I don't own Ice age characters.
A bit of a missing scene in the Ice Age 1 before we're introduced to the pack of sabers.
From his guarding spot on a high rock, Diego was staring in the distance, watchful and wary, taking in the slightest sounds, the feeblest scents.
They were too close to the humans for his liking, much too close, especially after the recent disastrous encounters with those creatures. He wasn't keen for a replay, and he knew - even if no-one spoke of it in front of him - that the remaining members of the pack felt the same.
All but one. However, that particular one was the only one who made decisions.
But his decisions had led this pack through thick times, cold and dangerous and hungry times, proving to be good and wise, over and over again, and every of those times he'd managed to lead the pack back into relative safety. Under his command, the pack did well.
Until very recently. And Diego had eyes too sharp not to notice that Soto hadn't been the same ever since.
Well, 'not the same' might be a bit of an understatement. 'Unrecognizable' might be more appropriate.
His line of thoughts was interrupted by a soft sound of slowly approaching paws behind him. The wind was blowing in his face and he couldn't catch the scent, but he knew that prowling, determinate walk. His ear twitched in acknowledgment, but he didn't advert his eyes from the horizon, neither he spoke when Oscar stood standing next to him. Neither tiger said a word, and Diego could tell that Oscar wasn't looking at him, but at the snow-decorated pines below and before the cliff. And Diego didn't feel compelled to break the almost-companionable silence. Somehow, he felt that whatever Oscar had to say wouldn't ease his mind any.
"He won't even hear about changing the plan."
Oscar's words were nearly inaudible, spoken after several minutes of silence. Diego didn't answer. He had a feeling that Oscar was going to speak what was on his mind no matter what Diego said, and his ear twitched again, this time with curiosity. This was the first time that one of the others openly spoke of changing the plan to Diego. But even more interesting than that was the unspoken implication of one of them having actually dared to present Soto with an idea of plan B. And obviously doing it behind Diego's back, while he was away on guard. And of course, there was the thing about Diego not being Oscar's usual choice of shoulder to cry on, and approaching Diego like this was downright weird for Oscar to begin with.
I'm not going to remotely like this.
"Everything that breaths is migrating South", Oscar continued softly, still staring in the distance, sounding almost dreamy and absent-mindedly…except Diego knew very well that Oscar rarely said anything that wasn't carefully weighted and thought over, pre-calculated, and if possible, adorned with a poisonous barb or two. "Everything worth hunting, that is."
"I take it that Soto disagrees."
"That's one way of putting it", Oscar growled lowly. Diego spared a quick glance at him, but that was enough to glimpse three painful-looking, fresh slices over his prominent chin and hollow cheek. Well, of course. Zeke or Lenny would never have the guts. Or the coherence required for the task. "He's impossible to talk to, impossible to…" he cut himself off, turning to look at Diego. "Certainly you've noticed…?"
"That he's been…a bit more stubborn than usual lately. And…touchier."
So carefully formulated. So, Oscar didn't quite trust Diego not to run to Soto and tick him off.
"We have all changed", Diego whispered back, meeting Oscar's yellowish-green eyes, and wasn't really surprised to see something raw and fierce flashing on his usually inscrutable, cocky face.
"He's not the only one who suffered a loss!" Oscar hissed at Diego, who couldn't find an appropriate retort for that. Oscar's mate was taken down by humans, just like Soto's mate and his two children- one a fully grown young tigress, the other one, a male, still a cub. And just like their old tracker, a grumpy, flea-infested tigress who had been a member of many packs in her long life, fought many battles, defeated many foes, but failed to survive a natural disaster on two legs.
When they found their skinned bodies, unrecognizable masses of sinew, bone and muscle, distinguished only by the scent of their blood, with their greatest pride in life- their saber teeth- ripped out of their jaws (though the old lady did have only one to start with), Soto's thundering, ear-splitting roars could be heard miles around for days. He wouldn't let any of the scavengers to get close to the bodies until the maggots and flies started to disfigure whatever was left of the dead tigers' shape. That was the point at which Diego had threatened Lenny into helping him with a very dangerous task of forcibly removing Soto away from the smelly mess that was once their family. Thankfully, Soto's devastating grief had already begun to give way to his thirst for revenge, which meant that the necessity to walk away had dawned on him. Things were helped by the fact that he hadn't eaten or drank for days at that point.
Oscar, on the contrary, had turned completely silent, unmoving and unreceptive for about equal amount of time, maybe a bit longer, staring with glazed eyes at the ground.
Diego couldn't tell who disturbed him more of the two.
"So, you all want to abandon the plan?" he finally said.
"Certainly you see, Diego…certainly you're aware that we can't win over humans. They are…unnatural, that's what they are. They knew our moves before we made them, they can do things we can't even-"
"Don't you want to avenge her?" Diego asked softly.
Oscar's eyes flashed dangerously; the fur on his neck stood rigid. Diego didn't look away.
"Never", Oscar breathed, apparently with enormous strain on his self-control, "never ask me that again, Diego. In fact, never mention her again. Never."
"I'm surprised, that's all", Diego continued smoothly, "I'd expect you first of all to scream bloody murder. Well, first after Soto, that is."
"Neither of them would want us to risk the fur on our necks for revenge!" Oscar bared his teeth. "It would be pretty much a pointless slaughter, and we'd be the prey! I don't want to end my life, as miserable as it is, as a prey for a hairless, two-legged creature which doesn't even kill for food! When I die, I want to decompose with my fur and my fangs still attached to me, thank you very much!"
"And the reason you're telling me this would be…? Seeing that you hadn't seen it fit to include me in your little scheme while you still believed that Soto might listen?"
"Your bloody opinion on this all, Diego…?!?" Oscar growled in frustration badly disguised as anger.
Diego didn't answer right away. Seeing his hesitation, Oscar pressed on: "We're going to attack the pack of the most dangerous hunters known, only to steal one pathetic cub which isn't even enough of a meal for half a tiger. By doing that, we're going to miss dozens of opportunities for a good hunt, risk being killed at the spot, risk being hunted down by humans for revenge, all for dead tigers who will never know what we did for memory of them! Not exactly a cost-effective investment, now is it?"
How Diego hated when Oscar had a point.
Not that he could tell him that, though. Going against Soto was dangerous and, in Diego's opinion, ungrateful; a poor way to repay a leader who had for years led the pack well and kept them all safe, healthy and well-nourished. Oscar didn't need any encouragement.
"I'm not saying that it's the most logical thing to do. But it might be the most satisfying thing ever, getting our revenge, if we succeed." There. As neutral as it could get.
"Revenge", Oscar spat. "As if revenge could keep us from starving, or getting killed. It's not our revenge. I doubt it's even your revenge. It's Soto's revenge. He might be a bit…awkward lately, but I think you're not going that road. Yet."
"Think again", Diego whispered, flashing his sharp incisors at Oscar. The image of skinned corpses flashed through his mind; the scent of their blood still fresh in his nostrils even now, weeks after their death. He remembered the warm fur of Soto's mate whom he called Auntie; she had raised Diego on her milk together with her own daughter when Diego's parents were gone- a daughter with whom Diego had played when they were cubs, a daughter who had been Diego's one true friend; Soto's and Auntie's daughter, with green Soto's eyes and golden Auntie's fur, the one whom Diego-
He stopped himself, like he'd done numerous times over the past few weeks. If he started to think and feel, he was bound to lose it, and he couldn't afford to lose it. Not now, not yet. Ever since their…loss, Diego had been quite busy trying to put the remaining shreds of their lives back together. With Soto's…wayward state of mind, Oscar's numb uselessness, with Zeke hanging dangerously close at the verge of complete breakdown and with Lenny being as stupid as he was heavy, Diego's daily schedule had him running twenty-four hours a day. He never really had the time to grieve. Now he realized that he didn't want to. He liked busy. He wanted busy.
And all through Diego's inner rant, Oscar was watching him closely, watching emotions crossing Diego's face, and finally drew a humorless, dark grin.
"Noooo, Diego", he drawled. "No, you're not in that way. You are one darn good liar, but so am I. And I've known you since you were a skinny little whelp."
"What do you want from me, Oscar?" Diego whispered, eyes narrowed and cold. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm on a bloody watch here, so if you have nothing relevant to report, I suggest that you join the rest of the pack and gather your strength until either Soto or I give you the orders."
A delicate stress on words 'report' and 'orders' had a desired effect on Oscar; he bowed his head in admittance of submission, though barely visible; his eyes were glowing with resentment, but he cowered properly nonetheless. There. Eat that, wise ass…Oscar had been moderately nice to Diego all through Diego's childhood, until Soto had made the younger tiger the commanding hunter, relieving Oscar of the position, something that Oscar seemed to have taken quite badly. And after the recent slaughter, once Oscar had stirred from his stupor, he didn't seem too pleased to find Diego being given the position of a beta instead of Soto's now-dead mate.
"What I want", Oscar hissed, "is you to be on our side…if we all stay united, we might change his-"
"A mutiny? Is that what we're talking about?" Diego snarled, turning to face Oscar; his claws dug into the hard ground. Soto might not be entirely rational about the whole thing, and he might not have been as nice as Auntie had been, but he did teach Diego to hunt, taught him together with his own daughter; and he did do everything that was in his power to protect the pack; he'd dedicated his life to that. If his will was to be changed, it was bloody not going to be by the means of mutiny. He didn't deserve that.
"Muti- no, no, no!" Oscar quickly backed away, eyes widening. Obviously he realized that he'd headed into very dangerous grounds. "No, that's not what- you're getting it all wrong!"
"How am I supposed to get it?" Diego roared, his bared teeth an inch or two away from Oscar's nose. "Have you lost your mind? How exactly did you mean to do it? Are you going to fight with him? You can't win, neither of us can! Think whatever you want about him, but you know darn well that Soto is the best bloody fighter any of us had ever seen! I'm not fighting him for the life of me, even if I wanted to! And don't even think about telling me that you were planning on the four of us bringing him down together! Where's your bloody honor, Oscar, bloody crap!?!"
"No, I'm telling you- we didn't- I 'm not saying-"
"Have it crossed your mind that we owe him some credit…some bloody loyalty? He'd been leading this pack for years- for longer than I live, you should know better than me that he never failed, never let us down! Don't you think that- "
"Yeah, I bloody know him longer and better than you…commander", Oscar growled out. "And that's the reason why I'm telling you this; he's not the same tiger he was only two months ago! This…" he lowered his voice, ears twitching around; "…this changed him, and not for the better. He's…"
Oscar's tongue flicked over the still- oozing slices on his face. His eyes were now uncertain; Diego's breath was quick and shallow. "…Diego, you're clever enough, darn it. You're not blind. But you don't want to see. Soto has slipped. Inside." Another pause. "He threatened to kill me."
Diego snorted. "So? Lenny threatens to kill Zeke eleven times a day. You and I, we threatened each other more times than I can-"
"No, kid, this is diff-"
A low, rumbling roar through Diego's exposed teeth made Oscar wisely rephrase the sentence.
"No, commander, this is different. Believe me, he meant it. He'd have me killed. He's ready to kill any of us if we fail him."
Diego took his time breathing. So did Oscar.
"That is not true", Diego finally spoke in a soft voice. Threats and occasional brawls with light-to-medium injuries were a normal way of communications among tigers. But killing was not. Killing was for prey only. And Soto, Soto had risked his neck dozens of time for the pack. He had allowed an orphan cub from a foreign pack into his own, and had his mate raise him with his own child. He had allowed even Lenny, who wasn't even a saber, but a scimitar cat, in the pack; Lenny, another cub found lost and parentless, and Auntie and the tracker had taken pity, Diego remembered that; Auntie had coaxed Soto into taking the then-little scimitar with them, and Soto hesitated at first, but growled his approval at last, muttering something about the bloody runt being their close-to-cousin, after all. And the scimitar cub pretty much flourished under Soto's tutelage, that much was obvious, and now that same scimitar was working behind Soto's back to undermine that one thing that Soto might bloody need, just like Lenny needed this pack when he was just a tiny, toothless cub. That was so bloody great.
"It's true", Oscar whispered. "That's why I…"
"You're overreacting, Oscar. Soto gave you one good slash across the face, that's all. He wouldn't-"
"Are you listening to me? He's gone insane! If you've refused to notice it by now, at least check it for yourself! We're being led by a darn lunatic!!!"
Well, that much about cool and calculated…
Oscar had obviously dropped all pretenses by now; he was squirming in his skin, Diego could see, and his usually inscrutable face was alight with combination of anger, fear and pain. He'd even stopped worrying about Diego reporting him to Soto. Is the world ever going to stop crumbling to pieces, please? 'Cos I could use some repose…
"I'm asking- I came here for that…we're all asking you…it's not mutiny we're talking about, it's just…if you could…he wouldn't listen to us…and he- he thinks quite highly of you, I'll be damn if I know why, but he does, and he's kinda fond of you, more than…and I…we thought…that he might, perhaps…if you could talk to him…talk him into heading South…and maybe, with all that prey to be hunted, maybe his mind might…clear up a bit, if you'd…just…talk to him." Oscar gulped, looking away, breathing heavily. Diego had never heard Oscar, smooth-tongued Oscar, stuttering like that. It was nearly as bad as him staring with empty eyes at the ground, and Diego felt bone-tired and drained, suddenly feeling every sleepless night and restless day he'd lately gone through.
The small, fluffy, tawny form of their pack's youngest member, always grinning, Soto's and Auntie's little son, feebly flickered before Diego's tired eyes. And then the little body, a small lump of bloody muscles and glassy, open green eyes.
But if Soto had really gone over that end…
"All right, I'll talk to him", Diego whispered in the end. "But I doubt he'll change his mind."
Oscar's yellowish-green eyes went wide with relief. He actually believed that Diego had some influence with Soto? Well, coming from Oscar, that was one hell of a prize.
"We trust you with that, Diego", the older tiger said. The dark circles around his eyes seemed to show more than ever.
And the hardest thing was that he actually sounded sincere.
Like it? Hate it? Should I continue? The next- and the last- chapter would get Soto and Diego in a serious conversation…even if we all know what would be the outcome…