Author's Note: There is a lot of dialogue in this chapter, particularly in the second half. As long as you've been paying attention within the story, you should be able to figure out who is chatting with who. Thanks to you all for sticking with me to the very end!
VII. Tiger's Heart
A dim sunlight seeped onto Diego's body and into his hazel eyes as he slowly paced downhill to reunite with the rest of the herd. A warm, southern breeze gently shifted Diego's hair forward - the area around Diego was extremely calm, with a soothing, natural ambiance; for the first time in a while, he was walking tall, full of pride, and taking in an indistinct feeling, one that he hadn't felt in a long time.
He risked his own life to keep these animals protected. A fine line between care and love, had just been passed. Emotions had not been a prevalent experience for him - physically being the strongest tiger meant dealing the most destruction when it came to devastating a group of helpless prey. Those days were over. Diego no longer needed to find peace within himself - no more dreadful searches within his past, and his problems with Soto no longer existed. Oscar's former resentment toward him couldn't exist, leadership was a much too large of a plate to fit with a side of memories.
Possibly the most surprising of changes was the increase in physical strength, potentially due to another run in with the face of death. Perhaps that was when life's meaning struck his mind. Diego spat at death, within a few inches of his face, and lived to tell another story. Whether or not he should have perished in that catastrophic predicament revolving around aquatics had no meaning; life had a stronger, but more pleasant path, meant for the saber. The puzzle of the missing saber was solved in all forms: he finally had his opportunity to reunite with the family who loved him the most, he finally was able to fill the pieces of their lives after picking up pieces of his own. Not only that, but the sole responsibility of his previous depression had been eliminated - Soto, who left him in emotional shambles, was no longer a live image his life, only a distant memory; shortly ago, the mention of his presence brought his face in the direction of the floor below him, and caused him to break - a rarity. But now, his death, seemed to bring peace to Diego, although not for the total disintegration of his leadership and morale, but more so because the unpleasant reminiscences of his betrayal disappeared along with his life.
Well, this is it.
The large river was within eye-shot, the familiar trail wrapping around it. Diego realized that he had been gradually slowing down, as the scenery around him was lit only by the stars of the clear night sky. Night travel, while normally dangerous alone, never brought fear to Diego; unchanged terrain served as an even stronger reinforcement to not only his, but also the rest of the herd's safety. He found himself wondering where the herd had relocated to, as his mind didn't quite process the exact location they mentioned when his main priority was to keep everyone safe.
As he examined the trail and all of the forest around it, a soft, but noticeable light filled the darkness. Instinctively, Diego's ears pointed up from their usually flattened position - he cracked a short grin before following the source. As he followed the trail southward toward the light, he glanced over to his right to see the river that nearly did him in, as harmless and innocent looking as ever, a formerly open coffin in disguise. His grin continued on his face as he moved closer and closer to the light, the remnants of burning bark tickled Diego's nose. He was close.
The ego of a saber, the only entity stronger than pride - Diego's stare remained directed to the body of water, his confidence beyond measurability knowing that he survived a run-in with a true phobia not once, but twice.
I told ya, I wasn't your prey.
Diego chuckled before shifting his attention away from the river, running into a patch of brown strands before regaining full attention on the light. The contact was soon complemented with a spontaneous, but quickly suppressed roar - quiet enough to not compromise their position but long enough to startle anything around him. The source of light, a campfire, was a mere few feet away; he was back where he wanted to be, albeit scaring a majority of the herd. Manny, Sid, and the two possums stared attentively at Diego, unaware of the meaning around the brief outburst.
"Ahem...sorry." To Diego's surprise, they fell to the mercy of fatigue; no questions asked involving his past, no scolding for causing intense amounts of stress during Ellie's pregnancy, and no information about the baby. Lack of information and understanding were the issues behind his previous distress, but it didn't make a difference to him now. Explanations were later business, all that mattered was he'd kept those he cared about safe. The only matter of the present, was to rest.
Diego pressed his right side against the thin layer of dirt below him, with his four legs lightly but comfortably outstretched from his somewhat worn and battered torso, thinking in amazement about all of the events that occurred to him within the course of a few days. His eyes began to lower and dim; the campfire's glow began to fade darker and darker.
"Good n--" Diego couldn't finish a thought before being nudged by a thick, brown trunk.
"Hey, Manny. I'm sor--"
"I'm not Manny, tough guy. You have it in you to take a short walk?" Ellie's incredible resilience left Diego stunned and brought him to his feet. It had only been a few hours since the miracle delivery and already, Ellie was on her feet and able to move with fluidity.
"Eh, well, what about Manny?"
"What about him?" Diego's head dropped in response to Ellie's sarcastic question. His sudden disappearance took form as a thought in his mind once more; rehashing the past normally would have proven ineffective for mental harm. While they hadn't talked much, Ellie was able to pick up on the release of sadness.
"Only wanted to make you laugh, bad timing, huh?" Diego raised his head to Ellie's in surprise once again; most animals never had the chance to view a saber's rugged face before feeling their life drain away through two sharp canines through the neck, and even saber on saber interaction led to an occasional brawl or fight. But of all animals, a female mammoth, one who hadn't experienced any sort of offending attack up close, was able to pick up remorse from a tiger. Oddly enough, Diego smiled after blankly staring at Ellie. He had his doubts, but Ellie hadn't ever directly talked to him before, and curiosity had him wondering why she would want him over anyone else to talk about something.
"Where did you have in mind?"
"There's a cliff up ahead where we can look at the lake. It's not too far from here." Laughter began spewing from out of Diego as confusion began to take hold of Ellie. He knew that Ellie had no idea why he was laughing; he found it within himself to breathe for a second to reply:
"You'll hear why, soon enough." Diego propped up on all fours and dragged himself up the uneven terrain, smiling the along the way.
Diego kept a close eye on Ellie, embracing nature as much as moonlight would allow. He remembered Manny's blindness at night without any sort of natural or artificial light; the dim light was insufficient. After a short distance, he slightly increased his speed to catch up with Ellie.
"I'll keep in front, since you can't see too well in the dark."
"Manny's the one that is night-blind. This is why I brought you up here - there's so little we know about each other."
They had reached the peak of the trail, staring out into the skies; the light of the moon painted images of the dimly lit tree tops, the stagnant river acting as nature's large canvas. Neither of them had the chance to true appreciate the gift of a serene environment, and even now, the main focus was each other, not the tranquil surroundings. Diego dropped himself to the ground, resting it against his partially bruised chest.
"Manny told me a lot about you, Diego."
"Like...what?" Diego did abscond himself for a while, and while he was depressed and saddened by it, he was curious to hear how everyone took to his disappearance, and even more so, how Ellie would go about telling the story of how they found him; he had after all, been gone a whole three days, which was three days longer than necessary.
Argh, not again...
Diego stared at Ellie, pushing back his emotions, trying to prevent any sort of crack in his normal behavior. Ellie's hesitation overwhelmed Diego's mind; drawing the past, even to Ellie - someone he hadn't even communicated with directly, still inflicted massive amounts of anguish. Diego's instincts were typically without error; he felt the bitter edges of his past trying to cram itself in the empty sections of his memory after he had to strive so hard to push them out, and reliving them to explain his abnormal behavior was beyond his comfort.
"...how you nearly got yourself killed for Manny." Diego was speechless. The memories clawing on Diego's mind almost immediately dissipated; he was able to reminiscence back to one of his honorable points of his life, and while incredibly close to his betrayal, it was no longer a necessity to remember. Rational thinking put him back at ease; no matter how painful his life used to be, it would never fall below that point.
"Well, he fell into a river of lava to save me. If it wasn't for a geyser sending the ice below him back onto cold land, we wouldn't be here talking."
"Wait, that actually happened?" Ellie recalled telling Manny that she didn't believe for one second that's how things turned out. Not everyone could be lying to her, especially not Diego, who had absolutely no reason to hold anything back.
"He told you about that too, I'm guessing..." Diego paused for a moment, before letting off a small chuckle. "...that would be a pretty big highlight of his life."
"About as big as him being the father of little Ellie."
A night of memories that brought relief was a very welcoming feeling to both of them after many restless days and nights attempting to pick up any sorts of missing pieces. Diego was never used to fending for himself while having so many emotions and feelings, as if he took a route down a mesmerizing path of passion; at the same time, Ellie rarely took the chance to thank Diego for his help with everything from saving her "brothers" to keeping them alive when the ground collapsed under the entire herd's feet. Diego's quick thinking had saved them on more than one occasion; Ellie was a quiet, but quite observant spectator to everyone's life, quite possibly the reason as to why she empathized with every soul within her vision.
She took a look at Diego, who was openly staring and seemingly enjoying a no-worries lifestyle; the second-nature, adventurous lifestyle that he once hoped for no longer crossed his mind.
"Diego, I'm not going to sit here and say that I haven't heard about your past."
Unlike the first mention of his past, Diego remained motionless as he viewed the beauty of the horizon in its entirety, again preparing himself for yet another mouthful about his past mistakes.
"I know you planned on having Manny killed, at first. But..."
"...that wasn't the plan!" A loud roar canceled out the silence around them. Ellie's head went away from Diego's and back out to the river; for the first time, she truly felt threatened by him. Diego lifted himself up and began to hastily walk back and forth.
Ellie began to follow Diego's body back and forth as he paced a small area repeatedly.
"I never wanted to kill Manny. Even before he saved my life, I could not think normally knowing that I was getting closer and closer to where I was forced to go. I didn't even want to pick up that scrawny little infant knowing that it would get mutilated by...never mind."
"By who? You don't have to stop for me, it's not like I know your past, hun." She was aware that the past would not entirely release and reveal itself unless it was forced out.
"I just...alright. My leader, Soto. He told me that if I didn't get that baby, I'd be offering myself up as a replacement. What was I supposed to do?"
"I hear ya, but, why cou--" Heavy footsteps shook the ground below them; the still-venting Diego walked in the direction of the sound, crouched and growling, ready to strike at the unknown. The color of what was behind him became clearer as it grew larger, until he noticed the large brown figure a few yards from him. They both met eyes, until the charging mass came to a quick halt.
"Diego! What did you do with Ellie?!" Out of the darkness, Sid and the possum twins came rolling off of Manny's large, nearly invisible head, as the baby mammoth giggled while sliding off of his thick trunk.
"Oh, it's you." He lifted himself to stand normally again with no danger in sight.
"That's all you have to say for taking Ellie alone? 'Oh, it's you.' Have you cared about anyone but yourself lately?" Diego was shocked. Of all people, Manny was the one he confided to most with his problems; he came to Manny when contemplating leaving the first time, not to mention there was some missing appreciation for keeping him alive a long time ago.
"Now hold on." Ellie took position in front of Diego, a role reversal that had never in his life happened before. The protector was now the protected, from any sort of impending attack that could even be pondered.
"I can't believe you would sit here and give Diego grief after all he's been through! He's saved your hide more than once and you still don't have even one ounce of trust for him?"
Diego took another stare at Ellie, this time, ears up and smiling. For all of the times that he'd taken the proverbial bullet for the herd, the favor was finally repaid in his direction, by the least likely of candidates. An awkward feeling it was, to see a saber emotionally grow on a mammoth, even more so a female who already had a mate. As if the oddities hadn't stacked up enough, Manny's aggression toward the person he missed not too long ago was quite harsh.
"She's right, Manny. Ellie hasn't lied to you once." Sid also sided with the still-confused saber.
"The fact that he took her up here alone is enough for me to be nervous, you know that." Manny's glare did not ease whatsoever. The closest thing to a physical battle within the herd was a long while ago, back when he had Diego pinned to a boulder with his tusks just before entering Half Peak.
"Yeah, and the fact of the matter is you like to assume stuff. I brought Diego up here, just before he thought about sleeping, for your information. And what of it if he so happened to bring me up here anyway?"
"You what!? Did you forget that you just had a baby?" Manny's glare finally broke away from Diego and shifted straight to his mate, who was irritated with the sudden instance of anger.
"Well, I thought that you could handle yourself for longer than five seconds without having a panic attack but obviously that's not the case either!"
"Hey, take it e--" A failed attempt to intervene an inevitable argument; Diego vaguely recalled the last argument Manny and Ellie had before crossing the geyser-filled fields.
"And I wouldn't have to handle myself if you took more responsibility for a change!"
"Sure, because me wondering about how Diego's been feeling the past couple of days means I'm irresponsible!"
"You left me alone with the baby!"
"Guys..." Sitting there without a say as to what happens was an old and tiresome game to Diego; just when he'd thought the tension was relieved from every direction, he becomes witness to yet another verbal outburst. He didn't care how it started, it was going to end.
"You're one half of the parenting in this family!"
"And you're the other half! What does th--"
A colossal roar came from Diego, echoing deep into the forests, causing all of the arguments, the tension, the anger and rage, all to be brought to him. By the time Diego had realized how much power was contained within his own little blowout, the herd had taken a few steps away from him; the possum twins laid motionless on their backs as the little baby mammoth's eyes opened wider, but somehow kept from crying.
Diego looked at Crash and Eddie, whose eyes were shut, tongues hanging out from their mouths, and flat on the floor; he shook his head back and forth horizontally in disapproval. No matter what he did, he had the ability to instantly strike fear to anything within his sight. As normal as that was for a saber, it was far less than satisfying to Diego. All that he wanted was to seamlessly meld with the herd so that it felt like family. With the entire herd being his audience, he was finally ready to talk.
"Stop. I've heard more than enough arguing and drama for one day, and you two aren't going to instigate anymore. Now, get up. I'm not going to hurt you." He turned toward the possum twins and spooned them up with his right paw, ending up right behind Sid, petrified.
"Do you have any idea how many mistakes I've done in this past week, Manny?" Manny did not respond, as his inquiring mind was curious.
"I'll take your lack of a response as a no, but since you're awfully quiet, I'll just talk until I have nothing more to say." Diego began to pace back and forth again, making the rest of the herd uneasy once more.
"I could have sent the rest of the pack away from Half-Peak, then I could have went with you to take that baby to the father, just like we did a while back. I would have avoided a near death for the first time, and we would have still been together. But no, I had to take you guys into an ambush because I was naive and followed the likes of a lunatic."
The lull continued as Diego proceeded through his rant of his past.
"Then, I made the mistake by getting to Half-Peak and nearly killing my leader. I was second in command, a beta, which I worked my tail off to get to, only to turn my back on him and leave."
Manny broke the rant by gathering the strength and bravery to speak to the already agitated tiger.
"If you had so much that you wanted to talk about, why didn't you bring it up when you stood with me and told me you wanted to leave the first time?" Diego stopped pacing, finally at ease knowing that Manny was treating him with actual respect by talking with him, face-to-face, fully attentive.
"I wasn't in the right mindset, you know, because sabers are supposed to let a gazelle get away from their reach."
"So? You made one mistake. Big deal."
"That mistake started it all, Manny. I was way out of shape and it made me think back to how my leader, Soto, and I would go and team up with the rest of our pack to hunt. It brought me so far down, you wouldn't be able to imagine."
The herd coincided nearer to Diego, and opened their ears as wide as they could to fill up all of Diego's past life.
"Hey buddy, you can tell us anything." Sid moved over to put his claws lightly on Diego's left paw, who gave his presence recognition with a suppressed smile, which quickly diminished. The fear had subsided.
"These last couple of days were an eyeopener to me. I was overwhelmed with the barrage of memories and emotions coming from the past. In fact, I'm not sure if I want to talk about this next part in front of Manny."
"He won't do anything. I won't let him." Ellie went out of her way to defend Diego earlier, but a second time? A clear, mutual respect, emerged between Diego and Ellie, even after talking for so shortly. No one had previously made Diego delve into the past, and while he regretted doing so in his mind not too long ago, he wasn't sure why. The venting allowed him to share his thoughts to everyone who wondered, and gave him the chance to steamroll them out, once and for all.
This was his moment.
"Manny, what I'm about to tell you...when this happened, I couldn't figure out what to do with myself." His paw ended up on his face, inching downward as he desperately tried to come with a reasonable way to break the news of his first night, alone.
"You know, when we took a break on this trail before meeting up with you on Half-Peak, I told them about all of the things you've done, all of the good things. Ask a certain sloth how they were feeling while you were gone, and you'll see how much we...missed you."
Sid quietly laughed before dignifying Manny's statement with a response. "I think the teardrops might still be wet in the dirt. I don't need to lie."
Sid? Crying for me?
Diego was at a loss of words. For as long as Diego had traveled with these mammals, sitting through their occasional antics and helping them prevail through disastrous situations, there never was a time where he was entirely certain about his appreciation in the eyes of his comrades. Finding out that he had anything who shed a tear for his being missing made his mind cave in with emotions; it was almost surreal to see so much care towards him even after playing a disappearing act on the ones who truly cared about him.
"Diego, don't hold back. It's the reason why I brought you up here in the first place."
"Well, when I left, I was extremely weak, and tired. I couldn't sleep, or eat, without thinking about Soto. I thought it would be better for me to explore on my own for a bit, to get back to my normal lifestyle. But I didn't get far before my body gave in...I had a dream. And, well...let's just say, had what happened in my dream, actually happened, none of us would be alive." Manny's lack of an imagination left him unsure as to what Diego was implying.
"What are you talking about?"
"I..." Diego felt himself struggling through his conscience, his chest heating up from the intensity of his heart picking up.
"Come on, Diego. You shouldn't be so afraid to talk with us." Ellie had worked so hard break the extremely powerful grip of shame and guilt from Diego's mind so that he could live a normal life.
"...I killed Manny, and Sid, at Half-Peak, and Soto took the baby." Everyone gasped out of shock, but Diego trudged on - if he could get inflict this much damage to the herd with his thoughts, it would be to his advantage to take care of the rest of them.
"I woke up from that dream, soaked and cold. I wanted to say that it rained that night, but when I woke up in the day, I woke up a few steps away from a dead gazelle, whose blood had not mixed. It was a fresh kill."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. You didn't kill the gazelle? I found the gazelle and Sid found footprints right next to it."
Thankfully for Diego, the herd's change of focus acted as proof that they truly in fact had absolved him. With the most difficult thought disappearing in the haze of confusion amongst the herd, he found the strength to charge through.
"I killed a gazelle, but not that one. I hid the remains of the my kill so that I couldn't be traced. You guys might find this funny, but, we were following the same tracks, because those weren't my paws laying in the dirt. I take care to cover my tracks. I followed the tracks all the way up to this very trail, and then just kept going north from here."
"You're still Mister Ubertracker, eh?"
"Yes, Manny. And I'm still tigey-wigey to Sid too, as much as I don't want to be." Sid stepped away from Diego to see the tiger's face, then playfully squinted his eyes, causing both Manny and Diego to crack a grin, while Crash and Eddie still remained silent, still somewhat threatened by Diego's outburst. All jokes aside, Ellie had been moderating the conversation, and while the verbal confrontations between her and Manny were the last thing she had wanted to engage in, she accomplished what she wanted for the night.
"Sorry about telling you all to leave at Half Peak. I had some personal business to tend to, and the most important thing to me at that point was getting you out of there to keep you all safe. It's all over with now."
"I'm guessing you talked about the past with the other two tigers after we left?" Despite all of the past that Diego laid out, Ellie was still unsure as to how tigers went about discussing issues amongst each other. Little did she know that there was an ounce of hate behind the ton of remorse from Diego to Soto.
"I talked with one of the tigers, my brother, Oscar. And I'm not sugarcoating what happened to the one hanging on the cliff, I let go of that idiot as fast as I could. That...was my pack leader. That, was Soto." Manny and Ellie retained stares toward Diego, mouths gaping wide open after hearing the previous remorse caused by his thought to be missing presence.
"But, you just said..."
"Ellie, I know. I said it was a mistake for nearly killing him. But I didn't just turn my back on him, I turned it on my entire pack. Oscar and I, there was always some sort of resentment between us, but it was always him that showed it. And while he always seemed to hate my guts, I still thought that he handled himself better than Soto ever could have after half of our pack got murdered. Soto caused me so much pain, and I never knew why. Even now, I still don't know why the pain even existed, but the pain is no longer there."
"Jeez, Diego. Had you talked to me about this after you said you wanted to leave for the first time, we wouldn't be in this mess, and you wouldn't be so frustrated with yourself." Diego sat for a moment, considering how he would have fared with the stress.
"You know, I honestly think this was for the better. I mean, I put myself through absolute hell, but I achieved a few things on this little journey. For one, I got to see what a life of adventure was, and while I would give most things up for that kind of lifestyle, a family isn't one of those things. Not only that, but after hearing Soto's vile words towards me, it made me realize how well I fulfilled his dreams." Manny went into his own state of dejection; all he wanted was to keep his family safe, in turn, almost losing not only the one who simply needed a place in the herd, but also the one who had now saved each member of the herd at least once.
"Ellie, take everyone back to our resting spot. Diego and I really need to clear a few things up."
"Yeah, you wish. I'm not going anywhere."
"I'm tired and I think Diego is the only one around here who would want to eat meat anyway. Maybe I can take little Ellie with me?" Sid took the step for a challenge. As small, silly, and confused as Sid was, he always fit the eyes of a to-be parent; being just the right size and having the perfect demeanor was a nice plus, but a true parent understood that watching a child was more than simply keeping an eye on it. Sid, didn't have a child, or even siblings to learn this from.
"It's been quiet around here, I think even Crash and Eddie would be able to watch over her. Manny?" Ellie took it upon herself to test Manny's trust in everyone else; in a situation where there's practically no danger, there wasn't a reason to decline this kind of offer, even though it was Sid.
"Here's your chance, Sid. Show to me that you can actually do some real work for once."
"Yes! I won't let ya' down, promise. Come on, little Ellie - Uncle Sid is going to give you some light and let you play with the twins until mommy gets back. Let's go." Sid took the hill downward with the possum twins jumped on his shoulders, each side enough of a platform for one another to stand. After the tone of the footsteps died in volume, Manny turned his attention back to Diego.
"I didn't ever want you to leave the herd, couldn't you tell alone by how I reacted? I mean, I get angry because I can't let go. It's one of the reasons why I was reluctant to let anyone follow me when we first met. I couldn't get rid of Sid, and quite frankly, I'm glad that I couldn't, because look at him now. I trust him enough to watch over my daughter, for a short time, so that we can have this talk."
"It's alright." Diego's response, while short, was filled with as much sincerity as his body can possibly fill.
"We never talked, but I was sure you had a lot to talk about, ever since I talked to Manny and told him that somethin' was bothering you. This is a lot more than somethin' though." And even though it was already said, Ellie had to keep mentioning the truth, that it was her idea - it wasn't necessary to explicitly say she told him so, but she knew that bringing it up would cause just enough inner frustration to prevent him from doing it once more.
"Diego, we're lucky to have someone as strong as you here. The past few days haven't sat well with any of us. We all want you back here, and it seems like you care for us enough to have saved our lives again. I'm not going to sit here and act like I know what goes through your head anymore, though. Do you want to come back?" Manny's question was legitimate; with the past few hours, Diego's behavior was more and more out of line from his normal behavior, but at the same time, he was more sound with himself.
Footsteps again became audible. Manny and Ellie sat at attention while Diego pricked his ears up to hone in on the sound. Before they could pick it up, little Ellie popped into the area; Sid, Crash, and Eddie were two steps behind.
"She likes looking at the water. It's not my fault." Sid pointed to little Ellie as she took another glimpse at the river ahead. Manny smiled as he lovingly gazed at his beautiful daughter, but his attention was broken.
"I'm not leaving. Life of adventure, is right here." Diego, who had been viewing the open skies, was somewhat startled by Sid, who was hugging one of his paws. Manny was overrun with emotions, but he managed to stay composed well enough to smile and nothing more. Ellie, who was responsible for the whole reunion, although not entirely intended on being as it turned out, had a somewhat smaller smile. But deep inside, she knew, that her thoughts were in fact correct.
"Come on, everybody, let's get back to where we really belong. Little Ellie here hasn't even seen the playground I have for her!" Manny was anxious to leave from the unknowns; while he had Diego on his side, who would surely protect them all, he now knew not to take his presence for granted.
"Hey, Diego, why exactly did you laugh when I told you that we were meeting up on this cliff, anyway?" Ellie looked at Diego, who returned a grin, and spoke his mind one final time before departing back to where he should be.
"...because I made the water my prey." Ellie turned towards the path, shaking her head to the side. And all Diego could do, was smile.
He was finally going home.
I missed you guys.