine’s neck, felling him to the ground, knocked out.

Moving on, he noticed one of the wolves rearing to throw a punch; without a thought, he grabbed the male’s arm and in a single fluid move, gave it a sharp twist before smashing his fist into the back of the canine’s elbow, where it gave a sharp cracking sound, snapping back unnaturally. A quick whirl and an arm around the wolf’s chest later, and he had thrown the hapless anthro to the ground.

Standing upright, he quickly surveyed the situation: the bull and the wolf squirmed harmlessly on the ground, whimpering in pain, while the horse lied crumpled and unconscious. The remaining wolf staggered backwards in shock and fear; Sean merely took a threatening step forwards before the would-be rapist turned tail and bolted off, disappearing around the bend.

He stood there for a moment, his mind still blank of any thoughts just as he’d been trained for with close-quarters combat, breathing deeply. His sharp eyes found Aki, leaning back against the wall, yet he didn’t dwell on her yet; rather, he bent over and grabbed the fallen wolf’s throat, lifting him up as like an afterthought and slamming him against the wall, pinning him with his arm at his throat.

Sean just stared at him, and before long, his feelings returned in full force: rage, worry and hatred filled him as they hadn’t in a very long time; he felt ready to kill. It was only through a massive effort that he kept himself from cracking the helpless wolf’s trachea, which would have resulted in a slow, agonizing death by suffocation. Instead, he held him there, glaring right into the canine’s eyes, his cold fury meeting raw fear.

‘What the fuck did you think you were doing?’ he intoned, his voice frigid and hoarse with anger.

‘I-I-I’m s-sorry –’ the wolf spluttered. ‘We only w-wanted to – to –’

‘What?’ growled Sean. ‘Have your way with a girl? Hurt someone like her, only because you could? Because it took four of you to jump one girl?’

He forced himself to slow his breath rate down a bit, trying to regain control of his emotions as he held the anthro against the wall.

‘You’re lucky. Back where I come from, filth like you, who take advantage of others just because they can – we kill them. We take turns shooting them in the head. And,’ he added, leaning in close, ‘I would happily kill you right now … you – sick – SHIT!’

Before he even knew what he was doing, he suddenly slammed a fist into the wolf’s gut, followed by another in his face; two and three blows later, he finally stopped, regaining control of his nerves, panting as though he was the one being struck, his entire body shaking. The wolf wheezed and whimpered in pain, his lip fat and bloodied, a shiner slowly forming around his eye. Sean just stared at him for several moments, uncertain of how he felt.

‘You shouldn’t have picked on her,’ he said quietly. ‘I gave her my word that I would protect her against fucking horndogs like you. That I would never let anyone hurt her.’

Sean’s eyes grew wide; flashes of memory suddenly appeared before his eyes, blinding him: fires, bodies in the streets, screaming civilians fleeing from their deaths as the rebel army advanced, destroying everyone and everything in their path … Remembering his oath to protect the people of Corinthea at all costs, yet forced to stand by and do nothing but watch as the same people was destroyed by the enemy … Remembering all that he’d lost – his childhood, his family, countless friends and comrades … Luis …

The images slowly swam out of focus and he once again found himself staring at the cowering face of the wolf, who was struggling to breathe through Sean’s arm keeping him against the wall. Sean notices his vision was blurry; he blinked several times, trying to clear the moisture that was building up, and he felt a couple of tears creep down his face.

He stood back and finally released the wolf; the latter staggered to his feet, clutching at his gut and his throat, panting hoarsely. He wasted no time in scampering off as fast as he could, following in his presumed brother’s footsteps around the bend.

Having finally returned to a calmer state, Sean took a deep breath to settle his nerves before turning around. Aki was leaning against the wall, holding her torn garments to her body yet unable to hide her intimacy effectively. She appeared physically unhurt as she looked at Sean, her face strained and her eyes wide and brimming with tears. Those beautiful blue eyes … Sean had never seen them so wide, so scared. This calmed him down more than anything else had as he slowly approached her.

For a moment, they just stood there, communicating wordlessly, sharing their fears and their relief through their eyes. Sean’s mind was a turmoil of emotions and thoughts as he looked into the eyes of the girl he had such strong feelings for. The girl who was almost just raped.

More out of something to break the heavy silence, Sean looked around, his gaze landing on the unmoving bodies of the two anthros on the ground. Even then, he was mildly taken aback at the ferocity he’d exhibited and the violence he’d wreaked upon them. A cracked spine, a knockout, a broken arm and various other injuries, all in less than twenty seconds.

‘That was …’ Aki breathed, staring at him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said quietly, looking at what he’d done. ‘For this. I shouldn’t have let myself get carried away like that … It was like I was back home … back in the War …’

He looked at her, and he could tell he looked as wretched a he felt.

‘Many things happened during the War,’ he said softly. ‘Many bad things. Our job … was to prevent them. We were meant to save lives … But we were forced to stand aside and just … watch … without doing anything to help them. We couldn’t help them … we let them …’

He couldn’t finish, his throat feeling tight. He swallowed forcefully, looking at her, meeting her eyes, intent on her understanding him.

‘I couldn’t let it happen again,’ he said, his voice barely more than a shaky whisper. ‘Not again.’

Aki’s eyes glinted dully and wetly as they peered into Sean’s own; then, wordlessly, she took a step forward and pressed up against him, her head resting on his shoulder and her arms embracing him gently, almost hesitantly. Sean instinctively reciprocated, wrapping his arms around her and holding her close to his chest, his hands rubbing through her fur soothingly, affectionately. Reassured, Aki held Sean more firmly, her blunt fingerclaws digging painlessly into the back of his suit as she held him tightly against her, as though afraid of losing him. She closed her eyes, now tearing up more than ever, and let slip a few sniffles and quiet whimpers.

He just held her, not knowing what to say or do other than to keep her close to him, squeezing her in his arms, trying and provide some small measure of comfort after what she’d been through, and what would’ve happened had he not been there. He had failed back home, failed to save the lives he had sworn to protect with his own. He’d let them die. Not here, not now. Not her. He wouldn’t let them hurt her.

He gently rested his head on her own, taking care not to crush her flattened ears, and he was then distracted slightly as he caught a whiff of her scent again. That wonderful, terrible, irresistible smell that was causing so much trouble for the poor foxgirl in his arms. Even despite the situation and the emotions running high, he couldn’t help but grow faintly warmer in the face and under his clothes, his body reacting involuntarily to the pheromones.

Suddenly feeling a bit awkward and nervous, he gave Aki a few last gentle rubs and pats on her back and the back of her head, then gently eased her away from him. She stared up at him, her eyes wet and swollen, rivulets trailing down her cheek-fur. She gave a few sniffles, gazing at him with something like gratefulness in her eyes.

‘Why … why did you run away like that?’ she said softly, her voice shaky but resolute.

Sean had to think for a moment before remembering what she was talking about.

‘Because I shouldn’t have been there,’ he said solemnly. ‘I … What I did was wrong. You’re only sixteen, and – and you have the right to … to be alone when you want. I don’t have the right to see you like that if you don’t let me. I …’

He trailed off as he noticed her expression, now changing into mild bafflement.

‘What are you talking about?’ she said. ‘Why … why would I care if you see me naked? I told you, Sean, we really don’t care. Honest. It doesn’t matter, to me, if you see me without any clothes or not. I mean …’ she shifted slightly, seemingly hesitant now, ‘we’re friends, right? I don’t need anything more – I mean, that’s all the … uh …’

She paused, looking at him uncertainly, obviously trying to find the right words, but Sean understood. He couldn’t bring himself to answer, staring at her and feeling that ever-so-familiar bewilderment that arose whenever he encountered something of the anthros’ he didn’t comprehend or feel quite at ease with.

Keeping his mouth shut, he gazed her over, either to try and see if she was unhurt or to avoid her eyes; he wasn’t sure which. She was still holding onto the shredded cloths, failing to hide her modesty very well as he could still see parts of her chest and lower body that he would’ve preferred to see clothed.

His head jerked back up as he realized he’d been staring again; he flushed, feeling angry and resentful towards himself for behaving like that. Now? Of all times, now?

They stared into each other’s eyes, quite alone and surrounded by trees, fences and the walls of cabins, thus quite effectively out of sight from the street. He felt quite warm again, which he lazily suspected was from a combination of Aki’s heat and the emotions brewing in his stomach. His eyes were fixed into hers, almost lost in their transcendent beauty, their warmth, the way they seemed to glow, and how they appeared to see right through his own and into his mind and his heart … How did she do that? …

Almost unaware of it, they slowly started leaning in towards each other, already barely a foot apart and only a few inches in difference in height. She held their gaze as they drew in nearer, lost in the moment and both unaware and uncaring of anyone or anything else around them … Her beautiful face, the tangerine fur, those big ears, those pretty white cheeks, those ebony lips, that cute rounded nose …

Then Sean’s eyes opened wider, and a great sadness welled up in him as he forced himself to pull away. She gazed up at him, looking confused and saddened, nonverbally wondering what was wrong, why he had stopped. He could only return her stare, feeling every bit as sad and disappointed as she did.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his voice constricted again. ‘I … I can’t.’

Her whiskers drooped visibly as sadness filled her face. She closed her eyes briefly, taking a deep breath to try and relax a little.

‘Okay,’ she whispered, her voice quivering.

She gazed at him for another moment, then looked away, blushing.

‘I … I’d better get some new clothes … get these to Mom …’

She gave him one last fleeting glance before turning and slowly walking off, regaining the street and looking around to make sure it was empty. Sean watched her leave, her head low, looking defeated; every part of him screamed at him to call her back, to tell her how much she meant to him, and how badly he wanted her … but he stayed silent, watching her amble down the street and turning around the bend, disappearing from view behind a cabin.

Sean stared blankly into the distance, feeling numb and dejected; then, a new wave of anger and frustration rose within him; looking for his nearest target, he aimed a fierce kick at the injured bull’s legs, making the large male grunt in pain and squirm some more.

‘Shut up!’ Sean spat venomously. He felt furious, beset by his feelings and unable to make sense of anything anymore.

But in truth, he didn’t know who or what he was angry at.

He was preparing to leave, perhaps to take a stroll around town – or better yet, in the woods, to clear his thoughts … when a voice suddenly erupted from somewhere around the village, loud and strident.

‘THEY’RE COMING!’