+ Part 9
A blade glanced across one of Heero's metal armbands and snicked flesh. He snarled, kicked out, and took that mountain were down. Another took his place and Heero was suddenly driven back and away from Duo. Frantic, he dodged a slashing blade and made the smug, banded face of the were wolf in front of him, turn blood red, as he used double fists and brought them down on the were's head. His hands were covered in blood as he dodged another blade and tried to reach Duo again.
Duo was gone. Wu Fei was down. The mountain weres were dead and the Keep weres were just recovering and looking around them at the carnage. The were tigress was gone as well.
Heero sniffed the breeze and caught her scent, wild jungle and musky incense, and began to run after her as he shouted, "Follow. She has Duo!"
"Stop, prince!" Trowa was catching Heero by one arm and Quatre was blocking his path. The voice, though, had belonged to Wu Fei. He was sitting up, clutched a row of claw marks across his chest. "You are heir of this land. You will stay behind while your soldiers go in pursuit!"
"No," Heero protested, shivering all over and anxious to be gone. His ruff rose and his ears were cocked forward. Tail bristled dangerously, he confronted his mentor. "He is my life! I will save him!"
"He was safe until you sought him out!" Wu Fei accused."You will endanger him again by going after him. I have no doubt that the were tigress will kill him rather than allow him to be rescued."
"I did not endanger him!" Heero snarled.
Quatre's light voice was very serious as he said, "We could hear... and scent you... far from this place. It was those things that betrayed where you were."
"My Prince," Wu Fei hissed as a were wolf kneeled to bind his wound. "I discovered that you were missing and pursued you at once. These," he indicated Trowa and Quatre, "insisted that they knew where you were. I suspected that they were trying to mislead me early on."
Trowa looked unrepentant, but Quatre looked guilty.
"We heard and scented your... meeting... with the were lion quite far off, " Wu Fei continued. "I'm certain the were tigress used it to find you as well."
Heero looked around him and saw the open mouthed disgust in the faces of the weres around him. A prince of the forest weres with a were lion of the Savannah. It was a perversion they couldn't comprehend. His succession to the throne was in danger and he could see it in both Quatre's and Wu Fei's faces. He needed to say something that would erase their doubts.
Heero swallowed hard. He knew what he had to do, but he in no way wished to do it. It was a decision that would damn Relena's reputation, but also give them both what they wished.
"Relena is my consort, witnessed by Warden G. The marriage is consummated and she carries my child." Heero didn't think the weres around him could look more stunned, but jaws were dropping and eyes were going wide. Wu Fei was frowning sharply though, understanding what he was doing and not liking it. "I will pursue Duo, leaving Relena, who has her majority in three days, as ruler in my stead until my return. If anything should befall me, while I save the life of my... of my new ... concubine..." He winced and stammered, "M-My rule shall pass to-to Relena's child."
He had married himself, declared a child he didn't have, and cemented his reputation as a pervert by taking a were lion male as a consort. Heero hoped the subterfuge would last until he was well away or until he returned with Duo. The marriage was irrevocable, but Heero had known, before he'd spoken, that marriage to Relena had been inevitable anyway. A few hours, that's all he needed to rescue Duo, he thought, not long enough for Warden G or Relena to get notions of becoming permanent rulers, or for Warden J to implement any plan to unseat them. The Keep, and his land, could hold together without him that long.
"You are a fool!" Wu Fei suddenly exploded.
Heero looked down at him, pained, but then agreed, "Yes, I am. I'm sorry, Wu Fei. In this, I have to follow my heart, or I will never be myself; whole. I will return quickly."
"And then we will see what you have done to yourself and your people," Wu Fei retorted angrily.
"Yes, we will," Heero sighed, but then he was leaping away and following the scent of the were tigress and Duo on the breeze, Trowa, Quatre, and the his uninjured were soldiers on his heels.
Duo's scent was faint and the breeze kept carrying it away, but the were tigress was struggling under Duo's weight and running flat out. Her sweaty musk was a homing beacon. It said something for her strength that, even with Duo's weight, she was still keeping far ahead of them.
One by one, Heero's soldiers faltered and fell behind. Trowa had lungs like iron and he loped easily beside Heero. Quatre had to run double time to keep up with their longer strides, but he seemed to have the stamina to keep up as well.
Through the tangled maze of the darkened forest, they made their way across Heero's lands. When they finally reached the border, the were tigress was still ahead of them and Heero's soldiers were gone. Panting and exhausted, ears and tail drooping, he tried to hear them or catch their scent. He sensed nothing of their presence. The were tigresses scent, though, was as strong as ever, an arrow pointing out of the forest and across a rolling landscape of scrub and tree islands.
"Heero," Quatre panted, stretching out on the ground and groaning. "She may be leading you out of your lands on purpose. She wanted you, I'm sure, along with Duo."
"You should go back," Trowa panted, but he was still on his feet and looking into the darkness at the glowing moon. "A were tiger assassin is something I can't defend you against."
"She wanted Duo," Heero growled. "I was just an opportunity, one I made myself. We will go carefully, stalk her, and come at her when she is off her guard. She will have to sleep at some point. Until then, I will go on. If you can't follow, then catch up as best you can."
Trowa's ruff rose. "Prince, doesn't it concern you that your soldiers have not chosen to follow you?"
"They've shown their loyalty and it's to Warden J," Heero replied. "They've probably doubled back to ask him for orders."
"And Warden J will decide whether a consort is more easily ruled than a hard headed prince," Quatre panted. "You should go back, Heero. You may lose your throne."
Heero shook his head. "All of my life, sitting that throne has been my goal, but that was because I never had anything else in my life, Quatre. Now that I do... I realize that I never truly wanted it." He grinned viciously. "I think Warden G is as determined to rule as Warden J. I think they can keep each other busy until I return. Who knows, perhaps Relena can convince them to practice her pacifism."
Trowa laughed derisively. "Were wolves not fighting? It's in our blood."
"That's ridiculous," Quatre scoffed. "Maybe ingrained, but not genetic."
Heero shook his head sharply and said, "Enough. Things don't change in a day and we will return before anyone makes their move. Come or stay. I'm going after Duo."
Heero loped out of the forest and into the hilly countryside, feeling exposed and vulnerable, but determined. Trowa followed without hesitation. Quatre was slower and he looked exhausted. Heero didn't think that he would be able to keep up for much longer. He almost hoped that he would fall back. The smaller, lighter were fox wouldn't have a chance against a were tiger. Not that he had much of one himself, he thought sourly.
It seemed impossible, but they never caught up to the were tiger. Her scent stayed close, but never close enough where they felt confident that they would catch up to her. At last, even Heero had to admit that he couldn't go any further. He fell into the tall grass, flat on his side, and felt the world going dark as he tried to catch his breath. For a long while all he could hear was the rapid beating of his over worked heart.
Quatre caught up, almost crawling in his exhaustion. He whimpered. Trowa whispered something in his large ears and curled up around him.
He had not saved Duo, Heero thought, and felt his failure keenly. He was glad for the cover of the tall grass. He rolled onto his back and felt like crying , staring up at the moon and the stars. In his mind, though, he could hear Wu Fei's furious voice asking him if he was weak, if he was a cub to give up so easily. He had left his duty behind and defied the were dragon who had been his friend and his mentor. Sacrificing so much, he couldn't fail, not with Duo's life at stake. As soon as he was rested, he promised himself, he would go on, with or without Trowa and Quatre.
When Heero dreamed, he was running again, only he could see the were tigress ahead of him, easily keeping ahead and laughing. She was carrying Duo in her jaws, like a cat carries a kitten, and Heero dimly wondered how she could laugh and carry him like that at the same time.
"Prince?" Trowa shook at Heero and he woke with a start. The sun was just touching the tops of the hills with a golden glow.
Heero was stiff all over. He rose and limped, trying to loosen his muscles. Quatre was nosing through the tall grass, his tail a waving banner as he wove this way and that. There were some alarmed squeaks and then he was coming back with some neatly killed rabbits, their necks twisted.
They didn't have time to cook. Trowa pulled the rabbits apart and handed each of them a share. He bit into his own without comment, but Heero and Quatre looked at their share with sick expressions.
"I could make a quick fire," Quatre began, but Trowa snorted.
"Too much time to cook. We have to go." Trowa finished his share with a crunch and swallow and then looked at them expectantly.
Heero was the first to attempt to eat his. He made a face and began tearing off and swallowing chunks, trying not to taste it. The fresh blood was in his nose, though, metallic and strange, and his stomach clenched. Quatre was more delicate, taking small bites and going paler and paler with each swallow. When it was done, he wiped his bloody fingers on the grass and shuddered.
"Now," Heero growled and tried to scent the were tigress over the scent of their kill. It came, as strong as ever, and he felt great relief. She must have finally stopped as well. If they hurried, they might still catch her sleeping.
"Quietly," Heero warned, "She could be anywhere in this tall grass."
They loped, bodies kept low, and hoped that her scent would strengthen and give them some clue as to where she might be. Instead, it grew fainter. Heero stopped at last, beginning to panic.
"She's turned somewhere," he guessed.
"If she's going to the Savannah..." Quatre thought for a moment and then he looked worried. "She has to skirt a mountain range. There's a narrow pass to the East of us. She must have taken another route there."
Trowa snapped suddenly, "I know a way, used by bandits mostly. It's dangerous."
"Lead the way," Heero ordered.
Trowa glared. "We are following an assassin tigress onto a bandit's road."
"Lead the way or show me where it is," Heero snarled. "I am not stopping."
Trowa measured him slowly up and down and then he nodded as he turned and began loping quickly towards the East. "It is my home. I'm not the one who has to be afraid."
Duo came back to consciousness being dumped onto the hard ground. He whimpered and tried to save himself the fall, but his arms and legs were bound tightly. His breathing was hampered by a gag that kept his deadly jaws apart. It had cut the side of his mouth and he could taste blood. His head pounded pain at a point near his temple and his entire body felt bruised. "Lie still, cub," a female voice told him. "If you give me too much trouble I will take your pelt and deliver that to King Zechs."
Duo focused with an effort. It was dark, but the moon was high over head and he could make out the outline and glittering eyes of a were tigress. She was very large, dwarfing him, and her dark stripes helped her to slip in and out of shadow as she approached and looked him over.
"A shame that I didn't get your lover prince as well, but his time will come," she continued as she removed his gag.
Duo's cheeks burned. He remembered a heady scent, Heero's strong body wrapping around his own, and an overpowering urge to... His tail lashed in embarrassment and agitation. If they had not been interrupted would Heero have gone on? Would he have kept his tail lifted and allowed Heero to... to... mate him like a female? Duo's gut tightened. At the time, he had wanted that... wanted it more than anything, but had it been his true choice or the choice of confused hormones and that wild scent of the Prince's? How could he want to cross the line of species and allow a were wolf to be his dominant?
"Do as I say and you will live," the were tigress was telling him. Her clawed fingers checked his leather bonds, scratching across his skin. "You are so small, but not young, I think, to have given off a scent like the one I smelled in the forest. Foolish cub," she tisked. "It led me directly to you, a Savannah were lion's scent in the home of forest weres."
"Where are you taking me?" Duo asked weakly.
"Home," She said simply.
It should have made Duo feel less afraid, but he knew what waited for him there. "What does Zechs want with me?"
She snickered. "He thinks that it was a mistake to send you away. He wants reconciliation."
"Liar," Duo snorted.
She smiled and her mouth was full of very long and very sharp teeth. "Not so innocent, I see," she almost purred."It's politics, cub, and that's the truth. He hasn't had any cubs with his females. The were lions ridiculously made engendering cubs a requirement for their rulers. Solo claims Zechs is his father, and his mother supports his claim."
"Another lie," Duo growled. "He was born before Zechs took the Sun pride."
She shrugged. "Who's to say if the female will not tell? Your 'mother' has promised to claim the same for you. Zechs, King of all the prides, will claim you as his son. Two cubs will be enough to satisfy nervous old weres and his rule will not be questioned afterward."
"I saw him mate, Solo as well," Duo told her, puzzled. "Why haven't there been any cubs?"
"Are you certain they were mating with females, young cub?" The were tigress asked archly.
Duo thought about that, trying to remember half seen figures in the tall grasses. He wasn't sure, but Solo had bragged... another lie?
"There are only you and his second, Solo," she told him. "You can become a prince. You can live at your ease, with Solo, as son's of King Zechs. You can make my job much easier by coming willingly, or... I can skin you and take your pelt back as proof of your existence instead." She ran a hand over his cinnamon fur. "Such unusual fur for a were lion. It's beautiful and so much better on a living were."
Duo cringed, but his mind was already working. He could return home without fear and be adopted by a King. He could have Solo at his side again. The bond a were lion male formed, with other chosen males, was very strong. Outside of that bond, or claiming a pride for himself, a male's life was solitary and short. Duo was being handed the best a were lion male could hope for and Duo warmed to it... until he remembered what his duty in that triad would be; mating females and taking his turn creating the next generation. Duo blanched at the thought of it and knew that he couldn't do it. Three male were lions, who would never have cubs, ruling all the prides. It was against everything that he had been taught, but so was one male trying to rules females and males outside of his pride.
"Why are the prides following him?" Duo wondered. "Why are they breaking tradition for this?"
She grinned and laughed. "Power, young cub, and solitary males wanting a place other than on the dangerous, open Savannah. Zechs has promised them a great deal, even the prides of kings who will not bow to his rule."
"But why war with the forest weres?" Duo persisted.
She sighed and paced away as if weary of his questions."You make a common enemy if you want to bring warring prides together. The forest weres have been encroaching on our borders and making their 'houses' there. It was easy to paint them as potential conquerors."
"Is this King Zechs plan, or yours?" Duo retorted.
Her tail twitched and her eyes glowed as she looked back at him. "I follow his orders, but I will take actions I deem necessary. Remember that." She stretched out on the ground and made a yawning sound. "Sleep, cub. You have only a few hours before we need to travel again. By then, you must make a decision about the path your life is going to take." She went very still then and her stripes made her one with the shadows.
Duo stared at the spot where he thought she was, but, when he moved to make himself more comfortable in his bonds, her glowing eyes opened elsewhere, studied him, and then closed again.
Duo closed his own eyes against the ache of his head and his muscles and tried to think about his future. He sensed danger and half truths, but there was a chance that everything the were tigress said would come to pass. He tried to imagine himself at King Zechs side, leading the combined prides into war with the forest weres. He shivered. If what the were tigress said was true, then the forest weres were trespassing. The war was just. The prides could only push them back by combining together.... yet, politics and power were behind it, he was sure. It came to him that maybe Heero's Warden J might be playing the same game of false accusation and war.
"Sleep," the voice of the were tigress murmured and her eyes opened in a completely different place. "Your choice is not so hard. Return home and live, or remain and die. It shouldn't be such a dilemma."
Meaning he didn't have any choice. Duo thought about Heero and his heart ached. He missed him already, a part of him burning for his touch and the sight of his dark blue eyes. Foolish, childish, arrogant. Heero wore arm bands, ate cooked meat, and lived confined to houses. He was a were wolf, colored like a half breed dog, and as musky as any animal in rut. A beast, Duo's mind thought derisively and refused to remember that he had returned that scent with one of his own and just as powerfully. His aching heart overrode all of those thoughts and Duo just... wanted... wanted the were wolf's touch, his strong hands, his soft nuzzle, and his thick fur brushing against his own.
"Cub!" The tigress was suddenly on him, jaws nearly at his throat and eyes like lamps in the moonlight. "Curb your scent or I will kill you here and now!"
Duo realized then that his scent was heavy on the air. Her near attack was cold water on his desire and the scent banked and died. That wasn't good enough for her, though. She spat angrily, "We must go. We will rest higher in the mountains. Betray me again, cub, and I will leave you in chunks for the buzzards and for your were prince to find."
She gagged Duo again and then tossed him like a sack onto her back. She tied him there tightly and then ran with powerful bounds as if he weighed nothing.
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