Etherno

Chapter 37: The Beach? But It’s Not Episode 7!

Kasai leaned away from the window of the mag-lev train as she attempted to subtly snuggle up to Onin. The city flashed by. Tall buildings gave way to short, squat buildings, then to rows of houses that were painted every color of the rainbow. After the residential areas, there were suburbs with sprawling lawns.

Kasai was again struck by uncanny resemblance to Gesara. It was weird. The Nekotians themselves resembled Gesarans, apart from the ears and tails. And walking around the city, and now speeding through it on the mag-lev train, the city layout was similar to cities back home—jarring color schemes excepted.

Kasai had expected aliens to be, well, more alien. Like the Kagoshi, for example. Short, purple, angular features. Oh well. Probably for the best, anyway. She, Onin, and the others had fallen into a routine almost as soon as they’d landed on Nekotia. And Purona fit into their group better than Cerina did. Well, it didn’t hurt that they’d already known Amaryllis, who, despite being only half Nekotian, looked exactly like one.

A sigh escaped Kasai’s lips. She was really the only one who didn’t fit in. There wasn’t anyone back home with wings or a tail. And both the Nekotians and Kagoshi were familiar with dragons, who were apparently also bad guys. No one could love her, she was just an ugly, half-breed animal.

Kasai froze at that thought. She looked over at Onin, asleep in his seat, head flopped back against the headrest.

That’s not right. Onin’s told me he loves me. And he’s seen me in my full dragon form twice now.

A memory flashed through Kasai’s mind. Onin wrapping her in his arms, pressing his lips to hers, all while she was naked, both physically and emotionally. He’d seen her at her worst, and still loved her.

Kasai wiped a tear from her eye and wrapped herself around Onin’s arm.

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A small bump jostled Kasai awake. She blinked, sat up, and looked out the window. The mag-lev train was slowing down. The track ahead split off in two different directions. There was another small bump, and the train accelerated down the right-hand track.

The scene out the window now was a contrast to how it had been when Kasai fell asleep. The buildings here were mostly gray. The ones that were painted were all in faded colors. Crumbling concrete was everywhere, in the building walls, and the sidewalks and roads that criss-crossed the dilapidated neighborhood.

The train continued to accelerate. Soon, they crossed a river and left that neglected town behind. Fields full of purple plants with yellow and orange fruit filled the view now. A sweet aroma filled the train. Whatever that was, Kasai wanted to try some.

Light glinted in the distance, and soon the ocean came into view. Minutes later, a chime sounded, and the train started to slow.

“Hmm?” Purona’s hands raised into the air as she stretched in the seat ahead of Kasai. “Oh, we’re here!”

Kasai nudged Onin’s arm with her elbow.

He blinked, yawned, then looked out the window. “Ah. Thanks for waking me.”

The train stopped. Everyone grabbed their bags from the overhead bins, and they followed Purona off the train.

Purona stopped outside the train station. “So, should we go find a motel room first, or head straight to the beach?”

“Beach!” Tannin pumped his fist in the air.

“You heard him, let’s go!” Saija pointed to the water. “Besides, now that I’ve been here, I’ll just portal us back home and we can come whenever we want.”

“Oh, yeah.” Purona’s face flushed, and she took off toward the beach at a fast pace.

It was a short walk to the beach from the station. They hiked down steps through orange dune grass and down onto a wide area covered with fine blue sand. The waves on the ocean were surprisingly blue. Kasai had almost expected some sort of bright neon color. Then again, that was silly. The water they’d been drinking since they got to Nekotia was clear, and it hadn’t made anyone sick yet. Logically, the ocean should be blue.

Tannin dropped his bag, peeled off his shirt, tossed it in the general direction of his bag, and sprinted to the water.

Cerina rolled her eyes. “So, for those of us that aren’t that carefree, is there somewhere to change?”

“Yeah!” Purona pointed off to the left. “There’s changing tents over there.”

Kasai leaned past Purona to get a better look. Two pink and black checkered tents, about six feet apart from another, were set back in the dune grass.

Onin, Tannin, and Ryogin went into the closer tent, and Kasai followed the girls into the farther tent.

Saija whipped off her shirt as soon as she entered.

“Sheesh!” Cerina yanked the tent flap shut. “Wait until the door’s shut at least.”

“I want to get changed fast so I can swim.” Saija shucked her bra and dropped her pants.

“Well you don’t need to go waving those in my face.” Cerina crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t know what’s worse. You flaunting it, or Kasai acting all embarrassed and acting like she’s got nothing to show.”

Kasai side-stepped behind Amaryllis, turned around, and changed as quickly as she could.

“I don’t see what you’re complaining about.” Ailah’s voice sounded amused. “On Nekotia, smaller breasts are a sign of wisdom and maturity.”

“Is that true?” Cerina laughed. “You two must not be very wise, then!”

Best to keep hiding behind Amaryllis. Kasai didn’t want to get sucked into this conversation.

“Well, it’s more of an old nana’s tale,” Purona said.

Kasai pulled up the right strap on her suit and peeked out from behind Amaryllis. Everyone was naked now, except Amaryllis and herself, who had just finished changing into their swimsuits.

“Um, I’m going to go swim.” Kasai pointed toward the ocean.

“Woo!” Saija yanked her swim bottoms up and tugged on her top. “Wait for me!”

Aiden caught her by the arm. “Wait, you’re hanging out.” She straightened the straps on the back of Saija’s top while Saija adjusted her front.

“Thanks!” Saija sprinted past Kasai out of the tent.

Kasai grinned and followed along behind Saija. The sun was straight overhead, and the green sky was free of clouds. It was a great day to go swimming. Onin, Tannin, and Ryogin had already changed. Ryogin sat at the water’s edge and let the waves lap at his feet. Onin was about knee deep in the water, slowly making his way forward. Tannin was a ways out, swimming parallel to the beach with an overhand stroke.

Saija sprinted out into the water until it was about mid-thigh, then she dove into the water. Seconds later, a portal opened above the water out beyond where Tannin was. Saija dove out of the portal and knifed into the water.

Fabric rustled behind Kasai, and the other girls exited the tent. Amaryllis wore a tasteful white one-piece suit. The others were all in two-pieces. Aiden and Cerina wore halter tops, yellow and blue, respectively. Purona had an orange and black striped bikini, and Ailah’s bikini was the same color purple as her hair.

Amaryllis sat down next to Ryogin. The other girls waded out and were soon swimming or splashing. Kasai wandered over to stand next to Onin.

Kasai looked up and Onin and twirled her hair around her fingers. “Nice day, huh?”

“Hmm?” Onin looked down at her and smiled. “Oh, hi, Kasai. Yes, it is. I was just thinking about the Natas problem.”

“Yeah.” Kasai wiggled her toes into the wet sand. The sand was cooler than the water. “We always seem to be one step behind them, don’t we?”

Onin shrugged. “Well, can’t be helped. Seems they’ve been harassing the rest of the galaxy for a long time before they discovered us.”

“Yeah.” Kasai reached for Onin’s hand with hers, paused, then drew back.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Was this the best time to pursue a relationship? For that matter, did Onin even want that? He’d said he loved her, but he hadn’t really been affectionate. Maybe he was just a private person. Or perhaps she’d misinterpreted what he’d meant when he said he loved her. Take Tannin, for example. Kasai was sure he’d say he loved her if she asked. Tannin loved everyone. But then, Onin had kissed her—but only twice, and both times it was to help calm her down after she’d transformed into a dragon.

“Hey.” Onin grabbed Kasai’s hand.

Kasai felt her face flush and her legs go all wobbly at Onin’s touch. “Yes?”

“Screw the Natas. I’m taking today off. Wanna go swim?”

Kasai nodded furiously, and didn’t release Onin’s hand as they walked out deeper into the water.

It was a beautiful day. The water was just warm enough. The sun was bright, and the laughter of her friends floated over the waves. It was so much different than her life had been a year ago, a scared lonely girl hiding from the world in a monastery.

They were waist deep in the water now. A gentle wave nudged Kasai backward, and she bumped into Onin. He wrapped his arms around her stomach, and she closed her eyes and leaned back into his chest.

“We haven’t talked much lately.” Onin said.

Kasai wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Did that mean he wanted to talk more, or less? She waited.

Onin rested his cheek against the side of her head. “We talked a little before, and then all the Natas and stuff. I’m sorry. I’ve been distracted with stuff. Tannin actually had to tell me to focus on what’s most important.”

Kasai tilted her head back to look up at him. “Tannin said that?”

Onin chuckled. “Well, not in those words, but basically, yeah.”

Kasai bit her lip and took a deep breath. “So, what is important to you?”

“You are.” Onin squeezed her. “I enjoy spending time with you. I love how you care about other people. I love how it’s just… easy to be around you.”

Kasai’s insides pooled with warmth. Then her breath caught. Might as well as while they were being this open.

“You don’t care that I’m a freak?”

“What?” Onin turned her around, caught her in a hug, and stared into her eyes. “You’re not a freak.”

“I am too.” Kasai flexed her wings. “No one else has wings and a tail.”

“Amaryllis has a tail, and—” Onin paused and took a deep breath. “That’s not the point. I don’t think you’re a freak. You’re you, and I love you for who you are. So does everyone else. None of your friends think that.”

Kasai’s heart melted. She wrapped her arms around Onin and burst into tears.

Kasai peeked out at a splash of water. Saija swam over doing a backstroke. She stopped and floated a few feet away.

“Did you make her cry?” Saija stood up in the water. “Am I going to have to kill you?”

Kasai shook her head, but didn’t let go of Onin. “No, it’s okay. Good tears.”

“Ah!” Saija winked and gave her a thumbs up. She dropped into a breaststroke and swam back toward everyone else. “It’s okay, guys, murder’s off!”

“Told you!” Tannin yelled.

Onin chuckled. “Those guys. But see, we all care about you. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Um, we’ve talked a little, I told you I love you, and we’ve kissed twice, but we haven’t really talked about it…”

“Yeah.” Kasai hid her face in his chest again. “I’m bad about opening up.”

“So…” Onin’s voice trailed off. Kasai felt his whole body tense up. “Will you be my girlfriend?”

Kasai’s first impulse was to shout yes and kiss him again. But she wanted more than that.

“Well—” Kasai looked up into Onin’s eyes. “What do you mean by that? If we’re going to be more than just friends, what do we want out of a relationship?” She looked down and squished her toes into the sand. “I’m sorry. I’m needy. I’ve been abandoned so many times I can’t have a casual fling like Tannin’s always in.”

Onin smiled. “Actually, I’m glad to hear you say that. Maybe it’s just hormones or something, but I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Well, I mean, uh, I’d like to get you know better with the goal of seeing if that’s what Ard wants for both of us.”

“I know I don’t talk about it much.” Onin blushed and looked down into the water. “But I am an Ard follower, and I know you were raised in a monastery and all, and…”

“Yeah.” Kasai closed her eyes and leaned into him. “That’s what I want too.”

Onin kissed the top of her head.

Kasai sighed. Yup, this is the best day ever.

“Uh…” Onin scratched the back of his neck. “We should go join the others or something before we get too caught up or something…”

“Yeah.” Kasai reluctantly let go of Onin.

She shielded her eyes with her hand and looked across the water. Everyone else was staring at her and Onin. They quickly found something else to do, pretending they weren’t watching Onin and Kasai. Kasai sighed and headed over in that direction.

“Hey!” Tannin punched Onin in the shoulder. “Enjoying yourself today?”

“Shut up.” Onin blushed and did his best to ignore Tannin.

“Hey.” Saija sided up next to Kasai. “You go, girl!”

Amaryllis swam up on her other side. “That was so romantic!”

Purona popped up out of the water in front of her. “You’re so lucky to have a boyfriend!”

Kasai felt her face heat, and she took a step backward. “You heard all that?”

“Some of it.” Ailah appeared behind her. “Sound carries over water. What are you embarrassed about? He sounds like a great guy.”

Kasai looked down. “It’s just private.”

Amaryllis sighed. “All right, let’s leave her alone. Not everyone’s an extrovert.”

“Aww.” Purona’s ears drooped to the side. “I want details. I’ve never had a boyfriend.” She blushed. “But I guess I’d want to keep some of that to myself, though.”

A beach ball bounced off the side of Saija’s head.

“If you hens are done clucking, let’s resume our game,” Cerina said.

Kasai looked over her shoulder. Cerina was standing a few yards away, hands on her hips. She hadn’t joined the others in pestering her. Was she jealous or…? Well, neither had Aiden, but… Kasai sighed. Cerina was too much of a problem to solve in one day. She picked up the ball and spiked it back at Cerina.

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Onin frowned as Kasai’s fingers slipped through his. He wanted to hold her forever. He took a deep breath. Best not to think about it.

Tannin nudged him again. “So, what’d she say?”

“What?” Onin said.

“Oh come on!” Tannin rolled over in the water to float on his back. “So, are you two an item now?”

Onin rolled his eyes. “Tannin, not everyone likes to gossip every little detail about their relationships.”

“Wait, plural?” Tannin stood up. “You got a side-girl?”

Onin punched Tannin in the shoulder. “No, you pervert!”

Ryogin chuckled. “I think he’s referring to you, Tannin.”

“But I don’t even have a girlfriend at the moment.” He sighed. “It’s a shame, too. A whole planet of beautiful catgirls….”

Onin rolled his eyes. He was about to say something when the pwang of a hand smacking a ball echoed across the water. Onin looked over and saw a beach ball sailing toward Cerina. A diversion. Just what he needed to get Tannin off his back.

“Hey, let’s go play with everyone else.”

“Whoo!” Tannin dove under the water in the direction of the ball.

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It was more fun playing with other giftlings. Saija opened a portal beneath the ball, whisking it out of Cerina’s reach. It re-entered above Ailah’s head, who batted it over to Amaryllis. Before she could reach it, Kasai telekinetically grabbed the ball and tossed it high in the air. Onin thought about having a servitor grab the ball, but that might pop it. Instead, he waded over to stand closer to Kasai.

They played with the beach ball for an hour before Onin drug himself out of the water and collapsed on his towel to dry off in the sun.

“That was fun.” Purona said.

Aiden nodded.

“Yeah.” Ailah stretched her arms above her head. “I needed that. Thanks, guys.”

Kasai didn’t say anything, but she laid down next to Onin and held his hand. Onin squeezed her hand and closed his eyes.

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Onin must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes, the sun was lower on the horizon, and Kasai wasn’t next to him anymore. He yawned and levered himself into a sitting position. Everyone else was a few yards away, clustered around Kasai. She held her hands palm up, flames rushing out of them. Tannin and the others were holding out sticks with hot-dogs and marshmallows on the ends.

“Hey!” Onin jogged over to them. “Kasai is not a grill!”

Tannin grinned. “Of course not, she’s a girl, silly.”

Onin slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand.

Cerina chuckled. “You walked right into that one.”

“Yeah.” Onin sighed. “After knowing Tannin this long, I should’ve expected it.”

“It’s fine.” Kasai smiled at Onin. “Everyone was hungry, and this was my idea.”

“Well, if you’re okay with it…” Onin shrugged and looked around. “So I guess the Natas didn’t show up?”

“No.” Tannin frowned and bit into a hot-dog. “I was sure they’d show up. They always do in the movies.”

Ailah shrugged. “Eh, can’t always win.”

Cerina raised an eyebrow. “You’re a lot more laid back when we first met you.”

“Yup.” Ailah popped a marshmallow in her mouth. “Not on my own getting chased by crazy aliens anymore. Also found out my mom’s still alive, and she wants me to be more myself.”

Aiden sighed. “Shame we wasted a trip out here.”

“Oh, we didn’t waste a trip.” Onin pulled Kasai into a side-hug. “We had some great team bonding time. And we had some down time, so we’re physically and mentally fresh for the next battle. Also—” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “—I sent out a bunch of servitors in infrared mode. They’re wandering around the kinless lands now, looking for the Natas.”

“Sweet!” Saija pumped her fist. “We’ll be totally ready for them!” She yawned. “But first, bed time.”

Saija opened a portal, and stepped back while everyone filed through back to the hotel.

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