Disclaimer: No. I don't own TC even though I do often fantasize about it. That'd be nice. I could've made Pumyra not abusive. Sorry, but it really upsets me to think about how things like that are just brushed over in cartoons anymore. I mean seriously, what are we trying to tell kids about relationships here? "Boys, your girlfriend might hit you in the face, and that's okay?"
This is the end of this story. Well, this installment anyway. It's been quite a ride and now it's time to bid adieu for a little while. I plan on sequels but it might be a bit of time so I can finish up some other things. So to those that have read all the way through, you have my appreciation. If you were hoping for more you're not out of luck. I just need time to work on the next parts. To those that have encouraged me, you have my thanks. I'm sorry I haven't replied to everyone, but the reviews are all appreciated. It's been a lot of work and time but I'm glad this story has been told and this part draws to a close.
Anyway, enjoy this last bit before I work on other things. LiChee for life, and ThunderCats always.
"I'd be packing my bags when I need to stay.
I'd be chasing every breeze that blows my way.
I'd be building my kingdom just to watch it fade away,
That's me without you."
Me Without You, TobyMac
Grune opened the door to Mumm-Ra's office and strode in, planting his paws on the dark desk. "I need to talk to you. Now."
Mumm-Ra's eyes glittered as he held up a finger. He was on the phone, nails tight on it. "Yes…I see. This does complicate things. Vultaire failed. You know what to do with him. No, I don't care what was in his contract. He's served his purpose. And Kaynar…? Hm. Saved us some time I suppose. All right Slithe, plan B it is. I told you, this sets us back but not irreparably. Two years or so with Toss Gier's firms and we'll be able to convert enough Thundrillium to-"
Grune snatched the phone out of Mumm-Ra's fingers and slammed it into its cradle on the desk. "Now."
Mumm-Ra's fingers slowly curled into a loose fist and rested on the desk. Grune's chest rose and fell, suit stretching with rage. "What is so important that you have to interrupt my business?"
"A little ape told me that you weren't shooting for Lion-O the other day. Why was Tygra the intended victim?" Grune's voice was low and his claws rested on the polished darkness. The tips started to crack the surface.
Mumm-Ra's dry, bony hand slid in a circle as if in thought. "Ah yes. Your favored protégé."
Grune roared. Mumm-Ra didn't move but his suit rippled under the force, eyes squinting against the noise. "How dare you! I tell you a thousand times just to wait for him to come around and then you pull this stunt? Now he'll never join up with us! The boy could work circles around Slithe and you just try and off him? I ought to-!"
"Finishing that sentence would likely be a mistake." Mumm-Ra slid to his feet, dragging his favored red robe. It hung over his suit comfortably and concealed the awkward shape of his back. He was not shy about it but people tended to cringe and it was more annoying that it was worth. "He has proven to be a problem, as his recent actions have only proven. Lion-O was at his lowest point and because his brother had a sudden epiphany, they're both going to be successful. Not to mention declare exclusive rights on Thundrillium utilization for the next ten years, as per the law…"
"So? You don't have to get anything legally. You're the biggest black market buyer there is," Grune said bluntly. "Tygra is off limits. It's not his fault Claudus has hammered in a little too much garbage. That can be fixed."
"Can it? I think you overestimate his capacity to change." Mumm-Ra's eyelids narrowed around his deadly gaze. "Or perhaps I overestimate your ability…"
"Don't give me that crap. I told you I wanted the kid on with us." Grune strode around the desk and prodded Mumm-Ra's chest with his claw, knocking the wind out of him. "Your word was that we'd get him."
Mumm-Ra's face was suddenly livid, and he raked his claws down Grune's arm. They dug in, serrated from being chipped and cracked with age, and Grune snapped his paw back. "I have allowed you many privileges, but this is where the line is drawn, Mr. Verrater," he said softly. "The situation has changed. I saw an opportunity and I took it. Unfortunately my agents failed."
Grune smirked. "Yeah, Kaynar's not such a good shot after all."
Mumm-Ra gave him a look so suddenly frightening – the eyes bulged, sunken as they were, and the lined mouth peeled back in a furious grin of hate – that Grune stepped back in alarm. "Kaynar is dead. He killed himself. But from the sound of things his aim would have been good enough to kill Tygra in an instant if not for interference. Lion-O rescued Tygra at the cost of his own safety, and the puma stopped Kaynar. I could have sworn you thought the boys would abandon each other when the going got tough. You said Tygra was only a few steps away."
Grune jerked his head to the side, fingers curling into fists. "I thought he was. I thought that he'd be smart and abandon ship. And how was I supposed to know Lion-O would come out of his stupor and actually do something?"
"Perhaps familial loyalty plays a stronger role than you expected," Mumm-Ra sneered. "I think Tygra cares more for the 'brat' than you."
Fur bristling, Grune would have struck a lesser being. But Mumm-Ra Ammit shifted his arm back, moving his robe out of the way so he could walk. And he looked like an ancient priest of a dark religion, one with hot idols and cat's blood on altars. "We will leave them alone for now. Take a few years' time to finish. It will be difficult but, as you said, I am a powerful agent on the black market."
Grune watched him, dark, beady eyes following the silent footsteps. "And what of your promise? You've made good on money and power. I can't deny that. But you said we'd get Tygra on board, one way or the other. He's a worthwhile cat, just misguided. And I'm not quite prepared to see him suffer when you finish that experiment of yours."
"You assume you have some way of making sure that I keep my word other than my own goodwill," Mumm-Ra observed. Grune's face grew sour. "I will leave convincing him in your paws. But I was right; Lion-O has proven to be more of a problem than you expected. You said he would crumble easily," he trailed off, lowering his brows.
"I didn't count on all the others showing up."
"Ah, but even before they came he laid the groundwork. And now they will have such power…they will aid so many cats…"
At this Mumm-Ra's voice lowered bitterly. Grune didn't say anything; he was pretty sure the old man was nuts half of the time, lost in memories. "I still think you should've started tried starting Thundrillium as an energy source. Then you'd have a patent on the garbage."
"And allow Thundera to profit so much from my labor? No…no, I know what I'm doing. I have time. I'll allow Lion-O to bear that sin, giving his work for these people." Mumm-Ra dared to peel back the curtain and looked over Tretierra under the sun's glare. He had to drop it after a moment, covering his eyes. "A few years. And we'll be ready. Deal with Tygra yourself. I have other things to worry about, particularly Lion-O. I am going to watch and wait. Perhaps it will be for the best; all eyes will be on them, leaving us to operate behind the scenes."
Grune snarled at him and left, slamming the door behind him as he crossed through the door. Mumm-Ra let his fingertips touch the desk, looking at the lines of his withered skin and the bandages visible beneath the suit's cloth. He pulled back a few wraps and examined his scarred flesh. It hurt when air touched it and he wrapped the soothing cloths back around his wrist. They brought quick relief.
"Lion-O and the rest of these cats have proven to be…unpredictable. That is annoying. And yet, perhaps…interesting."
He smiled. "It's been a long time since I really had to try to get what I want. Rest while you can Mr. Rey. I assure you, no matter how long it takes and how much it costs, I will be the victor."
"I cannot believe we mixed you up with another 'Ray.' If you'd strained yourself and those stitches came out, someone's head would be rolling. Lawsuits have started over less. And you won't even say who messed it up, how very quaint. Of all the bullheaded, boyish-"
Jaguara turned and, after looking at him for a second, sighed. "You're not listening, are you?"
Lion-O dreamily opened his eyes. Cheetara had a paw on his mane and the kittens were watching the doctor with their tails flicking, leaning on the other side of the bed. He was comfortable on the stiff mattress with them nearby. "Hm?"
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, just let me get at those stitches. Kids move over."
The kittens moved to the other side of the bed and maintained their vigil by Cheetara. "I toldja you'd be in trouble," Kit whispered.
"I never said leaving was smart, just like I thought I should," Lion-O muttered back. She stuck out her tongue at him and he did the same to her. Cheetara flicked his forehead.
"Don't encourage them. They'll be wild all day."
Jaguara examined his side and she began to replace the bandages. "They're all intact. You really need to take it easy the next few days though. That means no business meetings, no stress, none of that. I want you to take a vacation. You've been stressed lately and the calmer you are, the better you'll heal."
A vacation? Now? The idea of having time where he could take Cheetara and the kittens around the town and show them all the best parts of it…
At any other time he would have been dying to get at the Thundrillium, working on it until it was an energy source available to everyone. He would have been consumed with all the amazing, wonderful things he could do with it.
But right now, Cheetara was here. Everyone except Jaga was here in Pantherle, and Cheetara told him that he'd be heading down in the coming weeks. He had a perfect chance to spend time with her and everyone, just like the days in Tretierra. Only there wouldn't be school to distract him. Everything else could wait. So frankly, life was just perfect.
"Ouch." Except when Jaguara prodded his side. She retracted her fingers.
Lion-O sat up when she gestured for him to do so. "I'll take them out next week if you're healing all right. Fill these prescriptions when you leave." She handed them to Lion-O and crossed her arms, one ear cocked back in thought. "Now the only question is whether or not I let you out now or make you wait until tomorrow."
"Aw…lady, can't you let him out now? We've missed him for months!" Kit sat on the side of the bed and Jaguara looked at her, mouth twisted wryly. "We'll make him rest, don't worry. Cheetara's a doctor, sort of."
"Kit, I'm a vet. The main differences being about twelve years of school." Kit's expression grew incredulous.
"Whoa. You'd have to go to school that long?" Jaguara nodded and Kit said, "I'm glad I never wanted to be a doctor."
"It can be frustrating. Especially when people wander off and leave the hospital when they're not supposed to," she said evenly. Lion-O winced and she grunted. "I guess I've drilled in the lesson."
Cheetara draped one arm around Lion-O's shoulders as he leaned against her hip. The rough jean fabric felt nice on his face. "We really will look after him if you send him home. I'm used to it, sort of. This is just the personality type you're dealing with."
"Why do I believe that?" Jaguara asked, violet eyes resting on Cheetara's red ones. "Well…"
Her tongue rested behind her front teeth before she said, "All right. You have to make sure he's rested, that he doesn't get the stitches wet and that he doesn't strain himself while he recovers. Emotionally or physically. And take the full prescription of medication," she added shortly, one claw resting by his nose. "I'm tired of people quitting their antibiotics before they're supposed to; it breeds resistant strains of pathogens."
Kat and Kit mouthed, "Pathogens?" to each other before Kat said, "Thanks lady. Now Lion-O can come home and spend time with us!"
Lion-O tugged his shirt down and Cheetara kissed his forehead. The move surprised him and sent warmth from his face to his fingers, and he hugged her side. "That sounds great," he mumbled. Her fingers traced into his mane and he inhaled; her shirt still smelled like candy and the firm warm of her hip sent stress out of him.
"Yeah. We'll watch movies and play with Snarf and you can show us files and stuff so we can see all the boss stuff you do," Kit added. "Are you going to take a week off? Can you do that?"
"Take two. Just to be sure," Jaguara interjected.
"Yay, two week vacation!" Kat pumped his fists in the air. "This'll be awesome!"
"Keep in mind it's a two week recovery," Cheetara corrected. "So we have to take things one step at a time.
Lion-O grinned. He got up and held her paws. "Okay. But I want to make up for missing your birthday. I'll get you guys lunch and then we can go see a movie or something. Whatever you want."
"Hey, we're getting good at roller skating! Can we show you? I didn't pack mine but I can ask Jaga to bring 'em!" Kat said.
"And I wanna see the city! It's so different from Tretierra," Kit continued.
"Like I said, whatever you want."
Lion-O heard Jaguara growl. He coughed awkwardly into his paw. "How about we head back to your apartment, I fix some lunch for everybody, and we put on some movies there while we catch up and set you up on the couch to rest?" Cheetara suggested.
"Oh I like her. She's the brains of the operation, isn't she?" Jaguara asked. She nodded at Cheetara and Lion-O smiled.
"Most definitely." He tightened his grip on Cheetara's fingers and Jaguara herded them out, leading them down to the lobby and having Lion-O sign a few papers. Bengali was sitting in the lobby, jacket looking bulky in the front. He waved and blinked sleepily. The kittens beat the adults to him.
"Lion-O's coming home now. Isn't that cool? And Cheetara says we're gonna make lunch and watch movies. Oh, and if Lion-O does too much and hurts himself he's in big trouble." Kat poked Bengali's jacket. "How'd you gain fifteen pounds in an hour?"
The "fat" in front wiggled. Bengali folded his arms around the gray cloth and Kat's eyes grew huge. "…Are you pregnant?"
Bengali snorted. "No, Snarf's in there. He didn't want to wait outside and he wasn't allowed in. And boys don't get pregnant."
"Boy seahorses do," Kit disagreed. "Just not in an hour." She prodded the spot again and Snarf peeked out between the buttons. "Hiya Snarf," she whispered. "Cheetara's making lunch when we get back."
His little mouth curled with delight and when they slipped through the door he popped away from Bengali's stomach like an alien and started rubbing against Cheetara's calves, meowing something that sounded suspiciously like the Hallelujah chorus.
"I still can't cook very well. I mean, it's tolerable but it's nothing like yours," Lion-O told Cheetara. "Ah…we might need to stop by a grocery store. Snarf and I have been surviving on peanut butter sandwiches and instant noodles for the past couple of weeks."
Cheetara shook her head and reached down to pet Snarf. "The veterinarian heart in me breaks. But considering all the work you guys have been doing I guess I understand. How does baked macaroni sound? With a salad to tide everyone over."
Snarf put his little paws together as if in prayer and mewled up to the sky. Lion-O understood him to mean, "Thank you. Thank you so much."
And looking at the lot of them in the sunlight and watching it reflect off of Cheetara's shining mane, he couldn't help but say, "Thank you" as well.
When he got up the next morning – he had slept on the couch, out like a light with a dose of pain medication at about nine, just as Wilykit finished playing her flute – Lion-O wondered if maybe it had all been a marvelous dream. It didn't feel like a hospital bed he was on but he had to wonder if maybe getting shot had all been a dream and he'd fallen asleep on the couch. But his side hurt, so he decided that much had happened at least.
Something warm moved against his front and he lifted his head from the pillow, amused to see Kit partially draped across his good side, squeezed onto the couch with him. She was hanging on to his t-shirt. Kat was in an armchair, brought out of Dad's room. It was the first time he'd moved anything of Dad's at the apartment. Somehow it didn't hurt, knowing that it was for the kittens. Kat was curled in the seat, head on the armrest, and his feet wiggled as he muttered in his sleep. Lion-O put Kit in his place on the couch and peeked into the kitchen, hearing Cheetara in there.
She was already dressed in jeans and a clean white blouse, and from the smell of things she was making breakfast. Snarf was sitting on the table, tail whisking happily as he watched her. Cheetara's mane was back and he could just see the curve of her cheek beyond the gold strands escaping the scrunchie.
He leaned against the doorframe, gazing at her with warmth diffusing through his heart. She looked a little careless, and that was more beautiful than anything. More than her evening gown and makeup, more than the bun and coifed appearance, seeing her here was the loveliest thing he could imagine.
When she turned around she straightened in surprise. "I didn't know you were awake."
"I just got up." He tried not to favor his side but a sharp pang made him drop a paw to the bandages. Cheetara turned off the stove and handed one of the pills Jaguara had prescribed. "You're supposed to take one when you wake up with food, and then one more as needed throughout the day without exceeding four. And you take the antibiotics when you wake up and when you go to bed." She handed him another pill and opened his fridge to pour a cup of juice. "I've got breakfast finished, so go ahead and take those with this. I've got pancakes, eggs, toast-"
Lion-O gently made her set the carton down, looking over the plates in wonder. They were piled with pancakes and waffles, and the scrambled eggs had been salted and placed on each plate equally. There was a plate of sunny side up for Kat, who hated scrambled. "You made all this?"
She shrugged. "I woke up early and figured everyone would be hungry. And you haven't had anything substantial in a while according to Snarf. And I mean, that was a pretty high grocery bill the other day, so I felt kind of bad that the kittens wanted so many kinds of snacks-"
Lion-O let his forehead rest against hers and he kissed her. He then withdrew and said, "You didn't have to do all this. But thank you. It looks wonderful."
Cheetara slowly wound her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss in return. And then another. It was the first time they'd kissed mouth to mouth since her arrival, and Lion-O relished it, letting her scent – fresh, slightly of syrup – wrap around his head and hover. "It's good to see you," she said lowly. Lion-O let his fingers tangle in her ponytail and his lips rested by her ear as she set her jawline against his neck. "We've missed you so much."
"I missed you too. You came here in the middle of the night just to help me…I love you guys." Shyly, he added, "I love you."
He had said it to her before but it was still a frightening phrase. But she just lowered her arms so they wrapped around his back and chest and said, "I love you too. I haven't been this happy in months."
Lion-O could have cried with how good it all felt. Instead he cleared his throat and she released him in favor of giving him the cup of juice. "Okay, pills now." Her tone was direct, a light command.
Snarf was under the table and snickered when Lion-O downed them, pulling a face. The bitter tang of orange juice on his tongue tasted funny until he realized that he hadn't brushed his teeth yet that morning. And he hadn't combed his mane or fur yet. He hadn't showered – or washed rather, remember the stitches – and…dear whiskers, he was wearing his Transformers pajama boxers. In front of Cheetara.
Lion-O's face flushed red. "Oh wow. I…uh, I need to go change and wash up. I'm sorry, I didn't even think…"
Cheetara glanced down and grinned. "I think they're cute."
"Really, I'm sorry. I forgot to comb my mane." He covered his mouth with a paw. "Do I have morning breath? Whiskers…"
Cheetara just smiled and followed him. "Oh come on, we all wake up a little rumpled. Kat, Kit, come here and show Lion-O your bedhead. I've got pancakes if you're hungry! Time to get up!"
It wasn't until both sleepy kittens were up and had proudly displayed their wild manes that Lion-O was able to go wash off and made himself look and smell more presentable. Snarf beat him to the table, relishing in the attention of the kittens as they loved on him and fed him and scratched his tummy. Cheetara loaded a plate carefully with food and put it in front of him, even when he protested. "I can get my own plate. You don't have to do that."
"Lion-O Leo Rey, do not tell me what to do. I don't care that it's your home, I will do as I please." And with that he caved to her will and let her fuss.
He feared for a moment that there might be distance between himself and the Cleras after the months he'd been gone, or that they might feel awkward around him in his own home.
It was like he'd never left.
He might have been in Tretierra or Pantherle for all the difference it made. The kittens were rambunctious and curious, Cheetara was Cheetara, and when Panthro came in smelling of electricity and tiredness looking for him, he was just the grouchy, reluctantly affectionate Panthro. "Tygra's handling the job right now. I think you're gonna have to take over right after you mend though; he's not a happy camper in charge. Says there's too much stress."
Lion-O smiled faintly. Didn't he know it? Cheetara gave a plate to Panthro, who seemed to grudgingly appreciate it. He didn't seem like the sort that was used to homemade food of this caliber.
Lion-O ate better with the Cleras and Panthro around – thanks to Cheetara – and he noticed that he'd returned to his average weight after a few days. The stitches healed quickly and the pain began to fade without medication. Daring to read through Panthro's reports on Thundrillium, he made several notes and plans on the sly to take the studies to the next level; real generators, more research, and integrating the element into day-to-day life. When he wasn't doing that he was entertaining Kat and Kit and Bengali, watching the kittens roller skate on the sidewalk. The first day Bengali had to watch in wonder. The next day there was a new pair waiting for him, conveniently big enough for him. He was a little clumsy but with the kittens bracing him on either side, Bengali soon learned the works.
Bengali was a hit with Cheetara and the kittens. They thought he was fun and sweet, and he molded himself into the group without meaning to. Pumyra was less open and easy about being around them, but she didn't seem to mind the new people. She did confess that the kittens were smart and sweet, and it was good to see Bengali making friends about his own age. She was less happy about the roller skates, but after some pleading she settled for a helmet and some elbow and knee pads.
Lion-O had never been so happy. As soon as he got the okay from Jaguara, he took them around the city in the day and the evening, showing them everything about Pantherle that was good or lovely. From the candy shop his mother used to take him to, all the way to the countryside beyond the city borders where the stars were packed into a sky barely big enough to hold them, he showed it all.
Cheetara and the kittens had never seen so many stars. The amazement in their eyes had been enough to make him want to cry from joy. Sometimes he was so happy he didn't know what to do with himself. It made his chest feel tight and warm, and made him prone to laugh even at the kittens' worst and corniest jokes.
Jaga arrived a few days after the rest of them. He had hugged Lion-O and said very little; he seemed so glad to have Cheetara laughing and smiling again that nothing could be said.
The evening Jaga arrived was an interesting one. The kittens had been sleeping in Tygra's bed until this point – covered with one of Lion-O's comforters – and Cheetara had been staying in Lion-O's while he had, at last, remade the sheets in Dad's bed and slept there. It was a peculiar feeling to sleep there, but somehow he felt better for it; instead of making Dad's room a shrine where none could tread, it was now a room like any other. It had simply housed someone beloved that was gone now.
With the arrival of Jaga, though, came the issue of where he would sleep. Lion-O offered to take to the couch but Cheetara did not approve, saying that they were the intruders and that she would take the couch. Naturally, he defined them as guests and refused.
"I was fine on the sofa before," he said.
"That was an exception. We all slept in the living room that day. Jaga can stay in your old room and I'll take the couch. He's getting up there and he needs a firm mattress, and you're still recovering." Lion-O wondered if she disagreed just because she really was enjoying fussing over him. Even so, this offended his sense of chivalry, and Jaga was content to listen to them squabble with a funny, twinkly look in his eye.
That night Lion-O saw her settling in on the couch and, in protest, planted himself beside her. "We've reached an impasse I think."
She rolled her eyes. "Is there a possible compromise?"
"I'm not sleeping in a bed if you're not. That goes against my nature." He crossed his arms, realizing that they were half-playing, half-serious.
"And I'm not sleeping in a bed if doing so means that you or Jaga have to sleep on the couch." Her lips twitched in a smile and Lion-O felt a bubbly laugh trying to work its way out.
"So…what do we do?" he asked.
It was at this point that the kittens came in, dragging blankets. Snarf rode atop Kat's head. "Look, if you two are gonna talk mushy, do it in the morning. We're on the couch tonight." Kit was emphatic.
"Yeah," Kat added. "There's a marathon of nineties cartoons on tonight, and we're not missing it."
"Who said you could stay up all night?" Cheetara asked, raising an eyebrow.
So the "argument" was settled. Which was a shame, really. Because it had been funny in its own way, and Lion-O had liked sitting next to her, just the two of them.
Tygra discovered very quickly that he didn't like being in charge.
It was one thing to be second in command because it was easy to rely on someone else to make the hardest decisions, and if things went wrong, he could point the finger to the head of it all. But with Lion-O on vacation, Tygra assumed command and everyone brought their issues to him. And he couldn't seek Lion-O's approval for every one because heck, his brother had been shot and was to avoid stress and business. So it was all on him.
Man being the boss sucked.
Panthro was nice enough but he didn't talk about business much. He handled the machinery and answered questions about it – naturally they were granted a far longer permit considering the prospects of such an amazing power source – but everything else fell to his decision. There was never a spare moment between problems and things that had to be done, and Tygra found himself grateful when Pumyra came at twelve and said, "I know you're busy, but I brought some lunch in." She held up a bag and withdrew a wrapped dish from it. Tygra logged off his work account, scooted away from the computer, and accepted the plate. He sat it on the surface and put his forehead against the desk.
"Never tell Lion-O I said this, but…I don't know how he does this every day. I'm glad he's coming back to work in a week."
"Does what, run things? It's not as easy as you thought it would be?" She was wearing a new suit jacket, courtesy of Thunder Enterprises. After all, her other one had been used to bind a wound. It hung nicely on her, accentuating her waist.
"Definitely. I didn't realize it but there are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that only a CEO has to deal with. I'm beat." Reluctantly, he had to add, "I guess my complaining was pretty aggravating when he was busy before, wasn't it?"
She shrugged. "I'm beginning to think he has the temperament for this job more than ever. I used to think he didn't, but he's done pretty well."
"Yeah. Great." He realized he sounded short and said, "I guess he was right about Thundrillium all along. I always told him it was stupid." He took off the covering to the plate and picked at the contents. "One more grand screw up on my list."
Pumyra had taken out her own serving but listened to this and cocked her head. "Somebody's down in the dumps."
"Maybe. I don't know."
Pumyra let the fork slip into her dish. "You know…that was a very kind thing you did. Bringing them here. You didn't have to."
Tygra shrugged and picked at his plate. "I had to bring Panthro to fix the generator."
"I meant Cheetara and the kittens." She sounded as if she wanted to say more but couldn't.
"Oh. Well." He took a bite to give him a minute to think. Pausing, he took another bite. "Who made this? It's excellent."
Pumyra seemed to blush, which was a strange look for her. She was usually so confident and bold that he couldn't remember ever seeing her do that. It was rather fetching. "I did. My mother works as a sous chef and she always pounded recipes into my head. 'You'll never land a man if you can't keep a home and make good food,'" she mimicked, sounding a little irritated. "I don't usually make anything fancy but I was in the mood."
Tygra took another bite. It was some kind of pasta with mushroom, shallot and cheeses. "So this is gourmet?"
"Pretty much. Bengali doesn't like fancy stuff, so there's no point in doing the work just for me. So you're my guinea pig."
"I don't think I mind. Thanks," he said. Pumyra nodded and leaned on his desk.
"I'm still wondering why you did it. Brought the others down I mean. I thought you liked Cheetara." She drove her fork into her own plate and eyed Tygra as he tapped his utensil on the side of his dish.
"I did. I mean, I do. I mean…"
Tygra breathed out through his nose. "Have you ever seen a couple of people together and known that they're meant to be?"
Pumyra considered this and a piece of mushroom. "Like Romeo and Juliet?"
"No. By the way, why do most women find that so romantic?" he asked suddenly. "It's a couple of stupid teenagers that commit suicide over each other after knowing each other about seventy-two hours."
"I don't find it romantic. I find it moronic. It's a well-written piece but its subject matter is ridiculous. If love robs a person of their mind and sense it's a terrible thing." Pumyra set her plate on the desk and Tygra got up, offering her his chair. She sat in it, watching him pace with his serving in paw.
"Well, what I was getting at was…have you ever seen these old couples that have been married for years and years? And they act alike and have this look they share?"
"Yeah. It's sweet. Why?"
Tygra continued pacing more slowly. "That's the way Lion-O and Cheetara look at each other. They just…had something. Lion-O told me once that Cheetara said she loved him. But I didn't really believe him until then. The way they looked at each other just…"
Pumyra's elbows rested on the desk and her eyes were quiet beneath her lashes. He felt his face redden and muttered, "It's like if I tried to come between that, I'd be trying to stop fate. They looked so happy."
It was a little uncomfortable for a moment but Pumyra lowered her eyes to the pasta, stabbing another piece. "I suppose they do suit each other. He's certainly crazy about her. I don't know about 'stopping fate' though. I didn't peg you for someone that believes in soul mates."
"I generally don't. But just because I don't believe in it doesn't mean it's not real," he muttered. "I guess I'm just coming to grips with the fact that, for the first time, someone picked Lion-O over me."
"From the sound of your history it was probably a rare occurrence." She took a drink of water and added, "Are you upset by that?"
He shrugged. "Not really. I've had a while to think about it. It's just weird. You're right that I was the one that got most of the attention. I never really thought it was such a bad thing until now. But I'm still a little mad about it. I'm not sure why."
Pumyra cut a piece of chicken. "Let me ask you honestly; do you think you and Cheetara would work together? Really? Because you can kick around the fact that she picked him instead of you and sulk about it, or you can figure out whether you two would work together as a couple and move on from there. It may have been for the best; I can't say anything because I don't know her very well."
Tygra smirked, lips twisting sourly. "In the long run I'm pretty sure we wouldn't last. She's a believing, God-fearing, animal-loving good girl."
"Whereas you tend to make fun of people that are goody-goody believers, have derision for the idea of the supernatural and have no opinion about animal cruelty in general," Pumyra observed. She crossed her legs under the desk. "Not to mention you're a little bit bigoted. Most of us are, but she doesn't strike me that way."
"Well, if we're only talking about characteristics…"
Pumyra rolled her eyes. "All right then, getting around the fact that you two aren't similar at all and have vastly different belief systems at your core, and have completely different interests, and are motivated by polar opposite reasoning. What else should we consider? Physical attraction? I know she's hot but so are about five hundred million other women out there."
Tygra grunted. Pumyra was fiddling with her mane and it was a little distracting. "It was only when you saw that Lion-O liked her that you really got gung-ho about pursuing her and got so upset that she was taken. I realize you liked her. But I'm just concerned because you did a really nice thing for him and…I guess I'd like to believe you did it just for its own sake. Because as annoying and egocentric as you act, I honestly don't think that's all there is to you."
She glanced out the window and Tygra felt one eyebrow dipping as he examined her. The lines of her shoulder blades were stiff and she sat as rigidly as a military officer. "Why does it matter to you?"
"I don't know. It just does." Pumyra didn't snap but there was an edge to her voice. "It was nice to see you do something like that. Showed a different side. I wouldn't have predicted it. And I'm usually a good judge of character."
Tygra noticed that he'd nearly finished his plate. "I felt like I had to. Like it was the right thing to do. Not the smart thing to do, not the ethical thing to do. The right thing to do." He sighed and felt his tiredness roll through his chest. "I've been doing some searching lately. And I'm not so sure I like what I'm finding. I used to think it was all Lion-O's fault that we fought, that he was lazy and dumb and spoiled, and that was why we has issues and I was always nagging. But he's not any of those things. Well…okay, he can be dumb sometimes. But he's definitely not lazy or spoiled. And if he's not the one with the problem, that only leaves one person that could have the issue."
Pumyra's eyes softened. "I don't think blame should rest entirely on either one of you. You've both argued and fought."
"Yeah, but who was always starting it? Who is really to blame for the majority?" Tygra looked at her over his shoulder and felt weird at the gentleness of her face. "I don't know. Maybe it's just because he nearly died and I'm having a crisis. I don't want to get all chummy with him, but I also feel like I can't talk to him right now. Things aren't the same. I nearly lost him that night."
They were silent until they finished eating and he took her plate, offering to rinse it off in the restroom before she put it away. "Thanks. I'm not trying to dump all this psychological baggage on you. It's just I don't know who else I can tell it to that might see things impartially. Everybody else would be on Lion-O's side completely." Come to think of it, why would she side with him? He had insinuated he might fire her before. Shame gripped him again, though he realized she had never needed to fear him really doing.
She shrugged. "I don't know about that. They care about you too." She stood up and hesitated before moving to stand in front of him. "Look. It's been a crazy week. I don't think this is the right time to try to figure everything out. You've both made mistakes in the past. But if anything, him doing what he did only proves that he still considers you family. And you helped him in return, like families do. You're not too far gone if you're willing to do that for each other. If you want things to change…then change. Don't quibble about it."
Tygra averted his gaze. "This is going to sound stupid, but I'm not so sure I can."
It was an awkward, difficult place to stand; how could he continue exactly as before? And how could he alter things to make them better? It was confusing, and he had wonder; how did someone change something about themselves that they'd kept their whole life?
He voiced this aloud and Pumyra seemed a little amused. "One step at a time."
"Won't that take a long time?" he asked.
Pumyra just strode around him, and he was left more curious when she said, "Maybe. But every journey starts with a first step." She let him chew on that before admitting, "I got that from a fictional book. I can't remember where. There are some sensible things in them."
Tygra groaned. "Great, one more thing Lion-O was right about."
"Oh come on; get back to work and we can hit the gym later. You'll feel better." Pumyra took up her place at her desk and Tygra took the dishes, trying to pretend he didn't hear the phones ringing to ask him a million questions each.
"Hold still, I'm almost finished. Are you still taking your antibiotics?"
"Yeah – ow. I've got about two weeks' worth left. Cheetara – ow – makes me take them in the morning and evening." Lion-O watched in morbid fascination as Jaguara removed the stitches in his side and put the thread in a box beside her.
"Good girl. You're healing fast." She dabbed a little liquid on the scratch and Lion-O sighed, glad the strings were gone. "You can do very light lifting right now, but that's it."
Jaguara's mane was in a bun and Lion-O couldn't help but notice that Jaga – who stood by Cheetara and the kittens, gently holding the backs of their shirts to keep them from running over and distracting the lady – kept his eye on her. She tied on a new set of bandages and smacked his shoulder. "All right, go on. You're all right. Though I have to say, your posse grows ever larger with every visit."
He grinned awkwardly. Panthro was crammed into one of the chairs in the corner and he grunted. He'd scared a few of the nurses when he came in. "I just want to get an estimate on when he can get back to work. We've got a lot to do, and he's the only one who gets some of it."
Jaguara leaned on one of the movable counters that held her tools. Her claws were long and neatly trimmed, filed to points. "He can do file work at home, but I want another week before he's worrying himself at the job site."
Panthro didn't seem overly pleased by this, but he just lowered his chin in acceptance. "Ya make one of the biggest discoveries in the century and you can't even move forward properly because someone's been shot. Hmph."
Kit hugged his arm. "Hey, do you think you can make hoverboards and stuff like that? That'd be so cool! Lion-O, you said you had a design for them; let's try to make some and we'll test them out!"
"We'll see. There's a lot of work to do." And I might actually enjoy it now, Lion-O thought.
There was no doubt that it would take years to get Thundrillium where he wanted it, but the endless ways it could improve life in Thundera – heck, the whole world – was something so big that he found it hard to entertain the notion. Places without ready access to power would only need a generator and the occasional shipment of Thundrillium to have electricity in their homes. Perhaps they could make portable power sources for doctors to take to places that had no help or medicine. And once they perfected the science it would be affordable for more people to have energy for long periods of time. Not to mention environmental groups wouldn't heckle them because Thundrillium didn't let off pollution…
He got dizzy if he tried to consider it all. Changing the world was a mind boggling concept.
"Begging your pardon." He twitched his head when Jaga's voice pulled him out of his reverie, but it was to Jaguara that he was speaking. "I don't mean to sound strange, but you look very familiar to me. I feel as if I've seen your picture before."
She met his eyes and furrowed her brow. "You seem a little familiar too." Jaguara snapped her fingers after a moment. "I think you were one of the contributing writers for an article on spinal injuries and the anatomical ramifications of spinal fluid buildup. They had pictures in the appendix profiling the writers."
Jaga's eyebrows shot up. "Well…a few years ago I wrote a little something. And…yes, your picture was in one of the medical texts I used for teaching my college classes in nineteen-ninety!"
Cheetara and Lion-O shared a look. That either of the jaguars remembered something as mundane as a picture in a text was not surprising, but the amount of interest this generated between them was. Jaguara suddenly grinned, a sharp thing. Her teeth were pearly and obviously not dentures; she'd tended them well. "Jaga Clera, that's your name. I remember now. Well well…you never know who's going to wander through the door."
"Or who's going to end up treating your granddaughter's boyfriend, it would seem." Jaga inclined his head courteously. "I tended to favor texts that used your opinions and studies, Dr. Hipocra. You had a flair for clarity and my students always appreciated that."
"Well, not just anyone gets to send in articles to the medical journals I follow." She nudged Lion-O until he got up. "Keep up what you're doing. No heavy lifting for a week, hon."
It was fascinating to hear Jaga and Jaguara chat as they headed down to the lobby. Lion-O kept giving Cheetara looks and grinning; the old jaguars behind them were talking about medicine and journals and a bunch of other doctoral things. But that wasn't the funny part. The funny part was that Kit and Kat were whispering, "Jaga and Jaguara, sitting in a tree…" as softly as possible. Cheetara tweaked their noses.
"Hush," she murmured. They gave each other wicked smirks but obeyed. Panthro rolled his eyes.
Lion-O signed out and pretended to be looking at some of the art on the walls – mostly large, boring pieces of space and abstract paintings – to give Jaga and Jaguara optimum time to talk. Panthro noticed this opening and shifted closer as they walked.
"Hey." Panthro lowered his head and muttered, "I wanted to tell you; the police called Tygra and said that Kaynar Sicar and Vultaire Rapax were both found dead in their cells."
Lion-O stopped, suddenly icy cold. Cheetara was still listening to Jaga and Jaguara chat, hiding the kittens so the older cats couldn't see them making kissy faces. None of them were paying attention. He felt his face shift into a hard expression. "When was this?"
"A couple days ago. They both appeared to go from natural causes, but Kaynar had a hollow tooth in his paw, so in his case they suspect a suicide. He might've smuggled a drug in, but there's no evidence in his body. Vultaire just seemed to pass. No wounds or anything."
Lion-O narrowed his eyes. "I take it you're suspicious of that?"
Panthro nodded slowly. "I might be paranoid, but I get a funny feeling about it. The only two people that could possibly spill anything about Mumm-Ra are dead. And there are poisons that can kill and leave very little behind." He seemed to brood and Lion-O wondered if he were remembering something from Plundarran wars.
"Yeah. Kind of convenient for him. But Vultaire didn't seem worried when he was arrested…like he didn't realize Mumm-Ra would off him for getting discovered."
Panthro shrugged. "Probably thought Mumm-Ra would take care of him. The old creep probably told him that. And I guess he did in the end."
Lion-O's stomach contracted and he suddenly felt ill.
Noticing this, Panthro said, "Kaynar had a record on him. It looks like he's been tied to several assassinations from what they confiscated from his business."
"I wasn't thinking about him. I knew he was evil. He seemed to have fun trying to shoot Tygra." Lion-O shook his head and felt his lip curl. "I kind of felt bad for Vultaire. I mean, I know he was a scumbag. But he was a cowardly person more than anything. And he couldn't have been able to defend himself if someone poisoned him. It's just sick, all the things that are going on."
He conjured an image against his will of Vultaire dying, poisoned by a glass of water. Lion-O shook his head and shivered. Panthro put an arm over his shoulders.
"Don't worry kid. I've been thinking about it, and I recommend you hire some security to keep an eye on you and Tygra and the people around you. And…well, I was kinda thinking that maybe I was ready to leave the teaching gig behind. I figure there are some other things I can do right now, if you're looking for another engineer."
Lion-O looked up at him and felt better, smiling when Panthro coughed and rubbed the back of his neck with his free paw. "You missed me."
"Nah. Well, a little. Besides, I get the feeling you pay better. And…eh…"
"You want to keep an eye on me." He read it in the stern, embarrassed lines on Panthro's face. Rather than humiliating his old professor, Lion-O looked away. "For my dad's sake, of course. After all, you were a friend of his. And Thunder Enterprises is important to you." His lips stretched a little further.
Panthro blinked. "Er…yeah, that's right. Gotta look after my pal's kids." He paused and put a paw on Lion-O's mane. "He'd be proud of you and your brother, y'know. You're a good kid."
Lion-O's eyes smarted at that. Panthro had the kindness to pretend to examine his watch while Lion-O wiped his face. "Thanks Panthro. It means a lot to hear that from you. And I'd love to have you on with Thunder Enterprises again. We'll get the employment papers up right away."
Jaguara seemed to be writing something and handed the paper to Jaga as they left, heading outside into the pleasant sunlight. Cheetara shook her head in disbelief. "Did she just give you her number? You've never asked for a lady's number."
The kittens started cracking up and Jaga just continued walking with dignity. "Dr. Hipocra happens to be a very brilliant woman. One of the first females of her generation to graduate and successfully pursue a doctor's degree as opposed to a nursing one. I've long admired her work and just wanted to keep in touch is all."
"She's really pretty for an older lady," Kat said baldly. Jaga didn't grace that with a reply. "And she's nice. She gave me and Kit candy. See?" He held up a few pieces of peppermint. "Are you gonna ask her out?"
Jaga exhaled rather quickly, ruffling his mustache. Lion-O bit his knuckle to keep from laughing. "I'm rather old for that sort of thing…"
"What? She's old, you're old. I think it would be nice," Kit proclaimed, dancing alongside him.
Lion-O just watched them heckle Jaga and Cheetara, like himself, was stifling laughter. He met her eyes and let the worry about Kaynar and Vultaire fall away. Because he would follow Panthro's advice and he was on a happy high. Nothing could pull him down with the Cleras near.
"Guys, dinner! We've got turkey subs tonight!"
Cheetara heard this from her case on the floor. She took her brush out and pulled it through her mane swiftly, hearing the kittens run past the door. "Don't run! Remember three days ago!"
The footsteps slowed. "Lion-O fixed my toe. It was just stubbed is all," Kat replied.
"Then how come you cried for three whole minutes?" Kit asked. The two began to squabble and Cheetara rolled her eyes, running her paw over her mane to make sure it was smooth. Lion-O had come to wake her up this morning to take them to pick up some breakfast, and he'd seen the awful glory of her mane before brushing. It had been like a straw nest, and she felt a little self-conscious about it now.
He wasn't shallow, and neither was she. But that didn't mean she didn't want to primp around him a little.
She replaced the brush in her bag – leaving it on someone else's bathroom counter just seemed strange to her – and felt something soft. Cheetara smiled and pulled out a stuffed animal, hugging it and standing up. Looking around, she found a place in Lion-O's room on one of his shelves and placed it there.
"Now you're back home," she said gently, tracing Doofle's little stitched mouth.
"You brought him with you?"
Cheetara looked over her shoulder and tapped Doofle's nose. "Of course. He's important to both of us now." Lion-O drew in close and wrapped his arms around her waist with just the slightest hesitation. She folded her arms across his to reassure him, feeling him settle against her. "It was very sweet of you to give him to me. I felt a little bad though. He was the last thing your mother…"
Lion-O smelled nice and it was distracting. He had started waking up earlier than her so he could freshen up without her catching sight of him uncombed and bedraggled. He wore the same type of cologne he'd worn the night he left and it was a rich, soft smell. It was particularly strong when she tilted her head toward his neck, toward the finer fur on his face and throat. "I wanted you to have him. Still do."
He looked sheepish about something. "I know I said I was in charge of making dinner tonight, but I just wanted to warn you that the subs probably aren't going to be that great. They're glorified sandwiches, and I might have toasted the bread a little too long."
Cheetara laughed. Lion-O looked so awkward and it felt so good to be standing close to him again that it made her dizzy. "That's fine. Sometimes food is best a little on the simple side." A part of her wanted to remain with him alone, standing in his arms and letting his warmth fill her skin. His fur brushed hers and it was comfortingly still in his room. She lifted her chin, looking at some of the titles on the shelves. "You were right. Kat and Kit did like 'Holes.'"
"Good. It's a fun book." Lion-O slowly let go of her and she felt wistful for that warmth. The kittens had been savvy in letting them have time to themselves, playing with Bengali and messing with Panthro or Tygra instead. Even though she was grateful for their understanding, Cheetara couldn't help but try to grab up more of Lion-O's time and attention. Perhaps it was because they were in such a new place; he was familiar and comforting. He was home, and to have him near was to have home right alongside her. "Tygra brought Bengali and Pumyra along, so I had to make some extra. Come on, while they're still hot and sort of edible."
The sandwiches were fine, and Cheetara sat between Lion-O and Kat at the table. The dining table itself hadn't been used since Thanksgiving, but it was the only way to fit eight people – nine including Snarf – in the same room for dinner. She noticed that Tygra, though he talked to Lion-O and told him about what was happening at Thunder Enterprises, didn't seem to want to look at him for longer than a few moments. Pumyra was willing enough to report in his stead, and Cheetara found that she had a rather abrasive – if admirably confident – way about her.
"By the way, we've started getting calls about investors wanting to partner with Thunder Enterprises to sell generators once we perfect them. One interested group is the government." Pumyra smirked and handed Lion-O a paper. "The offers are quite generous."
Lion-O just looked over the paper with interest. Cheetara stared at the page and felt a little faint. "That's a lot of zeros," she said quietly.
"Yeah, but I think they overestimate the costs it'll take to get Thundrillium. It forms in the Earth really fast; it's the generators that take time. Of course, once we finish our models we'll be able to produce them easily. And for ten years we'll have a monopoly. Still, the whole point is making it affordable to increase demand, so the prices should probably decrease about thirteen percent for the individual family…it makes profit and demand will increase if we can make generators that last several years and get deals for Thundrillium costs…"
Lion-O began making notes, absently forgetting his sandwich. Cheetara watched him in something like wonder. He was still their Lion-O, but there was another side to him; he was a CEO, intelligent in matters of business and books, energy and family. He dealt with people that were rich and powerful day in and day out. He shifted when he became the CEO, speaking more clearly and voice echoing with the timbre of an order.
Lion-O was a man. Still sweet, still gentle in nature, but he was a man in control. "Oil companies are interested in investing as well. After all, if we develop it to the point that oil is obsolete, they'll need to make their money somehow," Tygra added. Lion-O looked at the next page, nodding.
"I think that'll still take a while. A lot of people prefer oil, and we're still in the early stages of this. We'll have to play it by ear, see where we are in a couple of years. But yeah, we can go ahead and meet with them." He smiled. "Environmental protection groups should be happy. Thundrillium will cut down on emissions a lot. At least we don't have to worry about them protesting us."
"Have you been watching the news?" Panthro asked. He gestured with his sub. "'Against all odds, Thunder Enterprises had introduced a saving grace to those suffering from high energy prices. The genius decisions of the Reys and their employees will herald the beginning of energy for everyone in the world.'" He took a bite and chewed on it. "Like they weren't insultin' Thunder Enterprises eight days ago, saying it would collapse. Bunch of opportunists."
Lion-O seemed to find something funny about that. Panthro reluctantly smirked.
Jaga occasionally reached out to brush crumbs off Kat's shirt. "How has Black Pyramid taken things?"
"No word, other than a scandalized apology for Vultaire's bizarre doings," Tygra muttered. "Mumm-Ra claims he had no idea Vultaire would do something like that, and expresses sorrow that he wasn't able to give him a piece of his mind before Vultaire passed."
Lion-O lowered his eyes to his sandwich. "No one suspects him?"
"Of course not. Both criminals are dead of apparently natural causes. If they found chemicals or something, they'd be suspicious, but they have no leads. Who knows, maybe they killed themselves instead of-"
Pumyra elbowed Tygra harshly in the ribs. He winced and noticed that the kittens and Bengali were listening. He cleared his throat. "Well. No one knows. Mumm-Ra's a bad guy and we'll have to watch out for him. Especially whenever we visit in Tretierra."
Cheetara blinked and things got a little quiet for a second. Tygra seemed to realize his mistake and continued, "Anyway, you guys were saying you wanted to go get ice cream or something?"
The kittens nodded but the damage was done; Cheetara's heart felt sick, squishy, like it had fallen into her stomach and didn't work anymore. And Lion-O's face was carefully blank as he continued eating, the smile gone.
Of course it had occurred to her that they would eventually have to go back to Tretierra. But actually hearing someone bring it up to Lion-O – who probably had not thought of it, distracted as he'd been – was painful. The kittens had not picked up on the cue at least; they were as bouncy as ever and chattered at Pumyra and Bengali about how they'd met Lion-O when they went to get ice cream.
"And Lion-O bought us the sandwiches, so we asked him where he was from, and then he said he was coming to school, and then we took him to meet Cheetara. And then he turned funny colors and he adopted Snarf and got a crush on her."
Cheetara just laughed along with the others when they picked up the ice cream and headed back.
It wouldn't be so bad to be without Lion-O now, knowing that he would have more time to visit. Or at least he would have more authority and do more of what he wanted. He would come more often, and they could come to see him – assuming, of course, whatever Tygra had done had been permanent – too. She was beyond feeling awkward about him spending money to bring them to Pantherle; if there was one thing the Reys wouldn't have to worry about, it was money. So they'd see each other once a month, maybe every two months. It would be bearable, wouldn't it?
She felt sick and politely refused her usual vanilla. Lion-O got a chocolate swirled cone and bought an extra bowl for Snarf. He didn't seem to enjoy his cone very much, even though the kittens dug into their chocolate-dipped strawberry ice cream with gusto. She looked at all the flavors with a little interest; they were all different. Panthro didn't like ice cream – he complained it hurt his teeth – and got plain yogurt instead. Tygra got spumoni, Pumyra liked butterscotch, and Bengali had cookie dough. Jaga preferred pistachio.
It was nice being with all of them. Tygra had gotten them down there, but Lion-O was the linchpin that really brought their hearts together. He was their common denominator.
Jaga was watching her, and she felt as if he was reading her emotions, catching the little pangs. She smiled at him. He lowered his gaze to his bowl and Cheetara just focused on Lion-O's fingers on her upper arm.
Can I do this? Can I leave Pantherle when Lion-O is here?
She shut her eyes and opened them more forcefully. Lion-O was telling Bengali something as they stood on the sidewalk, waiting for the walk sign to light up. Cheetara lifted her paw from her side and rested it on his hip, and he looked at her. She smiled and stifled a laugh; there was a little ice cream on his nose. She took one of the napkins he had wrapped around the cone and handed it to him, letting him wipe it off. "Sorry. Didn't realize."
"It happens to the best of us." Cheetara took a bite from his cone – teasing him – and got ice cream all down her chin. She lifted her free paw to cover it and Lion-O laughed, somber eyes light again. He gave her another napkin so she could clean it off.
"The best, huh?" He offered her the cone again at a better angle, and Cheetara took a daintier bite. The others were ahead of them, not noticing the goofiness.
"Mm-hm." She rested her head on his shoulder. "So…you've been thinking the same thing I have."
"About…the end of the visit?" he asked. She nodded and felt his warm breath on her mane. "Yeah." They had crossed the street and she lifted her head, side pressed to his. "I won't let it be like before. I let everything control me. This time I'm doing what I want," Lion-O said firmly. "And…I'll bring you guys down here. I'll figure out what Tygra did for the kittens and bring you down every other weekend if you want. Heck, every weekend if you'd prefer."
The sweetness of this made her tilt her head and kiss his cheek. "That's very kind. And we do need to stick together as much as possible. But every week…Jaga and I can't leave the clinic so often, one of us has to stay. And…I know money isn't really an issue, but-"
Lion-O shook his head. "After all you guys have done, you deserve more than I could ever give."
She sighed. They didn't talk anymore about it that evening, speaking instead of kittens and movies.
But she felt so selfish. She wanted to say that she wanted him to come back home with them and be right around the block. He was like sunshine; if they – if she – went without him for very long, things withered. And in the way he held her fingers, Cheetara knew he felt the same way about her.
That didn't help much, though. Cheetara lay awake in bed that night, looking at Doofle and Barbie. How funny that by now she looked at them and felt like they belonged beside each other.
She tended to remain still while she slept. But that night she rolled, trying to find comfortably cool spots in the sheets. At last she could take it no longer; at one in the morning she got up and headed into the hall, pausing outside the door to Claudus' old bedroom. Cheetara slipped in the door and looked at the bed, leaning on the wall in her pajama bottoms and t-shirt feeling rumpled and tired.
Lion-O slept on his front when he had room, and she was glad that his stitches had healed. He snored a little but for some reason the sound made her want to laugh. Probably because she distinctly recalled her mother snoring. Dad had never snored but Mom…it had been like a lawn mower. It had been amazing that such a dainty, slim woman could make such a noise, but it was true. To the best of her knowledge Cheetara didn't snore, but the sound didn't bother her.
Lion-O rolled onto his side, and she drifted back out the door, afraid she'd wake him. Before she could close it something brushed against her ankle and Cheetara jolted, looking down to see…Snarf. He looked a little cranky and she knelt to pick him up and stroke his ears. "Did I wake you Snarf?"
He nodded, laying his head on her chest and curling in comfortably. "Sorry about that. Just checking on your master. Did he mention us going back home to you?" Cheetara trailed down the hall to the kitchen, cradling him as he yawned and nodded. She opened the refrigerator and took out the gallon of milk, pouring herself a glass. It was her vice; a cup of milk in the middle of the night was the only surefire way to knock herself out. Snarf dismissed it, content to doze on her front as she put the jug back with one paw and closed the fridge door with her foot. She sat down at the table and sipped at it, rubbing Snarf's back and watching his red coat shine.
"I'm just not sure what to do," she admitted. "We missed him so much, and it would be very difficult to come see him every weekend. Even every other week. But not seeing him would be even harder. But I have to think about the kittens and work, and Jaga will need help at the clinic…"
Snarf opened one green eye and blinked it lazily up at her. Cheetara buried her face in his golden tuft of head fur and muttered, "Oh Snarf, I just don't know what to do. I don't want to miss him but how can we come see him often enough when we live a flight away? This probably sounds so selfish, but I don't want to have to miss him at all."
It was quiet as Snarf purred and rubbed his face against her neck as if to tell her it was all right. And then, a quiet, cultured voice came from the doorway.
"There is an alternative you know."
Cheetara sat up, back straight. She relaxed when she recognized Jaga in his plaid, button up pajama set. He stepped lightly over the floor and took the seat beside her. "You surprised me," she said. "Did I wake you?"
"No. I just had a funny feeling this evening." His eyes drifted over her scruffy mane and the sleepy Snarf on her shoulder.
"What were you saying?" Cheetara asked, nudging the chair beside her so he would come sit down.
"I merely said that there was an alternative. You seem to think you can only miss him or travel too much between Tretierra and Pantherle. That isn't so." His voice sounded like the ocean on gravelly sand, rough and soft. He started sounding croaky when he was tired. Cheetara took his paw, finger tired and knobby beneath her youthful palm.
"Is there another way Jaga? Because neither one sounds doable. I can't miss him like that again, but to travel every few days on a plane just sounds crazy." Cheetara paused for a drink of milk. "If there's another option, I need to know.
"It's rather simple; I'm surprised you've missed it. Perhaps you ought to move to Pantherle." Cheetara's eyes grew round and Jaga observed his claws. "You would be close to Lion-O and the kittens would be in a safer city."
Cheetara stroked Snarf, staring at her glass of milk. "I can't do that, Jaga. I mean, that's awfully drastic. And you need an assistant in Tretierra. And that's…that's home to me and the kittens, how could I just-?"
Move away from Tretierra? From Jaga? Her heart recoiled from the idea. It was where she'd grown up, where she was used to. She treated animals there, gone to school there. Her history was woven into Tretierra and its buildings and streets. Her entire past was a part of it. She said all this and Jaga rested his chin on his interlocked fingers.
"Cheetara dear, I think you need to consider your future. Take it from someone who knows personally. We should never forget our past, but we mustn't let it dictate every decision we make. Otherwise we'll end up making very bad, limited decisions."
Jaga rested his arms on the table. He seemed amiably sleepy. "These questions need to be answered. First, do you love Lion-O?"
She lifted her chin when Snarf opened both eyes. "Yes."
"And he loves you." This was not a question but she nodded anyway. "You are very close to becoming a licensed veterinarian. We have some funds saved up, nearly enough to buy a building without taking out loans and worrying about interest. You would never be more than a phone call away if you needed help from me or anyone else. Is moving here possible with our resources?"
Cheetara ran through the facts and said, "Yes. But then we'll miss you."
Jaga uncrossed his legs and crossed them the other way. "But you'll all miss Lion-O more if you come back to Tretierra. Honestly dear, the lot of you have been pining to come see him for the past three months and to see you so miserable is heartbreaking." He took her paw again. "He's a wonderful young man that makes all of you happy. You glow when you're with him. I shall miss you, but it would be a lot easier for one person to come here than a group. And then Lion-O wouldn't have to compromise in his work, and neither would you."
Cheetara look at Snarf, and he cocked one ear back happily. Feeling childish, she lifted him and played with the tufts of fur on his ears. "…Would you visit all the time?" she asked in a small voice.
He smiled. "If you and the kittens live down here, I shall have to take vacations to come see you. Say…a couple weeks every other month? I'd be able to afford it if it's only me. And I can always move here permanently when I retire."
For some reason this thought didn't upset her. Cheetara scooted her chair so she was closer to Jaga and leaned on his shoulder. He smelled old and like peppermint. His whiskers tickled her, and she said, "I'll have to ask the kittens what they want to do."
"Yes." Jaga held her and kissed the top of her head. "Cheetara, you are my dear heart. Nothing would make me as happy as seeing you happy. That's what every parent – or grandparent, I suppose – wants."
Cheetara felt a little young to make this decision. Twenty-one was an adult, sure, and she'd always had pretty sound judgment. But to move hours away, take care of the kittens on her own?
Lion-O had to take over a whole company, and he's only eighteen. And you wouldn't be alone.
This thought stilled her fear and soothed her heart. Her head cleared and she picked up the cup. Cheetara finished her glass of milk and said, "I'll think about it. But I think you're right." She stood up and so did Jaga, folding her in a hug.
"The decision is yours to make. I'll be proud of you whatever you decide," he said gently. Snarf wiggled between them and Jaga stepped back. "Snarf, don't let on about this. Cheetara will tell Lion-O when she's made up her mind."
Snarf's little mouth puckered but he nodded. Cheetara took him back to bed with her and slept for the remainder of the night.
Lion-O was surprised when he went back to work. All the employees rushed him at the door, asking questions excitedly.
"Are you all right sir?"
"You kept a generator secret from that con man?"
"The company's receiving so many offers it's hard to keep track of them al!"
"Claudus never had this much business in twenty years, let alone two weeks!"
Lion-O answered what he could and worked his way through the crowd. No one dared to touch him but they crowded around him within an inch of his clothes. Lion-O escaped to the elevator and leaned against its wall, letting the polite smile slip a little.
It was going to be busy that day. There would be contracts, calls, offers, and who knew what else. His stomach hurt just a little with soreness but it was nothing unbearable. He straightened his tie and wished that everyone had woken up in time to say goodbye. But the kittens had been tired and Cheetara was still asleep when he left, so he set a note on the shelf by her – rather, his – bed and kissed her mane before leaving.
Lion-O wondered if that was what Dad had ever felt like when he went to work and Mom was still asleep. It felt nice and strange all at once.
He had tried not to think about the fact that she and the kittens and Jaga would probably leave in the next week. They probably missed home and their own beds, and he didn't want them to feel uncomfortable. And even though he really, really wanted to hint that he would pay for the apartment next to him so they could live right there, he got the feeling that it might be read as creepy.
Besides, he couldn't do that to Cheetara. She loved Tretierra; it was her home. Lion-O straightened when the elevator slid open and stepped out into the hall, noting that people were watching him through the glass panes of their offices before he entered his.
Pumyra looked up and said, "Lynxana wants to talk to you."
Great. Perfect. He sighed and mumbled, "Where?"
She pointed to his desk and he saw that the lynx had made herself comfortable in his chair. "Hope you don't mind. I had to fight my way through the front door. Your security team would have thrown me out if I hadn't mentioned that Tygra agreed that you'd meet me."
Lion-O cocked his ear back. "I wasn't aware of that."
"Yeah, well, you were unconscious." She seemed less risqué than usual; her skirt was longer and her blouse showed less of her chest. He tended not to look purposely at those general regions, but the fact that she wasn't flaunting herself was what drew his eye. She actually looked kind of nice. Her mane was in a bun and her makeup was light. It was as if she were trying to look…professional. Ladylike. "So could you tell your coffee girl over there to vamoose?"
Pumyra's hackles rose and Lion-O said, "She doesn't get me coffee. But Pumyra, would you see if Tygra needs any help? And please tell him I'm here."
"Yes Mr. Rey." She got up, gave Lynxana a predatory look and left the room. She kept the door open.
Lynxana noticed that. "Afraid I'll attack you?"
"I'm in an important position. People like to make things up. Being in a closed room alone with you gives them ideas," Lion-O said honestly. He sat in Pumyra's chair. "After all, I seem to recall a rumor going around saying I took drugs. They really were just mints you know."
"Agh, I know. I didn't report on that. Sylvestir…never mind. The past is in the past. I'm more interested in the future right now." She pulled a pen from behind her ear and held a notepad in her lap. "So. Mr. Rey, CEO of Thunder Enterprises. You are poised to change the world if the employees are to be believed. Tell me about it."
Lion-O didn't know what to make of the interview. Lynxana was less combative than usual, less flirtatious. It made it easier to talk and she rarely pressed him. Sure she was still kind of rude, but compared to her previous self she was quite docile.
After twenty minutes she put the pen away. "That's enough for now. You're busy putting sunshine and rainbows into the world, so I shouldn't distract you," she said sarcastically. Lion-O watched her get up and waited until she was nearly out the door.
Then he could hold it no longer. "Are you okay? You're acting differently."
She rapped her claws on the doorframe. "Of course I'm okay. What, is the demure, somewhat classy Lynxana a change of pace?" She gave him a glance over her shoulder.
"Kind of. You're not acting as…vicious as usual."
"Even I've got a heart. You got shot, kiddo. You've put up with a lot of crap recently. I can pretend to be saintly too you know." Lynxana hesitated and then turned around, facing his desk. "I heard that you took a bullet for your tail of a brother."
Lion-O tilted his head. "Where did you hear that?"
"Around. So…that's a pretty good thing I guess." Crossing the room, Lynxana scanned his office, taking in the pictures on the walls. "Can't you do something mean?"
"Just kick a pet. Make a face at someone. Deface some public property. Or-oh, I know, flip me off. Something kind of mean." She shrugged and Lion-O stared at her.
"Did you forget a pill this morning or something? Because I had this friend once that had a little emotional issue and he couldn't forget his medication or he got upset-"
"Oh, shut up. Stop being nice, I'm about to throw up." She sat on his desk like a pouting child. "I just don't get people like you. It's like you're made out of glitter and sugar."
Lion-O stood up and paced around his desk to face her. "What's wrong? Why are you saying this stuff? It's like you didn't even care about the interview."
Lynxana chewed her lip and didn't answer immediately. "You know how I once said people always turn bad and I nail them for it?"
"You said something like that, yeah."
"Well I do. They're all secretly nasty people that are self-serving and doing something bad." She prodded his tie with a finger and said, "But…then there's you, the only person I've got any kind of ace on, and you've got to be Mr. Goody. You like animals, you like kids, you're trying to make clean, affordable energy, you're all for species equality…and now you pull this."
Lion-O noticed that she seemed angry and embarrassed. He blinked twice and asked, "And this is…bad."
"Well, I'm feeling guilty for the first time ever about slinging mud on someone." She put her paws on the desk surface. "I'm supposed to find bad stuff and report it, but the only way I can do that with you is by stretching the truth like a balloon animal. And how am I supposed to continue being completely mean to a guy that takes a freaking bullet for his jerk of a brother? How?"
Lion-O considered this. "Uh…I guess if you had a conscience at all, it'd be kind of hard. You could report honest things instead." He paused. "But still nothing about my girlfriend, her family, or anything like that."
"Even though they're here?" she asked, brows lifting. "Nobody expected that."
"My brother has his better side. And no talking about them. You're hemming and hawing around what you really want to say. I'm kind of busy, so if you can't figure it out today, then…come back later I guess." He took a step back and shrugged. "Anyway, I need to check up with my brother. Excuse me."
No sooner than he'd turned around, Lion-O heard something like a cough, rapidly sputtered. "'Msorry."
He frowned. "Huh?"
"I…guess I'm kind of…just a little bit…sorry. You know, for trying to screw up their lives."
"And…pestering you. And being so obnoxious. And for assuming you were a crappy person without getting any evidence. And for letting Sylvestir push that story that got your apartment searched for drugs." She had been counting on her fingers. "Did I miss anything?"
"I guess not." Lynxana's face was a little red and she seemed huffy.
"Okay. I just felt kind of bad about behaving unprofessionally. I can't have that kind of reputation now that I'm a bona fide reporter, so I'm trying to clean house."
"You're professional now?"
She gave him a sardonic smile. "Reporting on your company is kind of a big deal, babe."
Lion-O realized for the first time that it was, and that it had probably changed her world. PENN had gone from a hack channel to a legitimate news source. He'd been her foot in the door. And she was actually just the tiniest bit grateful for it and the success that had come. And in her own selfish, weird, bratty way, she was trying to make a little peace.
He wondered if she'd always been so abrasive. Perhaps once upon a time she hadn't. At that moment she and the paparazzi ceased to frighten him in any way. He let her walk out the door unhindered before muttering, "You're welcome."
At any rate, there were more important things to worry about than Lynxana's guilt episode. He went into Tygra's office and found that his brother looked frazzled and was legitimately relieved when Lion-O thanked him for standing in and said he would take care of things now. Tygra had been sorely tried by all the questions he didn't know the answers to and all the stress.
For Lion-O, it was like being shown a bunch of good books and being asked which he preferred and why. There were plans to be made, deals to sign, experiments to prepare. Lion-O was in his element for the first time and enjoyed it.
There was no more sensation of being coddled or spoken down to; Concolo treated him the same as ever, with dignity, and Palustri seemed cowed. He spoke little and allowed him to talk. When Lion-O opened his mouth, everyone stood and listened attentively.
It was strange. Good in a way, but strange. He had authority, and he exercised it in several ways.
Tygra accidentally called him "Lion-O" and one of the board members corrected him. Lion-O looked at the cat and said, "My brother is going to call me Lion-O from now on. I don't like it when family refers to me as 'Mr. Rey.'"
There had been glances exchanged, questioning murmurs. Tygra had met his eyes and nodded lightly, as if he'd accepted a comment about the weather. Even so, Lion-O felt suddenly three times taller; he had given an order breaking tradition, and people had to deal with it. They wouldn't tell him what to do like a student.
He was in charge.
Panthro had returned to Ome N. to finish out the semester and resign officially. He would be back in about a month and a half, and Lion-O looked forward to it. Bengali reported that people at school weren't making fun of him anymore; apparently they'd heard he had a paw in making a machine that would revolutionize the energy industry, and it was hard to call someone a moron when he did better math than the algebra teacher. He had the kittens for friends, and they made a merry group.
The only thing that bothered Lion-O was that the Cleras would go back home soon. That thought was enough to make him pause in this new work he loved and become listless.
He was ashamed of his reaction – it was selfish to want them to stay here instead of being at home…wasn't it? – but it was the only thing bothering him now. So for a couple of days he nursed his injury and pushed the thought away, working and trying to soak up every minute he could with them.
It was one early afternoon that he was at his desk, reading through his folders and approving blueprints and schedules, that he smelled something like ravioli. He wiggled his nose absently but didn't look up until he heard someone come in. Dragging his eyes up, he felt a little jolt of happiness; Cheetara was standing in the doorway, looking around at the office. She had a bag on one arm and her purse on her other. She smiled at him and he noticed she was wearing black slacks and a brown blouse, one that tied around the neck and showed off her shoulders and spots. "Hi. You haven't taken a lunch break yet, have you?"
"No. No, I got caught up in reading something." Lion-O got up, aware that Pumyra was watching. "Did you want to eat here?"
"Sure. I brought some of Jaga's ravioli. He and the kittens are at the apartment right now." Pumyra said something about needing to take her lunch break and slipped out the door, leaving Lion-O with Cheetara. He took the bag for her and cleared off the folders on his desk to put the wrapped plates within it down. "So…this is your office. I hadn't seen it yet."
"Yeah. Well, originally Dad's, but mine now." He indicated the kittens' pictures on the wall and grinned sheepishly. "I've got a regular art gallery."
"Yes, I noticed. Some of the finest crayon pieces." She approached the great pane overlooking the street and gazed out of it. "What a view. And this office is as big as half of the clinic."
"Well, considering Dad was a pretty broad guy," Lion-O said, imagining Claudus trying to sit in one of the examination rooms. He stifled a smile and stood beside Cheetara. "Are you okay? You seem a little distracted."
"I'm fine. Just…thinking." She was scanning the buildings with careful eyes. She pointed through the glass. "Is that Amalthea Street?"
Lion-O followed her claw and squinted. "Yeah. Out there with the gray buildings with the white roofs. It's known for the grumpy, nasty old codgers that frequent the place. I think there's a gentleman's club on it somewhere and that's why they congregate along there. Dad had to do business there once and took me along, and one of the men told me I looked like a girl. An ugly girl."
She made a noise of indignant disgust. "Well, scratch that off." Shaking her head, Cheetara crossed the carpet and put her paws on Pumyra's seat. "Would she mind if I borrowed this?"
"No. Why were you asking about Amalthea Street?" He nudged the chair when she sat down and then he wheeled it over to his desk. With a laugh Cheetara let him spin her once before settling her seat beside his.
"I had heard there was a building for sale there." Cheetara opened the bag and gave him a plate. He waited for her to get hers out before he took off the cover and took a bite. It was still hot, tender and thick, and Lion-O sighed.
"This tastes so good. Just like last year. Remember when you got food poisoning?"
She winced. "Don't remind me. I was a wreck. I had to settle for leftovers." Taking a forkful, Cheetara chewed and swallowed before saying, "Jaga is just out of this world. He got up early to make it today."
"That was nice of him. Nice of him to watch the kittens too," Lion-O added. Cheetara gave him a pointed smile and kissed his forehead.
"I told him I needed to discuss something with you. He offered to keep them entertained."
Lion-O didn't press her as she toyed with her fork and they ate, taking pleasure in the quiet company. She looked at him again and said, "Your suit kind of surprised me."
He gave himself a once over. It was a plain suit with a red tie. "What, is it messed up?"
"No. Just seeing you in it makes me realize that you're in charge of this place." Her eyes reflected the gray brightness of the cloudy sky outside. "You've always been Lion-O to us. I guess you just didn't live like a rich kid and I never thought of you that way."
Lion-O turned his wrist to observe his cufflinks. "I went to Tretierra to earn my own way. I didn't want to have to rely on Dad to succeed. And Dad did his best not to spoil us."
He looked at her and couldn't help but ask, confidence slipping a little, "Do you think he'd be proud of all this? It's such a big change."
Her paw rested on his. "I think he would be. You didn't always agree, but you worked hard and did something good. Any father should be proud of that."
She still did it. Cheetara set his fears at ease and brushed them away like dust. If anyone else had said that, he would have found a loophole or a new doubt, even Panthro. But with her here…
Lion-O lifted her paw held it, letting his cheek brush the backs of her fingers. "Thanks." He pressed a kiss to her thumb before asking, "What did you want to 'discuss' as you put it?"
She crossed her legs and the way she shifted made her clothes rest pleasantly on her. "Jaga plans on going back to Tretierra in two days," Cheetara said calmly. Lion-O's heart sank – so soon? – and he forced his face not to reflect it.
"Oh. Wow. You know…you could stay longer than that. The apartment is plenty big enough for everyone. Or if he'd like it better I could get you guys a hotel room, if he's uncomfortable about-"
"No, no, it's fine. That's not the point." Lion-O shut his mouth, realizing he'd probably given away his game in a few stumbling sentences. "I…well, I'll just say it. I've been considering…living here. In Pantherle I mean. I've been looking for real estate that's not very expensive for the past couple of days because the kittens and I have really been thinking that…we might set up a Pantherle Veterinary Clinic."
Lion-O drew a blank, watching a faint pinkness come into her face.
"Pantherle Veterinary Clinic? You mean you'd run it? Here? In Pantherle?" He wished he didn't sound so dim. Lion-O's brain wasn't quite clicking with her words, not understanding what she meant. Because if she meant what he thought she meant, that would be the most amazing, shocking, wonderful thing in the world.
"You…you really want to stay in Pantherle?" Saying it felt hushed and breathless, as if he were asking her a secret.
She was willing to move, to leave Tretierra behind? But it was her home, where her parents and Jaga had lived. She's lived there her whole life.
Cheetara sheepishly ran a paw through her mane and a few of the thicker locks fell over her shoulder. "Well, it's a nice city. And I like the more wholesome environment. And we've been talking about another clinic for a while now…"
She trailed off and sighed. Rubbing her arm and folding it close to her side in embarrassment, she shrugged a shoulder. "We missed you. I missed you. I don't want to feel that way again, even just for a little while. You and I operate better when we're together than when we're apart," she said softly. "Jaga told me I should do what makes me happy. And…I'm happiest and at my best when I'm with you."
Lion-O just stared at her for about a minute. She finally waved a paw when his lips started curling upward. "Is that a happy smile or an, 'oh man, she's stalking me, I'd better just smile' smile?"
'Happy' was an understatement. Lion-O took in the deepening flush in her cheeks and wanted to pick her up and kiss her.
So, even though it was against the doctor's orders, he did. He got out of his chair, took her waist and whisked her out of her seat, holding her like a bride around the back and knees. Cheetara grabbed his neck in surprise and he brought her in for a firm, heated kiss that made his lips burn. After a moment she tightened her arms and leaned in, responding appreciatively.
They had never kissed for a long period of time – a few seconds at most – but this one seemed to last forever, stretching on for nearly thirty seconds. Lion-O had always been the one to let her initiate, and he realized that he hadn't given her even a moment's notice before snatching her up. It didn't seem terribly courteous in retrospect, and he pulled his face back and felt his cheeks reddening. "Um…I'm sorry. I didn't even ask if that was okay," he mumbled, mouth working slowly. Cheetara brought her paws up to his face and put her index finger against his lips.
"You worry too much." Her finger was then removed and Cheetara put a paw on the back of his neck and drew him in for another kiss. Her mouth pressed to his and Lion-O reaffirmed his grip, bringing her front near and tilting his head until the kiss was deepened.
It took three seconds after the kiss ended, but Lion-O found his voice and said, "I love you. And…if that would really make you happiest, to live here…I'd love it. Nothing would make me happier."
The color in her face spoke of euphoria this time and she bounced one of her feet in the air. "As much as I like being carried, if you get a hernia I'm totally going to have a guilt complex."
He laughed. Then he gently released her knees while keeping his other arm around her waist. "Sorry. If it makes you feel better I don't think you weigh enough to cause any damage." Lion-O's fingers traced through her mane and he held her close. "This…this is…you couldn't make today any better now. You couldn't." He spun her around. "What about the kittens? Have you asked them?"
"Yes, they know. Keeping a secret nearly killed Kat, but I talked to them yesterday. They say as long as Jaga comes to visit a bunch, they want to stay here." She cocked an eyebrow. "Apparently Jaga will hire on interns and one veterinary assistant to take over for me. And he'll be partially retired, visiting every other month for a few weeks at a time. He's getting up there he says."
Lion-O laughed. "I'm glad you've told me all this. I'll help you look for the perfect home for the Pantherle Veterinary Clinic. There's one vet on the eastern side of the city but not on this side, so maybe we can find a place close to Thunder Enterprises. One that isn't by a cranky gentleman's club." Cheetara wrapped her arm around his and looked out the window, taking comfort in the moment as they stood together with their arms linked and their hearts close.
"This place kind of smells like…old guy. Only dirty, not like Jaga." Kat sniffed again and his tail curled in thought. "I think hobos used to live here."
Kit disregarded the fact that she was in a skirt and inspected the room. "There are spiders in the corner."
Lion-O looked at the paper describing the building and said, "It's cheaper than the others, but I can see why. 'Requires dry walling and roof maintenance,' 'foundation unsound,' and…okay, apparently if all these safety standards can't be met by a buyer, then it's going to be condemned."
Cheetara shook her head. "Cleaning and maintenance are fine, but this is unsafe. I can use a hammer. Fixing a foundation is beyond my talents and budget." Kat returned to her as did Kat, both looking disappointed. "There are still a few we haven't checked, aren't there?"
"About seven. The next one is one of the closest to Thunder Enterprises." Lion-O drew a line through the address and held the door open for Cheetara and the kittens. Kat hopped to see the page and Lion-O lowered it so they could read it.
"Hey, I've seen that one. It's got a sale sign in the window. It's two streets over." Kat and Kit tried to take off but Cheetara held on to Kit's jacket and Lion-O grabbed Kat's. Correcting themselves, the kids obediently took hold of the adults' paws, and settled for dragging them along.
The kittens were excited to be staying in Pantherle. Jaga heading back to Tretierra had been hard, but he had promised to return to finish training Cheetara, and for some reason it just didn't hurt as much. Jaga was never more than a phone call away, and he had pinky sworn to the kittens he would come visit often. He had little that could prevent it.
Unfortunately, finding a building for the kittens and Cheetara to make their new home was proving difficult. Most of the buildings that had what they needed were far into the city, or expensive, or falling apart. Cheetara was leery of buying anything that was very expensive – too many horror stories about foreclosures and interest rates with expensive buildings in the city – and this deeply limited the options.
Lion-O examined the building when they arrived. It was newer, made of smooth brick and set with clean windows in the front. It looked like it might have been a fashion shop before judging by its structure. He took one of the papers in the plastic sleeve attached to the front door. It was up to date on safety, it looked cleaner…Cheetara wanted to stay within thirty thousand dollars and this one was listed at fifty-five. Interest rates were nasty in the city even in tiny buildings, and Lion-O bit the inside of his cheek. Cheetara looked a little disappointed at the price as she looked at the paper. Kit poked her head out the door when she hesitated. "Come on, it's cool in here!"
The building was two floors, a compact little structure. In spite of the price, Cheetara looked over every room, every nook and cranny. And Lion-O, watching out of the corner of his eye, noticed that she really liked this one. It was clean and perfectly structured for what she wanted.
"There's enough room that we could set up the kennels. And the second floor would be perfect to live in…"
Lion-O gave her the page. She read through the information closely and sighed. "I'll call Jaga and see what he thinks. Thirty thousand is a great start."
But he knew that even if the down payment was much lower, just ten grand, that would be less money for them to live on until things were up and running. They would have to outfit the clinic with all the things a veterinarian would need. Lion-O would have readily given them any aid they wanted, but Cheetara felt guilty enough staying at his apartment for so long.
Even so, he held on to the paper craftily, concocting a plan in the back of his mind. Cheetara called the kittens over, letting Kit take her paw and spin under it. "This is one is nice Cheetara."
"Yes. We'll have to think about it though. I want to check out the rest of the buildings too," she said gently.
While they sought out the rest of the buildings Cheetara had found – it was a crisp, comfortable Saturday and it was easy to walk the streets together – Lion-O was perturbed at most of them for one reason or another. One of them had a nest of Spyderas in the ceiling, ones that looked suspiciously poisonous. Upon seeing the vibrant purple legs he'd herded the others out, called an inspection group, and moved them along. "Maybe we can check back after they get rid of the bugs," he said. Kit and Kat had both had green faces at the sight of the plate-sized creatures and even Cheetara looked a little faint.
"Never again," Kit declared.
The others did not have such dramatic issues. Some were run down, some were expensive. Cheetara's eyes kept straying to the list of increasingly marked addresses, fixing on the one building they had liked. Lion-O felt in his pocket for the folded real estate information.
By the end of the day they had tired feet and a couple of addresses. They returned to the apartment and Lion-O got some leftovers heated so they could all sit down and consider the options. Both kittens curled up on the couch and – after listening for a time to the grownups talk about bills and interest and location – dozed off with full bellies. Snarf had declined going with them in the first place, knowing that it would involve walking all day, but now he enjoyed the reward of the patient by wiggling in between Kat and Kit and napping with his feet up in the air.
"I just don't know. This one is so far out," Cheetara said. Her claw rested on the street name for one of the buildings Lion-O had personally hated. There had been a few crimes near that street including mugging and assault. This had been years ago but it still burned in his mind, and he was relieved when Cheetara decided against the place.
She put down the address sheet and leaned on his shoulder. She was tired, mane windblown after spending all day outside. Lion-O folded his arms around her and felt her torso relax against his. "I guess it's only been a few days since we started looking, but I'm a little discouraged. Maybe we're just too picky."
Lion-O rested his cheek on Cheetara's head. "You know…I could help."
"Really. Money isn't an object. I don't want it to be the reason you wouldn't get the place you want. The only place that seems great is this one."
"I know," Cheetara replied. "But I…I wouldn't be comfortable with that. That's so much money, and I just…"
She buried her face in his neck and breathed warmly against him. "I don't know. It's just such a big shift."
Lion-O left it alone, holding her side. After about twenty minutes her breathing deepened and he realized she had fallen asleep, jaw resting on the cotton of his sleeve. He took the opportunity to slip the folded page out of his jean pocket with his cell phone. He dialed the number listed and waited as the phone rang. He lowered his voice and she continued sleeping as the conversation began.
"Hello. I was calling about that property on Lawrence Street. Yes, I might be interested in buying."
"You've got a spinny chair and you didn't bring us up here sooner?" Kat and Kit ran for it, trying to squeeze into it together. "Spin us, spin us! Puh-leeeze?"
Lion-O moved it so it was in the middle of the room and spun them around. They laughed loudly, clinging to the armrests and hanging on to their tails to keep them from flying into each other's faces. "Cooool! And you put up all our pictures! This office is awesome!"
"I'm glad it lived up to your expectations," Lion-O said bemusedly. They had begged to see his office, and now they climbed dizzily out of his chair and rushed to the wall, pointing out their respective works.
Then Kit paused and tilted her head. "What's with the weird pattern on the wall?"
Lion-O tilted his head the same way. The lower part of the wall was black with red circles inside it, almost like polka dots. "What's so weird about it?"
"I dunno. I just think it's missing something." She lifted a brow archly. "Maybe I'll be an interior decorator someday. Can you only have one dream job?"
Cheetara had remained at the apartment, still looking for estates. The kittens had been restless and Lion-O taking them out so she could concentrate was much appreciated. Kind of like they're our own kids, he realized. The thought warmed him and he shook his head. "You can have as many dream jobs as you want." A thought came to him and he added, "I know for a fact that Tygra's got the ones you made him up too." He smirked. "How about we go see?"
"Yeah!" Kit took the lead this time, skirt ruffling as she darted across the hall. Pumyra had been watching from her desk in silence and smirked as well.
"You do have a darker side."
He grinned. "Really?"
"Yes. It's as dark as vanilla."
Lion-O crossed the hall after them and found Tygra looking a little shocked, one kitten hanging on to his neck and laughing and the other plastered to the window, looking out over the view. "Tygra, Lion-O brought us to work so Cheetara could figure out some stuff! Hey, he was right; you do have our pictures up!" Kat went to look at them and Kit let Tygra tote her over, content to be carried to see the higher ones.
Tygra gave his brother a sardonic look. "Oh, he mentioned that to you?"
Lion-O waved. Kit rested her elbow on Tygra's shoulder, grinning. "We didn't know you'd put 'em up on the wall."
"Well…they're nice." They were strange compared to the barren desert scape, but Lion-O felt that they broke up the stiff office well.
The expression on the faces of the employees in the lobby had been priceless when Lion-O came in wearing a button-up shirt, a tie and gray slacks. He had left off his suit jacket and though he was still "dressy," it was the most casual he'd been in the building since coming in the day he'd gotten his stitches. Lion-O liked the feeling of not being pinned into a jacket.
Both kittens looked over the pieces thoughtfully and Kat said, "Hey Lion-O, can we see the picture of all of us that we made you?"
"Sure. It's right by the one of Jaga giving Snarf a bath." Kit was let down and followed her brother. Lion-O watched them go before looking at his brother, who watched the kittens with an uncharacteristic gentleness. "Did you call Tettigon?"
Tygra's attention flicked to him. "Yeah. She wants to meet with us so we can explain the situation, and then she'll need two months to examine Cheetara and the kittens."
"Still doing the same stuff twenty years later. She didn't sound angry did she?"
"No. She knows how difficult it can be. Particularly in Tretierra. If she approves Cheetara she'll figure something out." Tygra returned to his desk. "So. Did you…?"
"Yep. Going to show her tonight. She and the kittens have no idea." Lion-O noticed that Tygra just nodded and looked down. "You okay?"
Lion-O left it alone. If Tygra didn't want to talk, he wouldn't make him. "All right. Thanks for helping." He went back to his office, aware that his brother was staring at the back of his head.
Kit and Kat were whispering to each other. "Lion-O, will you take down the picture for us?"
Lion-O looked at the portrait of their group. "Why?
"We've gotta revise. We want a picture that includes everyone." Lion-O took the picture off the wall and prized the frame apart, handing the kittens the page.
"You mean you want to add Panthro, Pumyra and Bengali?" He let them examine it and begin murmuring to each other.
"Yeah. Good thing there's still some room on the page, huh?" Kit looked around. "Do you have any crayons?"
"No, I don't think so." He looked at Pumyra who had opened the drawer of her desk and tossed a box to Kat. He raised one eyebrow.
"What?" she asked defensively. "Bengali's only twelve. Sometimes he doodles."
"Where are we going now?"
Cheetara held on to Lion-O's arm, jogging across the street as the 'Walk' sign blinked off. It had been a good evening; the kittens were with Bengali under Pumyra's careful watch and this left them with a free evening. He took her to a pasta shop and they split a huge piece of cake for dessert. And then, instead of heading back to the apartment, Lion-O had led her…wherever they were heading. He smiled and halted on the sidewalk.
"We're here." Cheetara straightened her skirt and white, ruffled blouse and looked up.
She then gave him a confused glance. "The building? The expensive one?"
He gave her a mischievous look. "I want to take another look at it."
Cheetara looked over the clean walls and windows. Lion-O had been quiet during dinner, distracted, and now that they'd gotten here, he seemed excited about something. "Okay." But he went up to the door and opened it. "Lion-O, I don't know if we should look around at night…the open tours were only during the day."
"I get the feeling I can do what I want." This mysterious comment tugged at her, and Cheetara entered in front of him as he held the door for her.
She sighed, looking up. "It really would be a great building. Maybe I'll take out the loans after all. I mean it's so close and clean, and everything suits living and working in it. I just don't know about where we'd have the money to hire anyone or get X-ray machines and all the other things we'd need."
"Would you get this place though? If you had the money?" Lion-O took her paws and she tilted her head, considering his question.
"I don't have it though."
"But if you did?"
Cheetara lowered her eyelids and met his gaze through her eyelashes. "Yes…"
Lion-O was a little nervous as he took a page out of his pocket and handed it to her. Cheetara unfolded it and scanned the page. It was a copy of a page of a contract, and her eyes froze on one particular spot.
"You…you paid for it all? The whole thing?" she asked hoarsely. Lion-O scratched the back of his head.
"Look, at fifty-five thousand with a percentage rate like Pantherle's, you'd be paying on it for thirty years even if you put ten grand down. It was a lot cheaper to just buy it. It's what keeps Pantherle's real estate low, bad rates." He gave her a meek look. "Are you mad?"
Cheetara read the document again, nostrils flaring as she breathed out. "Not really. It's just…Lion-O. You sank that much money into a place that won't be able to repay you for a long time, and I-"
"Wait, wait. Who says you need to repay me?" Lion-O asked. Cheetara's cheeks reddened.
"Lion-O, I can't just not pay you back. I owe you. This…this was very sweet, but…fifty-five thousand dollars." She was blushing for some reason and Lion-O wrapped his arms around her waist. "Most boyfriends just bring their girlfriends flowers."
"Cheetara, you've moved away from your home for me. You've taken care of me when I was hurt and being with you has been the best time of my life. I don't think I could ever repay you. Not with money or anything else. So please, don't worry about it." Giving her a shy smile, he rested his forehead against hers. "Just think of it as a payment for all the Snarf checkups I've had or will have. Because he really hates the other vet in town. You're the only one he tolerates."
She laughed softly, wrapping her arms around his neck. "I hope you're not going to make a habit of doing things like this behind my back," she said. "Because it really did upset me for a second there."
"Don't worry. From now on, this place is yours to do with as you please." He kissed her cheek. "Besides, now you can outfit the place however you need. And Snarf really does need a checkup; his claws are getting outrageous, and he tells me I'm horrible at cutting them."
Cheetara shook her head. "Well, when you put it that way…I just wish you would have told me what you were planning. I know you had the best intentions, but really."
"I'm sorry. I wanted to surprise you." Cheetara smirked. "I guess how I can see how that might have seemed kind of creepy…"
"If I didn't know you as well as I do. But since I do," she trailed off. Then she rested her chin on his shoulder and kissed his jaw. "Thank you. I'm grateful, just surprised."
"So you do like it?"
"And you forgive me for making you feel kind of awkward?"
Lion-O sighed into her mane and the place where his nose was warmed from his breath. "Good. Because telling the real estate guy I didn't want it after all would be kind of difficult."
Cheetara snorted a little and stole one more kiss to let him know all awkwardness was forgiven. It always would be when it came to them.
"No way! We each get our own room?"
Kat and Kit openly gawked at this. When Cheetara paused in loading the car long enough to nod, they cheered and started jumping around. Cheetara passed them, tugging at her shirt to cool herself, and they dashed after her, hopping back into the elevator. "Jaga brought our other stuff, right?"
"Right. Jaga's going to stay with us a couple of months to help us set up." Cheetara held the door so Lion-O could catch the elevator. There were a few more bags in his apartment, brought when Jaga had come down. He would bring the rest when he returned. Lion-O stretched his shoulders and Cheetara noticed his shirt riding up a little.
A week had flown by and Jaga had returned with their belongings, along with Panthro. Apparently dean Lynx-O had pulled a string or two and gotten another professor on board to handle the end of his class and with the final projects graded, Panthro had returned in good spirits. Cheetara ran a paw through her mane, considering. They had to clear Lion-O's apartment of their things, and then they would start moving in the machinery and furniture they needed. Thankfully they had Lion-O, Tygra, Panthro, Pumyra and Bengali to help.
Cheetara had come to realize that Pumyra was very glad of the kittens being around. Bengali now had two new friends that accepted him even with his strange brilliance, and were clever enough to keep up with him. There was no other reason she would have agreed to help them move, was there? She didn't seem to be particularly friendly in any regard.
Though she could lift as much as some men, Cheetara had to give her that. She brought out a couple of boxes that probably weighed forty pounds together and she did so without too much trouble. "Have the boys gotten the rest of the things over to the Lawrence building?" she asked.
"Panthro called and said they had. They're moving everything in." Cheetara took one of the boxes to ease her burden with some difficulty and the kittens and Lion-O went to get the rest of the cases.
We're really moving in today. Cheetara would miss being in Lion-O's apartment in a way, but it was definitely for the best that they were moving out; she'd walked in on him in the shower one morning, muddled and assuming it was Kit washing up. While this was not a traumatizing thing – she hadn't seen anything other than his back since he was behind the curtain – Lion-O had been embarrassed. And if they remained in his apartment much longer, people would notice and begin to talk. Lynxana hadn't reported on Lion-O "live in girlfriend" yet, and she hoped to move out before anyone picked up on it. Particularly when she really was only living there as opposed to anything else.
"That's the last of it." Lion-O carried down another box and Cheetara looked at his arms as he stood beside her in the elevator. He had on a t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, and she let her gaze roll from his wrists to his shoulders appreciatively. His muscles were tensed as he held the weight, and in the past few weeks he'd been exercising and putting lost weight back on. The result was a hale, strong appearance and fur with pleasant luster. The door chimed and they headed out, loading up the trunk with the last of the luggage.
"Kat, Kit, hop in. Pumyra, are you driving separate?"
She nodded, so Cheetara took the passenger seat. Lion-O waited for Pumyra to cross the parking lot and get into her car before starting his own. Cheetara felt strange in the car with him as he drove, but it was a pleasant strange; it was nice to see passive Lion-O take so much into his own paws.
And it was nice to see his arms as he drove. That was a lesser reason.
The buildings and streets rolled by and Cheetara tried to memorize the signs and stores so she could recall them when she went out. This was going to be her home now after all. There was a warmth to the sidewalks and windows and the sun shone down. Cheetara felt as if Pantherle were welcoming them at long last to stay.
Panthro and Bengali were carrying in one of the examination tables when they arrived. Jaga was watching them as he carried a rather smaller box. Cheetara waved to him and he nodded, and she couldn't help but smile; he would be here for another month to make sure they were set up and she was fully trained. She got out of the car and the kittens followed, grabbing a few bags and lugging them through the door after the others.
Pumyra pulled up and parked on the street behind them. With her, Lion-O and the moving truck – filled with medical necessities for the new clinic – parked on the side of the road, it looked busy and was attracting the eyes of pedestrians as they passed by. Cheetara took more luggage and stepped through the doorway.
What had been empty and clean had transformed into a box-filled room littered with furniture. It smelled slightly of paint but that would be fixed as they moved in and vacuumed and swept. Cheetara looked in on the examination rooms – there would be three – and her stomach rolled in excitement. The counters and tables within were new, bought with the savings they'd had. Lion-O buying the place had made this possible; they would have a clean, beautiful new clinic as she'd dreamt of and she hurried back out to the street. The sooner they got everything in, the sooner they'd be able to unpack.
The sidewalk was warm under her feet, and Cheetara took a box out of Pumyra's car. But before she headed back in she happened to look up the road and paused.
There was a Katyda on the sidewalk being pestered. They were rare in Pantherle and up north – preferring slightly more temperate weather – but there was a small community of them in the suburbs from what she'd read. Similar to bugs save for their size and intelligence, they tended to be quiet, and she had only ever seen them in pictures.
She was only about two feet tall. Katydas didn't have insect features to the point of being grotesque, rather having big dark eyes and sweet little mouths in impish faces. She was skinny and her green exoskeleton was shiny and clean. Rather than a mane, Katydas had two long antennas on their head. This one wore hers in a pink bow.
And there were a couple of cats in the road that kept nudging her and their faces looked smarmy. One was brown and red and the other pale yellow, teenagers from the looks of things. Cheetara put down the box and jogged down that way, aware that Lion-O had spotted the situation as well and that his claws were the ones following.
"…I was merely wanting to know if this was Lawrence Street. I'm not familiar with the area." The Katyda had a soft, chirpy voice and Cheetara couldn't gauge how old she was; Katydas often appeared young very late into life. But she was so tiny that Cheetara wondered how such a little thing got around in a big city.
She couldn't hear the cats' responses but the Katyda grew rigid and said clearly, "That is a stereotype, and it is not true in my case."
"Excuse me." Cheetara raised her voice and the cats and Katyda looked at her. "Miss, you're on Lawrence Street. Did you need help finding something?" She gave the cats an even look when they scowled – she heard Lion-O behind her and they were smaller than him – and slouched off. The Katyda watched them go and smiled at her.
"I just needed to know where I was. Thank you." She looked at the building, noting all the boxes and cars around it. "My, are you moving in? That building has been for sale for a while now."
"Yes, actually." Lion-O drew up a little closer and Cheetara knelt so she would be at about eye level with the smaller female. "I'm sorry they were giving you a hard time. Some people are so rude. I'm Cheetara."
"Oh, not at all. It wasn't your fault." The Katyda bowed and her coat – a long black trench coat that reached from her neck to her ankles, leaving her twig-thin, dainty fingers free – folded neatly at the waist. "I'm Tettigon. Pleased to make your acquaintance." She looked up and Cheetara turned her head to see Lion-O kneeling as well. "I've seen your face on the television, Mr. Rey. I don't think I've had the pleasure of meeting you personally."
"Hi there." He said this almost with familiarity, and extended an index finger so Tettigon could shake it.
"Hey, cool! A Katyda! Bengali, look!" Kat and Kit had spotted her and approached quickly, gazing at her with friendly eyes. "Aw, you're cute!" Kit exclaimed.
Cheetara blushed and Tettigon smiled. "Excuse them. They're always excited to meet new people, and they've never met Katydas." Kit meekly tucked herself behind Lion-O when Cheetara shook her head.
"I'm used to it. We're pretty rare in these areas." She shook the fingers of the kittens as well. "Ah, Tygra is here as well. Good. Just the cat I was looking for." Tettigon strode toward him, past Bengali, who stared down at her in fascination.
To Cheetara's surprise, Tygra grinned and greeted her. Lion-O spotted her surprise and said, "They go way back. I'm pretty sure she's his only non-feline friend."
"That's nice. Why was she looking for him?" she asked. Lion-O shrugged but he didn't quite meet her eye. The kittens returned to the building and she followed them, hoping to catch Panthro and ask for his help assembling the kitchen table; they needed to see if it would fit.
Lion-O made sure Cheetara was inside before turning to Tettigon, who had hugged Tygra around the neck. "It's good to see you're well, sweetie. Especially after Claudus' passing," she said lowly. Her narrow, clever face inclined towards him as he drew near. "I got here as quickly as I could. I take it those are the kittens?"
"Yeah, Kat and Kit. I don't any trouble for them; they were just scared of being separated, and Cheetara and Jaga are some of the kindest people in the world. They've taken great care of those kids."
"I can vouch for them as well," Tygra added. Tettigon put her paws on her hips.
"How has their education been carried out?"
"Homeschooling," Lion-O said. "They've read The Hobbit last I checked."
"Jaga's a doctor and a vet and everything you can imagine. They haven't been sick a day I've known them, but Jaga would definitely take them to a hospital if he thought they needed it. Home-cooked meals most nights and they're playful and happy." Lion-O was being fully honest, even though he knew it probably sounded rehearsed. He knew no one else that loved kittens so much.
She watched them bound out the door, getting more boxes and heading back in. "It's silly to ask I'm sure, but abuse…?"
"Jaga and Cheetara have taken the best care of them. They talk to them if they get disciplined, and…well, just look at them." They waited a few moments for Cheetara to come back out with the kittens. They stayed close to her sides, tails loosely happy and content. "Cheetara would cut her own paw off before hurting those kittens, and Jaga's the same way."
Tettigon nodded slowly, touching her chin. "I'll take all this into consideration. We've had stranger situations. I will have to monitor them for a few weeks, you understand. Nothing like witnessing such things personally."
"I understand. And all of us love those kids. If we didn't think this was best for them, we'd say something," Lion-O said quietly. Tygra let Tettigon hop onto his shoulder.
"I'd like to know," she said tentatively. "Have they said anything about parents or relatives? Do you notice any signs of past abuse? Are they emotionally sound?"
Tygra cocked his head, letting her rest her elbow on his mane. "I think so. They're afraid of being separated, but that's normal if they've lost their parents. We think they're dead, but the kittens just don't talk about it. You could probably find out what happened with your resources."
"I intend to. They seem very happy. Perfectly bright children. But we'll see." She let Tygra help her down. "I'll be in touch. Don't let on about it. I'll do what I can to help."
"Thank Tetti. It means a lot," Tygra said. She waved and slipped off down the sidewalk, looking at the address carefully before she vanished from sight. Lion-O gave his brother a sidelong look. "What?"
"I just think it's strange that you don't like other species much but you're really fond of Tettigon. You've been friends with her since you could talk."
Tygra shrugged, tugging the front of his shirt so it let cool air in. "She's an exception. It's not every person that gets a Sieger tiger adopted by a Rey lion. If anybody can get it so Cheetara can adopt them officially, it's Tettigon. All we can do is wait and help her in any way we can."
She was no lightweight. But hauling and lifting and sorting and placing for ten hours was enough to wear anyone out, and her paws kept drifting to her arms to rub her shoulders and biceps, easing the raw sensation. Bengali was sore too, but he tried not to complain. Pumyra sent him to bed early and, as she usually did, talked with him as he lay in bed. Sometimes she told him stories; sometimes she hummed. This time she gave him a gentle back rub because his shoulders hurt and he was out like a light.
It didn't feel as nice to rub her own legs and back, but it was something. Scanning the shelves, she spotted what she was looking for and took a box of patches that started cold and ended warm. They would help her and Bengali tomorrow, along with some heating pads. She spotted Bengali's favorite candy – chocolate kisses – and picked up a bag. The drugstore had everything, and she preferred it to the grocery store. It was quieter.
Pumyra hated leaving Bengali alone at night, but she had told the lady in the apartment next to her that she would return in thirty minutes, and she'd agreed to keep an ear out for Bengali. She'd left him a note in case he woke up, and she'd locked the door, and of course no one could come in the window since they were on the fourth floor…
Her fingers came to rest against her forehead. She really needed to stop worrying incessantly about him. She picked up a packet of soothing tea on her way to the register. Sometimes it helped and sometimes it didn't.
In spite of the discomfort, Pumyra found that moving the Cleras in was worth the trouble; Cheetara was a little willowy and passive for her taste in company, but she was kind enough and had been sincerely thankful for the help. Not to mention she made Lion-O happy, and that meant that he did better at the office, which was good for all parties involved. A depressed CEO was a wet blanket.
It was really the kittens that please her. Bengali had made friends for the first time, in spite of their age differences. Pumyra had worried for years that he would end up a recluse because of his unusual ways, but Kat and Kit seemed to love everyone. They didn't care that he towered over them or that he loved comic heroes and math. He had been accepted into their partnership and his happiness with their new friends was absolutely wonderful.
She grunted and coughed, throat aching a little. Pumyra wasn't the sentimental type, but Bengali was so sweet it was hard not to be glad for him.
The evening had faded into deep, velvety night, and the drive home was quiet. The lights to her apartment building welcomed her, and she trailed up the stairs with her purchases in one bag. Her door creaked when she went in, and her slight paranoia made her listen for anything amiss. Everything was in place, and she peeked into Bengali's room to find him still curled safely under the covers. She set the bag of candy on his bedside stand – complete with Superman clock – and took the note back. Daring to smooth his mane once, Pumyra planted a kiss on his temple and went to her own room. There she shucked off her day clothes and put on her pajamas; baggy pajama bottoms and an even baggier t-shirt.
The prim office woman stopped at home. She climbed into bed and slept for several hours.
She ached even worse when she woke up, but her head was no longer tired and heady. Her clock said it was six in the morning, and Pumyra rolled over, feet hitting the floor. She'd set it early so she could go into the office and get a few things done. The building was open on Sundays but she worked Monday to Friday usually. Still, she had a few messages to send, and it was just as easy to go in and do it this morning.
She brushed out her mane, brushed her teeth, put on a blouse, skirt and jacket, and checked on Bengali one more time before setting out, leaving him another note on the fridge. Sticky notes were her best friend; Pumyra forbade Bengali from eating only chocolate for breakfast and told him she'd be back by nine.
The office felt best when it was quiet and dawn sunlight was starting to touch the tops of the skyscrapers. Only a few people wandered the lobby and none of them said anything to her, leaving her free to enter the elevator. Once inside she winced and bent, feeling her back pop. "Good grief," she muttered. Pumyra straightened and watched the numbers slowly increase.
The door opened with a chime and she entered the office and drew up short. Somebody was in here.
She prowled cautiously around the desk and spotted a striped cat lying on the couch that had been brought in for guests – namely Bengali – to rest on. Blinking, Pumyra looked around, wondering why Tygra was here at this hour, and why he was asleep.
Lion-O's computer was on, and she recognized most of the files. Perhaps Tygra was doing a little work early in the morning as well? He was wearing jeans and a college sweatshirt; he'd run out here quickly.
Pumyra looked over the open document on the computer. Somebody had sent an e-mail asking about Thundrillium and possible internships at Thunder Enterprises from Tygus Unviersity. That made sense; he was attached to his school, and most of the information he needed was on Lion-O's computer. Naturally Lion-O would have told him the password if he'd asked. He had likely gone to sit on the little sofa for a minute and just fallen asleep. She listened for a minute and smirked. He snored quietly, and he curled up when he slept. A picture or two of him like this could be potentially embarrassing. She shook her head.
It would be easy to finish the file. It was a few more pages of information and she had done enough messages to know how to do this one. She slipped off her suit jacket and placed it on the back of the chair and sat down. The faint clicking of the keyboard didn't seem to disturb the tiger, although she noticed it was chilly.
Tygra seemed to sigh and curled in a little tighter, head rest on one elbow and the other pinned close to his stomach. She glanced at him and considered her action for a long minute. Then – not entirely sure why she did it – she slipped off her jacket, stepped over to him, and draped it over his shoulders and back. He must have been more comfortable, for when she turned away she heard a faint rumbling and realized he was purring.
She glanced back at him and stared. Tygra sounded like an overgrown cub and curled up under the jacket he looked…
Just a little bit – a very tiny bit – cute.
Just a little. That was all.
Pumyra's nostrils flared. She sat down at the desk and proceeded to type, trying not to steal glances at him when he stretched and talked in his sleep.
Pumyra had to admit that there was something that attracted her to Tygra. She would never say she had a crush, but when he had done something really selfless for the first time, Pumyra could not deny that her heart – usually so cool and repellant – had softened. It had been so bizarre to see a side of Tygra that was concerned, almost caring.
Almost a little brave. She hadn't expected something noble out of him. And she wasn't inclined to judge him for his general lack of nobility; she was the same way. Practicality was more important to her, and ends justified means. So she wasn't sure what it was.
Well, his body was impressive, she reasoned. She had seen a fair amount of it at the gum, and she didn't dislike what she saw. Perhaps it was just a biological attraction. Yes, that was more likely. And he wasn't a complete jerk, so he had something likable to his personality.
It had better not be anything else, she decided. Because work would be very difficult if she ended up getting a crush on one of her bosses. It just wasn't professional.
She glanced at him and then jerked her head back to the computer screen. She had sworn to herself that, as a secretary, it wasn't her job to do it. He'd need it no doubt, having been here until dawn, but there was no way she was going to fulfill that stereotype.
Pumyra's eyes were slowly drawn back and she looked at Tygra's face. He muttered something about Snarfs and nuzzled his elbow. He would have to be heading out soon; he'd promised to take the kittens to a museum this morning. Granted it was a museum for kids that had things like the oldest video games and the development of toys over millennia, but it was still a museum. Keeping up with those balls of energy would require help.
She muttered something and slid the chair back, getting up and walking to the elevator. One break room was three floors down, and it had a coffee machine.
She'd bring him coffee. Just this once.
Monday evening meetings had never been so exciting.
Lion-O's looked out over the board in front of him. All eyes were on him with rapt attention and dark, official suits. Concolo, Palustri, Tygra and Panthro were closest, and Pumyra lurked in the doorway. The room seemed smaller than it used to, less frightening.
"Thanks for coming guys. I know it's been kind of hectic lately with everything that's been going on, but I wanted to update everyone on a couple things coming up."
He paced and their eyes followed. Lion-O heard the door and as his chin lifted, the rest of the room looked back toward it. The kittens waved and he waved back.
"Guys, one sec."
"Oops. Sorry." Kit dragged her brother back out the door and shut it. Lion-O smiled; something like that would have shattered his concentration before, but now it was easy to deal with.
"First of all, we're about two months away from finishing our final generator model. Panthro Fides has been working like crazy the past few weeks to finish the semester at Ome North University, and we owe him a lot of gratitude for everything he's done." He nodded at Panthro and Panthro rolled his eyes.
"A big, belated thanks to Tygra and Concolo for running things while I was recovering. And Pumyra deserves thanks too for keeping Tygra sane and going above and beyond the call of duty to deal with phone calls and questions." Tygra nodded uneasily and Pumyra smirked.
Lion-O had a few papers resting on the table in front of him. He passed them around the table so everyone could read along. "These are some of the changes that are going to happen. We're dedicating forty percent of the company to energy now, and that may increase as time goes on, but we won't give up on creating software for at least the next twenty years. That means at least ten percent of the company will still be dedicated to software design. This does mean we're going to have to alter the structure of Thunder Enterprises, and some jobs are going to be swapped out. However, we're already communicating with some other businesses we're on good terms with, and we should be able to find everyone that's being laid off employment somewhere close."
He didn't like that people might lose their jobs, but he had one more bit to say. "Also, if anyone wants to stay here and join on with the energy studies, we're going to offer financial aid to take several courses on the subject matter so we can retain as many employees as we can. A lot of them have been with us for a long time, and we care about that kind of commitment. We'll go the extra mile to help them stay here if that's what they want."
All the members nodded in agreement. "You've all heard about the finances, but we've settled on our budgets. Palustri, what are the latest numbers?"
He lifted one of his pages. "If Thundrillium is responded to and people are willing to shift away from oil, coal and other alternatives, we could see five billion dollars in revenue in the next five years alone. These are at the prices you recommended, slightly lower than what we were estimating before."
"Right. The increased demand due to our affordability will help offset that, and it will encourage people to get away from expensive alternatives. Oil companies are already wanting stock and taking part in the business because they know that Thundrillium is going to replace them if things keep going the way they are." Lion-O shifted his Transformers watch and rubbed the line in his fur where it rested. "If there are any questions during the week, let me know. We'll be having to adjust a lot coming up, but I feel like it's going to be a great adjustment. More company growth means we can employ more people and make an even bigger success of this place, just like the predecessors would want."
He glanced down at the ring on his finger. It was dark red in the soft orange light of the setting sun and seemed lit from within, as if a live coal were in the gem. "It might be a little different from what they expected," he admitted. "But I think this is the right direction."
Lion-O then lifted his head. "Well, that's all. I just wanted to update you guys on a couple of things. Let's head out; it's been a long Monday."
With this dismissal the members stood up, bidding him farewell and sighing with some tired relief. Kat and Kit entered the room, squeezing between cats and running up to Lion-O. Kat was carrying a large paper and Kit held a folder, both grinning.
"We finished revising." Kat flipped the paper over and showed it off and Lion-O applauded.
"Very nice…there's Panthro, Kit, Cheetara, me, Snarf, Tygra, Pumyra, Kat, Jaga and Bengali. Very nice." The piece had been painstakingly edited and carried without being folded. They had signed it at the top and he laughed. "Did Snarf help draw it? His paw print is up there."
"He helped us find the right crayons. He's good at color coordination," Kit said brightly. Tygra praised them for the picture, and Kit said, "We'll draw a copy for you too Tygra. And then one for Cheetara and the Pantherle Veterinary Clinic, and then Panthro's house, and Tretierra Veterinary Clinic-"
Kat elbowed her. "Hey, show him what else we did." He pointed to one of the red circles on the wall. "We think the wall is really boring," he said emphatically. "The big red dot needs to be fixed. It's like a bunch of big polka dots."
Kit held out her folder and Lion-O opened it, scanning the images. "What are these?"
"They're ideas for what you could put in the big red circles. Something cool. Bengali helped us with some of them." Kit scuffed her foot on the floor. "If you wanna, I mean. We just thought it would be all…y'know. Dramatic and tough. And not boring."
"I see. That's nice, but I don't know if…" he trailed off. Examining one more closely, he held it up. "Huh. Y'know, this one's pretty cool. Look guys."
Lion-O moved the page so the others could see it. Everyone remaining crowded around his side of the table to get a glimpse.
Tygra eyed the logo. "…I have to admit, I like it."
"We think it's cool. It's all like, 'Roar! We're tough! Gr!'" Kat said. Panthro cocked his head, leaning on the table as he looked it over.
"What is it? I like it, but it's kind of ambiguous."
Kit shrugged. "It's just a big monster cat. We thought it looked neat."
Lion-O looked around the room. "I could see that actually. It would look kind of impressive here. It could even be our market logo…we've just got the words 'Thunder Enterprises' right now."
Kat and Kit beamed at each other. "Really? Cool! Bengali helped with that one too!"
Tygra checked his watch. "We can get it approved tomorrow. I'm hungry right now. Have you guys eaten yet?"
"Nope," they said together. "Cheetara's waiting in the lobby with Jaga; we wanted you guys to eat with us for the first time in the Pantherle Veterinary Clinic!" They took Panthro's paws and started dancing around him, much to his chagrin, making him turn with them. "We're all set up now. We've gotta get Snarf and Bengali and then we'll show you guys what it looks like. It's sooo cool. I've got a pirate, adventure room," Kat said.
"And I've got music and ballerinas and animals in mine," Kit said, not to be outdone. Panthro just rotated in place, and Pumyra came and took the kittens off his paws.
"Bengali's in the research building helping out. We'll get him and I guess pick up Snarf," she said, lifting her head questioningly. Lion-O nodded.
"Yeah. Just let me put my files back up in my office." He took the pages, including the "family portrait" and the designs, and headed out. He heard Tygra talking to the kittens as he entered the elevator and rode it up to his office.
There was nobody up there, and the sun stained everything red through the windows. The city was beautiful with the glass reflecting hot, glaring lights and muddled shadows. He stacked the pages neatly and took the colored picture out and found its frame, sliding it in.
How close he'd become to so many of them. A year and a half had changed so much, brought so much happiness and pain. Weighing both, he found that the happiness was the greater of the two. Lion-O hung the picture up and smiled when he saw the kittens had drawn them holding paws.
There was no telling what the future held. Mumm-Ra wasn't finished, and it was doubtful that the problems were over. But even so, with all of them here, the problems seemed light and so much smaller than they were before. Lion-O was confident now, confident in his choices.
Confident in himself. He owed Cheetara that, and the kittens and Panthro and Jaga. And Bengali and Pumyra and Snarf. And even, in some strange, almost unwilling way, even Tygra had contributed help at the most surprising moment.
We did this together.
And they would face the rest together. He was sure of that.
Lion-O placed the page on his desk. Tettigon said things were going well, and she was going to approach Cheetara soon to tell her how to formally adopt the kittens. They would never have to worry about being separated again.
Tonight they would have yet another family dinner together. Tygra and he would probably snipe but not the way they always had before; just a little less, a little softer. Pumyra would make sure Bengali ate vegetables and Panthro would probably shove his around the plate and onto Snarf's when no one was looking Cheetara would have her mane loose because she would have tied it back while she cooked and she liked the feeling of letting it down. It would smell like new house and feel like new beginnings. It would taste like fun and sound like laughing kittens.
And it would look like home, and family.
Lion-O left the design on his desk. He headed out the same way he always had, the way Dad had; out the elevator, out the front door, and to the car that he would drive home in order to pick up Snarf. But it was his path now. It wasn't Dad's path he was walking in and he wasn't following orders and the agendas of others.
This was his. He was making a new path, and the world was full of new and wonderful things. And he loved them all.
His office was quiet when he left. But even in the silence and serene redness, even on a thin sheet of paper, painstakingly drawn by kitten paws, the side profile of a roaring black cat against a red circle stood out bold as a new footprint.