Part IV - Aboard the Red Rose

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With his good eye, Wolf watched Corneria disappear in the distance.

"It's a shame we left without a proper farewell." Came that voice from behind him, breaking that quiet spell of observation he got when trying to comprehend space and its endlessness.

Leon sat, half-embedded in a very rich sofa, his slit-like eyes now fixed on the stars. He seemed pleased. Wolf found his legs siding with the idea and collapsed next to him without a second thought. They sat in front of a reinforced holofield window that scaled the length of the wall at the rear of the ship, allowing them a full panorama of their surroundings.

"I want one of these." Wolf gestured, not to the sofa, but the entire spacecraft. He mindlessly extended an arm over his neighbor's chest to grab the glass bottle that so conveniently sat perched on the table. "Better than the scrap metal we were left with after the war."

Leon seemed oblivious to Wolf's remark. "I see getting busted out of prison has doused tensions a bit,"

Wolf just glared at him sourly, deciding not to pursue the subject. He thumbed off the cap effortlessly, and no sooner did he than the bottle pounded against his lips.

He thought about Fox McCloud.

Pampered, heir to a Herculean mothership, and a legion of followers willing to cater to his every whim. As far as Wolf was concerned, he wouldn't last a day doing dog work for the Venomese military, where the wrong word could mean swift and abrupt execution. McCloud was skilled, naturally, but could he fend for himself in the real world?; it seemed, even in Fox's adulthood, Hare was babysitting the brat.

If only, Wolf mused, he could tear down Corneria's mighty hero in front of a million spectators; simply wipe him clean out of the sky, engines smoking, alarm wailing - as the legendary son of James McCloud went down with his legacy behind him.

Eerily, Leon's pupils slid across the room. His tongue slowly poked between his lips just slightly, but it was enough, giving him an extraordinary understanding of things beyond the boundaries of normal senses. Wolf's heartbeat, rate of breathing, and body heat spelled out thoughts of violence and of revenge. Just from the empty air he could taste the alcohol - the scent lay scattered about him.

Wolf was silent. In the confines of his mind, Fox McCloud slowly - agonizingly - died, at the hands of his nemesis. Even after their lifelong grudge match, somehow, it was unsatisfying… a hollow victory. And then, suddenly, Leon was there, surrounded by bodies, some strung up on the wall like tapestries, others draping off of tables, many separated from limbs, or heads…

His breath quickened and he abandoned the thought immediately, forcing himself to ignore the aftertaste it left in his mind. He peered around the room nervously, then let his eyes rest on the source of the sounds of typing.

They had all but forgotten about the badger, who had been stationed broodingly at the control panel for a good hour. They didn't know about him, still, such as who he really was or what position he had in the Venomese military, except that he was clearly involved in the plot that Amuro and Strype had described to them.

Wolf seemed to have abandoned his fantasies. He nodded towards their host, lowering the bottle for a moment but leaving Leon to leer in disdain at the liquid that dribbled down his chin. He decided to bring up, again, what he had been dwelling on for a while now. "Why aren't they telling us anything…?"

"Isn't it obvious, Wolf? We're just pawns in this plot, in other words, tools of the Venomese military's will. And we're not in a position yet where we can do anything about it," Leon answered, voice still ridden with his same bored droll, like an automated machine. His indifference, it was-

"I guess that's the life we chose." Wolf growled. "But what was the point of being captured and thrown in prison if they were just planning to bust us out the next day?"

Leon was a complex individual, and the answer was so simple to him, and Wolf's narrow-mindedness was almost befuddling. But he had scarcely begun to speak than the badger stirred at last, and Leon abandoned the effort to watch.

Presently, across the room, he spoke.

"Why, because of conflict."

Spinning around and rising from his seat, he finally let his eyes catch upon his new "houseguests." Little more than Wolf's height, and from the looks of things twice as old, he sauntered over, keeping his eyes locked with Wolf's own, even as he came to stand next to the plush sofa.

"Welcome aboard, gentlemen," he spoke, in a voice much unlike the one they had just heard. "I am honored to introduce you to the Red Rose."

Wolf, liquor forgotten, sat frozen with his eyes fixed on the speaker and his unmistakable lisp. It wasn't even startling when the badger's long red fur began to darken and his aged figure reconstruct itself. Immediately afterwards came the emergence of a long, prehensile black tail and round, stubby ears. The change was swift and abrupt but the results so high in contrast. There was a small flash, and no hint of the badger stood where the panther did now.

Leon chuckled oddly.

"Who better to rescue us than Mr. Caroso, Venom's own rogue womanizer," He mused slowly, without regards to his position - a fugitive escapee on someone else's ship.

"Is that what they call me now?" Came the velvety response, coolly spoken, much as Wolf's opposite. "A pet name of the public, I assure you."

As he stared down at his guests there was a new, ominous glint in his eyes, now bright green and feline, the most easily distinguished characteristic of his person, figure shrouded with midnight black fur. The gray tank top (bearing the insignia of the red rose) and snug beige khakis did little as far as professionalism went, but his impressive reputation around Lylat had room to accommodate casual dress.

Wolf stood, jaw noticeably unhinged, and approached their host soundlessly. Gradually, Panther smiled, and extended a hand towards him.

"I knew one day I'd be busting you out of prison."

However wounded his pride, Wolf grinned in return, taking Panther's hand with his own and shaking firmly. The latter peered over Wolf's shoulder briefly, but Leon appeared to have already returned his attention to the endless web of stars around them.

"At least we've had jobs," Wolf rallied, despite how he felt about that statement. "How the devil do you plan to pay off this ship? Bringing whores aboard and then selling them to make a profit?"

Panther shook his head, chuckling. "I've a lover in Walston who believes us to be affianced. She gave me the ship as what I like to call a parting gift. Her father left her a particularly lavish lifestyle, you see…"

Wolf gazed around the room in newfound awe. "You know how I always felt about your obsession with women… but now I think I have to commend you on the approach."

"And what a difference it makes. We're faring a bit differently these days," Panther noted slyly, letting his eyes roam about his ship. "But you certainly haven't changed much. I see you and the lizard still match. Black turtlenecks and raggedy jeans, those wouldn't by any chance be patronage to the old gang?"

"We just couldn't outgrow them." Wolf sniggered in spite of himself.

"Not to mention how being most-wanted fugitives for over a year hasn't done a lot for our wardrobe." Leon added bitterly, but otherwise made no indication that he was paying attention to the conversation.

They turned their back to him. Panther began to speak, a distant look in his eye. "Ah yes, Wolf, I must explain. Word spread quickly around Corneria that you had been imprisoned. And now just one day later, as the public now grasps situation, a trusted public figure of impressive military rank betrays the planet and lets you go."

"They're scared."

"Some of them. But most have turned rebellious. In the past hour, the public feedback has already been staggering." Panther indicated towards a small screen by the control panel, set to Cornerian news. Entire flocks of people stood in the streets, and a monotonous hum issued from the screen, like the sound of many voices turned to one. "They expect a government conspiracy."

A voice from the couch. "I expected so much."

Panther turned around, an irritable hint to his voice now. "Is that so, Powalski? …Tell me, are you still at that hideous hobby of yours?"

Leon didn't flinch or react, just kept his tone dignified as if he were talking to children. "Irrelevant question."

"He is."

Panther wrinkled his nose. "Really."

"What were you expecting?" Wolf's response was flat.

The black cat's eyes lay heavy on the man who sat on the couch. He still had that uncaring aura to him, just as he always had, even when the rest of them were angry or upset. He was dignified, reserved, well-spoken, calm in all situations, and seemingly impassive, save for the pleasure he got from both peace and extreme insanity. Behind that mask of indifference, he knew, was a disturbing addiction to cruelty.

"I enjoy being lawless." He confided to Wolf, still watching the reptile. "But apparently some of us psychotic things with no motive but leisure." At Wolf's startled look, Panther added, "Powalski and I both know that I think him a dirty maniac."

"Whoremonger. Bed-hopper. Philanderer. Lothario. Prostitute." Leon smirked, but whether in satisfaction or distaste… "Shall I go on?"

Panther quivered and tensed. Visibly. "Anyway," He turned to Wolf again, his tone now stretched tight. "We have been ordered to await Strype's instructions. Be ready."

And he turned his back to them and walked out the door, into whatever room lay beyond it.

"For someone who claims to enjoy lawlessness, it seems as though he's just as much of a pawn as we are." Leon noted at once.

Wolf wordlessly fell to the couch again, breathing deeply. Leon quickly flicked his tongue, a habit that Wolf had become accustomed to over the years, and now commonly accepted as part of the reptile's being. "Your thoughts are a mess." Leon concluded after a moment, always sounding so sure of it. "You're tense… amazed."

"Well, yes." The lupine spat, frustrated that Leon could seem so omniscient. "What are the odds. It's been years, I can't believe that he - ugh, dammit. Look at this place." He glared up at the high ceiling, then at the plush black carpet.

"It's not a coincidence. The three of us have a history. General Strype wants to use that to his advantage."

"Panther could've told us." His companion hissed bitterly, apparently not done ranting. "While we groveled before Andross, he was busy playing women and taking joyrides around the galaxy in this thing."

"Which is why he has never earned himself respect." Wolf looked at him oddly. "He's useless."

"And he's any different than you! If you both get your kicks out of deceiving people-"

"There is a difference…" Leon began, voice rising. "Between having someone at your mercy and having someone around your finger like an affectionate worm."

Wolf snorted. "Is there?"

Abruptly, Wolf's world spun 90 degrees. His head hurt. There wasn't time to think about the possibilities before he felt weight on his legs, chest, shoulders, knocking the air out of him.

What the hell, Leon! But he couldn't find his voice, and he felt his face contorted into shock - the lizard was over him, in so swift a motion he had not detected it. He was a lot heavier than his lithe form appeared, and Wolf found that he could not struggle, or perhaps couldn't find the strength to…

"Do you want me to show you the difference?" Came the reptile's voice. It was slow, deep, dark, and bore more resemblance to a sort of whispered hiss. He let those fingers venture into Wolf's dirty, dry fur, and Wolf felt their presence on his cheek suddenly, but still too stunned to react.

He could never find himself when Leon was touching him like this. It tended to happen when either of them was extremely angry - in Wolf's case, it was eerie and caused more shudders than anything else, as if it was Leon's twisted way of consoling him. But when the lizard was upset - and rarely would this occur…

Now Leon chuckled, albeit darkly. "Wolf. You're terrified."

Wolf could say nothing - just maintained eye contact, breath wavering unsteadily out of him. He felt as if he were slipping out of his own body, and that he couldn't control his limbs anymore. It seemed like Leon could only take so much and then he was quick to anger - he was also especially sensitive to certain subjects. But why would he do this; pin Wolf underneath him as if they were lusty lovers…

"Talk." The reptile urged him, now with an icy smile. "I didn't have to tell you a minute ago."

The vulpine shook his head, studying his assailant carefully. "Get… off of me. You shouldn't do this anymore…"

"Was that an order?" Leon pressed.

Wolf shut his good eye and focused the muscles in his arm. If he caught him by surprise, maybe… But before he could move, he felt Leon's own grip tighten its hold.

"You're going to have to be more subtle."

The infamous Tormentor inclined forward, until Wolf could make out individual scales on his face. Even now his eyes darted all over, as if they were following the movements of an invisible enemy. His prisoner, however, made no effort to slow the advance, nor was he able to rip his eyes off of the face which drifted ever closer.

He shut his eyes again, though now fearful of what would happen to him.

…Something warm and wet, suddenly, at the base of his neck! …He wanted so bad to squirm and struggle, but his joints had all been securely fastened to the cushions by his captor's own. A shiver crawled up his spine and he groaned, uneasy. This was so, so wrong, and he felt sick to his stomach at the thought.

He clenched his eyes tighter. The skin beneath his fur dragged along with - what he could only assume was Leon's tongue - a bit, pulling it tight across his bones. Why was this? Was he being tortured?

As the chameleon's tongue traveled the journey now up Wolf's chin and cheek, in from the door on the right came Panther, and his presence was never so gladly welcomed.

Leon did not stop, however, merely lifted his gaze with one swerve of his eyes. Panther, eyes set on the scene before him, stood frozen in place, without making a sound, until-

"Have I interrupted anything?"

He would've chuckled out loud - apparently some things had changed - but then he caught a glimpse of Wolf's eye, which had just been alerted to his presence. Panther was awestruck at what he saw within them; helplessness, desperation, anxiety. It's a call for help?

Hardly a second passed after this realization before Panther stood before them, and Wolf saw his fist approaching for a split second before suddenly, a loud sound of contact above him. He was amazed - amazed that someone could approach them so openly and land that punch, although Leon had definitely seen it coming, and easily could have evaded it. The lizard's unconscious form, no longer with the will to support himself, collapsed on top of Wolf for a moment before Panther roughly gripped Leon by the shoulders and dropped him to the floor.

Even as Wolf sat up, panting furiously, he kept his eyes on the reptile's face, where a trickling of blood was already appearing right above his eye. Panther watched him seriously, taking in the slack of Wolf's jaw, the dilation of his pupils, his uneven breath…

Wolf was slapped.

"The hell's wrong with you?" The black cat demanded, as Wolf slowly turned his head to look at him again, eyebrow now heavy upon his one eye, baring his teeth just slightly. Why was he playing the part of the damsel in distress? In his frustration he was tempted to have at Panther, but he was also aware that his own faults were his alone.