A/N: Promised you the next chapter and here it is. I've actually had quite a bit written for a while, but I only found time to edit it yesterday.
Snow Wolf Alpha: Cheers, glad to hear you think they are mate! And you'll find the answer to your question by the end of this chapter, muahaha!
Amber of the Mallrats: Yeah, I do think Grey Wolf and Pixie's personalities work quite well together. They'll definitely have their time together in future chapters.
Fangsire: Thanks and absolutely, you can certainly expect some major HarexTiger angst and slash in this fic.
Red String Paths
-- "Tell me what you ask of me," said the seal-catcher, "and I will do it, if it lies within my power."
"Holly? Holly? Can you hear me? Are you okay?"
Holly had heard Colt but she could not quite absorb the proposal offered her. Her mind wandered free from her body as the group of archaic old men and one young archaeologist huddled together, muttering and blathering in excited, raspy voices. Her body remained standing in the splendid marble entrance hall as her thoughts returned to the many adventures and hardships the Courageous Seven had once endured while questing for the Phoenix. She remembered the suffering of her village and of the many villages she had travelled through. Even now, three years on, the land still bore the scars of Muu's rule.
Holly bit her lip and glanced into her reflection in the highly polished stone floor. 'I don't deserve this luxury,' she thought, panicking, 'and I'm certainly not Princess material.'
But despite that, despite the fact that she had no wealth of her own to speak of, despite the fact that she wore trousers and a faded red tunic instead of heavy skirts made from expensive material, the simple truth of the matter was that she was the last of the Pendant lineage.
Did this responsibility outweigh her duty to finding and restoring her friends – to finding her father?
"Forgive me," Holly's voice quavered as she spoke. The little group of gibbering old men continued their debate without a second glance. Holly balled her fists and steadied her resolve. "Please, listen!" she exclaimed hotly.
Slowly, one by one, each member of the group turned their withered face towards the young girl standing before them.
"I can't do it. I'm sorry, but I'm not who you're looking for. I'm not a leader, I never have been!" she cried and the truth of her words stung a little. "There has to be someone more suited to this role."
Colt walked towards her, smiling "Holly, it's not just a matter of lineage. The people have chosen you."
"There's barely a soul in the world who doesn't know who you are, my dear," an old man mumbled through his gums, eyes twinkling kindly under a pair of bushy eyebrows.
"People are united under their regard for you."
"They are indebted to you. We all are."
"And frankly I'd be a vexed if you didn't turn down the position," another old man retorted gruffly. "It shows character! Modesty! Even the strongest of us must show a little humility my girl." Beside him Holly saw Colt stifle a giggle.
"But how can I possibly be a Princess? I don't know anything about current politics or affairs in other countries. I don't even know how this country runs."
"The truth of the matter is it doesn't. And that is why we need you, Holly, to unite our countries. You are a symbol of the Phoenix."
Holly felt her face flush at this remark.
"We cannot force you into this role, but consider what might happen if you decide to abdicate the thrown."
"But …I," Holly trailed off, looking desperately for an ally in the sea of withered faces. She turned to Colt.
"Well don't look at me," Colt frowned. "I think they're right. I might make a prettier Princess than you, Holly, but you're the one the people look up to. Without a real figurehead to govern this world is in almost as much danger as it was under Muu's rule."
Holly looked stricken. Her heart was torn between finding her friends and doing what was apparently her duty. She began to fiddle with the strap of her leather shoulder bag; the last gift she had received from her father. She bowed her head away.
"We realise this must be a hard decision for you to make my dear," said one old spokesman sympathetically. "We will give you some more time to think it over."
The crooked backs of the old royal entourage turned away. After one last encouraging look at Holly, Colt followed in tow.
Holly moved towards the tall open windows in the reception hall, their balconies looking down upon the growing town below; its little red rooftops bright beneath the sun. Monsters and humans alike were working hard to rebuild the new town of Pendant, situated far from the original desert dwelling ruin.
'And far from my village,' Holly thought miserably. She lent against a broad pillar stone and clutched at the spot on her chest where the reassuring warmth of the magic stone used to rest.Suddenly she felt a heavy weight upon her shoulder. "Holly…I agree with Pendant," her stoic companion spoke for the first time in his slow, gravelly voice. "People need a strong figure to look up to, have faith in. Someone with clear eyes." Holly's heart skipped a beat. "Golem…" She looked into the rock giant's unwavering eyes and felt the power that came with sense of purpose fill her completely, just as it had the first morning she had set out with Suezo on the Phoenix Quest. Holly sighed. Though it broke her heart, she knew the path she had to take.
"Okay," Holly said, determined, "You're right. I'll do it."
Agonised, half blinded by pain, Tiger slowly turned his head to look for his companion. A wave of relief hit him when he found Hare hadn't moved from his spot in the centre of the shrine. But something wasn't quite right. Tiger squinted his eyes to see through the now dim light while gritting his teeth against his own torture. His breath caught in his throat. Hare's body had changed. His legs and torso had elongated and his fur was replaced by bare skin. His long furry ears were gone, replaced by a head of messy brown hair which flopped over a pair of brown eyes.
Tiger's heart beat faster as a horrible realisation began to dawn on him. Cautiously he looked down at his paws, only to find a pair of pale human hands. The wolf felt a knot of rage begin to boil up inside of him. No, the Shrine hadn't merged them together – it had done something far, far worse.
Hare's eyes suddenly flew up to meet his. He gaped at the wolf in alarm. "Tiger… is that you?!"
Exhausted, Tiger fell to one knee. Long blue hair now framed his very human face. His eyes were still golden in colour, but human in shape, as was the rest of his lean body covered in skin. "Never mind about me," he growled. "Take a look at yourself."
Hare winced as he twisted his stiff neck to look down at his lower torso and legs. Then he lifted his five fingered skin-covered hands to his face and emitted a high pitched shriek. "What the - What happened?!" He cried angrily. "Tiger, what did you touch?!"
"I didn't touch anything," Tiger replied angrily. "This ancient hunk of junk has mutilated us both and it's all your fault, Hare! You just can't leave things alone can you? You just can't stop until you've worked all the angles! And now look at us. Look at me!"
Hare slowly pulled himself up on a pair of very wobbly legs, keeping his eyes lowered to the ground. "How was I supposed to know something like this would happen?" he asked sullenly. "I was only looking for answers."
"Answers to what?" Tiger shouted, rising unsteadily to his feet. "Face it Hare, you were just looking for a profit."
Even as a human, Tiger was considerably larger and stronger than the rabbit. Regardless of this, Hare raised his chin in defiance. "No Tiger, this is different. Look, I'm sure whatever did this to us can be reversed. Just give me time to work out the technology," he tried to reason. "I'll contact Colt. She knows this machinery better than anyone. We'll be back to normal in no time."
But Tiger's temper was already on the boil and the idea of being stuck in a human's body for any longer than ten minutes infuriated him further. "Colt? Is that it then? Wanted to win her did you and drag me along for laughs, that your scheme?"
"This has nothing to do with Colt! I didn't plan any of this," Hare protested. "And as much as your ego deserves being taken down a peg or two, I wouldn't stoop to that level."
"You've got a lot of cheek to talk about ego, you con-artist," Tiger said, striding towards Hare and pushing him square in the shoulders. Hare wobbled on his feet for a moment before crashing down on top of the magic stone with a bump. Tiger hesitated as he saw the man wince in pain. He shook his head angrily and limped away, a twinge of guilt weighing on his conscience and mingling with his confusion and fear. Truth be told, he was afraid of this new defenceless body.
Hare seemed to pick up on this for instead of continuing their argument he remained silent. He had studied the enigma that was Tiger of the Wind for long enough to know that the wolf hated feeling defenceless. Before he could even leave the centre of the shrine, however, the whirring noise of the ancient machinery began to build again and the four eyeballs at each point of the shrine glowed with brilliant light. Hare froze.
"Something's happening again," he said and scrambled to his feet, but his balance was off and he slipped with another crash upon the green stone.
Alarmed, Tiger turned back towards him as the winds began to rise again, swirling faster and faster around the shrine. "Hare! Get out of there!"
But it was too late. A beam of green light shot up from the magic stone and completely engulfed him. "Tiger!"
The light grew brighter still and Tiger made a mad grab for him, caught hold of his red kerchief between the tips of his fingers before Hare disappeared in a flash and the force of the blast propelled him back against the lab wall.
Dazed and confused, Tiger opened his eyes to a lightless laboratory; quiet and empty except for himself. He gazed down at the red kerchief held tightly in his hand then looked towards the spot where his companion had disappeared, much the way Genki had.
-------------------------- Thanks for reading! Love to hear any crit! xx
Thanks for reading! Love to hear any crit! xx