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The raccoon could scarcely manage to pry his horrified gaze from the painting of himself to inspect the other canvas that Zylo had produced. It took only moments for Dusk to discern that the artist of these two works was the same and the implication that that fact carried with it was staggering. It felt as if the bed that the raccoon was sitting on was shifting beneath him and the entire room went into a spin. Suddenly, the squirrel’s home seemed claustrophobic and Dusk quickly rose from the bed. He rushed to the door, ignoring the pain his sudden movement was causing him. As the raccoon reached for the doorknob, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, his legs buckled beneath him, and he passed out on the wooden floor.
"My goodness! Is he alright?" Krishna exclaimed as she approached the pair anxiously, bringing water in a small pitcher. "That was quite the outburst... I thought you might have had a quarrel!" She added, pouring a cup for Zylo.
"I think he might be in shock... something about these paintings made him panic a great deal..." Zylo explained. He took the cup from Krishna and nodded, thanking her quietly. He took his place next to the coon, reaching down and stroking his worried face.
"There's no use worrying now, dear. You need to get your rest, too" Krishna said as she showed Zylo the bed next to the one where the coon lay. "I can watch him tonight, make sure he doesn't have any other episodes... for now his breathing seems normal," She said, trying to reassure Zylo. Zylo took a moment, silently saying goodnight to Dusk as he pulled the covers over his small body.
"Thank you, Krishna... For everything," He said as he moved over to the empty bed and rest his head upon the pillow. His eyes looked in the direction of the sleeping coon, thoughts and worry flooding his mind. Fatigue began to settle in as his body relaxed, and soon the Fox was quietly sleeping.
The raccoon sat up in the bed, making an effort not to disturb the fox sleeping peacefully beside him. A twinge of pain emanated from the injury across his back, but it was noticeably less severe than it had been the night before. Dusk was still working to rub the sleep from his eyes when he noticed the two paintings Zylo had shown him lying on the floor.
A feeling of panic tightened his chest as he looked down at the all-too-familiar aesthetic of both pieces of artwork. Dusk didn’t want to believe that Krishna had only just recently been given the painting of her son, but he knew that the squirrel had not incentive to lie. That the artist who had created the painting was a lion only deepened the raccoon’s anxiety.
It would take Dusk some time to process the gravity of the events that were unfolding, but he could not deny the obvious implications that the painting carried with it. Leo was alive, he was near, and for whatever reason he had chosen not to seek the raccoon out. He also knew for certain that he would find neither Leo nor Krishna’s son if he allowed himself to be ruled by his emotions. For the time being, the painting was just a painting and if that painting led to a reunion with Leo, Dusk would cross that bridge when he got to it.
‘First things first,’ the raccoon thought to himself. If yesterday’s events had taught him anything, it was that he would have to carry his tool kit with him wherever he went from now on. Once he and Zylo knew specifically where Krishna had encountered the artist in the woods and where her son had disappeared, Dusk would go retrieve his things from his apartment.
The raccoon looked down at the fox sleeping peacefully next to him. Although Dusk was feeling better, he knew that it would be unwise for him to try and make his way home without the fox. This left him with a simple question, ‘How do I want to wake Zylo up?’ A few ideas came to mind, which he quickly dismissed as being too inappropriate given that Krishna was in the room.
Dusk chuckled lightly to himself as an idea came to mind that he thought would do the trick. The raccoon carefully moved into position so that he was straddling the fox’s sleeping form. A mischievous grin appeared on his lips as he placed his thumb and forefinger on each of Zylo’s nipples. ‘Good morning,’ he thought to himself as he gave each of them a hard twist.
"Zylo," A deep, familiar voice shook Zylo from his trance. Zylo looked to his right and saw Monte, standing there in a rather well-pressed tuxedo. His mane billowed in the breeze as his gaze locked with Zylo's. The fox's heart pounded, this was far too real. Not just the imagery, seeing monte in his dreams was a common occurrence. This time, he could feel Monte's presence, and it killed him to be reminded of what used to be real. The fox could not betray his feelings, however, as he stared longingly into the eyes of his dead lover. "I...I've missed you, my handsome fox," The Stallion broke the silence, his arms outstretched as if offering a hug. Zylo's feelings were becoming overwhelmingly confusing, he broke his gaze and looked away. The fox's body showed no sign of wanting to return the affection.
"I need... to wake up." Zylo stated, hesitantly. "This is...just a dream...and you're-" Zylo could feel tears, as real as ever, building in his eyes as he spoke. He knelt down into a ball, hugging his legs as he hid his face. "Please... just wake up...just wake up...." The fox muttered between sobs, he felt a strong hoof upon his shoulder. A warmth shivered down his spine as Monte sat, pulling the fox into his arms. The fox couldn't resist, becoming clay in the stallion's hooves as he wrapped his strong arms around the base of Zylo's chest and rested his chin on the fox's shoulder.
"They told me... I could only see you one more time... after this, I won't be able to get this close. So I want to make it last," The Stallion explained, so much was left unexplained.
"They?" Zylo asked, looking up into the Stallion's bright blue eyes. Monte chuckled and stroked the fox's face.
"Shhh...foxy...now that you know you'll probably have to wake up soon..." Monte said ominously. He pointed out into the horizon, the sun's fading light painting the sky a fading spectrum of bright red to firey orange. "Just relax, and watch the sunset with me," He said lightheartedly as his grip tightened around the fox. "One more time,"
Time seemed to slow as the sun sat. Something changed as Zylo felt a sudden stir around him. The Stallion chuckled and whispered into Zylo's ear. "You've got crabs on your chest!"
Zylo shot up as his paws instinctively grabbed onto the coons arms and pulled them away from his nipples. He winced in pain as he covered his chest and slumped over into the bed. "GAH!! That's... not very pleasant!" He uttered as he attempted to sit up. The fox shook his head, the haze of the morning kicking in. "Good to know you are feeling better, Dusk," Zylo said as he yawned, outstretching his arms.
“And I don’t know that I feel better necessarily. I’ve just decided that I need to accept the things I can’t change and not let myself dwell on bridges I haven’t crossed yet.” The words sounded good coming out of Dusk’s mouth, but he knew that putting them into action would be much more difficult. “By the way, I’m sorry about last night as well. I just,” the raccoon hesitated for a moment before continuing. “I just panicked is all.”
There were things that the raccoon needed to tell Zylo, but now didn’t seem like the right time for it.
“Zylo… I think you should come and see this…” Krishna called out from the doorway, her mouth clasped over her mouth as if holding back a scream. The fox wasted no time and hurried to the door, what he saw next made him gasp slightly. On the walls of the alley, marked in blood, was a message:
‘ THE BOYS BLOOD FLOODS THE RIVER AT MIDNIGHT’
Chills, again, ran down the fox’s spine as he read the message. He growled lowly, gritting his teeth, he furiously tried to think of his best course of action. The squirrel beside him had slowly succumbed to her panic and despair as she knelt down, her sobs clearly indicating her distress. The fox quickly gathered himself and turned to Krishna, offering her his paw. “Come now… we must not lose hope, surely the furs behind this are cowards… surely I can rescue him if I can figure out which river they would take him to!” The fox said, hoping the squirrel would at least stand with him. Reluctantly, she took the paw and resumed her position, wiping her eyes and trying to calm herself. The fox looked to Dusk. “Dusk… you know which rivers are near the city, right?” he asked the coon.
The raccoon’s heart was beginning to reject the logical explanations and conclusions that his mind was serving up. He had already accepted that Leo might be waiting for him at the end of this adventure, but now he had to contend with the idea that his dreams were whispers of a future that had not yet come to pass. Which begged the question: Would he tell Zylo of his dream and chance a boy’s fate on something as tenuous as miraculous divination?
Regardless, he would not risk further upsetting the squirrel by speaking on the matter in her presence. Dusk crossed the remaining distance to the door and placed his hand on Zylo’s shoulder. In a low-voice he said, “Perhaps we should speak of this on the way back to my apartment.” The raccoon turned to Krishna, who was slowly regaining her composure, and said, “Ma’am. We will do everything we possibly can to make sure that your son returns home safely. You have my word.”
With that, Dusk pulled some of the remaining paint from his bag and quickly painted over the gruesome message that had been left outside the squirrel’s door. “Alright Zylo, we should get a move on,” the raccoon said as he wiped the excess paint from his paws.
“I can only thank you… and do my best to help you as much as I can. These are very potent remedies, they can cure even the most venomous of snake bites!” The squirrel explained as she closed the fox’s paw, smiling. “I…I look forward to your return! Please…please bring my boy back…” She pleaded softly as she bowed her head, trying to keep her composure. The fox smiled warmly and nodded, grabbing Dusk’s supplies and heading toward the door. As he neared the door he could see the solid black stripe that dusk had painted over the bloody message, the coon seemed to be finished and was approaching the porch.
“Alright Zylo, we should get a move on,” the raccoon said as he wiped the excess paint from his paws. Zylo nodded and proceeded to hand the coon his supplies. Something about Dusk seemed off. Though he appeared to be handling the situation well, there was a quiet turmoil about him. Surely the conflicting thoughts of finding his long-lost lover were concerning, but the situation seemed heavier now.
Zylo wanted desperately to get straight to the point, but he was not one to pry. He simply walked alongside the coon as they made their way back to the Coon’s studio. “How are you feeling?” he asked instead.
As the two furs quickly navigated the city streets, Dusk prefaced what he was about to say to the fox. “Listen Zylo. There’s something I feel like I should tell you before we go off in pursuit of Krishna’s missing son.” Dusk’s eyes shifted away from the fox and began to scan the throngs of furs that filled the street. “When I was unconscious from the poison, I had a very strange dream that felt almost real to me. My mind knows that it was just a dream, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to it than that.”
A slight flush appeared on the raccoon’s cheeks. He had passed the point of no return now and he would have to leave it to Zylo to decide whether or not he was losing his mind. With that, Dusk reluctantly began to recount the dream.
By the time Dusk had reached the end of his tale, he and the fox were walking up the stairs to his studio apartment. Zylo had remained silent for the duration of the raccoon’s tale. “And then I woke up in Krishna’s home,” the raccoon concluded. “That’s all I remember,” Dusk said as he unlocked the door to his apartment.
So many thoughts ran through his mind as they walked up the steps to the raccoon's apartment. Zylo desperately needed to know more about Leonardo, Dusk's ex-lover. There clearly was no right way to go about it, so he held his tongue for the time being. Instead, he tried to focus on forming a plan for their next encounter. As they made their way inside the apartment Zylo took a seat at the small desk in the corner, pulling out a folded map from his pack and spreading it out on the table. "Elbe river... thats the only place they could be taking the kit," he said, looking over to Dusk.
As Dusk made his way across the room to where Zylo sat, he paused to consider the fox’s suggestion about where the missing fur was likely being kept. The Elbe River had a reputation for being a popular place for outdoor lunches, picnics, and social gatherings. However, the river had a very different reputation at night. Save for the occasional foolish young couple who wished to fool around in the moonlight, furs mostly tried to avoid the Elbe after sunset. Furs told stories of spirits walking on the water, vicious creatures emerging from the forest, and cutthroats looking for easy prey. Dusk imagined that most of what was said was just talk, but the deterrent effect such stories had had certainly made the river a good place or evil deeds by night.
The raccoon looked up from the map at Zylo and met the fox’s questioning gaze. He had been looking at Dusk that way since they left the slums earlier that morning and Dusk was sure there were things Zylo wanted to know about, but was too polite to ask. For now, it seemed best to leave whatever questions the fox might have unanswered. “The Elbe seems as good a place as any to me,” the raccoon said coolly. “But that river stretches on for miles. How will we ever go about determining precisely where the boy has been spirited away to?”
Not being familiar with the area presented many challenges; surrounding threats, traps, hostile locals, but first and foremost was finding their target. The pair was left with only one option, it seemed. “Since… we don’t know where our mark is, our only option is to survey the area, hopefully find a likely destination…” The foxed explained as he leaned back in his chair, the last few words sounding almost like a disheartened sigh. Zylo sat forward and, almost frustratedly, he furrowed his brow and began putting away his map. “It may sound simple-minded…but I don’t see many other options… we’re just going to have to guess where the bandits would take the kid,” He said as he continued to roll up the map and place it in his bag. The fox looked to dusk, his frustration melting as he met the coon’s soft eyes. He smiled, and motioned for the coon to gather his equipment. “We’ll need to leave now if we want to survey the area…pack lightly, we’ll need to be very mobile,” Zylo explained as he began to tighten the laces on his boots.
Dusk raised an eyebrow and cast a cheeky look at the fox before replying. “You just worry about hacking and slashing anything that seems threatening. I’ll handle all the tasks that require finesse.” The raccoon concluded his statement by closing his eyes and sticking out his tongue in Zyo’s direction.
"This... This better be part of your collection! I can only imagine the kind of anneurism that Andrea and my father would have if they knew-" the Racoon complained, only to be silenced by the Lion's sudden interjection.
"Done! Come, see for yourself!" He signaled for Alessio to leave his spot in the pond and join him at the easel. Leo took a few steps back from his painting spot, noting any differences he could spot between the paintings and the landscape. A great warmth befell him as he watched the coon's naked figure slowly rise from the water, his fur now soaked and dripping. Leo quickly joined the coon at the edge of the pond, a large cloth towel in hand.
"You know... I could do this all day," Alessio cooed slyly as he rung out his tail and motioned for the towel. The lion chuckled as he wrapped the towel around the coon's shoulder, he looked into the coon's rebellious eyes.
"Alessio... You know that we can't be... At least not right now-" The Lion was cut off by a quick seal of the lips. He closed his eyes, falling into the warmth of the kiss.
'I wish I would have known... then I could have-'
"I won't have you bringing us down today with your broodiness, my dear feline!" Alessio boasted, making his way over to Leo's easel. The raccoon stared at the sketch before him, his eye captivated by the image. Leo, too, made his way to the easel, taking his spot next to the damp raccoon. "Leo... it's..." Alessio seemed lost for words. His eyes did not move from the easel.
"Come now, Alessio... I haven't even painted it yet," the Lion murmured shyly.
"No! Leo, its perfect! Your lines, and depth... Even the shading! Even without color... The essence is there, you've captured it," Alessio admired, his eyes seemed to light up as he explained his feelings toward the painting. The coon quickly resumed his drying off, proceeding to put on his student uniform.
"You have such a way with words... I hope the rest of the world see's my art like you do," Leo sighed as he began packing his brushes and capping his paint jars. He stopped for a moment, a mental weight hitting him like a ton of bricks. His smile seemed to fade as he stared off into the waterfall, preoccupied. A sudden pulsating feeling echoed through his body. 'Behind...the water..'. His thoughts seemed to speak on their own, a mysterious force driving his mind.
"Leo?...what's the matter?" Alessio asked as he continued getting dressed. The lion seemed to shake himself back to reality.
"Nothing, its just... Well, you know... Frederick saw us in the studio the other night... I'm just worried he'll ruin us... Or even worse! What if-" Leo paused taking in a deep breath. "What if someone tries to hurt you, and I'm not there?" He explained his concern. Looking up, he could see the coon simply smiling at him as if here was nothing to worry about.
'Too late for that...'. The words seemed to echo in his mind. The image of the young Alessio's smile remained burned into his memory. 'I had every chance... I was just took weak...'. The image seemed to move away, frozen in time.
'Falling?', a darkness consumed him as he fell.
Leo's eyes opened slowly, adjusting to the dim lighting of the cave. In the corner of the den lay a small heap of toffee-colored fur, sound asleep. A small fire pit sat in the middle of the floor, nothing but ashes from the night before. Leo took a moment and stretched before he stood, his robust figure dressed in shrouded robes. The Lion walked to the mouth of the den, peering outward he could see the sun beginning its decline into the west. Not too far off was rushing sound of the Elbe River. 'Soon...I'll show you how strong I've become...' He thought, a sense of happiness overwhelming him for the first time in a long time. Leo looked down at the glowing warmth in the palm of paw, a rush of adrenaline surged through his body. "Sorry, Zylo," he muttered quietly as if Zylo were present. His amber eyes gleamed a fiery glow in the presence of the evening sun.
Planning had to resume, if all was to fall into place.
There was no real plan. Zylo was now for sure that all of his hope relied on their most educated guess across a river that stretched at least on hundred miles in the direction of the eastern sea. The probability that it would happen close to the city made sense, but how close was close? The fox tried to shake all of the random variables from his brain and looked to his raccoon companion. 'Right... just do the hacking and slashing' he thought, smiling to himself. The pair swiftly made their way out of the town, following the southern road toward the river.
The river was easy enough to find. The immediate terrain was flat, the array of trees in the distance seemed to slope downward and a few hills surrounded the road. 'Now we just need to find a likely spot...' The fox thought as he began surveying the immediate area. "Ok, while the sun is still out, we must find somewhere ideal to set up our stakeout," Zylo turned to dusk, then looked to the sky. "Seems we only have a couple hours before the sun fully sets," He urged.
The raccoon was reluctant to share the stories of his tristes into the woods, to tell the fox about a hidden glade with a clear pond and a gentle waterfall. Dusk couldn’t be sure what it was that made him hesitate to give Zylo the information that could very well lead them to what they were searching for. Fear that it might lead to Leo? Fear that Leo would think less of Dusk for the fur he had become? Fear that he wouldn’t like the fur that Leo had become?
Or maybe the thing that worried him most was how Zylo’s opinion of him might change when all was said and done.
‘The truth is,’ Dusk thought to himself, ‘there is a life hanging in the balance and I can’t let my fear of what might be get in the way of us saving that little fur. I can’t be sure how what’s to come will change Zylo’s opinion of me, but I’m certain that he’ll never forgive me if that fur dies and I held back something that might have prevented it.’
Dusk took one long ragged breath and said, “Zylo. There’s something I need to tell you.”
It only took the raccoon about ten minutes to tell Zylo about the glade, but with his rapid heartbeat and constant stuttering it felt like eternity. When he finally finished, he found that he couldn’t meet the fox’s gaze and simply waited for him to say something, anything to break the silence.
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