I don't own Ice Age or its characters. Only the crippled feline here is mine. No money made.
I based the said feline's injuries loosely on the scientific article „Healed Massive Pelvic Fracture in a Smilodon From Rancho LaBrea, California", by Stewart Shermis, in Paleobios, 1983. Vol.1, No 3, pp121-126, Lyon, France. Again, no money made; this is by no means meant to be a scientific paper. It's a fanwork. It was, however, inspired by the said article, for which I thank the author, as well as for providing us with fascinating information about Smilodon cat. *hugs him*
Rated T for some minor coarse language, some violence stuff and mention of things like reproductive cycles of felines. No graphics. (I probably exaggerated- Ice Age 1 was rated G,and there we had Sid clearly stating that his mate asked him that, if he was going to mate around, he should at least find females with the same fur color…presumably so that noone realizes he's the daddy of the cubs, did I get it right? lol I was laughing sooo hard on that one!!!:-) Ah well, better to be safe than sorry)
P.S. I'll never do a canon/OC again….I swear…. Oneshot, this one.
When Diego had growled out that he'd smelled another saber's scent, Sid, Ellie, Crash and Eddie tried to assure him that it had been only his imagination. They didn't smell anything, no matter which way the wind turned.
Only Manny took seriously Diego's gruffy remark that sabertooth cubs learn how to hide their scent from prey sooner then they learn to walk properly. So when the night fell and Ellie drifted asleep with her tusk wrapped around little Peaches, Crash and Eddie settled themselves hanging from a nearby tree, and Sid snored outrageously loud by the still-smoking remnants of his fire, Manny gave Diego a wordless nod, and the tiger prowled away into the bushes in equal silence.
Next time I'll listen to my own nose rather than Sid's, Diego made a mental note as he now stared at the darkness before him.
"I know you're there", he growled from the depth of his chest. "Show yourself!"
There was no sound, but Diego felt the subtle movement of the air behind the rock before him. A whiff of scent- fresh, feline, female. His nostrils quivered in anticipation.
"Now", Diego snarled, exposing his respectable teeth for emphasis. The fur on his neck bristled, he concentrated on holding his heartbeat and breathing under control. He could hear the other saber's steady, rhythmic beat, her slow breaths. She wasn't scared one bit.
The darkness revealed two fluorescent, golden- glowing eyes, followed smoothly by the rest of the big cat's shape, and a low, throaty, sarcasm-laced growl: "And which great hunter's orders, exactly, am I submitting to?"
"To the one whose territory you're trespassing, as you very well know", Diego whispered back in equally low, rumbling voice, stepping closer. "To the one who would have every right to slice you where you stand for that particular breach, as you also very well know."
"What's stopping you?" She gave out something that was probably supposed to resemble a smile, but it didn't. Not one bit. It was a not-so-subtle, threatening display of her remarkable teeth; she had, Diego noticed, a very impressive asset of eight-inches-long fangs, and healthy, white, sharp incisors. Diego's own teeth were no bigger than hers.
In fact, her entire frame was matching his own in size and bulk; she was certainly quite sturdy, particularly for a female, with well-developed chest and forearms, and a cold, hard glare of amber eyes to match. But what caught Diego's attention in particular was a large, wide, pale scar running through the creamy-colored fur over the left side of her face, her neck and her left flank. Scars like that could be inflicted by a limited number of enemies: humans, rhinos, bisons, mammoths.
Diego had a sickening feeling that the latter was the case. If he was right, this was going to be impossible to solve out peacefully. A saber with such ferocity in her eyes and unforgiving pride in every move of her paws will never back out peacefully, especially not if she'd smelled an opportunity for retribution.
"Where's your pack?" he asked back in the same low, dangerous voice. He studied her further, taking in many smaller scars on her chest and neck, her right ear missing a chunk, her wide, powerful shoulders, her general boastful attitude, and most of all, her smoldering, staring eyes. This lady was a remarkably powerful hunter of a pack, one that had lived through dozens of battles…very likely a commanding hunter, like Diego had been once upon the time, a leader's second-in-command…or even a pack's very leader. She seemed the type.
"Away", she hissed at him.
No. That wasn't right. Why would a leader, or a commanding hunter, stalk around alone, when that was the job for a pack's tracker? And which incredibly stupid leader would designate the tracking duty to somebody this formidably well built for hunting? Trackers were usually small, inappreciable, even impaired in some way that would disable them to participate in actual hunting.
"That was most helpful. Care for some more detailed information?"
"We're on the hunt. We tracked down a pair of mammoths with a calf. We're following their track. That's all information you need."
Diego moved swiftly forward, leaning into her snarling, haggard face, meeting it with a snarl of his own. "On MY territory!!!"
"Well, you hadn't really shown much efficiency this far, had you, pal?" she growled back, showing no fear, much to Diego's irritation. "Your tracks intertwine with theirs. I know you've been following them around for some time. I see no sign of other sabers, no scent, no track. You're all alone, aren't you?" her lips drew into a victorious sneer. "No pack, no mate, nothing. How do you expect to bring down two grown mammoths? Or even one? Half of a mammoth? With a calf, to that…what are you hoping for? A miracle? That one of them will simply lie down and die for you? Last time I checked, mammoths weren't so…cooperative."
"Listen to me", Diego whispered through the clenched teeth, claws out, staring straight into her unwavering, amber eyes. "Those mammoths are out of bounds for you and your pack. Do you understand?" He growled in a deadly low voice. "Turn back from where you came from and leave them alone. Leave my territory, leave the prey untouched and unharmed, and no tricks, or you will suffer…the consequences", he finished with a snarl that would make any reasonable mammal cringe with unease, if not outright fear.
Not this one. She actually had the audacity to smile. "And who will make us suffer, mighty hunter? You and which pack? There are…" she leaned closer to him, as if ready to whisper a secret, "…twenty-three of us. I see only one of you. With all due respect…" she looked him up and down, with a barely perceptible, approving rise of her eyebrows, "… you can't win."
"Would you care to reconsider that statement?" he slowly walked around her, circling around her, which made her having to circle around, too, to keep facing him…and then it became obvious.
She limped. Her right hind leg was considerably thinner that her other, strong, muscular one; Diego instantly recognized an old crushed hip, and it become clear to him why this capable, fierce saber, born to be a hunter, performed a duty of a tracker, one that even Zeke could have performed.
Some time ago, months, maybe even years, she had launched herself on a bison or another large prey animal to bring it down with her front paws, while balancing on her hind legs. That was how sabertooths did; bring it down first, then instantly kill with a bite to the throat, to the large vessels there. But sometimes, the enormous mass of a big prey was too much of a strain for a saber's hips. Sometimes, a hip would break, and often, such wounds went bad, causing fever and festering, leaving the saber either dead, or severely crippled. Never again would such saber be a part of a team hunt. Being left to the care of their packmates, or trying to hunt for themselves the best they could, which was close to impossible, such sabers could do very little for the pack.
This one, however, obviously managed to see to the duty of a tracker. But it was a poor life for someone who was once obviously a proud, highly ranked hunter, to be degraded to a tracker. Trackers didn't enjoy half the honor and respect the hunters did. It was most….humiliating, having to be reduced to a mere memory of their former self…once a commander, now being commanded by lesser packmates… Despite the very dangerous situation, Diego felt a pang of sympathy for the female.
The said female, however, didn't appreciate Diego's inquiring stare. "What are you staring at?" she hissed. The light-brown streak of fur on her nape stood rigidly bristled.
"Nothing at all", he smiled back, trying to be as good of a diplomat as possible. Crippled or not, this lady was a force to be reckoned with; the quiver of her muscles underneath the sleek creamy fur, and the cold, hard glow of her eyes spoke enough. Had it not been for his herd, perhaps he'd hesitate less about picking up a fight with her, but defeating her – supposing, of course, it would be her who would be the defeated one, which was speculative enough to begin with- wouldn't be good enough if he wanted to preserve their peace. He had to talk her into abandoning her task here, into leading her pack away…which, all things considered, was about as probable as Manny learning to fly. His throat went rather dry… a pack of twenty-three sabertooths…not good. Not good at all.
"I know the mammoths are down in that valley", the tracker advanced on Diego with smoothness unexpected from a cat so heavily impaired, eyes glowing on the moonlight; her numerous scars were exposed in the process with merciless clarity. "I will lead my pack to them before the sun is high in the sky. We will corner them, and when that happens, you will have the opportunity to choose. Either you'll acknowledge my leader's authority and join us in the hunt, or you'll clear out of this area and never to cross our path again. Think well."
"There's a third option" Diego refused to break the eye contact; her glare was so intense that he felt almost physically scorched, not to mention challenged. "I stay. I fight. I break your neck."
Her amber eyes widened with surprise, and perhaps a bit of revulsion. Unfortunately, no fear. "Do you have some difficulty perceiving the meaning of numbers? Twenty-three against one doesn't seem like a bit of bad odds to you?"
"Thank you for clarifying that for me. I wouldn't know what I'm getting myself into, if not for your outstanding explanatory skills."
"What is your problem?" she spat, furious now. "What are you hoping to achieve? You are alone! You can't bring two mammoths down alone! If you join us, you would get a fair share of the kill; if you provide us with more information about these mammoths and this territory, my leader might be very generous with you- you would very likely get more than any ordinary newcomer ever would! What do you think you'll get by remaining…"
Her voice trailed off; her eyes widened again, and Diego could almost see the thoughts whirling behind them, clicking together with alarming speed…he sure hoped she didn't think what he thought that she thought…
"Your name is Diego… isn't it?" she drawled out coldly. Her eyes went from large amber lanterns into slanted glowing slits.
"Yes. That's my name", he answered quietly, monitoring the look of profound disgust rapidly forming on her scarred face.
"You are friends with those herbivores. You live with them. You betrayed your pack! You've had your leader killed!!!"
Her voice was louder with every word, each one spoke in furious rage, until the last one turned into an ear-splitting roar. All the quiet voices of night life died down around them. And Diego found it very hard to withstand her smoldering eyes any longer. Only the very high probability of her attacking, and probably going right for the jugular, made him keep on the glaring contest.
"Am I to understand that my reputation precedes me?"
"You scum", she breathed with loathing, "you peace of crap. You're not worthy of the fangs you wear, or the name of a sabretooth tiger! I hesitate to kill you where you stand only because I don't want to have your filthy blood on my teeth or my fur! You're a disgust and a shame for your kind…now move away from my path, or I'll move you!"
Diego blocked her way with his body, snarling. He couldn't, however, control his increasing heartbeat anymore. "A traitor I may be. I did what I judged to be right at the time. A part of my honor was doomed to be sacrificed that day in any case; I decided to return the life debt I owed to the mammoth and refused to be a part of a killing I didn't assume to be justifiable. Now, I'm not going to waste my time trying to teach you the concepts of life debt or sacrifice, so I'm simply warning you to think well , tracker, before you bring your pack, because even without me, that herd is not exactly as defenseless as you think it to be. They already know you're approaching. You'll fail. And even if you win, the losses your pack will endure would make the victory quite…pointless."
"Pointless?" she spat.
"Yes, pointless! What's the point of bringing down a mammoth for sabers to feed upon it, if there are no more sabers left to be fed?"
She kept staring at him, both of them breathing heavily, claws out, fur bristled, growling lowly.
"You'd fight for them?" she whispered. "So you are indeed insane, completely nuts…you'd actually fight for them, wouldn't you?"
"Yes", he whispered back.
"You'd die for them."
"I'm thorough in my insanity."
"That I see." She cocked he head, looking almost impressed by the extent of Diego's mental disorder. She licked her lips. "Life debt? To a mammoth?"
"Under my leader's command, I tried to earn the trust of a certain mammoth and his sloth friend, in order to extract a certain personal vengeance and to kill the mammoth for prey in the process. Somewhere along the way, the mammoth saved my life, putting his own neck at the line. I couldn't forget that."
He paused, watching the tracker closely. She stood unmoving, expression completely unreadable. He continued. "When my leader, Soto, went for the mammoth, I stood between them. I fought my leader and lost. Soto died in a stupid accident…Manny- I mean, the mammoth- pushed him aside, and a pile of ice shards fell on him, stabbing him…"
He trailed away. He'd never before spoken of this to anybody. Not even with Sid and Manny. They never revived that particular part of their story. He really, really didn't want to suddenly start answering to a complete stranger from a hostile pack. He'd thought he might talk his way out of this, but the more he talked, the more appealing seemed the option of a good old brawl…
"And you've been with the mammoth ever since…"
"And a sloth. Later came another mammoth and two possums. Recently, a mammoth calf."
"Touching." He could see she was suppressing an outburst of laughter. "And they…put up with you? They actually accept you among them? A tiger around their precious baby?"
"They trust me, if that's what you meant. And I have no intentions of breaking that trust, if that's what you're insinuating."
"You do realize you could redeem your way back to your own kind, don't you?"
Nice try. "I do," he whispered. "But the price would be a bit too high for me."
"What, putting on some extra weight on mammoth meat?" she cringed.
"Putting on some extra weight on my conscience", he snarled. "I can't switch sides any more. Whatever little is left of my honor, I intend to keep it."
She took a moment of silence before she spoke again, softly. "But you have to hunt to live…"
"…so…how do they feel about that? You share your hunting stories with them? You pride on your hunts before them? And they praise you for that? You share your kills with them?" she grinned slightly at that point.
It was Diego's turn to keep silent for a moment, before fixing her with an acid glare. "Well, every pack has an odd one out or two, hasn't it?" he whispered. "And I'm not the only commanding hunter that lost his position because of…complicated circumstances."
The tracker's eyes narrowed again. Every muscle in her body vibrated again. Her crippled leg twitched, apparently inadvertently.
"A commanding hunter?" she growled through her impressive teeth. "That was your designation in Soto's pack? A commanding hunter? And from that position, you willingly fell to…this?"
There was something disturbingly similar to despair in her voice. It was far more unnerving than any amount of threats she could deliver. It didn't become her. The scars on her face seemed to be deepening by second.
"I'm not asking you to understand-"
"Please, do not."
"-but for the sake of us all, I ask you to call off this particular hunt. There are enough bisons out of this valley for your pack to hunt. If I'm not mistaken, you're an important part of the pack; certainly you can speak to your leader-"
"I'm a tracker!" she hissed on him, showing her teeth again. Her eyes flamed up.
"You weren't always a tracker; you're not the type", Diego stated quietly. He guessed she'd either warm up on him for his flattering, or lash out on his throat. He hoped for the former. "You're obviously a hunter, and I bet my right eye that you used to be a commanding hunter, and that you still hold a decent amount of respect with your leader. You were born a hunter, you're obviously way too strong, too…"
He stopped himself. What the crap was he going to say? Too ugly? Too fierce? Too intimidating? Too intense? This was a female he was talking to…he never knew how to talk to females, never; how the crap was he going to know what she wants to hear, and what he must not mention in his flattering attempts?
Well, it seemed to have worked fine that far, since she yet had to try to throttle him. But she didn't seem to be mellowed one bit either. "I'm not a commanding hunter anymore, as you very well see!" she hissed.
"You don't exactly look as if you're waiting to be fed the leftovers, either."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"That you're more impressive as a tracker, and with that leg, than most healthy tigers as hunters", Diego blurted out, and instantly clamped his mouth shut tight. Diego, you idiot, don't mention her leg, don't mention her leg, don't-
She didn't answer, and once again, her expression was inscrutable. Diego breathed in her scent, hoping to find out more things about her…something he could use…there were no predominating scents of any particular tiger on her, male or female…no mate, then, and no cubs, at least not recently…well, that hardly came as a surprise. With that piss-fire attitude, hardly any male would dare approach her; with that crippled leg, there wasn't a male who'd want her. To be mated, a tiger, male or female, needed to be perfectly healthy and not a burden to their mate.
What a shame, Diego thought. This lady certainly wasn't a burden to anybody, despite her disability. She wasn't much of a beauty- she couldn't be, with those scars all over her- but she was so fascinatingly intense. She looked as if she could burn a tunnel in a mountain with sheer strength of her will. And those eyes, those teeth! Those teeth had to count for something in the courtship game; those teeth really were some impressive seducing tool…
"And why would I do your bidding?" the tracker said at last. "That story of yours is really…cute, but you still remain a traitor, and the mammoth remains a mammoth."
"If you attack, a slaughter will ensue on both sides, and we will all regret", Diego answered. "As I said, this herd isn't as vulnerable as it might seem."
"Why, because it has you?" she snorted.
"Because it's an asset of remarkable mammals. You don't want to mess around with them."
She looked at him incredulously.
"That's one big load of crap", she stated. Diego added perceptiveness to the list of her qualities.
"Maybe. Too bad you won't find out until it's too late."
Silence fell over them again. They continued to stare at each other's glowing eyes, fluorescent on the moonlight. If Diego knew anything about negotiations, their position was pretty much a draw.
Again, Diego took the opportunity to observe her. Many smaller scars on her face and sides aside that huge one on her entire left side…those scars were inflicted by fellow tigers, probably in battles for dominance. And probably after she sustained that crippling injury to her hip. They actually accept you among them?, he wanted to deliver her acid words back at her, but that called it off as a potentially un-diplomatic thing to do.
She was taking in his scent, too, he knew; just like him, she was trying to read her opponent better. Thinking that they might move this to the next level, Diego slowly moved closer to her. She stiffened, but didn't strike out, which encouraged him to sniff her entire length, to her tail and back, finishing with her nozzle. She did the same to him, and with that, a great deal of the tension was eased down, even if he didn't smell anything of importance on her.
At least she didn't seem to be determinate to kill him on the spot for treachery. Perhaps she'd let her leader do the honor.
"Life debt, eh?" she sighed finally. Her features were now more relaxed, but her eyes were still blazing fire. Even with her hackles down and un-snarling, she still gave the air of being able to walk through solid rock. She drew out one long, thick, sharp claw and inspected it with feigned interest. That's what I call a claw, Diego thought. Such a pity…such a remarkable hunter, a remarkable tigress. And then that crap with her hip, and she still managed to hold herself royally. Such spirit. Amazing.
"Life debt", he nodded.
"But once you fought your leader to defend the mammoth, the debt was returned. Yet you stayed. Why?"
"Which pack would have accepted me? I betrayed my kind, as you so kindly pointed out."
"You could have gone under another name, make up a past for yourself-"
"As I said, I have precious little honor left to my person to be such a coward."
"You have absolutely no honor left to your name. As for your person…" once again, her eyes raked over his body, down to the sharp points of his semi-extracted talons, "…I must say I'm…surprised. I expected somebody less…less …" another pause, "…well, I expected less."
Diego felt a flush of warmth making his skin tingle. He had no idea that a prospect of successful negotiations could be so…stimulating.
"I must say I'm surprised myself. I expected we'd start a fight on life and death the moment you realized who I was."
"I've lived long enough to have learned not to be that rash."
"Learned it the hard way, I suppose?" he eyed her from her tail to her nose. "That scar…was that a mammoth?"
Again, he bit on his tongue, regretting his words as soon as they'd left him. A female, this was a female; females didn't want to hear about hideous scars crisscrossing half their bodies-
- but this one cocked her head quite proudly as if he'd just given her the sweetest compliment she'd ever heard. "Yes. I managed to bring him down…in a way that had my leader convinced that I deserved the position of a commanding hunter."
"More than deserved, obviously. Wish I had a hunter like that in my-"
He cut himself off, not wanting to discuss about his old pack. Whenever he thought of them, the back of his eyes would start throbbing in a most irritating way. To talk about them, especially to a hostile stranger, especially to a hostile stranger this strikingly fierce, especially to a strikingly fierce, hostile stranger that was female, was better avoided than regretted.
Before she could start with questions about Soto and the others, rocking him out of his cage in the process, he purposely stared at her crippled leg. This time, she didn't cock her head, but lowered it down in a disapproving, if not outright aggressive way. "What?" she hissed.
Diego couldn't blame her. If that long, ugly scar on her left side was how her career of the commanding hunter begun, then her leg was certainly how it ended. What a shame, irreparable shame. Such fine piece of a hunter.
"Forgive me for saying this", he tried to be reasonably humble without sounding as if he was trying to wriggle his way up her asshole, "but you manage your…condition…extraordinarily well." He continued quickly, seeing how her eyes blazed in anger at his boldness: "Most tigers would curl up and die. Only a small number would ever walk again, being fed by their packmates to the rest of their lives. But you, you…you are…I mean…you are just amazing, leg or no leg…"
"Shut yer hole", she whispered coldly, fixing him with a stare that made him feel as if he'd just fallen into a lake of icy water, and the ice was solidifying on the surface too quickly for him to dive out. "Don't you dare mocking at me! For less than that, for much less, I broke bones of other smartass wannabe-my-superiors-"
"I wasn't mocking at you!" Diego snarled as she moved around him with that impossible swiftness for a cat with three functional legs. "I mean that! I saw tigers with such injuries, I know how they end up! But you are unbelievably…capable! You only have a bloody limp!"
"I'm not a hunter anymore!!!"
"You're not a part of a team work anymore, that's all! I bet you're still hunting alone, right? Right?" he roared back at her. She kept glaring at him, breathing heavily. "I thought so! Do you know that tigers don't hunt anymore after such injury? None of them hunts! They can barely walk! But you hunt, if only for yourself! And you still work for the pack, you are a tracker, you're not a dead weight- do you know how much that means? And I bet my tail you kicked butt of everybody who tried to outrank you- I mean, just look at yourself, who would ever think that you're- It's just-impressive, it's-I'd---"
He went quiet because he very nearly blurted out that he'd take a mate like her any time of day, and he wasn't exactly certain she'd acknowledge that as a compliment. At this moment, the fur on her neck was bristled enough. Again they glared at each other, both breathing fast and hard as if they've just hunted down a three-ton bison.
"You're worth ten hunters, any idiot can see that", Diego spoke tiredly. "So what if they call you a tracker? You know how much you can do…"
"Nice speech. I'll sure cherish those words, knowing they come from a blood traitor. I have to remember them for the next time my pack leaves me behind to hunt, and I wait back watching over the cubs and my blind great-great-grandmother. By the way, you care because…?"
"Because you're fasccc…" Diego growled lowly through his clenched teeth.
"I might be asking for too much, but could you please be a little bit more coherent?"
He really couldn't just tell her that he found her fascinating, amazing in every way. At best, she'd consider him a spineless prick trying to get under her skin. Worse, she'd think he was making fun of her, or that he was suffering the consequences of prolonged deprivation of his own kind's company.
"Just forget it, okay?" he snarled. He was much better at snarling than at sharing compliments.
"Fine!" she snapped back. More silence followed that. Everything was quiet around them. Nothing moved when the roars of two sabertooths disputing rang across the area in irregular intervals. Their hearts were beating in a matching, fast rhythm. And they were still not an inch closer to the solution of their immediate problem.
Well, my immediate problem, to be exact, Diego corrected himself. She only has to bring over the rest of her pack and I'll be razed to the ground, literally and metaphorically, along with the rest of my herd-
"And you're really going to defend that herd when we attack?" she suddenly asked in that same snappy, sharp tone.
"With my last bloody breath!" Diego snarled in equal fashion.
"Well, it sure will be your last breath, and it sure is going to be bloody, you idiot! It was quite obvious you're insane from the moment I saw you, but you didn't strike me as stupid!"
"First of all, I don't see why would that be any of your concern. And second, if you're so profoundly worried about my welfare, I might point out that it's up to you whether to lead your pack here or not!"
"First of all, it's not. My concern, I mean. But I'm not comfortable about one of our own having to be killed by us, even if he does have some ridiculous identity issues. And second, my pack trusts me, and, unlike some, I have no intentions of breaking that trust because of some delusional ideas of a mad tiger, or for anything, for that matter!"
"That's praiseworthy, seeing how inclined you are to think with your own head, rather than having somebody else to think for you", Diego hissed, leaning into her face with bared teeth, leaning so close he could see little flecks of brown and golden in her amber eyes. Expectedly, she didn't flinch away the tiniest bit. "Is that the same pack that had you thrown away from the position of the commanding hunter, shunned you aside when you were no longer as useful to them as before, and whose members keep trying to take away every bit of your remaining authority?"
She lashed away with her claws with lightning speed. Diego, expecting the attack, managed to jump away with equal swiftness. Only a small trickle of blood ran down his right cheek, and he licked it away, shaking from head to tail with eager expectation, itching for a fight. Go on, baby, give me your best, come ON-
To his disappointment, she didn't advance on him. In fact, for the first time, she looked actually shaken, and he was adamantly certain that very few mammals had ever seen her like he saw her now. Her teeth were threateningly bared, claws out and all, but her eyes were swimming with…well, pain. Either his words hit a certain sensitive spot very hard, or her leg was putting her into one damnable world of suffering.
"That's the same pack that kept me alive when I was bloody nearly broken in two and was immobile for weeks!" she roared, "the same pack that I have a couple of friends in, friends that saved my pathetic life then and there, friends that I'd die for any old time!"
"Excuse me, but those were mine lines!" Diego roared back, leaning again into her face, ready for another lashing of her large, long claws, hoping for it. "I expect, then, that you'd understand my…persistence with this!"
"Persistence…at saving lives of creatures that were born to be prey…such loyalty to them, and none at all to your own kind!"
"I am loyal to those who have earned my loyalty! I'm sorry if it's above you to try to understand it, but those creatures have proved their loyalty to me more times than I can remember! And yes, they kept me alive when I was injured, providing me with food to the best of their abilities-"
"Herbivores, providing you with food? What did they bring you to eat, daisy salad?"
"The sloth was fishing for me, and the mammoth was searching for carcasses, until I could hunt again, actually-"
"You're joking, right?"
"Do I look like a joking type to you?"
She didn't answer. She seemed to process the mental image of a mammoth digging the ground for fresh carcasses to feed his carnivore friend, and searching for some fresh grass for himself in the process. Or maybe a sloth, perked for hours above the fishing hole to catch a fish large enough at least for one decent bite, his tail standing stiffly in the air and nose flattened to the icy surface, until his limbs went numb-
"I can't believe this…" she moaned, grinding her teeth, and started to limp the perimeter with agonized exasperation. "I can't bloody believe…how the heck do you feed yourself now, by the way?" she suddenly pinched him with a stare again.
"I hunt, of course!" he spat in an offended manner, deciding to skip pointing out how many times he'd scavenged on the already dead for practical purposes.
"You hunt on this territory? Aren't your precious friends a bit too delicate to witness their buddy ripping windpipes out of their fellow vegetarians?"
"I hunt a bit further away from here, and I don't exactly make a big show-for-all of it, damn it!"
"And you manage to hunt all alone?"
"And who's being stupid now? Don't you think I'd pretty much be dead by now if I didn't hunt? If you think you can talk to the dead, then you should ask yourself which hallucinogenic plants had your recent prey been grazing upon!"
Again, she kept her mouth shut. Apparently, she tended to keep quiet, and actually think for a while, when presented with something unknown and incomprehensible to her, rather than blurt out something stupid, or act rashly. Which was definitely a worthy and rare quality. He liked that. He liked that a lot.
This time, silence stretched for a fair amount of time, during which they both worked on regaining control over their breathing and fast-beating hearts again. They avoided looking at each other, until Diego caught her staring at him with those lantern-like eyes, and blinking away when she realized she was caught in the act. Feeling tired and drained as if he'd run the whole territory seven times up and down, Diego sat down, and the tracker mimicked him. The minutes passed by, the moon was slowly travelling across the sky, the sounds of night animals started to revive again, and the two tigers were still silent, sharing occasional glances and taking in each other's scent every now and then.
It was her who spoke first, almost inaudibly even to a tiger's sharp hearing.
"It's…demanding…to hunt alone."
"Not many sabers manage to- prosper- out of the pack."
Diego didn't know if his existence might exactly be called 'prosperous', but if the lady had found something to admire on him, he wasn't going to complain. "Well, I'm not really all alone. I have…my herd."
"I was referring to your hunting, you nutcase. I don't care how pleasant their company may or may not be, or how much obliged you feel to them. When it comes about hunger, you are quite alone…unless they still bring you fish and carcasses."
"Of course they don't!" he snapped, insulted with the very thought of having to depend to the rest of his life on Sid's fishing abilities.
"Then you are as good as alone", she stated firmly.
"They managed to keep me alive when I was wounded, to their great effort and at the expense of omitting their usual customs of life. That I can't forget, not if I get to live for dozens of seasons to come…"
"So you omitted your customs of life as a compensation for their efforts?"
"Not only as compensation", he shook his head. "It's hard to explain…but I believe you can understand when I tell you that I'm not only driven by my gratefulness to them, but also by the fact that I see them as my friends, and I'd hate to see any harm coming to them."
"They are prey, Diego" the tracker said softly. "You can as well quit hunting the other prey, too, if that's how you feel, and lie down and die. It's only the matter of chance that you ran into those particular herbivores and befriended them. It could have been any other prey animal. What makes those guys so special? The fact that you grew fond of them?" she shook her scarred head disapprovingly. "If they are so precious and worthy of life, than every other prey animal is, too. You can't make such huge exceptions basing solely on your…extravagant taste. For friends, I mean."
Diego paused, staring in the darkness, before answering: "That is true. I can't change how nature works, or the destiny of hundreds of animals, prey or hunters-"
" -my point exactly- "
" -but for my herd, for the six of them, I can change everything, maybe, if I try. For them, the difference counts, even if everything else around us stays the same."
He caught her incredulous look. "You know, our elders teach us never to talk to prey with good reason", he added, smiling faintly. "You wouldn't believe the things you can live to see with them."
"I'm sure I wouldn't", she cocked her head to the side like a cub in wonder. Her head had a handsome shape, even if one had to strain a bit to notice it among all those scars and a half-missing right ear. But it was much more obvious if she refrained from snarling and sneering. "You are unbelievable, do you know that?"
Not knowing if that was supposed to be a prize or a reproach, Diego chose to ignore this.
Once again, they went quiet. Somehow, the silence seemed to be more companionable to Diego. Or it was just that it's been ages since he'd last spoken to a tiger, and he hadn't realized until now just how much he'd missed the throaty voices, the scent of their fur, the sight of their glowing, green, hazel, brown, yellow and amber eyes, the touch of their noses and skin against his own, the content growling and purring and nibbling at each other's ears and necks at leisure time. He didn't even dare to think how good it would feel to hunt with a fellow saber again, to share the prey and the pride of bringing it down, watching each other's backs while they ate, walking to the water afterwards to drink, shoulder to shoulder, and nothing in the world would dare to cross their path. He really didn't want to think about any of it, but the tracker's presence wasn't helping him with the matter one bit. The fact that he hadn't seen a female saber ever since the humans disposed of half of Soto's pack- mostly females, Soto's mate included- was perhaps the least helpful thing of all.
Or perhaps it had less to do with his desperate craving for saber's company than he was willing to admit. Perhaps it was about her, fierce and crippled, strong and battered, ugly and fearsome and fearless, amazing as she was. She wasn't in season, was she, her scent spoke of that clearly, so why was his mind spinning in this most unfavorable, disadvantageous way, and so untimely, to that?
They kept on sniffing on one another, more to wordlessly confirm the un-hostile nature of their current fragile relation, than to pick up some actual information on each other. It was all pretty much said, and the only thing that kept them from either picking up a brawl or returning to their respective communities and alerting their friends of the situation was their mutual unwillingness to be the possible cause of destruction of the other one, and the cause of the impending slaughter on both sides. At least, Diego hoped it was mutual. Or that at least a part of it was mutual.
He continued to shoot glances on her, knowing that a saber like that would probably eviscerate him if she knew just how unbelievably sorry he felt for her. She wouldn't want anybody to feel sorry for her; her entire life was obviously about not giving anybody a reason to feel sorry for her. But he did. He'd seen a lot of strange things in his life, but he'd never met anybody who could be so fearsome and so pity-inducing at the same time. She'd actually be less obvious if she was less strong and obstinate; she was painfully obvious in her wreckedness the way she was.
And yet, Diego found her downright…rapturous. In every way. Among sabretooths, beauty was appraised through several physical traits: big, healthy teeth, well-developed, muscled front quarters and forelegs, strong neck, clear eyes, sleek, shiny fur. Ferociousness, intelligence and ability to fight were extra bonuses. Same criteria were applied to males and females. This lady had all of the above in abundance. Was it possible that she didn't have a mate just because of her…little shortcoming…?
Well, not so little, he had to admit it. Above all things, a saber had to be healthy to find a mate. A guaranteed ability to hunt and care for cubs was the ultimate, inflexible condition for mating. It couldn't be avoided, bypassed or played out in any way. Even the fact that this tracker had done a miracle by doing this well, by merely being able to mostly take care of herself and even hunt a bit, she was still impaired beyond hope. For every respectable male member of sabertooth pride, it would be ultimately repulsive.
Well, Diego was no longer a respectable member of sabertooth pride, and he didn't find it repulsive. It spoke volumes of the iron-hard strength of her will, will that performed miracles, and he found it quite…mesmerizing. Respectful. It was astonishing, it was-
At one point, the tracker sniffed at Diego's nose, and then, then he did something completely stupid, rash and thoughtless.
He licked her nose as one would do to a mate. Or a cub, or perhaps a very, very good friend. But not to a stranger from a hostile pack.
She froze; the pupils in her eyes dilated. He froze. Not only his words failed him, leaving him gaping like a complete moron; his brain seemed to have turned momentarily empty of any coherent thought, let alone the idea of a justifiable excuse for his incredibly bold and uncouth behavior.
And when several moments seeped away between them, and both of them still stood there pretty much petrified, and Diego found himself being, unexpectedly, still alive and in good health, one word managed to by-pass the filter in his brain and arise in his consciousness.
"What did you do that for?" she finally asked softly. Her nose was still very close to his own, and he was disturbingly aware that she might snap out and bite off half of his muzzle, and he was so frozen that he couldn't even blink.
And then it came to him that she'd asked him something, and was- imagine that!- actually expecting an answer…
Tell her that you like her!, a voice similar to Sid's whispered somewhere in the back of Diego's brain. Wasn't it irritating enough that he had to put up with the sloth's nerve-splitting qualities in real life; now he had a mental projection of Sid to torture him in his head? Go on, buddy; tell her that she's awesome!
"Well?" she insisted in that same smooth, low voice. Her eyes gave out nothing; her heart could be heard racing, just like Diego's. It was either very good or disastrously bad, since she was either getting ready to mate, or to rip his belly open and outstretch his bowels from one end of the valley to another. Her muscles quivered in her powerful forearms. It was exactly like staring into quickly rising water. Why, why did the tracker have to be a female…this female…?
"Idunno", Diego growled out.
"I didn't quite catch that, sorry?" and why did she have to had kept her speech skills in perfectly functioning order, while his own seemed to have degenerated back to the level of a stuttering two-months old cub?
Tell her you like her! Tell her now, or it will be all over now!, his mental-Sid-voice moaned. Go on, tiger! You can lick this, you're a tiger!!!
"Er, well, I, er, I guess I kinda…like you", he squeezed the words out in a voice that was far more appropriate for frightening off a rival than for seducing a still-reluctant mate. He looked purposefully into the snowy ground and stopped breathing altogether. There. Happy now, sloth?
"But I'm so bloody ugly…" she said so softly that he instantly whirled around to look at her. "And I'm not even in season…"
She sounded so painfully sincere, and her eyes were so wide-open, pupils dilated and full of surprise, that his heart skipped a couple of breaths. Certainly she couldn't be that insecure about…that part of herself, when she was so damnably proud and obstinate and aggressive about…everything else?
Tell her that she's nowhere near ugly! That she has nice, strong teeth, beautiful eyes, strong body! Go on, what are you waiting for? You know what to say! Tell her!
Knock it off, sloth! I have a perfect control over this, I don't need your-
Then you better tell something good, something soon!
Diego opened his mouth to tell her all those nice things…some nice things…something good…
"Well, you're my kind of ugly, and…er, I don't mean that you are ugly, I mean…'cos you're not, that is, and…ah…eh…and if you're not in season, that's even better, I mean, if you're not keen to have a litter just yet, you know; no season, no brats…cubs…kids…litter."
Diego?, another voice in his mind, this one much more Manny-like, made him cringe, you're an idiot.
Thank you. Such observation skills; I'm impressed. I'm sure it was difficult to notice.
I suggest that you use your natural-born gift for sarcasm in the more immediately problematic conversation, because anything is better than the blabbering you're managing right now, the Manny-voice grunted.
"Well, that's…interesting motivation", she got to her paws…
"I'm sorry, I'm not any bloody good in this- it wasn't supposed to come out like- the thing is, you're- I've- you should know that you're really remarkable, such strength, look at you, nothing could destroy you, you're larger than- I'm not trying to do something you- not if I could, I mean, maybe I could, but to see if I could, we'd have to come to blows first and then we'd know but even if I could I wouldn't try to – "
"Diego", the tracker grinned- actually grinned- all her teeth were showing, and it wasn't a snarl; he managed to unglue his butt from the ground and get to his paws, too, ready to strike back- "- er, Diego…I'm not exactly much for pretty words…I don't see what the heck you- that is, I don't mind your…er, and can't imagine why would someone…why the crap did you…oh, and for the litter, I'm not really an ideal…heck, you're the remarkable one, Diego, are you that desp- "
"Okay, stop it, like…now", he gave her a playful push, thankfully not knocking her off-balance in the process, and feeling significantly lighter in his chest, and in his head, too.
"You mean, the talking?"
"More than fine with me."
Diego climbed the final steps to his pack's resting place at the crack of dawn, with tiredness that had him closing his eyes before he hit the ground on the spot he called his own, a bit away from the others, as usual. He took one final whiff of the air before he stretched and yawned widely. Ellie and Peaches still sleeping peacefully, the Dynamic Duo hanging upside down, as they should, Sid still snoring, Manny…only Manny was missing, but his scent was fresh; he probably went away for a moment, and will be back in a minute. Well, he'll wait for Manny to give him a report- well, the important part of it- with his eyes closed...
Diego jumped, letting out a snarl. Peaches stirred and Ellie's eyes snapped open. "Whh…Manny, what-? Is everything…"
"Everythin' fine, Ellie. Just some guys talk here", Manny answered. "Sleep. It's still early."
Ellie took in the sight before her, pissed Manny facing disheveled , wide-eyed Diego. She raised her eyebrows, but closed her eyes, though her ears remained suspiciously pricked. Sid just rolled over and continued to snore, and the possums didn't even twitch. Diego's hearts hammered in his chest; he looked up at Manny's frowned, massive brown face. "What?!?" he hissed. "What's your problem?"
"My problem? MY problem?" Manny did his best attempt of a whisper, though his success at it was debatable. "You were gone for the whole ruddy night! I thought that your cousins out there took a chunk of you, I didn't know if I should go search for you, or to stay and watch- it was supposed to be a short scouting crappy trip!!! Where were you? Went hunting? And what of them sabers, was it them, or- is that another saber's scent on you?" and he stood there, seething, shooting daggers from his brown eyes.
Diego didn't know whether to be touched or simply surprised. He didn't have the time to decide, though, because Manny's trunk sniffed Diego's entire length, and quickly sprang back as if something on Diego slapped him across the face. His expression darkened like a stormy cloud.
"It's all right", Diego said quickly. "There is a pack of sabers at the south outskirt of the valley, but I don't think they're going to go any deeper. I talked to their tracker; she said she'd convince their leader to head east."
"Oh, would she? So kind of her…And you believe her? And why?"
"Well-er, yeah; I'd say she means what she says, and says what she means. She said she has a certain amount of influence on the leader, and I do believe her. She seems like a…like somebody who can get…very persuasive."
"Influence, eh? Lucky guy," Manny's expression was getting darker by minute, but Diego, despite his friend's bad temper, was finding it difficult to keep his eyes open. "Both of you, actually, eh?...and why would she give up the hunt, if she knows she can find mammoth meat here? Because you asked her? Is that your argument?"
"I do suggest that you keep an eye open today, just in case, but I don't think there'll be a problem. You didn't see her; she's a type to stick to her word. I think I handled the situation, er, well."
"Yeah, I can smell that. You mated her!" Manny snarled; Ellie's left ear twitched. "What were you thinking? So you trust her, but did it come to your addle-brained mind that she might have not been completely honest with you? Dang it, Diego, I'd expect something like this from Sid, but you- "
"Look, Manny, are you going to trust me on this?" Diego's eyes bore into Manny's. "Are you?"
"It's not your sincerity that I'm kinda suspicious about!"
"I'm tired, Manny", Diego growled and curled up, closing his eyes and sighing deeply. "Do as you wish. Stay on guard. But I'm telling you it's all right. I'm going to sleep now. Have a nice day."
Silence lasted only for a few seconds, but Diego had already started to drift into slumber, when Manny's voice, considerably more gentle, and quieter, stirred him again. "Er, I'm not doubtin' you, ol' buddy. Was just, er, a bit worried. Er- hope she's, errrr…well, never mind."
"Well, since you and Sid played the whole matchmaking thing for Ellie and me, you could at least give yer ol' pal her name?"
Diego's eyes shot open.
He knew he'd forgotten to ask her something important.