Note: Set at some point after "Between Brothers" but before "Native Son."
In That Fallow Field
Perhaps they should have gone farther afield. At the time, the little glen had seemed far removed from the camp and the rest of the cats-removed, even, from the clouded light that filtered through the leaves, from the cracking of twigs and the squishing of wet earth beneath their feet. When Cheetara had touched Tygra's shoulder, he had turned to her. The long slide of his wide hand down her back had fanned a quick flame out of the sparks in her gut, and she had dragged him down with her into the grass. The scent of him, the nearness, the breadth of his shoulders, the reality of his presence there at last with her: all these were reason enough to satisfy her then as she pulled his armor from him and he her leathers from her.
Now, in the dimming twilight, she could see it for what it was: impatience, nothing more. To have Tygra to herself was still too dear a thing. The mere truth of his being not only there, but hers, was a temptation she did not wish to bear. She had made the choice to bite at his mouth, lick at his fur, call out of him the same need he'd called out of her; if there were consequences, then she could not deny them.
"We saw you, you know," WilyKat called down from a near tree. He was juggling oversized acorns from one hand to the other, then showering them down to WilyKit.
He and Kit had followed Cheetara and Tygra out from the tank under the guise of assisting them with the work of setting up camp. Thus far, the cubs had accomplished first grinning wickedly up at them and then whispering to each other.
Tygra shook out the length of canvas. "What did you see?"
Cheetara considered and then set the posts down. The trees were thick enough they hardly needed them to support any tents pitched; spreading them over the branches ought to be enough.
"Over there might be better," said Cheetara to Tygra.
The cubs followed, WilyKit on her toes and WilyKat hopping from one tree to the next overhead.
"We saw you."
"Together," said WilyKat.
"In the bushes," said WilyKit, and she fussed up her lips like a fish and made smacking sounds.
Tygra turned too sharply and struck his head on a low-hanging branch. He staggered; as his shoulder dropped, the canvas began to spill out of his arms.
"Not in the mud!" said Cheetara as she lunged for him.
"You're supposed to watch where you're going," WilyKat called down from above.
As Cheetara helped fold the runaway length of canvas back in Tygra's arms, he flashed her a small, private sort of grimacing smile. "I imagine that wasn't one of my more dashing moments."
"Mm," said Cheetara, looking up with her eyelids down low at him, "but you pulled it off."
The corner of his mouth turned up, slow and lean. If the cubs hadn't been hooting at them, she might just have kissed him right there, with the canvas wound up between them.
"Get a tank!" shouted WilyKat.
"Yeah! Get a tank!" WilyKit clapped her hands together and bounced. "Why do we have to sleep outside anyway?"
Cheetara stepped back from Tygra before she made the mistake, again, of licking his nose. What use all those years of training with the clerics if she couldn't manage enough self-control to keep from grooming him in sight of two cubs with quick mouths?
Tygra hefted the canvas to his shoulder; his biceps rolled, the muscle tensing so his arm bulged. Me-yow, thought Cheetara; then she pressed two fingers to her mouth.
Tygra said, "Because Cheetara thinks, and I agree, that you two cubs need to get more practice roughing it outdoors."
"We've already done that lots," protested WilyKit.
"Yeah!" said WilyKat. He tossed the acorns down, not near enough to give either Cheetara or Tygra reason to jump; still, Cheetara would have to speak with him later. "I bet we've roughed it lots more than you big city cats have."
"Oh?" Cheetara cocked her hip to one side; she didn't miss the fleeting smirk Tygra threw at her, but she didn't grant him the pleasure of acknowledging it. She put on her best big-eyed innocent little kitten look for the cubs. "And what do you two tough cubs know about roughing it?"
WilyKit folded her arms over her skinny chest and stuck her nose up. "We know to check the bushes first."
"Not like some big cats," said WilyKat, as he mirrored his sister.
"I can see up your nose," said Tygra to WilyKat. "Yours, too."
But Cheetara had caught scent of the trail Tygra had dropped. "What do you mean, check the bushes first?"
"See?" called WilyKat down to WilyKit. "I told you. They didn't even know we were there."
If Cheetara had carried the canvas, she would have dropped it. Perhaps she wouldn't be so stern with 'Kat later.
"You guys were so busy kissing up on each other, you didn't even smell us," said WilyKit, shaking her head.
"What you saw," said Cheetara. "That was only—"
Her tongue got stuck in her mouth. It wasn't that she was prudish; it was only— At the monastery, they hadn't spoken of such things. Intimacy was just that: a private thing, kept to one's self and never shared. They were to abstain from much, and conversation of such pleasures as cats might find with each other was one such thing to be held apart.
She looked beseechingly to Tygra—he'd more experience with cubs than she, if only with Lion-O—but he simply grinned at her so all his teeth showed. That prideof his!
"Cheetara and I were just ... hugging," said Tygra.
"You can't think of anything better? Really?" whispered Cheetara.
Tygra's grin got wider still. His mouth was nearly at his ears. Head injury or not, he was enjoying this. Cheetara could have bit him. He wouldn't have liked it this time, either.
"We know what mating is," said WilyKat scornfully. "We're not kittens."
"Big city cats think they know everything," said WilyKit up to him.
"We only told you so that next time you won't mate where me and sis were gonna play," said WilyKat.
"Ah," said Tygra. "So you saw ... that." Now he glanced sidelong at Cheetara, his eyes widening just so.
"Oh," said Cheetara, touching her claws to her breast, "now you want my help."
"It's not a big deal," said WilyKit. She considered Cheetara and Tygra sadly, as though they were the unworldly cubs and she and her brother the wiser. "Our mama and papa mated all the time."
"I suppose cubs are more resilient than we give them credit for," said Tygra valiantly.
Cheetara arched her brow at him, but it was to the cubs she turned, WilyKat hidden in the shadows of the tree's leaves and WilyKit in the shadow of the tree's trunk. Unease knotted inside her as she took in their small faces. Worldly they might think themselves, but they were cubs. It was difficult enough to put voice to her desires when she spoke with Tygra, to name the things she felt and wanted and knew of herself. Such naked honesty had come more readily to Tygra, though his own virginal shyness had led to more than one moment of mutual silence, each of them looking down to their own hands, unable to speak of what they would ask of the other and give in turn.
"Come down, WilyKat," Cheetara said to him. She held her hand out to him.
"We're not in trouble, are we?" he asked warily.
But he took her hand anyway and hopped down, his thick tail flashing behind him. WilyKat landed lightly on his toes beside WilyKit. Their tails wound briefly then separated. Cheetara had known tailed cats in the slums where she'd grown; she knew that passing touch to be a simple reassurance.
She crouched before them so she would not tower over them as she knew she did. They were still cubs, after all, and Cheetara had ever been taller than most.
"You are a little," she said. "You should know better than to intrude on such private moments between others."
"But we didn't intrude," WilyKat protested. "We were there first."
"You're right," Cheetara agreed. "Tygra and I ought to have checked first. I'm sorry I did not."
She hadn't expected Tygra to speak. His pride—which was to say, his small shyness—was such that he preferred to express such sentiments through action rather than word. But she heard his tread in the mud, then he crouched beside her. His big knee pressed against hers.
"As am I," said Tygra. "Maybe next time you could let us know you're there before you see anything."
Cheetara looked to him out the corner of her eye. His broad, squared face was turned up to the cubs, and he was smiling. Something warm and very sweet budded in her heart. She knew it now as liking, as loving. She would not reach for his hand, but she nudged his knee with her own. His smile turned to her then, and he winked, just the slightest flicker of his eyelid. Shameless!
The cubs exchanged one of their looks, WilyKat's eyes narrowed and his shoulders low, WilyKit's eyes wide but her shoulders arched: well? WilyKat sighed.
"We're sorry, too," he said.
"Yeah," said WilyKit. "We'll try not to spy on you accidentally in the future."
"Or on purpose, either," added WilyKat.
"Good," said Cheetara. She smiled at the both of them. "Now why don't you two go find some firewood?"
"But it's all wet!" said WilyKit.
"It's soaked," corrected WilyKat. He looked over his shoulder. "How are we supposed to find any wood we can burn?"
"No one ever said roughing it would be easy," Cheetara noted as she stood.
"I think," said Tygra slowly as he too rose up from his crouch, his bulk unfolding beside her, "that might be why they call it 'roughing it.'"
The cubs shared another look; this one was reciprocally dark and suggested mutiny. Cheetara clapped her hands sharply and they both jumped.
"Go," she told them sternly. "Before it's too dark to find any. If you want to stay warm, we need wood for the fire."
"But don't wander too far," Tygra called as the cubs, grumbling, set off for the brush. "It'll be dark soon and you're both small."
"We can take care of ourselves!" WilyKit shouted at them from the shadows; then the cubs were gone.
Cheetara rubbed at her brow with one hand and sighed. "Well. That wasn't much fun."
"We could always have a little fun ourselves," said Tygra. His lips were pinched together, but the smile that pulled at them was nothing short of a burgeoning grin.
"You're incorrigible," Cheetara told him as he stepped up to her and she bent those few short inches to run her nose down the side of his cheek. He smelled of rain and wet earth and that deep, pungent scent that was Tygra and nothing else. A little warmth dropped like a spark from her heart and into her gut. The smell of him enveloped her, so she enveloped him.
"I'm starting to think you like me like that," he murmured, then his lips were soft beneath hers, his mouth warm, the gentle glide of his tongue as much an invitation as the hand that slid up her arm.
The canvas crinkled between them. From the shade of the trees and the dimming light, WilyKat called: "We can still smell you!"
Tygra bent his head to her shoulder. Cheetara passed a hand over her eyes. Patience, she thought. Patience. She pulled it up from her itching gut—patience, stillness, acceptance—and breathed deeply out. Then she set her hand on his chest and gently pushed.
He lingered, still.
"We should probably set up camp," Tygra said.
"I'll go make sure the cubs really are looking for firewood," said Cheetara. She did not truly want to lose the sweep of his nose over her throat, the feel of his broad hand cupping her shoulder so firmly. Her claws scraped very lightly over his chest plate.
His mouth was warm at the lithe juncture of her neck, there where it merged with her shoulder. He kissed her very delicately and then, at last, her hand on his chest and her fingers curled so her claws dug into his armor, he stepped away. He stepped away, but he did not look away. His eyes were dark and soft.
Cheetara cradled his cheek in her hand, those little tufts of fur fitting between her fingers.
"Do you remember when we first met?" she asked him.
He smiled. "I remember."
"You couldn't say anything to me," she said. "Not at first. Why was that?"
"You know," said Tygra.
"Tell me," said Cheetara. "Please."
He cupped her hand on his cheek. His thumb traced the side of her palm and stilled.
"You had the biggest eyes I'd ever seen," he said, "and you smelled like I thought the sun must smell."
She smiled then, for the love swelling within her and the love she knew swelled within him, too.
"And how many years did you spend thinking that line up?" she teased him gently.
"Since the first time I saw you," he said.
"You're a sentimentalist," said Cheetara.
"And you saved the flower," said Tygra.
She leaned into him again, lingering over his lips. Tygra stroked her wrist, not holding it, but simply touching. Embracing.
"We're back," announced WilyKit, then she said: "Ugh! Again?"
"Can't we leave you guys alone for a whole minute?" demanded WilyKat.
Cheetara kissed Tygra quickly one last time, for the warmth of him and for the memory of a young cat, just barely no more a cub, who had stumbled on his tongue and looked down to his feet when she, another young cat fresh out of her own awkward cubhood, smiled at him.
"Barf!" said WilyKat.
"All you guys ever do is kiss," said WilyKit.
"You'll understand when you're older," said Tygra over Cheetara's shoulder.
"I'm never gonna kiss anybody," WilyKat declared.
"I'd kiss Aburn," said WilyKit thoughtfully to WilyKat, and when he made a retching sound, she punched him.
"I'd better stop them," said Cheetara.
"I've got your back," said Tygra, grinning as she narrowed her eyes at him.
He really was shameless, she thought; but she thought it with a fondness that flooded her heart so that she felt as if she overflowed with it, as if her love would spill right out of her and into the mud they trudged through on the way back to the cubs.