A/N: It's a bit shorter than normal and I suppose a little rushed, but at least you know what happened to RJ. Plus, the stage is finally being set for the final showdown... Or the semi-final showdown anyway? Hehehehe... So enjoy!
"Let her go!
Let her live, let her die on her own!
We are all of us bruised and alone
Now we both will have nothing to hold
Let her know!
Hurl it in to her renegade heart
That the best of our dreams fell apart
And the dark of the morning grows cold"
-The Scarlet Pimpernel
Chapter Eight- Persephone's Tears
She ran like the devil was chasing her, tripping over everything in her path and recovering herself seamlessly as she dashed back towards the Sanctuary, her sapphire eyes scanning the area looking for any sign of RJ.
What if Amity got him? Or one of Xylia's wolves? Images of RJ ripped to shreds somewhere in the forest filled her mind and she sped up, as if trying to outrun the horrible visions that danced a macabre ballet in her mind. No, it wasn't so! She would have known if there were predators around, wouldn't she? She'd always been so cautious, so careful...
But she hadn't been today. She had left the Sanctuary at high speed, throwing caution to the wind and RJ had blindly followed her. He didn't know the dangers as she knew them. He didn't know, because she never told him. In her fear, she had darted ahead and RJ was now suffering for her carelessness.
She skidded to a stop, the pungent smell of fresh blood stinging her nostrils. Her stomach dropped and she looked around the area for the source. Something moved on the bed of brittle, sun-baked leaves that lay across the forest floor, causing them to crackle, and her eyes shifted to where the sound had come from. Something small, brown, and furry caught her eye and she moved towards it. It was definitely RJ, although his back was to her. He was twitching uncomfortably and she could hear heavy labored breathing, but the worst part of it was the shining silver wire that extended from a metal peg a few feet away to RJ's neck. The wire was tight around the raccoon's throat, cutting into his flesh, and blood was oozing over the sharp silver, staining the air with the tainted smell.
"Oh, RJ," Ruby whispered. She circled around to his front and saw him struggling to get his paws under the sharp wire to lift it off of his throat to no avail. Flecks of blood coated his muzzle as his struggle became fiercer. He was so wrapped up in this ordeal that he didn't notice her at all until she joined the fight and started to tug at the wire. Her efforts, however, were even more futile than his and RJ let out a pathetic, strangled whimper. Desperate, Ruby tried to gnaw through it, but only succeeded in cutting her tongue on the sharp metal. She winced, brushed the pain away, and tried again, but RJ, at last, spoke up, his voice hoarse.
"Don't..." He said. "It's useless."
"It's my fault," she whispered, gently stroking the fur on his head. He had calmed significantly, upon realizing that he was only making his situation worse. "I shouldn't have left you alone."
"I shouldn't have asked to come here," RJ tried to chuckle, but it came out as a wet, blood-laced cough. "Some romantic evening, huh?"
Ruby couldn't contain her grief any longer and buried her face in the soft white fur of his underbelly. "It can't end like this. I won't you leave you here."
Her ears perked up as she heard strange noises. The familiar crackling of brittle leaves and voices- human voices. "Oh no," she whispered. "Not now."
RJ realized the danger the two of them were in and gently nudged her with his foot which took quite a bit of strength to accomplish given his condition. "Go. I don't want them to find you too."
"Absolutely not! If you die, I'll-"
"Don't be a martyr," RJ croaked. "It's a cheesy way to go and it doesn't accomplish anything, anyway. Leave me here. I'll be okay."
"No, you won't!" Ruby snapped. "Don't lie to me like that! I'm not a child, RJ! I know what's going to happen!"
"Yeah?" RJ tried to chuckle again, and the cough that came out instead was worse than the last one. He whimpered a little, trying to remain calm in the face of this danger. "Please, Ruby... Just go."
She didn't want to, but she obeyed, ducking behind a nearby tree so that she could keep an eye on the situation. Two human males emerged from the trees with flashlights, both dressed like park rangers. They had a large collie dog with them, which made Ruby tense up, afraid that the dog might strike out at RJ in his wounded, helpless state.
"Dammit!" One of the men swore, staring at the trap. "They missed one when they did the sweeps."
"Those damn poachers," his friend agreed. "It ain't dead, is it?"
"No, thank God," the first man knelt down and gently began to loosen the wire. RJ weakly tried to stand so that he could run off, but the human snatched him up in a large gloved hand before he could move. "Hold it there, little guy. Let's have a look at you."
Ruby could see RJ shivering in fear even from where she stood. He was tensed up again as he often did in moments of severe fright, but he allowed the human to examine the wound on his neck. It was a rather nasty wound, but it didn't look like it would kill him, which Ruby was thankful for, but the wound was a moot point if the humans were going to kill him as they did so often.
"Well, we can't let him go with a wound like that... He's such a little guy, those wolves'll be on 'em like ugly on an ape," the second man said.
"Yeah, I feel sorry for him too," the first man said. RJ's frustration was starting to show but he was in too much pain, apparently, to do much. He simply tried to gnaw on the man that held him's finger which did no good since he was wearing thick gloves, and merely caused both men to laugh.
"Fiesty, isn't he?" the second man snickered.
"Come on, little fellow, don't fuss so," the first man stroked RJ's head and this seemed to relax him, although he still seemed reluctant to drop his guard. His steely blue eyes fell upon her hiding place and he seemed to be giving her a look that said "stay out of sight."
"We better get back to the station," the second man said. "I wouldn't want that wound of his to get infected." And with that they vanished into the forest again with RJ in tow. Ruby debated following them, but there was no way she could even hope to stand against two humans and a dog. She'd have to free RJ from them in a much more covert way.
And there was only one animal she knew with the kind of skills for such a mission.
An hour later, Ruby found herself standing outside Tristan's cave, hoping and praying that the fox was home and not out prowling as he often did late at night.
"Tristan!" She called. "Tristan, are you in there?"
"Indeed," Tristan's sultry southern accent echoed back to her. "Come on in, Ruby."
She walked into the cave, her eyes adjusting to the darkness and quickly found the fox sprawled on a slab of rock, looking smug about something, which wasn't really a new concept, seeing as he always looked smug.
"Ah, Ruby," he practically purred. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"I need your help," she pleaded, allowing the desperation to show in her voice. Tristan stood up and leapt off his slab, landing perfectly in front of her.
"Really? Well, that's a new one on me. Little Miss On-My-Own needs my help? Your voice tells me it's urgent." He took her chin in one of his paws and looked into her eyes, seeing the desperation and sadness tainting the beauty of each sapphire pool. "Your eyes agree," he said soft softly.
"It's RJ," she said, biting her lower lip.
Those two words caused Tristan to bristle and he turned away to avoid letting her see his guard drop. He calmed himself and started to saunter away towards the entrance of his cave. "Well, I'm afraid you're on you're on your own, darlin'."
"Tristan, don't do this!" Ruby pleaded. "The humans captured him and if I don't rescue him, he could wind up in the Sanctuary. He'll die in there."
Tristan turned to face her, a smirk on his face. "Really? All the more incentive not to help then, I guess."
Ruby couldn't believe what she was hearing. She knew Tristan was a heartless bastard, but this was low even for him! She clawed for some smidge of something that might convince him to stay before he got away from her and finally found something she could use. "I know who freed Amity and Cyril!"
Tristan froze and she knew her suspicions had been correct.
She went on. "I'm sure Xylia would love to know who was responsible."
Tristan turned to face her, a cool look in his green eyes. "You can't prove anything."
"You'd be surprised," Ruby smirked devilishly. "She already expects you to make a traitor of yourself."
The fox drew closer to her, his expression never wavering. "I always knew you were smarter than I gave you credit for, Ruby, my sweet."
"How'd you do it?" She asked.
Tristan chuckled. "I learned from the master," he said. "You know about her, right? The Weasel-"
"-Of the Rose," Ruby finished, her eyes widening. Tristan laughed.
"That's her. They say there ain't no trap or no cage she can't crack open. She's set up base in the area and I went to see her. The lady's always willing to teach a willing pupil a little about her art."
"I bet you didn't tell her who you were going to set free, huh?"
The fox smirked. "'Course not." He circled around her, rubbing his tail over her furry gray and white body. "Okay, puddin', I'll help you... On one condition." He faced her, his eyes glowing with an emotion that Ruby had no name for. "If I get your little boyfriend out of the pokey, you have to promise me that you'll never see him again."
"What?" Ruby gasped. She shook her head. "No! I won't do that!"
"Then you've sentenced him to die," Tristan said, his voice colder than she'd ever heard it. He turned to go and Ruby shook wth suppressed tears, rage, and a flurry of other emotions. Finally, she choked out one word.
Once again Tristan froze just inches away from the entrance to his cave, waiting for her to continue.
"It's a deal." Those three words nearly choked her and a few tears squeezed past her defenses. Her heart felt like it was bleeding into her chest. "Now... Now will you please help me?" She begged.
Tristan smiled broadly as he casually looked behind him at Ruby, refusing to take note of how upset she was for it would only destroy his moment of triumph.
"Well, since you asked so nicely..."
For the first time in his life, he actually felt like he had won. Things were really looking up for him.
RJ was too tired and too sore to really contemplate what had happened after he had been freed. All he really cared to know was that he was inside a cabin that apparently belonged to the two men and was currently trapped inside of a cage. Apparently, his wounds had been tended to, though he honestly couldn't remember when and the only way he knew that they had was the white bandage around his neck which he occasionally found himself clawing at pitifully. He felt sick to his stomach and had a strong desire to just curl up and die, and yet somehow he couldn't help but keep thinking of Ruby and what she was doing. Would she be stupid enough to try and save him? Part of him actually hoped she was, simply because it would signify a love that he had been devoid of for some time, but the intelligent part of his mind hoped she didn't purely because he didn't want her to get hurt because of him, as cliche as it sounded.
The dominant emotion that coursed through his tired, injured, little body was fear and it played its part well. He shook a little, afraid to face what sort of horror fate had in store for him, although he already knew what it probably entailed. In a cruel twist of irony, he'd be locked up again inside the Sanctuary, just as he was finally getting over his fear of such a place.
He really, really hated irony at his expense.
A shadow passed over his cage and he assumed one of the humans had returned, as grim as that was for him. They had been gentle and kind to the best of his recollection even though everything remained a little fuzzy for him, but he still didn't want to deal with them any more than he had to.
"You're shaking," the voice was female and distinctly not human. RJ opened one steely blue eye followed by the other and found himself staring into the warm brown eyes of the collie that had been with the men. Normally, it was in his best interests to be thoroughly frightened by dogs judging solely by his dealings with them in the past (and that included Nugent), but he was already as scared as he felt compelled to be at the moment and didn't fancy becoming any moreso. Besides, this dog seemed gentle... He could trust her, at least for now.
"You shouldn't be so scared. My masters are good people. They'll take care of you," the collie continued. RJ didn't dignify that with a response, purely because he just didn't feel up to talking. The dog, however, didn't get the hint. "Is something wrong?"
"Look, lady," he said, his voice still somewhat hoarse from his throat injury, "you seem really nice and all that, but I've been through Hell tonight, and to top it all off there's some sort of trouble in Paradise, as it were, so if you don't mind... I really don't want to talk."
"Sawyer!" One of the men shouted, addressing the dog, apparently, because she looked in his direction. "Leave that poor animal alone."
"Sawyer?" RJ croaked, repeating the name as the dog rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to him.
"Yeah, go figure humans and their names. It could be worse though." She smiled warmly. "I could have been named 'Lassie.'"
RJ laughed a little at that and winced in pain. Sawyer's expression softened and she poked her nose through the wires. "You're lucky. That could have been much worse. I've seen the sort of things poacher traps do to animals. I don't suppose you'll have to worry about that anymore. You're due to be taken to the Sanctuary in the morning."
If RJ had an ounce of strength left in him, he would have leapt to his feet at that statement. That was, indeed, the one thing he didn't want. Weakly, he sat up and narrowed steel-blue eyes. "And you think that's a good thing, huh? Life in a cage? How would you feel?"
"Cages take different forms," Sawyer said, after a moment's pause. She raised a paw and tugged on the black collar around her neck, the tags attached jingling a little.
"So... So you'll help me get out?"
The collie looked reluctant. She looked over towards her masters who were in the middle of watching television and then looked back at RJ's pleading eyes. She sighed. "Fine," she agreed. "I'll help you if only because I know what a desire for freedom feels like."
RJ smiled. "You're okay... For a dog."
Sawyer simply smiled just as the sound of footsteps coming towards her caused her ears to twitch. The two humans approached the cage and one peered inside at RJ while the other stroked the collie's head.
"He's looking better.. A little groggy maybe, but that's to be expected due to the pain medication we gave him. He'll be fine in the morning." The man straightened up and gestured to his friend. "Come on, let's turn in. It's getting late."
"You behave, Sawyer," the other man said warningly as if he expected Sawyer to attempt to eat the little raccoon when his back was turned. As he walked past her, Sawyer rolled her eyes.
"Humans," she muttered.
"You're sure this is the place?" Ruby asked anxiously as Tristan stopped in front of a small cabin not far from the Sanctuary.
"Yes, muffin, I'm sure," Tristan muttered, unable to hide a twinge of annoyance that escaped into his voice. Ruby had been going on and on about them being "too late" and how this was "all her fault" ad nauseum. It was starting to grate on his nerves severely.
The she-raccoon and the fox deftly climbed to the windowsill and peered inside. It didn't take either of them long to see the cage that held RJ imprisoned being guarded over by the collie that had been with the humans, or so it seemed. Ruby swallowed hard. This was going to be harder than she initially thought, obviously.
RJ suddenly caught sight of them and gasped, causing the dog to whirl around. Ruby and Tristan winced at this, realizing painfully that their plan was screwed before it even began. However, the collie didn't snarl or rush at the window, instead she moved cautiously over to them and unlocked it for them. "Please... Come in," they heard her say, her voice muffled by the glass. Ruby and Tristan were reluctant at first, but RJ nodded at them to do what they were told and they pushed the window open, sliding down into the cabin.
"Are you his friends?" The collie asked.
"Yeah, Sawyer, they are" RJ said, weakly sitting up, his voice still dry and cracked. Ruby ran to the cage, climbing up the table it stood on and latching herself to the bars.
"RJ, I thought I'd lost you," she whispered. He smiled warmly, his blue eyes flashing.
"I knew you'd come back," he said. They kissed through the bars of the cage, a kiss that meant hello as well as good-bye, at least on Ruby's end, but she tried not to think of that.
Tristan bristled, but his anger didn't show in his voice which was laced with a cool sort of urgency. "Rubes, we're on a schedule here, so if you don't mind?"
She jumped off the table and watched as the fox hopped onto the table and began to fiddle with the lock on the cage. The collie, Sawyer, watched with interest.
"You can't get that open without a key," she pointed out. Tristan narrowed his emerald-green eyes at her.
"If you have nothing constructive to say, little darlin', then I suggest you let me do my work in peace," he snapped. Sawyer was instantly quieted.
Seconds later the lock snapped open and Tristan was able to open the cage. RJ weakly staggered out and toppled over the edge of the table, saved at the last second by Sawyer throwing herself under him. The raccoon clutched at the collie's thick fur and clung there as tight as a burr.
"He won't be able to walk yet," she explained. "They gave him some fairly strong pain killers. I'll take him back for you so you don't have to carry him."
"Thank you so much," Ruby smiled, thankful for the help from the dog. Sawyer simply smiled and moved towards the front door, pressing a button beside it that opened it, allowing her to exit, followed by Tristan and Ruby. The door instantly shut behind them, startling the fox and she-raccoon significantly.
"It's automated like that," Sawyer said by way of apology. "There's a back door that allows me to get back inside when I want, so I can pretty much come and go as I please."
"Aren't you lucky?" Tristan muttered sarcastically.
"Not really," Sawyer shook her head, not catching his sarcasm. "It's hardly freedom."
They continued on in silence until they finally reached the valley. Sawyer lowered herself to allow RJ to slide off her back and into Ruby's arms.
"Thanks," the she-racoon said, her sapphire eyes shimmering with unexpressed graditude.
"Don't mention it," the collie replied. She looked to RJ. "Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine. Thanks a bunch, lady," he said, smiling weakly.
"If you ever need me, I'll be glad to help. You know where I live," she winked and departed into the brush in a flurry of plumed tail and thick fur.
Tristan rolled his eyes and turned to the cuddling raccoons, whom he looked upon with mild distaste. Now was as good a time as ever to remind Ruby of their bargain, and he smirked devilishly as he prepared to bring it up. "Okay, Rubes, a deal's a deal."
RJ's eyes widened as he looked to Ruby in confusion. "Deal? What deal?"
Ruby's face fell. "Please, Tristan... Not just yet..."
"No!" The fox snapped. "You promised and now it's time to make good on that promise."
"What promise?" RJ choked out in exasperation.
Ruby fought to chase away tears that would otherwise have fallen. "I can never see you again, RJ."
"What?" RJ balked. He turned to Tristan and snarled. "You... You made her promise that?"
"A fair trade, I think," the fox smirked.
"Please.. Don't make this harder, Tristan," Ruby begged.
"Go to the cave and wait for me, Ruby," the fox said casually. His voice changed, however, when she openly defied his order by keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground, her eyes narrowed. "Do it!" He snapped, a snarl escaping his throat. She gave him one murderous look and softened her expression as she gazed upon RJ for what might be the last time.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, and then she vanished into the forest, running as fast as she could in an attempt to escape the painful situation she'd found herself in.
RJ watched her go, completely stunned. Tristan snickered viciously and crossed over to him, his crocodile grin spreading. "Such a shame, really, when young love falls flat."
RJ clenched his fists at his sides, wobbling a little from the as-of-yet faded drugs. "You sick, twisted-" he snarled, but Tristan cut him off before he could finish.
"Now, now, you have no reason to get testy with me. It was Ruby that made the choice."
"You made her choose between leaving me and letting me die!" RJ's growl deepened, although it hurt his throat significantly. "There's wrong, and there's wrong, and there's that."
"You would've rathered her let you die?"
"Everyone dies, sooner or later," RJ muttered.
Tristan laughed. "Maybe sooner if I'm lucky." When RJ refused to dignify that with an answer, the fox crossed in front of him, his emerald eyes boring into the raccoon's steely blue ones. "What you fail to understand is that this isn't the fairy tale you were hoping for, and this time John Wayne doesn't walk into the sunset with Grace Kelly."
RJ narrowed his eyes. "That was Gary Cooper, you idiot."
The raccoon whirled around to see his family emerging into the clearing accompanied by Reginald and Bianca. Tristan smirked evilly again and moved off. "See you around, cowboy," he whispered, before finally exiting the same way Ruby had gone.
"RJ, what happened?" Verne asked. He suddenly noticed the bandage around his neck and gasped. "What is that?"
RJ, however, didn't reply. He stared at the path that Ruby had taken in her desperation to get away from him to fufill the promise made to save his life and sighed. "It's a long story, and I don't want to talk about it."
Verne seemed reluctant to drop it, but seeing RJ's heartbroken expression eventually made him change his mind. RJ took a few feeble steps forward and nearly fell on his face, but Ozzie and Reginald caught him just in time.
"Let's get you back," Reginald said soothingly.
RJ remained silent the rest of the way back, occasionally throwing feeble glances over his shoulder, hoping for one final glimpse of Ruby.
Ruby was silent as she perched on the slab of rock in Tristan's cave and remained that way even when the fox arrived. He had expected her to be sobbing at this point, but Ruby was never one for tears when she thought someone could see her. Her face was blank, expressionless, but her eyes betrayed her. They were watery with unshed tears and filled with pain and anguish. Obviously, the whole situation was waging war on her internally.
For a the briefest of seconds, he almost felt sorry for her.
He shook that thought away. He had her now. She was his. It was all he ever wanted, and no scruples were going to get in the way of that.
"Look on the bright side, love," he smirked. "At least you don't have to watch him die."
"Yeah," she said, her voice husky and sullen. "There's that."
He realized that there would be no speaking to her intelligently this night, so he left her alone without another word. He strode through the dark forest, unaware he was being followed until a silky voice spoke up behind him.
"You're not very perceptive tonight, Tristan."
The fox whirled around to see Amity and Cyril standing behind him, the two creatures bathed in the silver glow of the moonlight. "Don't do that," he choked, clutching his chest. "You almost gave me a heart attack."
"One has to have a heart, before one can have an attack," Amity purred. "Cyril and I saw the whole theatrical display. It was rather amusing to say the least." Tristan didn't reply to that and simply scowled, so the bobcat went on. "So is part of the plan or just something to amuse you for a little while?"
The plan? Was the plan even pertinent anymore? His reasoning behind it was simply a desire to have Ruby, and he had her. He didn't need to be a part of this anymore. "You have all the information you need," the fox explained. "You don't need me anymore. I have what I wanted out of this."
He started to move off, but Amity planted one of her large paws firmly on his tail and snarled viciously. "You're so weak, Tristan! Allowing your feelings for that insolent little raccoon dominate your actions! No, Tristan, you are not finished with us. You haven't even begun." She released him and he turned to face her, staring into her golden eyes, glowing with rage. "Besides," she smirked, "you have yet to tell us how we're getting Xylia to Ranger's Folly. I doubt a mere challenge will suffice, so I think we should take something of hers that she can't bear to part with." The bobcat threw back her head and laughed. "Isn't it funny, Tristan, that you have such a hatred of Xylia, and yet you both are overly fond of that little raccoon?"
Tristan's eyes widened. "No, don't... Ruby isn't a part of this! You can't drag her into this."
The bobcat raised a paw and slapped the fox across the face- hard enough to leave three bloody claw marks, and knock him over, but not hard enough to inflict fatal damage. "Don't tell me what I can't do."