+ Part 10
Trowa was frowning and Quatre looked frightened. "I only smell her, not anyone else" Trowa said after a long moment of lifting his nose to the light breeze. "I doubt that a female were tigress would take a... sexual interest in a unwilling were lion and I doubt someone could force one without serious wounds. "
"But..." Heero tried to think and then his ears went up. "He might have been trying to scent a stronger trail for us."
Quatre brightened as well. "Yes, I'm sure that's it. I think I've rested enough, my Prince. We should run again."
"Your paws are getting raw," Trowa told him worriedly. "You should stay behind. You're not a tracker or a hunter, Quatre."
Quatre growled and his large ears twitched in annoyance. "I am not soft. I'll run as long as I can."
Trowa began to argue some more, but Heero began running again. Let them argue, he thought, or stay behind. He wouldn't let them slow him down. Wu Fei's exercises had made his lungs iron and he knew he was good for a few miles more.
Heero squinted up at the afternoon sun. The were tigress would have to rest and, sooner or later, they would chose to rest themselves later than she did. They would catch up to her then. Heero thought of her large claws and teeth, her incredible strength and agility, and worried. With Duo loose, they might have a chance to defeat her, but a slight were fox and two young were wolves were hardly a match. He had to come up with a strategy.
"You have to be fast," Trowa panted, suddenly beside Heero. "You have to get on her back and snap her neck or stab her. Dirty handed, but necessary. A full frontal fight will get us quickly killed."
Heero nodded, not sparing breath to reply.
Quatre was falling behind already. If they had other enemies than the were tigress, he was vulnerable. Heero made a decision. "Stay back with Quatre. Follow as you can."
Trowa's momentary hesitation was testament to his feelings for Quatre, but he knew his duty too. "I have to protect you. If something happened to you, your were dragon would kill both Quatre and me."
Heero smiled grimly, but the smile was lost a second later. He couldn't help wondering what chaos he had left at home. Wu Fei would defend his throne, Heero didn't have a doubt, but what was Relena and Dr. G doing now that she was ruler in his stead? What was Dr. J doing? What would that dangerous old were wolf do now that his power was no more? The longer he was away, the more likely it would be that Dr. J would move against Relena in the worst way.
There was a sound of alarm from Quatre. He put on a burst of sped and caught up to them, tail like a banner behind him. "Wolves!" he shouted.
Heero looked back, expecting weres, but saw plain wolves tracking them, following at an easy lope. They were big, pale like ghosts, and known for having such a dislike for weres, that they killed them when ever they found them.
Heero knew their plan; wait until they tired, until someone lagged behind, and then attack that one with the entire pack. As long as they stayed strong and together... but Quatre was glassy eyed from the pain of his paws and his weariness. His panic was keeping him in step with them, but that wasn't going to last. If they stopped and tried to defend themselves, the pack would circle and pull them down. They had to keep running.
"Up ahead," Trowa panted."The road."
Heero could see it, a tall marker of stone and a tumble of rocks that was the beginning of a ragged chain of mountains. He could also see the were Tigress, her stripes and bright orange a flag in the sun as she left the hills and the green grass.
"Hurry!" Heero begged. "Quatre! You must make it!"
"I will, my Prince!" Quatre promised.
Heero put on speed. Trowa stayed at his side and, incredibly, Quatre kept their pace. So, unfortunately, did the wolves. They were going to make it, Heero felt as he saw the were tigress struggling through the rocks with Duo on her back, hampering her movements. He doubted the wolves territory extended into the mountains, and he doubted very much that the were tigress could outdistance them now.
Jaws grabbed his ankle and jerked Heero off his feet. Then a large, white male wolf was suddenly on him, fangs snapping. It had outpaced the others to catch what it considered another dominant male and it was determined to kill Heero.
Heero slammed his back paws into the beast's gut, and shoved it off of him hard. He sprang after it, but Trowa was there before him, stabbing it in the heart with his blade. The other wolves stopped, scenting the death of their pack leader, but then they slowly began advancing again, wary, but still wanting their deaths.
"Leave me!" Quatre panted. "I will hold them back!"
"No!" Heero shouted in reply. "They would kill you quickly and still come after us. Run ahead. We will cover your retreat. Once we reach the mountains, I think they will stop."
"But-" Quatre began to argue.
"Go!" Heero snarled.
Quatre ran. Heero and Trowa slowed their pace and kept their bodies between the smaller were fox and the pursuing wolves. The wolves could sense that they weren't the weaker of the group, even though Heero was limping from his ankle wound, and hesitated. That allowed them to reach their goal.
The rocks were hard on paws. Heero winced and Trowa swore.
"I've grown soft on wood floors," Trowa lamented sourly.
The wolves stopped at the rock line, sniffed the edge of their territory, and then marked the rocks as if warning them not to return.
"Blood!" Heero exclaimed and pointed to the splotches along the rocks leading to the road. Trowa sniffed and ran ahead.
"Quatre!" Trowa called.
They found him sprawled and unconscious among the rocks. Heero checked him carefully and then sighed in relief. "He's exhausted himself, but he isn't harmed."
"Except for his paws," Trowa sighed as he looked at the bloody pads. "He won't be able to go on. I can find a hiding place for him..." and leave him there, Heero finished silently, but he could see Trowa's unspoken pain.
"No," Heero sighed and went to a high rock to look for the were tigress. The scent came to him faintly. "She can't go quickly carrying Duo and she has to rest after this climb. We... We should rest too. We have to be strong when we attack her."
"Thank you, my Prince," Trowa replied and Heero looked back at him in surprise. The mountain were had not called him that in such a reverential tone before. Perhaps he had just earned it, Heero thought. It didn't make the decision any easier for him.
"Quiet," Heero said very softly as he inched up to where Duo was laying on the edge of the encampment. Duo's round ears swivelled back and his shoulders twitched, but he didn't make any other sign that he had heard. Flat to the ground, Heero was one with the shadows, his black patches, inherited from his part mountain were mother, useful for once as more than a source of embarrassment.
Duo's tail lashed back in agitation, almost catching Heero in the nose. He scented fear.
"I will rescue you," Heero whispered. "I have other weres with me." Heero didn't say that it was a wild mountain were wolf and a foot sore desert were fox.
"No," Duo whispered back. "Dangerous."
The were tigress was sitting near a fire and gnawing on the shin bone of some animal with relish. She was surrounded by a pack of bandits, made up of all different types of weres, and she looked in complete command of the ragged, but well armed band. The were tigress bit down on her bone and it snapped loudly in the quiet.
"If you keep eating like that, we will all starve," a gray were wolf grumbled."Hunting is lean in these mountains."
A were cheetah sneered. "Rat eater. If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be able to get at the cliff goats."
A were that Heero had never seen before looked part goat. It grunted as it tore into a roasted bone. "You wouldn't last a minute in these mountains, skinny were," he said around his mouthful. "We can always go back to eating mountain rats."
The were tigress looked disgusted. She delicately wiped her mouth. "Enough talk. Now that Duo... Prince Duo, has decided to accompany us willingly, we have an easy journey to the Savannah."
"Easy?" The Gray were wolf spat aside. "Not so easy on the back road, especially at this time of year."
"Your reward will make it worth your while," the were tigress growled.
"Une," The gray were retorted, "Money is nothing if you are dead."
Her tail flicked irritably, a flash of orange. She didn't dignify it with a reply, but her large eyes narrowed at the were goat as if took a sloppy bite of meat dripping with grease. "Isn't that cannibalism?" she sneered.
Cani-what?" The were goat replied in confusion.
Heero's ears were flat. The were tigress, Une, had said that Duo was going willingly. Duo wasn't bound any longer. He was sitting at his ease with leg of meat beside him. It was untouched and Heero recalled distantly that Duo hated cooked meat.
Heero inched forward until his head was resting against Duo's lower back. He nuzzled there and sighed. "Why?" he asked softly.
"It's my home," Duo replied. "They won't harm me."
"You're so sure?" Heero wondered angrily. They had come so far, sacrificed so much, for this... for Duo to walk away willingly and make their sacrifice for nothing. "I left Relena on the throne as regent... for you... I left my home, left my title... for you."
Heero took hold of Duo's long braid and smelled it, taking in his heady scent.
"I can't follow you so far, Duo."
"And I can't stay." Duo replied, but then added, "not until I know... until I see for myself."
"What?" Heero wondered.
"Whether there is a place for me there," Duo replied in the barest of whispers.
Une's ears turned towards Duo and then she was rising, "My prince? You haven't touched your meal."
"Cooked," Duo replied as Heero backed up into the shadows again. "I-I don't like cooked meat."
"I can't afford for you to be finicky," Une told him firmly. "There is nothing else for you to eat."
"There is," the cheetah interjected. "Let our 'Prince' hunt."
Une raised an eyebrow and then measured Duo with her eyes critically. "He's just a cub."
"I can hunt," Duo replied irritably and stood up to join them at the fire."You want more goats, I'll get them."
Une licked her lips. "Well, I could use some more meat, but I don't want to delay our travel over much. Hunt cub, but I'll be on your paws."
Duo growled in annoyance. "I said that I would go with you willingly."
Une laughed. "I'm not a fool. Don't make that mistake. I'll trust you only when you are turned over to Zechs."
Heero watched Duo scent the breeze and then he was gone, bounding like a spring over the rocks. The were tigress followed him at a more mature pace, but Heero knew her power, knew that she could be on him far too quickly for Duo to escape. Heero hugged the shadows and the fallen boulders, skirting the weres, and trying to keep his scent from betraying him.
He was in time to see Duo spot his prey, a group of mountain goats cropping the sparse grass on what looked like the sheer side of a mountain. Impossible, Heero thought, and was afraid for the were lion. Duo didn't hesitate though. He used an outcropping for cover as he inched forward, the end of his tail twitching. When he was close enough, he sprang straight at the sheer mountain face. Heero's mouth dropped open in awe as Duo's powerful arms and legs plucked a goat from it's perch and the were lion allowed them both to fall down to a lower ledge with unerring accuracy. Duo flipped around and landed on his feet at the last moment, jaws crushing the beast's windpipe.
Une sat on her haunches with a blood lust grin, but Heero looked away, nauseated as Duo feasted with relish. Heero crouched in a huddle behind a rock and listened to bones crunch. After a time, Une lost patience.
"Stop, pig, or you will be too bloated to walk in the morning!"She jumped to the ledge, hefted the mauled carcass over one shoulder, and leapt down again.
Watching their power and easy grace as they went back to camp, Heero felt a thread of self doubt. What did Heero's home have to offer someone like Duo? Were lions almost never left the Savannah. The cheetah traders, or the more prevalent were cougars, were over large house cats compared to these creatures. Duo would be alone, powerful, beautiful, and considered a savage by everyone. Heero was thinking that himself. Killer, savage: Duo wanted the taste of hot blood and fresh meat. He wanted the kill. There wasn't a place for that in the halls of the Keep.
"Careful, Prince," Trowa's voice said in his ear.
Heero started badly, tail tucking between his legs and teeth barred as he whirled on the mountain were. Heart pounding, he hissed, "How long have you been there?"
"Long enough, " Trowa replied. He turned and slipped back into the shadows of the approaching darkness. Heero followed reluctantly. When they were some distance, Trowa said, "He is going back to his home, willingly. He will be where he belongs."
"The were tigress is lying to him," Heero growled. "I don't know what the lie is, but I do know that she was willing to kill to get Duo."
"She is an assassin," Trowa agreed. "One does not hire them to bring young weres back home."
"What could be the reason for sending her then?" Heero whined as he sank down dejectedly.
Trowa sat beside him, thinking. "Her succes proves that the decision to send her was a good one, and it could be that she was to be Duo's executioner only if he refused."
Heero made a low noise of frustration.
Trowa sighed. "My prince, I know that you care for Duo, but you must see that there isn't anything we can do now? We are outnumbered and in danger. Duo is going with them willingly."He paused and then dared, "It's also possible that he will give us away if he thinks that you will try to stop him from returning home."
"He's right," Quatre limped from the darkness and settled by them. His large ears were moving and twitching, keeping track of their enemy. "Duo has decided."
Heero growled. "Are you suggesting that I leave him? Allow them to carry out whatever plans they have for him?"
Quatre replied quietly, "Heero, it was good that you pursued him, that you made certain that Duo was safe. Now, he has made his decision. It's time to make yours. Will you follow him to the Savannah or return home to your duty?"
Duty. Love. Rejection. Heero's heart ached. The image of Duo leaping on the goat and bringing it down played through his thoughts. Duo was wild, untamable. Heero was convinced that there was danger for him, but, he had seen Duo stand, rebellious, against Une's size and strength. He had not been cowed. He had not seemed foolish. He had not seemed to need rescuing. Duo had made his decision. He was going home, to a place where he could hunt and live in open spaces with his own people.
"We have a saying in the desert," Quatre told him sympathetically. "If it was meant to be, it will be."
Heero laid back his ears and then nodded, jaw clenching. He rose, tail down and shoulders slumped. "As soon as you can travel, Quatre, we'll go home."
His home, Heero thought, not Quatre's, not Trowa's. Once again he would be alone. Once again he would dance to J's whims and fight for what was his birth right.... only he had a wife now, he realized with a chill, and they would expect him to have a child with her, an heir. Duty. Duty to his people. Duty to his wife. Duty to his land.
The feel of soft fur, warm, purring breath, and a scent that called to his innermost soul and told him who his mate was. A were lion. A male were lion. Letting him go would be like allowing a part of himself to be torn away, Heero thought.
Heero curled up and sank into misery.
Time passed. The moon sailed overhead. Heero hadn't slept at all, imagining the enemy weres sleeping around his Duo and wondering what thoughts were going through the were lion's mind right then.
"You have such a great heart," Trowa whispered.
Heero stiffened but the were wolf wasn't speaking to him.
Quatre's tired voice replied, "Mine is nothing compared to Heero's."
"He is young," Trowa said with a sigh.
"So are we, " Quatre teased.
They settled into sleep after a few more endearments. Heero turned his head to look at them and found them curled up contentedly together. He would never have that, he thought, not if he went home now.
Heero rose silently. He would leave them, he thought, and not burden them any longer with the madness of his heart. He would follow Duo to the Savannah alone.
Heero began to slink into the darkness, going towards the camp, but then he stopped, sensing danger and not certain where it was coming from. He pricked ears and held his breath, trying to catch any hint of trouble. Une came then, materializing out of the night as stripes of deeper darkness. She was followed by her bandit weres.
"Don't try to resist Prince," she warned. "I can kill you before you can twitch. Tie him."
The were moved forward. Heero's ruff rose and he barred his teeth. "How?" he demanded loudly, trying to alert Trowa and Quatre. "How did you know I was here?"
"I smelled your scent near the camp when we returned from hunting," Une told him. "And then I noticed that my little were lion was acting strangely."
Une sniffed the darkness. "I smell others, but no one is coming to your rescue, Prince. Did you trust your life to those useless Keep guards?"
Heero refused to answer.
"No matter," Une said arrogantly as Heero was tied securely with rope. "They are not any match for us."
"Your mistake," Heero sneered.
Une smiled and it was a smile full of glittering, sharp teeth. "I think not." She turned and began walking back to camp, throwing over her shoulder, "Bring him."
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