Salmon Skin

Crystal Springs 
Self-indulgence was an important skill to master, and Sokol felt, really and truly, that he had a gift for it. In this instance, he had worked his artistry to arrange an hour-long massage at a resort the day after the full moon, pushing his placidity into a state of something close to enlightenment, calm and warm and aware. He felt very good, rolling his shoulders and padding away from the masseuse and the table; his cat had even forgotten its loneliness the night before.

This was also a holiday weekend, and though Thanksgiving did not strike him as a romantic holiday, it was hard to miss the number of couples moving to and from the springs; some of them youngish, many more of an age where their children had long since grown. "Empty nesters", he thought the term was. The television commercials for this demographic were appallingly funny.

On another day, he might dip himself into an occupied pool, curious to make new connections, and perhaps test out the American reputation for prudishness. But he was, as previously established, deeply relaxed. It was more tempting to float and simmer by his lonesome, at least until his cat forced him back up and out. Following along the pathways, he removed his towel and dipped a pale foot into a spring, feeling the heat of the water bite into him and taking measured breaths around the pain. Two feet in, and he tossed the towel to the side, bending to rest his hands on his thighs and breathe, muscles clenched. Maybe this was slightly hotter than he had expected.

Etta had received the spa package thanks to a contest she'd won at the middle school. Who knew her love of obscure 80s songs would come in handy? She'd already had her massage, which felt very nice, and now she was soaking in a spring up to just below her nose. Her eyes were closed as the steam from the spring sizzled around her, and she felt utterly relaxed. She was considering purchasing a spa package of her own for sometime in the future- maybe after the students took their standardized tests and she'd dealt with all their testing anxiety.

She opened her eyes as she heard footsteps plodding nearby; her own cat perking up as well. A man, of a different feline variety, walked by her spring and stopped at the one next to hers. As he dropped the towel, her eyes widened, and she looked away. She knew that clothing was optional, but she assumed most people would still wear a bathing suit and not their birthday suit.

She still couldn't help the immature chuckle that escaped her mouth- water and laughter bubbling out from her spring. Her skin was already pink thanks to the heat, so when she blushed, it wasn't too terribly noticeable. She decided to stay quiet and hope that maybe he hadn't heard her. Or maybe wouldn't question her laugh.

Still wincing down at the water and watching his feet as they boiled alive, it took a moment to register what he was hearing — someone was laughing, and might be doing so at him. He forced his eyes wide open and turned his head to see...hmm. The upper 10% of a woman in a fit of giggles.

Even in a compromising position, Sokol was not capable of being shy. And so he smiled, the lazy universal smile of a handsome face which knows that it is handsome, and didn't bother to straighten up. "More than you paid for?"

Referring to the view, presumably.

So he decided to make a comment on her laugh, and though it had been embarrassing, Etta also had grown up with 3 older siblings to keep her on her toes. Her gaze returned to the man's face and she arched an eyebrow at him and straightened up just enough so that her chin just touched the water. "Well actually, I haven't paid for this at all," she said with a coy smile.

She stared at him then, giving her best pointed stare, though it was difficult to do since she still wanted to laugh. The fact that he was still just standing in the water rather than sinking down into its relaxation offering heat likely meant that it was too hot for him. Unless he truly thought everyone wanted to see his penis.

"Is the water too hot for you, darling?" she said, slight grin on her face. "Because it looks like the air above it might be too cold for you." Her grin turned into something more mischievous as she sank back into the water; eyes still staying on the man's face.

He watched her come up a little out of the water, looking carefully for hints of an expression, or her age. A little smile, growing...and then, swat, hiss. Jdi do prdele, he thought privately, breaking into a helpless laugh. "It is a predicament," he answered, getting the emphasis of the word a little wrong.

With as much grace as was possible, he sank his way further into the water, making it up to his waist before the pain stopped him, a lion somewhere bawling with outrage at Pain and Wet. "I thought that this would be relaxing," he panted. Slightly less in control of the day than he had intended.

Literally 'go up an ass' but essentially 'fuck you'


His accent was nearly as cute as his face, and Etta continued to smirk even though it was hidden by the water. She was sure that the man rarely got embarrassed, and while he didn't come across as embarrassed now, he did at least start to sink into the water. She watched with amusement as his poor, dainty skin, turned red with the heat and clearly- it wasn't the most comfortable thing for him.

She rolled her eyes. Men.

Moving across the spring so she could be closer to the man, she popped out of the water once more so that her entire face was visible. "You just have to get used to the heat, darling," she said, voice somewhat encouraging this time. "Or you can get out. I think they have a heated pool inside, if that's more your level."

Lucky for both of them, he missed the eye roll — too busy trying to not die or shift over suddenly having sunk his genitals into boiling water. Color ran up his chest as he waited for the pain to subside, except it didn't, and at last he had to jump back up, kurva!, dancing back onto the pathway and red as a boiled lobster from the navel down.

She was by now laughing again, which left him limited options for regaining his dignity; not fanning his cock and balls would be a start. He was laughing too, his expression caught between abashed and indignant as he shifted from one tender foot to the other. "My pool is hotter! I swear it!" He eyed her own hot spring enviously, awash with self pity. He should have soaked before the massage.

The man hadn't been in the water for too long before he was out again, and Etta watched with interest at his obvious pain. As he danced around, hopping back and forth on each foot, she couldn't help but laugh at the poor man's pain. She could hear his own laughter mixing with hers, and it merely encouraged more from her. Finally, wiping the tears away from her face and chuckling quietly, she looked at the spring and then back to the face of the man (always careful to not look below his bellybutton).

He'd claimed his was hotter, and she honestly doubted that, but if he needed to maintain some sort of dignity, she would allow it. She floated back to her original spot and smiled coolly at him. "Well, if you think that's the case darling, you're more than welcome to join me in mine." She was sure that, with his skin already red and burning, her spring might feel cooler simply because he was already getting somewhat used to it. She knew she could tell him that, and that he could then go back to his own spring, but she was having a good time talking to him.

By the time she was finished laughing at him, Sokol had settled onto both feet, crossing his arms and raising blond eyebrows at the woman he was so generously allowing his injury to entertain. She invited him to her pool at last, and he realized too late that it might be just as hot as his own, in which case he would have to boil himself to death.

It was not ideal.

He narrowed his eyes at it. "You're very generous." And, with the exact same brittle pride of a cat regaining its dignity after a spectacularly clumsy fall, all exaggerated confidence and grace, he bent down and touched the water.

It was absolutely not so hot as his own. He looked at her very seriously, dropping one leg into the pool, then the other. "Mine was broken."

Part of Etta almost wanted the water to be too hot for the man, but this was also supposed to be a place of relaxation, and she didn't want him to not be relaxed just so she could laugh at him. As he stepped into the water, she could tell he was already comfortable with it. She still smirked all the same when he claimed his had been broken. "Mmm-hmm," she hummed, finishing it off with a short chuckle.

"Well, I'm glad mine isn't, and is more to your level of heat, darling." She still kept her eyes on his face, forever not looking at the rest of his nakedness. "I'm Etta, by the way. Since we're sharing the same water, we might as well know each other, right?"

He was all too happy to return the expression, a boyish and self-effacing smile. "I think this is a good idea." Submerging himself, he settled a not-immodest distance from the older woman, looking at her with renewed curiosity. "Edda, is that a common name?"

The heat, when it was not causing his muscles to seize in protest, felt marvelous.

The accent had the man mispronouncing her name somewhat, but Etta liked the way it sounded, so she didn't bother to tell him to enunciate the Ts. "Not very common, no," she answered, swimming a little closer to him. Now that he was in the water and everything was beneath the bubbling waters, she could pretend he was not naked and be a little closer and a little less shy. "I'm named after both of my grandmothers. Etta was my mom's mom, and Jean was my dad's mom. So, I'm Etta Jean. Pleasure," she said, holding her hand out to the man. "And you are?"

He leaned in to shake her hand politely, dark water churning between them. Etta Jean. "Sokol," he said very clearly in return, by this time used to English speakers having difficulty recognizing the sound. "It means falcon in Czech; my father wanted me to be a fighter pilot." Another endearing smile.

"Sokol," she repeated quietly, working on committing the name to memory. She smiled at the explanation before taking in the man again. He didn't look like a fighter pilot, but looks could be deceiving. "So are you a fighter pilot, darling? Is that why you're brave enough to walk around nude?" She gave the man a wicked grin, but it was all in good fun by this point- so long as he remained seated anyway.

The hot springs were a blessing for him to work at, he reminded himself as he braced for the cold. The crocodile could not agree more; staying among warmth was key to their survival in the winter, and it was not always possible to wrap up in electrically heated knickknacks, so when nature provided, who was he to turn away?

Warmed by working to clean and stock the heated indoor pool, he told himself he was prepared for the cold for at least the few minutes it would take to do the same for the outdoor pools. Picking up used towels, mopping up spills, making sure no one had dropped or otherwise left anything in the water. All things he could manage with a slowly cooling vigor for just long enough before it was time to go back inside and warm up.

But it was never pleasant. He remembered always the winters from his younger years, from before he had learned how to manage them and technology had taken the reins on keeping him warmed for necessary forays outdoors. He remembered the time he'd frozen outside for three days and had to be dug up by his friend and chief and they'd brought back home to warm.

Enough stalling, Red Teeth. He came out with a Crystal Springs-branded coat and his cart, made his rounds. Deposited freshly laundered rolled up towels at each spring and mopped up any messes and offered water or other drinks to keep occupants hydrated.

As he approached another occupied spring, he picked up discarded towels on the ground and looked to the occupants. His crocodile gave a low hiss, but even now they were both ready to retreat back indoors rather than entertain any kind of confrontation.

Aware that he might slur with the cold, he spoke simply, careful to enunciate and pair the word with a welcoming smile to the other two that smelled something like cat dander. Only muskier. His eyes, somewhat glassy, still managed to lighten to a brief light green.


Another easy laugh; he was enjoying this time with Etta Jean, now that it was not focused in one way or another on his own inadequacy. The water was beginning to soften the tension in his back. "I'm too invested in keeping my own skin safe," he answered with a deprecative glance down. "Why do you think—"


Firstly, it was not the best form to interrupt a guest in the middle of speaking to offer services. The man was lucky to be offering less than perfection at a moment when Sokol was invested both in staying relaxed and appearing laid-back and amicable. Secondly, the man had an aura. The nature of it was not familiar to him, and it made his cat send distressing images to him; whatever cold, wet thing the man was, the lion did not like it.

In any case. Drinks? He smiled at Etta. "Would you like something?"

Etta grinned as Sokol began to answer her question, but he was interrupted by another man after the first few words. Her cheetah felt uncomfortable around the new man- whatever he was. He was definitely something she had never encountered before. But Etta was a person who tried to be kind. So when Sokol asked if she wanted anything, Etta smiled at the worker. "Could I get an ice water, please?"

She focused her attention back on the cat next to her. "Anything you'd like?"

YIKES this fell off my radar, sorry guys

He thought he'd spoken at a pause in their conversation, but it seemed his slowing reptilian brain had missed there was more being said. Not good, Red Teeth. You need to be sure you aren't cutting anyone off before slipping in customer service.

The woman asked for ice water, and he readied for the discomfort of that as he pulled out a plastic glass, filled it with ice, and poured out a bottle for her, handing it over.

"Apologies," he said to the man, not missing his discomfort.

It didn't take much to soothe a Sokol's prickling hackles, though the lion-half of him was still emphatically uncomfortable with whatever it was inside of the man. He smiled. "A pilsner if you have one, thank you. Or something light if you don't."

Conversation with a local shifter and a hot soak with a cold drink...not bad. He would call the day salvaged. "How about yourself? Are you a fighter pilot, a professional stunt devil perhaps?" He might have had the name of that second one wrong.

Etta took the ice water with a smile and a quick word of thanks and took a small sip from it, enjoying the coolness of it while she sat in the hot pool. She waited patiently while the other man got his drink and grinned at him when he asked if she was a fighter pilot or a stunt devil. Her grin turned into a soft smile at the mix up of stunt person and dare devil. She arched a brow as she took another sip of her water. "Oh, I'm in a far more dangerous and demanding field, darling," she said with a small chuckle. "I'm a guidance counselor at a middle school."

She looked at him as though she expected him to be impressed, but honestly, if he wasn't, she didn't think it would be the end of the world. She liked what she was doing. She enjoyed her jobs, her co-workers, the kids- all of it. "So, you never told me what it is you do."

They did carry Stella. Daniel gave a nod, pulled out a bottle from the bucket, and opened it in front of him with slowing hands. It took two attempts to nick the hook in right, one more to actually pop open the top.

He handed the man the beer and gave another nod to them both, knowing his mouth was numbing some as he attempted to smile in departure.

Time to warm back up.

Etta's showmanship provided a sound diversion from the unremarkable taste of his drink. He listened and laughed, getting enough of the idea of her work even if guidance counselor did not have a direct translation to Czech that he understood. Middle schoolers! How did she stand it?

He sank back against the wall of the pool, sighing. "You must be brave. Twelve year old boys are worse than animals." Though someone needed to keep them alive long enough to grow brains, he supposed. "I work in sales, where my skin is safe. We have a successful export business in Czech Republic, and I found a reason to spend time here in your country." Another smile. "What kind of problems do your teenagers have for a guidance counselor?"

Etta gave a short snort of a laugh. "Well, like animals, you just have to know how to reach them. I actually love the age group. Smart enough to think critically about their world, but still childlike in how they react to it. But I deal mostly with the middle schoolers who just need an adult to talk to that will hear them out, not pass judgement, but will offer guidance to them on how they should handle different situations. Most issues of bullying or problems at home."

Etta gave a small nod and moved a little closer to Sokol. "So, what sort of things do you sell? Anything I could use?" She grinned again and took a sip of her water. A quick glance around also told her that the employee was gone and Etta put her water on the edge of the pool and looked back at Sokol. "What do you think that man was? The employee? I've never smelled anything like that before."

Sokol listened, sort of, partially distracted by his own memories. He'd never had much need to be counseled, with always a generous supply of adults around to take him very, very seriously. And it had been his main concern to always remain above the others when it came to his peers.

Overall, Etta Jean had the sort of low-status caretaking job he would expect of a woman her age and appearance, and there was nothing wrong with that. He shifted in the water to allow her more room. "You might be using them already. Is mostly electronic parts, components for speakers and televisions, things like this. Parts to let your Siri communicate to itself." He smiled. "Not an interesting job to outsiders, unfortunately."

He took a drink, looking the way the man had gone as he considered Etta's next question. "I don't have an idea." There had been a strangeness to him, on top of the hateful feeling he had inspired in Sokol's cat — something in how he moved was different. "Not a cat, or any kind I have met." At this he shot a sly smile at Etta. "What is yours, anyway? I don't know it either."

Sokol was right- the job didn't seem incredibly interesting to her, but in a way, they were both in the business of helping people, so she could at least relate to it in that sense. Etta gave a nod and smiled kindly at the man. "You're right, I do likely use some of the things you sell. So you must talk with manufacturers and not just your every day, average person, huh?"

The man didn't have any clue about the animal of the other were, but that didn't surprise Etta. It seemed like there was always new animals to discover. When he asked what she was, Etta gave a little smirk. He would have to recognize cat. She recognized him as a fellow cat; just not sure which one. "Cheetah," she said after a moment. "Now let me try to guess yours." She took him in carefully.

"You're definitely not a cheetah. I don't think you're a jaguar either because I've met one and you don't have a similar smell." She put her finger to her lips and studied him more before leaning in to smell his hair. She pulled back with a grin, even though she hadn't a clue about him. Not particularly foresty, so probably not any sort of big cat around here. There was something about him that smelled familiar, that wasn't just cat. "Leopard?" she finally landed on.

Cheetah! Under the cheetah queen in Belle Vista, perhaps. He watched her deduction, and couldn't stop himself from giggling as she leaned in to sniff at him. Leaps and bounds from being wide-eyed at the mere sight of nudity. "Right continent."

This wouldn't take her long.

Right continent. Etta gave a smile as she had a pretty good idea of what he was. No doubt he was probably a lion. It suit his personality- walking around like he was some king with his dick out. But she wasn't about to stroke the man's ego just yet. "Sand cat?" she asked, going for one of the smallest wild felines in Africa.

She let him soak in that insult for just a moment before she chuckled playfully. "Or something bigger- lion?"

He actually gasped in offense, his eyes gone wide in disbelief. Sand cat! Inconceivable! She might as well have suggested he turned into frog.

She was messing with him, though, he realized. He was a lion thank you, you inferior cat. He narrowed his eyes and drank from his glass, chiding her playfully with a look. "Sand cat. You think you are funny. It's a lion, yes." Captain Dick-Out smiled regally. "Are there no lions in Mountainside? I have met jaguars before too, and in Belle Vista I know there is a band of cheetahs."

Hard work, if he was to make a pride out of new-turned humans.

Etta chuckled lightly as Sokol took some offense to the guess of Sand Cat. He confirmed quickly that he was a lion, which, again, wasn't too much of a surprise. He then mentioned the coalition and Etta smiled. "Oh yes, the Coalition. I'm part of that. I just don't live in Belle Vista yet. It's kind of pricey." She sighed.

Sokol had also seemed to ask if there were other lions in Mountainside, to which Etta shrugged. "Honestly, I haven't been here too terribly long. A few months, I guess. But I haven't met any other lions. I haven't really met much of anything. Cheetahs and Jaguars. I think a few vampires. And then whatever the worker was. In Montana there was a wolf pack that I saw every so often, but I tended to hang around my best friend, Logan. He was a wolverine were."

Etta took another drink from her water before looking back at Sokol. "So, are you new in the area? If you're looking for lions, I could ask Yana- she's the Cheetah Queen- if she knows of any."

A Coalition. The rhetoric of insisting that a group fall under these colloquial terms was somewhat exasperating; you could call them a pride of otters and Sokol wouldn't mind. But of course he would memorize the word.

He continued to listen, tuning out a bit at the talk of Montana and a wolverine friend. No lions in Mountainside, so far as she knew — though the cheetah queen Yana might know more. He smiled faintly. "I would be interested to know. I'm not used to being a rogue, and it does make the monthly trips to nature lonely." The smile grew, as if it were a joke at his own expense and not the actual truth.

"I've been here for a few months also. I'm lucky to finally meet you, a stunt devil who knows a queen." Flattery, shameless and abundant, to cement the nascent friendship.

He called her a stunt devil and she couldn't help but chuckle. His use of slightly incorrect words was endearing. "If you're so lonely, you could probably run with us for a bit. We're all African cats, right?" She looked at the clock on the wall and realized that she was due for body wrap in about an hour, and she figured she should probably get out now in order to be mostly dry by the time she went to do that. She sighed and looked back at him. "Well, Sokol, it's been a pleasure, darling, but I'm afraid I need to get going. What's your number? I'll let you know what Yana says about other lions."

She didn't have her phone on her or anything to actually take down his number, but she was pretty good with remembering things. She could remember his number long enough to get it into her phone. With a heavy sigh, she finally stood, teal and orange swimdress sticking to her thighs, She shuddered in the cold, and hurriedly grabbed a towel to wrap around her. "So cold, so cold," she whined before turning to grin back at Sokol.

"See you around sometime soon, darling," she said with a pleasant, and maybe flirty, smile. She started to walk away from the pool, only pausing at the first one he had tried. She stuck her foot in to gauge the temperature. She looked back at the lion and chuckled. "That's pretty comfortable." She had to get going, especially since she was now so cold, and hurried inside the building.

He laughed at the offer, "Maybe so." And he recited his number for her, curious whether she would manage to remember it.

It seemed she couldn't resist ending on a note that again put him at the butt of a joke, this time stepping over the line of what was easily forgivable. He toasted his drink to her as she left, the smile on his face flatter and unamused, but in total he had gained something from the interaction. Etta Jean, one in the Coalition of Belle Vista cheetahs.

He finished his drink and sank lower into the pool, considering.

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