Phew, this took me a world of backache!

I don't own Ice Age characters.

******

Diego found Soto pacing the small perimeter of the clearance they've settled on; up and down, up and down, over and over again, occasionally growling and hissing to himself, teeth bared and grinding, eyes flashing, like he'd been doing very often recently. It made Diego both dizzy and very uncomfortable. It was the behavior of somebody trapped, caged; a strong, powerful cat, helpless despite his strength, and desperate for that, and Diego had never seen Soto displaying the feeblest sign of helplessness; he'd always been a fortress of unwavering might and self-assuredness.

Cub Diego had been afraid of thunderstorms- not that he'd ever admitted it, or shown it- and he'd always found it reassuring that it was Soto who had been protecting them all; powerful, scary Soto, who could, cub Diego was certain, defeat the thunder and the wind if only he'd been in the mood to bother with it.

Well, the cub grew up, he no longer feared thunderstorms, and he no longer believed that Soto could submit the forces of nature to his will. But the respect and admiration remained, and seeing Soto so thoroughly cracked in so many places made Diego physically nauseous. It was like seeing a magnificent and beautiful, if cold and deadly, glacier melting away, and it wasn't a pleasant sight.

Zeke was squirming in the shade of a large rock, huddled close to Lenny, whose small eyes followed Soto's even pacing rhythm as if he'd been hypnotized. But at the sight of Diego, both subordinates fixed their glares on him in such desperate, raw hope, that it was almost disgusting. What on Earth did they expect from him? They hadn't seen it fit to inform Diego of their plan while they believed that Oscar could put it to action, and now that Oscar had failed, they had the audacity to beg Diego like this with their eyes. Had they had an iota of honor, they wouldn't be able to look into his eyes at all. It was bloody sickening, and sickening was their cowardly inability to stand before Soto and speak their minds. Diego passed them by, ignoring to acknowledge them, but feeling their burning eyes at the back of his neck when he approached Soto.

"Aren't you supposed to be on guard?" Soto growled quietly, not looking at Diego, continuing his pacing.

"I had Oscar relieving me for some time."

"Good. He'd better not show up until I kill something first."

Nice start. "And I thought that we might discuss the plan for tomorrow in more detail."

"Well, tell me what you have come up with."

"I wanted to hear your idea first."

"I told you", Soto growled, "the only thing I insist on is that you be the one to get the baby, and not any of them worthless, spineless…" his voice trailed off through his clenched white teeth. "…as for the any other part of the plan, I give you full freedom. You've proven yourself to be one darn good strategist; whatever you decide, I'm probably gonna like it. Just make sure to inform me of it first…and hurry up with it, Diego, 'cos them humans are soon gonna clear out of here, and then we'll have eleven more times more trouble to do it than now, while they're not on the move."

"Soto," Diego whispered, "wouldn't it be easier if we'd just…kill the leader, and as many of the adults as we can, and be done with it? At least we would get some food-"

"NO!" Soto hissed, leaning into Diego with bared teeth and something very similar to intense hate, or fury-filled pain; his eyes were burning with it, and Diego had to force himself not to blink and not to cringe. He fully expected to receive a slash across his face like Oscar. "Have you been listening to me any? I don't want that human to die! I want him to bloody live after he'd seen his child's remains, like-"

He didn't finish the sentence. He abruptly turned away from Diego, growling under his breath, and made a few more circles around the clearing, while every well-toned muscle in his body seemed to be strung for attack; his claws were unsheathed, and that burning, acrid feeling was seeping from under every hair in his fur.

Once again, Diego thought how much he hated it when Oscar was right. Soto had always been stubborn, but never irrational. But this…

"We mustn't forget about our other…needs", Diego tried again, softly. "We're already well behind most of the prey; everything is migrating South. If we don't follow soon, we'll have a major problem. And if this doesn't work…ideally, and one of us gets even only slightly injured, and slows the pack down…"

He wisely shut his mouth when he saw the stare Soto had given him. It made a shiver go down his back, making his fur bristle, even so slightly, and Soto had noticed it, he was sure of it. And now he was getting more and more certain of another thing.

It wasn't a regular authority glare from a leader to a subordinate. It was an empty, horrifying stare one would address not to a fellow pack member, any pack member…but to a prey animal. And it wasn't the prospect of impending death that made Diego's skin crawl even more. It was the dawning realization that their greatest stronghold was being rapidly destroyed right under their paws, and Diego had been the only one not to realize until now.

Well, it wasn't exactly like that. It was more like Oscar had said; he'd been refusing to see, until Oscar had pretty much whacked him with the truth right between his eyes. And he'd always secretly prided himself on carrying more than average amount of brains on his neck. Too bad he'd been so reluctant to put it into motion lately. Idiot.

Soto was standing motionless like a glowering stone sculpture, and with a cold, unreadable expression to match. Only the dark, reddish-brown fur on his neck moved when light wind gently ruffled it. But his eyes, fixed on Diego, were completely empty, empty like eyes of Auntie and the kid and the tracker and her-

"Walk with me" he said finally, very quietly. But it seemed louder than any roar Diego had ever heard in his days. Not waiting for Diego to answer, Soto prowled away among the rocks.

Diego braced himself for whatever was about to come and followed his leader. Behind him, Zeke let out a high-pitched sound of a long-held breath being let out.

They walked in complete silence- or, rather, they prowled; Diego didn't understand what was on Soto's mind at first- he was merely grateful that Soto didn't jumped for his throat the moment they were out of the pack's immediate attention- but he mimicked Soto's careful, soundless progress, until it came to him very soon where they were headed.

He wanted very much to hiss: 'no! I'm not bloody getting any closer to them!' but his unwillingness to be a coward in anybody's eyes, his leader's eyes in particular, was holding him back more efficiently than the very real chance of Soto killing him for disobedience. So he held his breath against the unwelcome, unpleasant scents of human settlement and followed; Soto turned over his shoulder to glance at him once or twice. That second time, Diego thought he'd caught a glimpse of a cold, but satisfied grin on Soto's face. Whatever was there to grin about was beyond Diego, because he himself had rarely ever been so disinclined to smile as at that point, while disgusting, horrifying scents that followed humans were growing stronger and stronger, hitting Diego's sensitive nose worse than a bludgeon to the head.

At last, they came to the top of a cliff that humans had chosen to settle under; they were so dangerously close that they could make out the ugly, furless faces of individual pack members below.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing that was clearly distinguishable down there, at the bottom of that cliff.

Soto was now closely observing Diego, and when Diego's own eyes remained transfixed to the scene below, and worse, his nostrils kept widening to take in the scent he'd never wanted to feel in his life, Soto spoke, sounding almost satisfied: "And that's why I brought you here…"

Diego didn't answer. He barely heard Soto.

Down there, stretched between the poles and above the fires that probably served to dry them, were the familiar furry skins of their dead packmates.

That shabby, grayish one- Diego knew it well… it belonged to the Old Lady; how many times Diego had seen her scratching her flanks against rocks and trees, swearing that those damn fleas would be the death of her? She had taught Diego how to track, taught him flawlessly, and he could remember with painful clarity that same grayish pelt flattened to the ground as she was showing him how to stalk.

The largest, golden one…it was cut in two and stretched on two pairs of poles…it was the fur in which Diego had searched for milk, warmth and comfort when he was a cub, his earliest memory; the one he'd been running after when he'd been learning to hunt; the one that had kept him warm when he'd went ill with fever even if he'd been almost a grown-up; it was Auntie.

The small, still fluffy, tawny one…that kid had only just learned how to run, and Diego and the kid's big sister had played tag with him, the game always ending up with Diego or the kid's sis gently taking the cub by that fluffy nape and bringing him, already half-asleep, back in the Auntie's and Soto's gentle care.

The dark brown one, Oscar's mate…Diego had never seen Oscar smiling at anybody but her; whenever the sun would shine down on that coal-black streak of fur on her neck, it would glow, sleek and beautiful like a raven's wing, and cool, collected Oscar could be seen staring at her like he'd never seen her before, even after all their years together and all the litters they've had. And she being ever as childish and reckless as Oscar was dead-serious, she'd have him chasing her all across the place, and Soto would shake his head and gruffly point out how that tigress would never grow up.

And the last one, the other golden one… Diego had spent endless times staring at that golden fur; as long as he could remember, since they were cubs, he'd been the one to stare, and she'd be the one to catch his stare and to look up and down her sides in confusion: do I have something in my fur? And he, the idiot he'd been, would answer: er, not any more…there was a horsefly, but it flew away now. When they were cubs, they'd both sleep cuddled together on Auntie's belly, and Diego could feel both of their heartbeats and the warmth of both of their furs; when they played, he and the golden-colored daughter of his leader, she'd always win, because Diego didn't have the heart to deliver the slightest scratch to her, so his own skin was at most times a picturesque collection of scratches, slices and bites; when they hunted, he'd watch her, strong and deadly and beautiful; even smeared with blood and gore, snarling and hissing, she was still beautiful, she still knew to hold herself like a young queen that she was; when they walked to the water after a hunt, they would walk close to one another, shoulders touching, and her pelt always glowed, warm, sleek and golden, making his breath short… There'd be time to tell her, he'd been telling himself; we're young and strong and I have the whole time in the world to let her know, but he could never dream, in his worst nightmares, that if he hesitated, he'd only have a chance to speak to her dead skinless body, or to her dead skin, which was, to make the things worse, still beautiful, even in death.

He stood on that cliff top for long, long time, and Soto was standing close to him. Nobody spoke a word. Diego was staring at the pelts, and Soto was staring at Diego, eyes intent and intense, and there was something similar to a cold, satisfied smile tugging at the corner of his mouth every now and then while he was looking at the younger tiger. Shivers were going down Diego's back, one after another, as the still-decipherable scents of their lost friends and family kept invading his nostrils, teasing him, making his eyes burn and his vision swim. His heart seemed to have rapidly outgrown his ribcage, suffocating him; if he didn't leave this place, or scream from the top of his lungs, or kill something, anything, he was surely going to lose his mind.

"You understand", Soto finally spoke, voice low and soft, almost gentle, "you feel it, too."

It wasn't a question. Diego would have answered yes, yes, yes, but his throat seemed too thick to pass air, let alone a word.

"That's why I wanted you to see…and smell…they are not like you and me, none of them. Not even Oscar, and he's the best of them. They wouldn't understand. They would only panic."

Diego had to clear his throat several times before managing to squeeze out: "But…when we attack…they'll see…they might bolt…"

"They won't, not once they're properly riled and prepared to fight. I'm counting on you to give them some…morale booster. You and that smooth tongue of yours. I'm not really a type for nice speeches. I can only threaten them, and in this case, it won't work."

He paused, frowning, before continuing: "Lenny is about as sensitive as a tree stump. He won't be a problem. He'll run right over the fur that he'd been once licking milk from, and he won't even realize. Zeke is another pair of antlers, but once he's gone berserk, there will be no stopping him. He only needs a motivation and a little push, and he'll forget about how much of a cowardly wreck he usually is. Oscar…" Another pause. "It's Oscar that's worrying me. He is not stupid, he's not a coward, and he only wants to forget. He's the one that needs to be talked to. Really talked to. And I'm saying, I'm counting on you to do that. I'm too old for that crap."

Diego nodded. He still couldn't advert his eyes from the furs. And he was threateningly close to either bolt down, alone, and get himself killed, taking as many humans as possible with him in the process, or to lose every remaining shred of pride and self-control, fall apart and actually start to weep right there, in front of his leader, and that would be the end of his high-ranking days in the pack…or whatever was left of it. Soto allowed no such childish weakness in his hunters.

"Look at me. Look at me, Diego" suddenly Soto growled, as if he'd sensed that his beta was quickly tearing apart on all seams. "Look at me!"

Diego slowly turned to obey. His entire body was shaking, down to the sheaths of his claws. He had to clench his teeth to stop them from clattering.

Two pairs of green eyes met, and in Soto's eyes Diego saw, despite all the madness and pain and horrible, hollow emptiness, something strong, something he could cling to when everything else went to hell, something he'd seen numerous times in the eyes of Soto's daughter. That iron-hard, unwavering will. She could have been immortal with will like that; she was the only tiger ever that could all alone kill a bison while he was still kicking and trashing around, before he'd been pulled to the ground. And that will and those eyes of hers she'd gotten from her father, and now that same father was looking at Diego with eyes like hers, and wanted revenge.

"It would all be different if they killed them for food", Soto said. "It would be a matter of a better predator winning. That's how things work. Like it or not, that's bloody life. But they didn't touch their flesh, they let it to rot, and they took only the things that were making them…what they were…while they lived! Do you understand, Diego?"

Yes, he understood, and he nodded. He had no fond memories of their flesh, but he had a lifetime of memories of their furs and fangs and eyes. And those humans left only their eyes. They shouldn't have taken their fangs, he thought feverishly. There's no honor in that. They killed them only to show that they could, and then they mocked on them by taking their greatest pride. It wasn't how a hunter should behave.

"Oscar wants to forget", Soto continued whispering, still fixing Diego with those damnable eyes, "but I don't. I can't. I was their leader! Whatever came to them, it was my…I'll never sleep again without their voices coming into my dream if I don't avenge them. Only then, I'll…breathe again. I need that bloody revenge, Diego, or I'll never-"

He stopped, and this time he was the one to look away, and Diego was staring at him, immobile. This was the most personal thing Soto had ever confided in him, and Diego knew that he'd never hear anything like this again. He also knew that it took a great deal on Soto's pride to push it through his teeth. And then he remembered it would be prudent to look away now, so he did, and for some more time they both stared at the drying furs under the cliff. And during that time, Diego remembered Oscar's stuttering plea, Zeke's and Lenny's begging, hopeful eyes…and then again, Soto's words…only then, I'll breathe again.

A motion down in the human camp drew Soto's attention. "Look now, Diego. See that human leaving that group? That's their leader, that's the baby's father. Remember him well," Soto took a deep intake of breath, and the scent it carried, and Diego mimicked him. "And- yeah, there it is…"

A slender human, presumably a female, appeared from one of the dens, carrying a little human cub in her arms. She lowered it to the ground, and it wobbled, squeaking; the male caught its fall with gentleness that made Diego bare his fangs. Soto's kid had to die so that this little bunch of skin could play with his fur.

"Oh, look at the cute little baby, Diego. Isn't it nice he'd be joining us for breakfast?" Soto whispered lowly, and glanced briefly at Diego, whose eyes were still on the dead Junior's fur. And Diego knew that he had only one chance to answer correctly, and he spoke without hesitation: "It wouldn't be breakfast without him."

His own voice sounded strangely to him- calm, cold, even more so than usual, while his heart was still hammering so wildly in his chests. He looked as Soto, but Soto's attention was now at the baby. Goodness, how Diego wanted to get away from this place. Shivers were still raking down his back, cold and hot at the same time, and still he wanted to stay close to them, to what was left of them, close to the familiar scents of their furs, even if they were laced liberally with stench of death.

"Especially since his daddy wiped out half of or pack and wears our skin to keep warm", Soto spat. This sounded more like he was talking to himself than to Diego, and Diego could see that he was now staring at his daughter's skin. Soto's daughter…Soto's son…Oscar's mate…Diego couldn't bring himself to even think of their names, let alone to speak them, or he might start screaming them out…

"An eye for an eye" Soto continued. "Don't you think?"

These last words were snarled out through clenched teeth, and those hard, green eyes, burning and cold at the same time, her eyes, were on Diego again, and as much as Soto had tried to make it sound like an offhand question, it wasn't like that. Not at the least.

Are you with me?, it meant. Are you with me, or are you my enemy?

Diego remembered Soto's empty glare earlier, how he looked at him like he'd look at prey, and Oscar's statement. He threatened to kill me. He meant it. And Soto's words again. I need that revenge…only then, I'll breathe again.

There was no going around this one. And now, looking at those furs stretched on those poles, a good deal of Diego's soul, too, felt like there really should be no going around this one.

"Let's show that human what happens when he messes with sabers", he heard his own cold, growling voice, spoken through clenched teeth, answering without hesitation. He still couldn't pry his eyes from the skins.

"Alert the troops. We attack at dawn." Soto said suddenly businesslike, sounding more like the leader Diego knew, self-assured and with all four paws firmly on the ground. There was a definite order in his voice, and Diego knew that their time together here was over. He was grateful for that, grateful that something was forcing him to turn away, and still he regretted leaving this spot where he could still take in their scents.

Well, Soto had given him the direct order, so he was thankfully relieved of the necessity to choose. He turned to leave, only now realizing that his paws had gone numb like stone.

"And, Diego…"

Diego paused.

"Bring me that baby…alive. If I'm gonna enjoy my revenge, I want it to be fresh."

And again, Soto turned to staring at the skins.

Now Diego knew where Soto had spent all those nights away from the pack, and how.

He didn't envy him.

Diego's three companions were all waiting for him at the guarding spot. His paws still felt heavy like lead. His communication skills might have been better than Soto's, but he still had no idea how to present the situation to them without making them even more contrary to the plan than they were now. And there was a plan to develop before dawn. Perhaps the subtle approach…

"We attack the humans at dawn. I'll be the one to get the baby. The sooner we do it, the sooner we're over with it."

Lenny moaned in disappointment. Zeke jumped to his paws, his huge eyes bulging out, every muscle trembling. "You two been out there the whole evening, and that's the only thing you came to?"

But neither Lenny's or Zeke's reaction stabbed Diego. He was looking at Oscar- trying to look at him- Oscar's large, round eyes went dangerously narrow and hostile.

"We trusted you", he hissed. "We bloody trusted you with this!"

Diego detested this; detested having to choose between two evils, one worse than the other. Oscar might not have been the most pleasant person to have around at times, and sure he'd done his best to make Diego's life miserable ever since Diego was assigned a commanding hunter, but it didn't mean that Diego didn't hold a decent amount of respect for the older tiger. He was a good hunter, a good thinker, and after all, Diego's elder, even if he was now below Diego in the chain of command. But still Diego hated to see this look of deep resentment and disappointment in his eyes.

Resentment? That's last year's snow, Diego. This is an outright hate.

"I saw their skins", Diego spoke in the deepest, most authoritative voice he could muster. "I saw them and recognized each one of them. Forgive me if it had me riled up a bit. It sure should rile you up, all of you, if you still had anything remotely like courage somewhere in your blood." He turned to stare purposefully into Oscar. "You can still see that black streak on her fur", he whispered.

Oscar froze. So did Zeke. Only Lenny didn't seem to perceive danger in the air. Completely overlooking Diego's and Oscar's staring contest, bristled fur, and Oscar's glazed eyes and shallow breathing, he wondered loudly: "You been to the human's camp?" he looked at Diego in awe. "Wow."

"We have. I saw what I needed to." He looked at the tigers around him, one by one. "We're not going to be cowards. We can do this, fast and easy, and then we'll head South, and Soto will have his retribution- we all will…" he glanced at Oscar. "And when it all is over, we might very likely have Soto back, the way he was. He needs this. He'd taken a good care of this pack; we owe him that much. We owe them that much. "

He took a deep breath. Only Lenny seemed a bit relieved by his words. Diego looked at him. "Lenny, who's the best darn strategist you've ever heard of?"

"Oh? Um…well…I've only heard Soto a couple of times sayin' it's you."

"Righty. Who planned the hunt at the Deer Creek?"

"Um..You?"

"Right. And who led the ambush at Glacier Pass?"

"Er..you?"

"Who set up the escape out of that crap with humans last year?"

"Ehm…you did?"

"Who planned that little snack at the bison herd at the East Watering Hole?"

"Oh, that was a really good one!" Zeke jumped, licking his lips eagerly, eyes momentarily alight.

"Those were all good hunts, and it will be a good hunt this time, too, because I'm gonna set this thing up, and soon enough we'll have another kind of prey to stalk. Have I ever let you guys down?"

"Just now", Oscar muttered darkly, but Zeke was looking at Diego with renewed hopes, and Lenny was already ready to do whatever Diego would tell him to.

Diego's and Oscar's eyes met again. Sparks of hate flashed and died out.

We'll make through this, Diego thought.

We have to.