Lion-O did not return to the camp until the second moon was high in the sky. Tygra had gone back to check on the kittens, and Cheetara sat alone in her tent, on edge, waiting for Lion-O's return. She stood quickly when she caught sight of the King, and ran to meet him outside of his tent.
"Lion-O!" she called.
"Cheetara!" Lion-O waved back. They met; a soft wind blew through the campsite, and as the two closed the distance between them, Lion-O sniffed at her, seeming to notice the smell of roasted trout.
"We should talk about the mission, Lion-O."
"I know. I discussed the plan with Horus, and he's worried," Lion-O's brow furrowed. "He doesn't want to abandon Avista. I understand where he's coming from, but I don't see that we have much choice."
"I agree that we need to relocate the birds, but I don't think we should abandon Avista City either," Cheetara said.
"I feel guilty about it too," Lion-O sighed, shifting his feet on the yellowed grass by his tent. "But we've got to stay focused on the bigger picture. We've got to get the last stone before Mumm-Ra does, or we'll lose a lot more than one city."
Lion-O touched her shoulder, reassuringly, and continued, his jaw set. "This struggle will not be easy, and we need to make sure we keep the birds safe. We owe them that much, and I intend to make sure they get that justice. But we can't keep them safe without the last stone, and that has to be the next priority," he said firmly.
"And I think that our work here isn't done, yet," Cheetara said, "I can't explain it, but I think saving Avista is part of the bigger picture. I can't tell you everything about my trip to the Astral Plane, but it gave me a different perspective on our mission. And yesterday, I had some experiences that confirmed it. Lion-O, I need to look into the Book -"
" - That's another thing I meant to discuss with you, Cheetara." Lion-O's blue eyes cut into the cheetah. "Don't you ever run off like that again. We were all worried sick, and we had no idea where you'd gone. What if there had been an emergency here? You can't do that again. If I can't trust you, and depend on you, then you're useless to the team, not just to me, and I could never give you something sensitive like the Book of Omens."
Cheetara knew several inner chants and mantras to maintain her composure; there were methods of breathing that would cool the hot flash of emotion rising in her throat and up through her ears. Even a gentle smile would ensure that the words one spoke would hit the tongue more softly than they were otherwise meant. But these methods escaped her consciousness now, as she sank her claws into the fur on Lion-O's shoulders and pulled his face to hers.
"Do not ever speak that way to me again," Cheetara shouted. "After the way you've treated me, you should be thankful that I decided to come back at all!" Cheetara released Lion-O's fur.
"The way I've treated you? You were the one who ran off!" Lion-O shouted back.
"You were insufferable, and I needed to get away from you. You've been critical, you've ignored my advice, and you've made unnecessary mistakes because you're too stubborn and hard-headed!"
"And you are secretive at best, and fickle at worst! Maybe your advice would be worth taking if I didn't have to work so hard to understand you."
"I should strike you where you stand!"
"You might as well! You sure haven't acted like a cleric lately!"
"And you haven't acted like a leader. Our objective is to defeat Mumm-Ra. And if there was a diversion, or a side-quest that you could find, you led us right into it! You would not listen to your friends, but you let Mumm-Ra's agents drive your every move! You brought the traitor into our midst, even after she tried to kill you. You lost the Sword of Plun-Darr, and then you lost the Technology Stone and caused The Crash of Avista!" Cheetara's eyes flashed with heat.
"You had a part in this, too, you know! You'd think a cleric would actually know something about curses and when not to break them. Unless you wanted the Sword of Plun-Darr freed!"
"Do not ever call my honor into question. How dare you even hint that I am disloyal. Again! The night I left, you had the gall to compare me to the traitors Pumyra and Grune."
"I never compared you to Grune. At least Grune made his intentions toward me clear!" Lion-O growled.
"And unlike you, at least I know the difference between a friend, a lover, and an enemy!"
"Yeah? Well which one are you, Cheetara!"
"So you really don't know? Trust me, boy. Your brother knows the difference!"
"If you had just been straight with -"
"No! I am not going over this again with you. This is petty! Beneath us! I have been nothing but kind and supportive of you through this entire ordeal. But perhaps you don't like kind or supportive. Perhaps you prefer struggle? You don't like nice? Believe me, Lion-O, I do not have to be nice! I am done arguing with you. We now face an enemy with enhanced power, and I am ignorant of how to engage him. I need that Book, Lion-O. Are you going to give it to me or what?" Cheetara's eyes widened as she caught herself. She sucked her lips into her mouth, inhaled deeply and tried to quiet her anger.
Lion-O stared at her, his ears pointed forward at attention, his breathing heavy.
He paused before speaking. "Struck a nerve, huh?" he said.
"I suppose," Cheetara looked down at her fists, unclenched them, and ran her claws through her hair.
"Are you okay?" Lion-O asked her, his voice barely a whisper over the sound of the wind rustling through the trees.
"Yes," she softened her gaze, moved by his expression of concern. "I . . . I am angry that I didn't know more about what we are facing. I'm angry at myself for not asking you for the Book sooner."
"And I should have thought about giving it to you." Lion-O closed his eyes, swept his mane back from his face with both hands and exhaled. "It had nothing to do with trust, Cheetara. It's worse than that. I didn't even think about it. I guess I've felt like I have to carry all of this on my own." Lion-O paused before continuing.
"I have to say. I have felt that you don't truly get how important our experiences with the other animals are. Those diversions won us allies that helped us defeat Mumm-Ra. Otherwise we'd be standing alone against him right now. Cheetara . . . I need you to believe in my ideas for how this all fits together."
"Lion-O, I do get it." Cheetara reached out to him; the fur on his arm felt cool to her touch. "Believe me, I know exactly how important the journey is, and I have tried to support you. I have to admit, though. I haven't agreed with your tactics - we're an undisciplined mess! That makes us vulnerable. And you don't get your tail stroked for dragging your friends into danger that you should have avoided in the first place. I just want you to think more about how we move forward. And to accept some advice on our next steps."
Cheetara swallowed. "Lion-O, I also take responsibility for not speaking up when I should have, and letting things build up inside until they exploded."
"I'm sorry I've been such a jerk," Lion-O said. "I know I haven't always made it easy for you to speak freely with me. I knew you had reservations about Pumyra, and I can tell even now that you have doubts about the mission we're planning. Even Horus asked for your opinion, and I had no idea what you were planning to say to me."
"Lion-O, I appreciate what you've said." Cheetara felt the hairs on her neck relax, and she exhaled deeply.
"And I'm going to get the Book to you tonight."
"Thank you, Lion-O." Cheetara's ears perked up.
"But I don't know how much good it'll be to you until we can get it hooked up to the Thundertank again," Lion-O said.
"As you've said before, the Book is part technology, and part magic," Cheetara said. "We can only get so far by hooking it up to the Thundertank and tapping into its technology. I know I can get us further by tapping into its magic. But . . . there is something you ought to know first."
"There is a great deal of sensitive information in the Book, as you say. I may not be able to reveal everything I learn to you. I pledge to you now that I will tell you the truth, but, there may be questions that I cannot - and will not answer."
"That figures," Lion-O scowled. "I suppose I have to trust you."
"And I will work to be worthy of your trust, Lion-O."
"You already are," Lion-O said, running his fingers along her cheek. "You mean a lot to me. And for the record, I do like nice."
Cheetara blushed. "Now who's flirting?"
Lion-O laughed. "Actually, I have an assignment for you and Tygra. Tomorrow, I'd like you two to take Dobo and the bird scouts to Dog City to look for a safe place to put the birds."
"Lion-O," Cheetara said. "Could I make a suggestion? Would you consider sending Panthro with Tygra instead of me? Panthro and Tygra are excellent at organizing battle tactics. Together, I bet they can find a defensible route we can use to evacuate the birds. If it's all right, I would prefer to remain here with you. I can help you refine the goals for our mission. And I could spend more time with the Book that way."
"Um, sure. That sounds good to me. Besides, now that I think about it, Panthro still isn't crazy about letting Tygra drive the tank. Wait here for a second." Lion-O disappeared into his tent, and re-emerged with a sack.
"Here, Cheetara. I know you'll take good care of it." Lion-O extended his arms to the cleric. Cheetara took the sack, pulled the Book of Omens from it, and rubbed her hand across its cover.
"I will. It really means a lot to me to hear you say that." Cheetara paused for a moment.
In that moment, she looked at Lion-O, and she realized how much of her life had been about him - from her birth before she even knew him - she had been training to unite with a king: to please him, serve him, obey him, influence him. After actually meeting him, so much of her energy had been spent idolizing him, encouraging him, protecting him, avoiding him, and lately, trying to keep herself from killing him.
Now, holding the Book in her hands, she thought that, maybe, her life could be about something else. Maybe, she could take this chance to define what that might be.
She said softly, "Lion-O, the clerics have a prophecy . . . about our greatest king. I believe that prophecy is about you. What you say to me does affect me. Deeply. What you do, and what you believe matters to me. I do believe in you, Lion-O, as our king. But now, I need you to believe in me. As a cleric."
"A . . . prophecy? I . . . I don't know what to say," Lion-O tilted his head to the side, staring at her mouth as she spoke. "But prophecy or not, I want you to know that I'll be there for you. You deserve that much after everything you've been through. We'll be there for each other, okay?" A prophecy? What could that mean? Lion-O looked at his feet.
"Lion-O, are you okay? I know this was tough, but I think we needed to talk."
"Yeah," he nodded. "I'm okay. To be honest, what's really got me worried is how to get the birds out in time before we face Mumm-Ra. I don't think we can overstate what we're up against." Lion-O sighed. "Any advice?" he asked.
"I will have some," Cheetara nodded. "But first I want to read a bit. And think it through."
"And Cheetara," Lion-O began. "When my father had an important meeting to go to, Jaga would always go with him, you know. To advise him."
"I know. Sometimes I would go, too, to observe," Cheetara whispered. Jaga. I miss you so much, she thought.
"Well, tomorrow I want you to be there with me when I talk to Horus again. I think I'll need the all the backup I can get . . . is that okay?"
"Sure, Lion-O," Cheetara could not suppress a grin. "I'll be there."
Lion-O looked up at the night sky and seemed grateful for the day's end. "We better get some rest. Big day tomorrow," he said.
"Yes, a very big day," she agreed. "Good night, Lion-O. And, thank you," Cheetara said.
"Good night," Lion-O said. "I'll watch out for you as you walk back to your tent."
"I'm fine, Lion-O, please, you don't have to do that," she sighed. "But thank you, if you do."
Cheetara made her way past the Thundertank and saw that the third moon was beginning to rise. Humph. We talked openly and we both survived - well, it's a start anyway, she exhaled softly. She clutched the Book tightly to her chest, and ducked inside her tent.
Now how do I open it? Cheetara wondered. She sat on the floor of the tent, opened the Book, and fingered its blank pages. She turned the Book on its side and saw the small circuit through which Tygra had rigged up the Book of Omens to the Thundertank. On the other side of the Book, she saw a small, narrow keyhole. I wonder, Cheetara thought to herself. How short can my staff shrink? Cheetara pulled out the Staff of Viragor and compressed it until she could hold a narrow slice of wood in her palm. She inserted the slice into the small keyhole on the side of the Book.
"Ah!" She exclaimed. She opened the Book and saw the navy ink writing on its pages. At the top of each page she saw familiar names, clerics she had learned of from her training. She flipped quickly through the Book and saw Jaga's name at the top of several volumes of pages, and on the last page, she saw her own name imprinted at the top. Cheetara began to feel lightheaded. She dropped the Book onto the floor of her tent. She could feel her consciousness slipping before she tumbled from her seated position onto the ground. She opened her eyes, and looked about herself, seeing a dizzying swirl of blue and purple lights surrounding her, and an old familiar face before her. He collapsed upon his knees and looked up at her, panting, and leaning on his staff to steady himself.
"Jaga," Cheetara cried.
"Hello, Cheetara. What took you such a long time to get here?" Jaga asked.
Thanks for reading!
end Note: Story inspired by NS 2011 episodes: Recipe for Disaster (argh), Curse of Ratilla, Birth of the Blades, Ramlak Rising, Between Brothers, Journey to the Tower of Omens and Legacy . . . .