A/N: Yes, I know it's been over half a year since I updated! I apologize to the four or five readers who have been looking forward to this chapter for so long. Life just got in the way. I quit a job and got a better one, found an apartment, and finally got serious about publishing my children's book (mailed it to a publisher, waiting for the results). So my fanfiction had to be put on the back burner. But I like this story too much not to dust it off and update it from time to time. I must admit, though, that when I went back and read the first chapter recently, I said to myself, "Wow, this really isn't very good. I don't think I would want to keep reading it if I hadn't written it." Okay, actually, I would keep reading it, but only because it stars Ma and Max. Anyway, that was over a year ago (!), and I believe my writing has improved since then.

This fanfic has official fanart now! It's the scene from Chapter 5 where Nina is talking to the mouse. View the illustration in all its wonderful Photoshop glory at Holbyta's fanart site. There's a link to it at the top of my bio. Thanks a million, Holbyta!

Chapter 6:

Shelter

The leopard jumped onto the branch just below the two meerkats, and Nina felt her gut clench with terror. She couldn't think straight; she could only react. As the leopard quickly scaled the tree with its powerful legs, Nina and Max clambered up as high and fast as they could, up to the thin twigs at the top. Nina hoped the heavy cat wouldn't be able to climb that high without breaking the branches, but he balanced on a thicker, lower limb and reared up on his hind legs. A huge paw with five sharp claws shot up at her. Without thinking, she leapt sideways to dodge the claws, and suddenly the ground rose up to meet her. The leaves rustled as she fell past them, and she heard her uncle shout her name. Then her paws slammed into the ground, and she twisted her head up to see the leopard falling down toward her. She sprinted away through the grass. There was a dull thud when the leopard landed behind her, but Nina didn't look back; she just kept running, faster and farther than she would have ever thought possible. Yet it still wasn't fast enough. She knew she couldn't outrun a leopard. It seemed that every breath might be her last. If only she had a place to hide! But all she could see were grass and trees and sky. The leopard's soft footfalls were right on her tail, barely audible above the pounding of her heart.

Then Nina came to the crest of a hill and saw an elephant-sized boulder rising out of the ground at the bottom of the slope. A crack split it from top to bottom, and it looked just wide enough for her to fit inside. She practically flew down the hill and darted into the crevasse. As she scurried deep into the broken rock, two claws sliced the skin on her back. The sudden pain drove her forward even faster, and she had to turn sideways as the crack narrowed. Panting, she looked back to see the leopard's paw stretch toward her. It stopped two full body lengths short. It strained, toes spread, claws extended - then it slipped back toward its owner.

Only then did Nina lean against the side of the crack, trembling and trying to catch her breath. She was safe...But what about Max? Somehow she had to make sure he was all right. Though she was injured, she sensed that the scratches weren't deep, and she had developed a high threshold for pain.

Nina could see that the crack kept going narrower until there was hardly any space at all, only a jagged line of blue. She looked back the way she had come and saw the leopard's claws scrape against the inside of the crack again. Half his face was visible, and his pupils were as wide as ostrich eggs. No doubt the smell of blood excited him: it meant he had scored a hit. She shuddered again.

There was soil beneath Nina's paws, but not enough space to dig. She couldn't try climbing up the crack; the leopard would beat her to the top of the rock. If anyone was ever truly stuck between a rock and a hard place, it was Nina.

Then it struck her that she didn't have to escape to make sure Max was safe. As long as the leopard was right there trying to get at her, he couldn't chase Max. She made up her mind to keep the big cat occupied as long as possible. It was only a temporary solution, but she couldn't think of anything else to do. So she crept toward the leopard, as close as she dared, then quickly scooted back when he swatted at her. She continued to scoot forward and back, over and over. It was almost a game, but Nina wasn't having any fun at all. She still had no idea how she was going to meet her uncle again, and twilight was starting to set in.

After a little while, Nina heard - and felt - a very soft scraping above her head, slightly toward the wide end of the crevasse. It took her a moment to pick out the small figure shadowed against the stripe of deep blue twilight.

"Uncle Max!" Relief surged through her - then it vanished like a wisp of steam when the leopard tilted his head up and jumped to the top of the rock.

"Get down! The leopard-!" But Max had started to climb down even before she warned him. He scrambled down to her level surprisingly fast.

"I knew I smelled blood." His face was the picture of concern as he looked her over. "Any broken bones? Is your tail missing? Never mind, I see it now. Did you-"

"Oh, Max!" Nina threw one arm around his shoulder and gave him a tight half-hug in the cramped space. She felt him shaking. "I'm fine, except for a couple of scratches. How about you?"

"I'm all right," said Max. "Though I think I might be going crazy, getting that close to a leopard on purpose."

Nina grinned. "You must turning into-" She broke off, knowing Max didn't like to talk about her dad.

To her surprise, Max simply raised an eyebrow and said, "Turning into your father? You better hope I'm not if you want me to live to ten." He gently placed his paw on her back. "Now let's have a look at those scratches."

Max examined Nina's wounds and cleaned them a bit, stopping to flinch whenever the leopard shoved his paws into the crack. But soon the leopard seemed to realize that the two meerkats were staying put, so he stalked off in search of easier prey.

Nina and Max knew the folly of venturing out of hiding right after a predator leaves. As they waited between the two halves of the rough, cold boulder, Nina's heartbeat slowed, and she began to think about Max. She'd never expected him to go toward a big carnivore, but the journey away from the colony seemed to be pushing him to take more risks. Then there was the fact that he had said more about her father in the past three days than he had in the three years since Buzz had died. Nina had been thinking about her dad a lot, too. There was something comforting about the way he'd never hesitated to jump into a fight, the way he had looked into a carnivore's eyes without showing any fear. Uncle Max always said there was something wrong with Buzz's head, and maybe there was, but Nina wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It was ironic, though, that the great Fearless Buzz had never gone past Shouting Range. He'd never had a real reason to leave, though. He loved his colony and believed that he had a duty to protect them even at the cost of his own life.

There had been a time when Nina thought she loved the gang too: Swifty, Flinchy, Joe and all the rest. Perhaps a small, deep part of her still did. But the evening Timon left, when Nina told the others he had gone away, almost all of them looked relieved. They all told her how sorry they were, and wasn't it a shame, and when was she going to have the memorial? That last one sent her over the edge. In any case, their words were all empty; she could hear in their voices and see in their eyes that they were glad Timon had moved out. And just that afternoon she'd told Timon that they all needed to look after each other!

Max had been no better than the others at first. He hadn't even pretended to be upset. The big difference with Max was that, when faced with a decision, he showed that he cared. He went with her. No one else had said so much as "Take care of yourself."

Nina sighed, feeling lost on many levels. Then she reminded herself that she would find Timon very soon. But what then? Should they go back to a colony that couldn't stand them? Or should they, perhaps, help Timon continue his search for the perfect home? Nina had given Timon her blessing, but she wasn't so optimistic that she was completely out of touch with reality. Even if they did find such a place, she couldn't see the point of starting a new colony if they couldn't keep it going after they died. Timon would have to find a girlfriend.

She shook her head, surprised at her own thoughts. Her baby, fathering kits! What was she thinking?

"Nina." Max nudged her. "It's dark. We should start digging while the night's young."

"Sure," she said, still musing. "The colony's probably asleep by now. Lucky them."

"Ah, the colony." Max inclined his head and folded his arms. "Yeah, I'm sure they aren't losing any sleep over us. I don't know if you noticed, but they didn't seem all that upset when we left. Not a wet eye among them."

"Yes, I did notice," she said in a slightly ironic tone.

There was a pause; then Max shrugged and said, "Come on, we got a tunnel to dig."

He shuffled toward the wide end of the crack, and Nina followed right behind him. Standing on tiptoe, she peered out over his head. The open hill rose before them, blued out under the darkening sky, and the moon was like a great glowing eye. Chilly air blew straight through their fur, carrying the scents of the leopard, jackals, and other creatures of the night. For a moment the meerkats stood there, taking in every smell, sight and sound.

"Well go on, I think it's clear," said Nina, giving Max a light push. He darted forward, chose a random spot on the ground and scratched his way into it. Nina followed, shutting her eyes and ears as the soil flew up at her. The descent went smoothly until she thought she heard Max yell. Her eyes and ears snapped open, and she saw the tunnel slanting down at a steep angle, with an opening shortly ahead. But she couldn't see Max at all.

"Max?" She scuttled toward the opening and saw that Max had accidentally dug into a large chamber, far bigger than any of the meeting chambers in their colony. Max was picking himself off the floor below and looking wildly around at the warthogs. Yes, the warthogs. There were five sows with several piglets huddled behind them, and they seemed just as astonished as Max.

"I told you I heard something," said one of the sows.

Nina dropped down to join Max, and the sow who had spoken frowned. "How many of you are there?"

"It's just us two." Nina shook dust from her head and looked up at the warthogs, whose tusks gleamed in the faint moonlight. "We're sorry for intruding. We didn't know anyone lived down here." Heat flushed Nina's cheeks; she hadn't felt this embarrassed since Timon's last tunnel accident.

Glancing around, she made out three large tunnels leading out of the chamber in different directions. "So, uh, we'll be leaving now. Which way is the exit?"

A warthog with a chipped tusk indicated with her head. "That way, take the left fork."

"Thanks. Come on, Uncle Max." The older meerkat was apparently trying to shrink into himself. Grabbing his arm, she started toward the tunnel - then she hesitated. She mustn't miss any opportunity to ask someone about her son. She cleared her throat.

"By the way, we're looking for my son. Have you seen a young red-haired meerkat with five stripes?"

Most of the warthogs continued to stare in surprise, but the one with the chipped tusk was now fairly composed. "Hm, I've seen two red-haired meerkat rogues lately, but I didn't get a good look at either of them."

Max recovered his voice. "He would have passed this way a couple of months ago."

"No, the mouse said..." Nina paused as she felt a nagging sensation. Something didn't add up, but she was too tired to think about it properly.

"Think about it, Nina. Timon left over two months ago. We've been traveling for a week. Do you really think Timon would stay here all that time? Does this look like a paradise to you?"

"Hey, this is our home you're talkin' about!" one of the piglets piped up.

Max readily included the piglet into the conversation. "It's not a bad place, but it's no better than what we left behind."

Putting a paw to her forehead, Nina shut her eyes and stared hard at the backs of her eyelids. Of course she should have known right from the start, but that didn't lessen her devastation. Mice were well known for telling other creatures whatever they wanted to hear; they would say anything to avoid angering a larger animal. But Nina had been so anxious for good news that she'd immediately swallowed the mouse's statement as if it were the tastiest grub. Now she felt more lost than ever.

A warthog's voice reached her ears. "Are you okay?"

Nina opened her eyes and let her hand slid down the side of her face as she saw all of the warthogs and Uncle Max staring at her.

"I'll be fine." She sighed. "I just need to get some sleep and figure out what to do in the morning."

"Those are some nasty scratches, though," said a sow who sounded younger than the others.

"Really? It doesn't feel that bad." Actually, her back stung a bit worse than it had when the leopard first struck her. She tried to twist her head back to look at it, then gave up. "Uncle Max said it should heal in a week."

"I made that up, I'm no healer," he muttered.

By now all of the warthogs were finally getting over their surprise, and words flowed more freely.

"You should see the shaman about that," one of them said. "I know someone who knows someone who died from an infected cut."

"Really?" said one of the piglets in alarm. "I got a mosquito bite, will I be okay?"

"I don't think there's anything to worry about." The warthog with the chipped tusk glanced around at the concerned creatures. "All the same, it would be a good idea for you to see the shaman, uh...What is your name, dear?"

"I'm Nina, and this is my uncle Max." She put her paw over her mouth as she felt a yawn coming on. Whenever she passed from the sighing stage into the yawning stage, it was definitely time to get some shuteye.

"Yes, that's it," said the warthog, as if she had met them once before but couldn't remember their names. "My name's Hanziri, by the way. Anyhow, the shaman could also tell you if he's seen your son."

Doubt crept into Nina's mind. "I had a bad experience with a shaman this week..."

"True, but he was the only one you talked to who actually spoke to Timon," said Max. "And if another shaman sent Timon after metaphors, we need to know about it."

"Good point." She clenched her fists in determination, but the effect was lost when she let out a yawn. "Where does this shaman live?"

"About a quarter-day's walk east, there's this nice stand of big trees. If the shaman's not there, his son will be, and he's almost as good," Hanziri said, smiling.

Nina returned the friendly expression and clasped her paws. "Great, thank you very much for your help. Now..." she squinted tiredly at the three tunnels. "Which one was the exit again?"

One of the young adults took a few steps forward. "I was thinking," she said. "You guys were digging for shelter, right?"

The meerkats nodded.

"And, well, you found it." The warthog glanced around at the chamber walls. "So I don't see any reason why you shouldn't stay with us for the night." She turned to Hanziri. "If that's okay with you, Mom. We have more than enough room."

"I was thinking the same thing, dear." Hanziri's piggy eyes twinkled in the moonlight. "Hospitality is the best policy."

"That's honesty," corrected another warthog.

"All right, hospitality's the second best policy, then," said Hanziri. There were murmurs of agreement all around the room.

Nina was surprised and touched by this display of kindness; however, she didn't like the idea of sleeping in a warthog den. It was full of strange smells, drafts, and echoes. But more than that, she simply wouldn't feel comfortable sleeping in a burrow filled with strange, big creatures, even though they seemed friendly enough. She looked at Max and could tell he felt the same way.

"Well, what do you say?" said one of the warthogs.

Nina cleared her throat. "Thank you for the offer, really, but I think we would rather dig our own shelter."

"Are you nuts?" said Max, grabbing her arm. "You wanna go outside with the leopards and jackals when we're safe here?"

Nina had thought she could read Max's expressions fairly well in the moonlight, but apparently she was wrong. "Since you put it that way, it does make a lot of sense to stay here for the night."

"That's right, missy." He turned to look up at the warthogs. "Thank you, we're staying. And I'm sorry about the hole in your roof."

"I like it," a female piglet spoke up, wagging her tail."It lets the moonlight shine in. It's pretty."

Nina gazed up at the way she had come in, remembering the "skylight" Timon had made no so long ago.

"Yes, it is."

- - -

A/N: I hope this chapter was easy to picture and understand. It seems like more things should have happened in a chapter of that length. Oh well.