Hearts and Minds
Cheetara's spent most of the day looking out at the bright sun in the center of the Elephant's village. It's a day warmer than the previous one, and with Lion-O spending much needed time with the prophet Anet she's not sure what to do with herself.
She watches Panthro pass with what was left of the Elephants harvest strapped to the great cat's back in a woven basket. She would have been more than happy to help but at her first attempt to assist the General had insisted she needn't bother with heavy lifting.
Cheetara wonders if there is now doubt in her abilities due to her short two day bout of blood pallor. Even after her conversation with Tygra back in the Berbil Village.
She felt more than fine just the next morning after rest and a full belly of warm naligouche she'd felt as energized as the wily twins but Tygra insisted she take another day of rest and when she'd dismissed his concerns a strange change of plans occurs only another hour later. When she noted not a single cat moving to prepare for departure she questions her king and Lion-O announces another day of rest for the company with the Berbils. She had shifted suspicious eyes to both princes, Tygra looking on at her dispassionately but Lion-O doesn't seem comfortable meeting her eyes as he suggests she rest some more.
Cheetara was sure Tygra is to be thanked for her new 'helpless she-cat' status, everyone had been suddenly very helpful the whole afternoon.
Cheetara had had no doubt Tygra had much to do with this change of plans, ensuring she take rest against her assurances she was fine.
She is off to find Tygra who disappears faster than the kits as soon as Lion-O is finished speaking.
The cheetah tries first to follow the striped cats feet in the lush green grass and its easy enough to find his, he has larger feet than Lion-O as well as broader, but not nearly as broad as the Generals but they are indefinitely lighter footfalls than the other two that get fainter and fainter before disappearing all together in the shorter grasses.
She'd be lost but for the breeze that carries him to her.
She can still smell him, all sandalwood and earth and something like pine and something that's strictly Tygra she can't quite put a name to, and it's soothing and alluring but she doesn't even want to think about him that way right now.
Cheetara springs up the Berbil's lookout tower, her claws clanking and clicking on the steel steps and Tygra turns as she rounds the spiraling step into the archway of the tower's center. It's not much more than a large round room with a metal floor and a blinking rows of buttons on some console just under the window.
"I'm fine Tygra," Cheetara starts.
Tygra simply blinks at her and it makes her even more determined to have this conversation with him.
"We should be moving on, not catering to my momentary fatigue as though it is a bout of tailrot," Cheetara explains. She comes nearly flush with the striped prince and she doesn't miss the way he eased backwards in her scolding, caught off-guard by it. "We can't waste another day. You needn't and shouldn't have suggested such a thing to Lion-O."
For his credit Tygra doesn't do much more in the way of retreat finding himself cornered, it's obvious his attempt shift from defense to offense when he folds both arms and raises a brow. "And what makes you think Lion-O's idea was mine? The kid makes his own decisions that have nothing to do with me."
"I know you Tygra, no other cat here seemed to think I needed another day before you suggested it," she replies softly knowing her words have become tender rather than the firm, no nonsense way she wanted.
She doesn't want to wound him or make him believe she didn't care for his efforts but she has a job to do and he must allow her to do it.
"Tygra, we need those stones and in finding them time is of the essence. I'm a cleric a simple case of blood pallor is trivial and as I've said I'm well enough. I've rested as long as was needed and must get back to my duties. Our king depends on us to—
"You mean our king depends on you," Tygra finishes nearly spitting. "You can't be of any help to him always holding his paw you know, especially passing out in the process."
"I was fatigued not gravely injured, unless there is a sword through me I'm not aware of," Cheetara adds.
"That's my point you just," he pauses as if questioning his sense in uttering his next words. He braves on at her waiting expression, "You wouldn't even know the difference or care, you've been completely careless trying to always help him you're going to get hurt or even-."
"Die?" she finishes with lovely rose-colored eyes that don't hold any fear. "Then I would die in service of my king Tygra. I swore that and meant it the day I entered the clerisy."
He seems to lose all fire, his hardened jaw seeming more morose than angry from the way his eyes refuse to meet hers. She understands his concern and had even known in some way this point would be reached.
Cheetara knows this is her fault, she's sought him out too much since the beginning and over time he too seemed to run into her more sometimes in the oddest places, they'd formed a stilted companionship, a kind they'd nurtured in brief meetings often in secret, some minutes, none more than an hour and she'd only grown more fond.
As a cub, well a kitten really at 9 seasons old she'd first blamed the lack of peers within the clerisy, but that was neither true nor fair as she'd known a leopard and a lynx her age, but neither seemed to be what her heart wanted or had an interest in knowing.
Her first few days she'd felt a silly cub sitting in her quarters after sundown clenching an astrid stem with one torn petal left, the petal greying and falling on the fourteenth day but thankfully the stem never so much as wilts and she gingerly places the relic up her sleeve guard every day after she is given official battle duties.
She then in her first weeks with the clerisy blamed Jaga and her king, the way their roles called for propriety and discretion, it doesn't seem fair for her to stay her distance from the prince and focus on protecting the toddling king.
They'd become unlikely friends with never the opportunity to even have a strong standing on that, days in between sighting, conversations, months, any progress hindered by duties.
"I'm not helpless Tygra, in fact I seem to remember carelessly helping you out more than once in the Lizard raids, and blood pallor would have been a more pleasant way to end a hot summer day."
Tygra looks surprised that she recalls it, but he knows he shouldn't be she'd even been gravely injured that day due to his carelessness. He'd charged into the thick mob of cats and lizards upon an unfamiliar mount he'd chosen in his haste, he'd cleared a path to the soldiers with his sword easy enough with speed and element of surprise on his side but his mount had dug her heels in squealing when a cart of melons flew past them like a cannon blast, he'd encouraged the stubborn and frightened creature into the din once more with a kick and with the creature bucking in fright he'd been thrown in the dirt and under her when she'd fallen with all 900 pounds atop him.
He'd been crushed falling atop a dead leopard soldier and beneath the mount and surrounded.
Cheetara had come flying through the chaos like a shooting star out of nowhere, she'd been untouchable until she'd moved to help him before he suffocated and received a stabbing wound to her neck and ribs for her trouble before help had arrived. She'd been badly wounded for his careless charge and he remembers it clear as crystal because he remembers even after his father and their soldiers had gotten the animal up he still couldn't breathe watching another cleric take her from where she's crumpled in the dirt, she'd been unresponsive and covered in blood when they'd hurried her into the clerisy.
There's barely a mark on her white throat and crème colored side now only two years passed, but he doesn't need her scars to remember, he'd never forget the sound of her wheezing breaths.
"That had been my fault," he says mutely. "You were lucky the first time protecting someone from a stupid mistake, how often do you think you'll get lucky again?"
"As long as the Great Sky Cat allows," she answers. "And besides, I should have eight more lives left."
He can't even process her weak attempt to lighten his mood and doesn't look amused and he won't even look at her again. She wants him to understand so badly and accept her destiny, his own, his brother's.
"I wasn't afraid then and I'm not now. Clerics are not afraid of dying Tygra, loss of your life becomes unimportant when you are part of something endless, do you know what clerics fear?"
"Loss of hope. We've lost so much already, our home, our people, leaving hope buried under the stone and wood of Thundera we leave the future of cats there as well. Good things no longer seem endless. When hope dies, so does everything."
Tygra can hear her retreat but he doesn't follow her with his gaze even when she stops to face him again.
"I'll give him my protection and hope at longer as he needs it, he will not stand alone Tygra. He's doing his best."
She leaves him there in the tower nearly stumbling at the stair bottom and she doesn't want to think Tygra is right. she's still a bit under her usual strength.
She'd been looking for him for most of the afternoon but true to Tygra's nature, if he did not want to be found he wouldn't be and she wonders if he's still avoiding her after yesterday in the tower.
Cheetara wanders, following a delicate spindled vine of violet colored flowers and her breath catches at the sight upon her.
A gap in a rocky crevasse just behind the largest hut opens to a great garden of flowers and ferns and herbs, the music of the village flutes sounds muted in the cocoon of rocked walls around her and somewhere close the cubs are laughing with their pacyderm friends but it quiets as she comes closer the sun fissuring through the red leafed trees paints everything around her in pink.
She's usually very good about not thinking on Thundera but in an instant looking out into the garden she sorely misses her clerisy, her people and here in this place is a near replica of the palace garden she'd seen every day looking out her window and it's impossible not to remember.
"It's beautiful isn't it?"
Cheetara lifts her head straight up at the shadow over her. It's just Anet and he's smiling kindly at her.
"I come here every afternoon."
She nods. "Your garden is familiar, like our home's was. In fact it's…" she pauses to double check her vision. Yes. "Identical."
"Is it?" the old elephant asks as though she's just commented on the weather and not the bizarre coincidence.
She comes round the dirt path and yes that's different too as their garden's path was mostly polished stone especially this corner, all the perimeter was smooth polished stone but every tree, every flower, every bush is where it should be.
"Except the trees you have, the red ones, they're different."
Anet nods following her through her wanderings at an easy lumbering place. "They are a favorite of mine."
The cheetah's attention is riveted to an apple tree and her wondering awe seems to shift into something else, musing that doesn't seem pleasant.
"We have day astrids as well."
An odd thing to comment on, of all the flowers... "What?"
"Day astrids," the elephant repeats just as sedately. "You're fond of them."
Cheetara blinks. "How did you know that?"
"Be they cat or elephant, I've never known a female that was not fond of them. They are beautiful and I've known them to come in handy a time or two." He gestures past himself with his walking stick. "Please help yourself to anything for your company's journey, not just the astrids."
With a gentle knock of his stick against an overhanging vine floats several white astrids to the ground.
Cheetara smiles her feet invisible under the mound of flowers, "that's very kind of you Anet but we needn't take your entire supply."
"Need is a strange thing isn't it? How can anyone know what they need before they are aware they will ever be in need of it? Can we call it need before that time? Or is it simply for want?"
She supposes it is as valid a question as any.
"An anticipation? A likelihood? A probability?" Cheetara guesses, unsure of the elephant's ramblings.
"And when probability fails some things may never find a use. Something needed is never without use, so it is still a want. And there truly is only one thing we can always want and always need but never not need." Anet notes plucking up fruit with his trunk that hangs above his brow. He simply swallows the orange whole.
She thinks she should have known she couldn't win with a wise if often forgetful elephant.
"Then I don't think I would know," she admits kneeling down in her astrids. "What truly makes a want and not a need then?"
"You know the answer, so perhaps you should share it."
Cheetara quickly decides the elephant is worse than Jaga with his musings and riddles.
"Share it with who?" she calls back because the elephant is already walking away.
"I would suggest your fruit giver. And do not forget to recheck your leaves for frosting tomorrow."
Cheetara is even more confused than ever and she barely hears his last nonsensical words.
"I'm guessing whiskered milkweed?"
Cheetara notes a pair of stark white feet and Tygra's standing there watching her with a small sack of cloth over his shoulder.
The cleric huffed out a breath of air clearing stray strands and leaves from her hair, she probably looks as though she has rolled and frolicked around in the mess, which would explain Tygra's comment.
"Anet suggested we help ourselves to their herbs and fruits, anything we need," she explains.
The answer seems to satisfy Tygra because he kneels next to her opening his bag. "Fruit?"
Cheetara accepts an orange without complaint but doesn't peel. Looking from her fruit to Tygra who seems unsure if he should be leaving, he finally stands.
"Wait. Sit, please."
He does as she requests and his face takes on a pink glow just like her own under the shade of the red-leaved trees.
"Yesterday I didn't finish, what I wanted to say before," she starts.
Obviously this is the wrong way to start as Tygra already seems to want to be anywhere else. "You remember how else you wanted to remind me to stop interfering with your duties?"
"No," she says. "I meant what I said before but I didn't get a chance to say something else that may be long overdue, something that can't wait anymore."
His eyes steadily rise in attentiveness and it's still all wrong he looks as jumpy as she feels. She finds she's suddenly anxious, of his words, his reaction.
"I thought the difficult part of this was going to be being Lion-O's cleric," she confesses, "but it's no different than what I've always done, instead the hard part is something that should be infinitely more simple."
Steeling herself she scoots closer until her knees are touching the tiger's thigh and though still wearing an expression of extreme caution the tiger is still stationary both sitting in a pile of astrids under the shade in perfect seclusion.
Tygra isn't sure what the cheetah wants to say but something about her anxious expression is worrisome and though the way her teeth begin to nip at her bottom lip is infinitely attractive he's not sure he wants to know why she's doing it.
This talk isn't working and she has a better plan.
She's not sure where her courage comes from but she's decided she's going to show him instead.
A blaring buzzing noise rings her ears and by the way Tygra winces she's sure he hears it too.
"What is that?" she groans.
"Don't know but I'm guessing trouble, come on," Tygra calls.
They are up in a flash, fruits, flowers and confessions forgotten.