Of Cats and Wolves II: Summer's End by Sol 1056
Summary: " ...And when you find a golden feather, it means you'll never lose your way back home... "
Categories: Gundam Wing > 1x2x1 Characters: 1+2/2+1, 3+4/4+3, 5+M
Genres: Romance, Get-together, Humour/Comedy, Fantasy
Warnings: Other (see Author Note)
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 4 Completed: Yes Word count: 19761 Read: 15660 Published: 2005.01.31 Updated: 2005.01.31

1. Prologue by Sol 1056

2. Chapter 1 by Sol 1056

3. Chapter 2 by Sol 1056

4. Chapter 3 by Sol 1056

Prologue by Sol 1056
Author's Notes:
Warnings: Minor OOC due to AU situations; shonen-ai; fantastical animal/people mixes; gratuitous use of improper Gaelic; crazy adaptations of Siberian and Native American traditions.

Disclaimer: We don't own, but we're having fun anyway. No harm meant. The lyrics quoted this chapter are adapted from Robbie Robertson's song, Golden Feather.

So. Yes. I am continuing this story. Quake in fear, everyone, and light little sticks of incense on your fanfic altars to Gail and Infini T, in thanks for their donation of $165 to MSF and UNICEF for the tsunami/earthquake relief funds. I'm actually rewriting early parts of this, and only doing word count on added sections, so hopefully within four chapters I'll have a multi-part epilogue that will wrap up and close things out nicely, so I'm reposting from the start.

Oh, and...no. No citrus. Still rated G.


The slim figure was perched on the rock, its thick tail-fur waving gently in the breeze as the figure shifted, sighed, and leaned back to stare up at the starry sky. Solo watched from his place under the trees, and shook his head. Padding on coyote-stealth feet, he wasn't surprised when his adopted brother still heard him coming. Duo turned with a smile, but the cheerful look slipped for a second before the half-Fox was able to force it back in place.

"You should be sleeping," Solo said, climbing up to sit next to Duo. He wrapped his sandy-brown tail around Duo and hugged the younger man close. "Save up your energy to fill all those requests."

"Yeah," Duo said, and shrugged. "Thing is, I could probably make those combs in my sleep, now... " He frowned. "I'm running out of the beads Quatre gave me, though. I'm not sure what to use instead."

"Kio was suggesting we head a little south before we strike out for the Plains," Solo replied nonchalantly. "The Mountain Cougars often have a share of beads from trade."

"True." Duo turned his face back up to the sky.

"Shooting star," Solo observed. "Make a wish."

"A wish?" The half-Fox's ears went back on his head. "That's for kids."

"You're still part-kid." Solo laughed and amended his tease. "Part-kit."

Duo rolled his eyes and pulled his knees up, resting his chin between them as he dropped his eyes to watch the dark forest around them. "I guess he didn't really like me," he whispered.

The Coyote sighed. He'd been wondering when Duo would finally broach the topic. Two weeks of the Fox-boy moping when he thought no one was looking, and the group as a whole was on the verge of throwing Duo into the nearest nettle patch if they thought it'd help. Solo hugged Duo again, and leaned his cheek against the top of the Fox's head.

"In the summer night, when there's no wind blowing," Solo sang, low and deep. "I could hear the stars falling in the dark... "

"Solo... " Duo started to say, then fell quiet. He began humming under his breath, a sweet low tenor to Solo's melody. He turned, wrapping his arms around his brother's neck. Solo smiled, one hand coming up to run down Duo's braid.

"When you find what's worth keeping, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away... "

Duo snuggled closer. The Fox fell quiet, his head on Solo's shoulders as the Coyote continued to hum gently, the sound rumbling against Duo's ear.

" ...And when you find a golden feather, it means you'll never lose your way back home... "

Chapter 1 by Sol 1056
Author's Notes:
Warnings: Minor OOC due to AU situations; shonen-ai; fantastical animal/people mixes; gratuitous use of improper Gaelic; crazy adaptations of Siberian and Native American traditions.

Disclaimer: We don't own, but we're having fun anyway. No harm meant. The lyrics quoted this chapter are adapted from Robbie Robertson's song, Golden Feather.

So. Yes. I am continuing this story. Quake in fear, everyone, and light little sticks of incense on your fanfic altars to Gail and Infini T, in thanks for their donation of $165 to MSF and UNICEF for the tsunami/earthquake relief funds. I'm actually rewriting early parts of this, and only doing word count on added sections, so hopefully within four chapters I'll have a multi-part epilogue that will wrap up and close things out nicely, so I'm reposting from the start.

Oh, and...no. No citrus. Still rated G.


Meiran circled the table a sixth time. Wufei yawned. He'd been counting, and he contemplated how much his wife would holler if he tripped her. He thought twice about it when he noted she nearly fell anyway, catching the edge of the table as she came around it to stalk past him one more time. He frowned. It wasn't like her to be ungraceful, but he'd noticed her doing it more in the past few days. Plus, she'd put on weight.

Lazily he watched her through narrowed eyes, as her emotions played out across her face. She was arguing with herself, mostly working herself up to tell him whatever was on her mind. Finally she stopped, hands on her hips, and spun to face him, her blue skirt twirling out around her legs.

Her announcement left him completely staggered.

"Preg..." Wufei blinked. She'd been dropping hints, but she hadn't stated it that baldly. "...Nant," he managed to choke out. "Already? But...but I figured you'd—"

"Me?" Meiran countered. When Wufei nodded, dumbfounded, she nearly leapt up into the air, tail bristling. "ME? Don't blame this on ME!" She tossed her head, and the fine black strands of hair danced with the movement. "You HELPED!" She stormed from the room without a backwards glance.

Wufei stood up and followed, only to find Meiran outside their front door, swinging a wooden sword furiously. He had a feeling, from the way his wife was growling, that the unsuspecting bush had suddenly developed his likeness.

He paused on the threshold, considering his options carefully. It hadn't taken more than a month of marriage before he'd figured out that if he wanted to do something, Meiran would contradict him just for the sake of being ornery. So, instead, he'd learned to refuse, and she'd work herself into a fury, decide she was going to do it anyway, and he'd happily come along. While pretending to argue half-heartedly, of course – it wouldn't do to let her think she'd won too easily. In fact, he told himself, technically he'd won, since he planned to do it all along.

With that in mind, he leaned against the doorframe, observing her with a pleased smile on his face.

"The village elders will tell you that you shouldn't be doing that," he said.

"They can go swimming!" Meiran whacked the bush a second time; Wufei was positive it was recoiling in horror.

Smart bush, he thought.

She hit it again, spinning to slice sideways. "I'm not some delicate—"

"You're right," he said, nodding sagely. "In fact, we should step up your training program."

Meiran hissed, and took a few more whacks at the bush, then spun the wooden sword over her head only to thrust it into the bush's center. She panted, leaning on the wooden stick, one hand on her belly.

"Your balance is off. I'd suggest two hundred repetitions of the first movement, and another two hundred of the second movement. Resistance training as well. I'll set up a—"

"What? Are you trying to kill me?" Meiran's screech made several chickens in the street cackle and run away.

"No. I just think you should be in top shape." Wufei rubbed his chin, and turned, ready to head back inside. He did his best to look as though the entire conversation were decided – and instantly his wife was at his side, spitting madly.

"I am not doing any of that! Look! Here!" She pointed at her belly, which was barely curving, only a month into pregnancy. "YOUR LITTER."

Wufei was certain he'd turned pale at the reminder. I'm only seventeen, he thought, desperate. I'm not a father yet! What if I'm not good enough? I barely had a father of my own, and my teacher doesn't count...what if something happens and everyone else dies and there's no one to tell me what to do— He broke off, realizing Meiran was still going on at him. He blinked, and tried to focus.

"—And there's no way I'm going to work my tail down just for some crazy notion you've got about me needing to be stronger! I'm the strongest—"

Wufei arched an eyebrow. They'd been over that one before.

"—Female in the village. I don't need to do any training! You watch! I'm going to have a healthy litter because I'm strong enough already!" Meiran stomped a foot and stormed out of the house, turning in the doorway to add, "I'm going to find someone who understands!"

"Like your friends," Wufei muttered under his breath. They'd undo it all, by agreeing that Meiran should take it easy...and she'd get it back into her head that she shouldn't. He had a feeling the next two months would be long ones.

"I heard that, WUFEI!" Meiran put her hands on her hips. "You're done here. You DID YOUR PART. Now you can just go— go be a good husband and— and kill something!"

Wufei gave her a startled look, but she was already gone, blue skirts flying out behind her. He noticed she stumbled at the gate, trying to move with her usual speed, but he squashed the impulse to run out and catch her. No, there was little chance he'd get to spend the next two months coddling Meiran.

Pity. He'd halfway hoped that in some distant future – one not nearly distant enough, suddenly – they'd have a litter and she'd turn into one of those quiet, biddable wives, like the kind everyone else seemed to be married to. He sighed, and settled back down into the chair he'd been in, only a few minutes before...before Meiran had made an announcement that had somehow turned his entire life upside down in two words.

We're pregnant.

He wondered how the 'we' came into it, and snorted. There was only one thing to do. He couldn't send for Heero, though he desperately wanted his brother at his side. Not just for support, but also...well, because it was Heero, and he knew Heero wouldn't show it on his face, but his tail would wag hard enough to fall off at the news of being an uncle.

The thought of Heero made him pause, and he pushed away a bit of loneliness. The half-Wolf had left on his journey three weeks before, and they'd not heard from him since. Meiran had kept her ears and eyes open, chatting with traders, and rumors had filtered back of a Silver Wolf heading south and west on the trail of a group of rowdy Coyotes. Wufei sighed and straightened his ankle-length loincloth.

I'll send for Trowa, he decided. Meiran likes him, and if she does get the silly notion to over-work herself in preparation for delivery... He snorted. There was little chance that Trowa would be able to do any more than Wufei could, although he knew Meiran had as soft a spot for Trowa as she did for Heero. But at least, if things got out of hand, Trowa could commiserate.

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"Meiran," Xing said, rolling her eyes, "you're supposed to be relaxing until the birth." She set the meat on the table before going to open a jar of dried plums. "Eat these. They're good for you."

Meiran eyed the jar, and frowned. "I'm not eating that stuff," she muttered, then gave Xing a suspicious glare. "How would you know what's important for a good litter?"

"Because unlike you, we were paying attention when our mothers and our aunts and our grandmothers were talking..." Luyin bit into a plum, and gave Meiran an imperious look. "...While you were busy hitting things."

"Great." Meiran sniffed at the plum, and dropped it back into the jar. "Laugh it up. I'm going to have a litter, and Wufei's no help at all." Xing exchanged a look with Luyin; Meiran noticed. "What? What's that for?"

"Males go a little insane when they find out they're going to have a litter," Xing explained. She nodded confidently. "My sister told me all about it."

"So did my grandmother," Luyin said. "They want to decorate the bedroom and they bring you treats and wait on you, hand and foot."

"Take advantage of it while you can," Xing added. She pointed at Meiran with a plum. "Unless you're going to have a second litter, this might be your only chance."

"I'm not sure I want to have the first," Meiran sighed. "I wasn't expecting it this soon..."

"But it's happened, and you're a third of the way in..." Xing shook her head. "And it took you this long to figure out..." She broke off, and there was an uncomfortable silence around the table. They all knew if Meiran's mother were still alive, Meiran would've had someone to ask. But her only family now was all males, and there was no question how dense males could be when it came to the really important things.

"I'll talk to my grandmother," Luyin offered. "You should have someone who's had a bunch of litters there, to help you. Grandmother Bao would be happy to stay with you until you deliver. She'll make sure everything goes smoothly."

"I don't know..." Meiran shifted uncomfortably. She'd just started to get everything where she wanted, including Wufei. This was going to upset all her plans. Wufei, going insane...oh, that was so not what she needed. She sighed and stood up. "I'll think about it," she said, and straightened her necklace and arm bands out of habit. "But I've got to get to the hall to hear the day's news."

"We'll go with you," Xing offered. Luyin nodded.

Meiran shook her head, but thanked them, and promised herself she'd have her friends come running the instant Wufei started to show signs of going crazy. It'd be good to have her friends around. They might not be able to do anything to get Wufei to stop, but at least she'd have someone who'd sympathize.

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Salli waved to the trader as she headed off down the path, away from the Wolf settlement. According to Wufei, Trowa had planned to follow a meandering path south, then turn east at some point. She doubted he was moving fast, since Quatre was unfamiliar with the terrain, but she didn't want to dally.

She just hoped she wouldn't be returning to find the entire village blown up by Meiran because Wufei had acted stupidly. Salli had done her best to lecture him – for nearly a half-hour, at that – about how he needed to pay attention to Meiran's needs, be kind, and be patient. A pregnancy wasn't easy, and although it wouldn't be as bad as if Wufei were fully human, his half-human status might complicate things. If Meiran were in pain, she'd probably not admit it to him, so he had to act like she was, anyway.

He'd not quite gotten the logic of that, but when she'd threatened him for the third time, he'd at least agreed to follow her directions. He didn't need to understand the logic, Salli told herself – like she'd told him, too – he just needed to do what she said. Or else he'd suffer the wrath of an elder sister, and that alone had been enough to make him keel in. He still fussed, but he did give in.

Her tail twitching around her legs, she took the southeast path, hoping to knock several days off the journey and meet up with Trowa and Quatre somewhere north of the Mountain Cougar stronghold. Irritated, and too aware of the pressing need, she sped up into a quick trot, her spotted tail streaming behind her as she covered ground with a long, loping stride.

She was somewhat relieved Wufei hadn't suggested she go for Heero, instead. While she personally thought Heero should know, and be at his brother's side – like she planned to be – when Meiran's cubs were born, she hadn't relished the notion of tracking the Coyotes. There were few who rivaled the Coyotes when it came to traveling fast.

Then again, she told herself as she left the woods and came to a broad field, the Coyotes did have a tendency to get their invitations revoked, thanks to their sense of humor. Made for the need to move fast, she thought, and laughed.

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"I'm aware of our alliance," Meiran replied thoughtfully. "But I can't spare more than ten warriors."

She studied the Jackal. His once-yellow loincloth was brown with dirt and wear; he'd been traveling hard for the Bobcats, and had made record time. Meiran pondered for a second, trying to remember his name. She felt dizzy, and her lower back ached. When she didn't say anything else, she noticed Wufei giving her an odd look. She tried to cover her momentary discomfort with a scowl, even if that gave the impression she wasn't pleased at upholding the terms of her alliance with the Bobcats.

"What defenses do they have?" Wufei stepped up to stand at Meiran's shoulder, just behind her, his arms crossed.

"Only their own, sir," the Jackal-messenger replied. "I know two messengers were sent to the Field Bobcats and Valley Wolves." His golden tail brown thrashed around his ankles, and he studied Wufei and Meiran with barely-disguised anxiety. "I'm sorry to rush you, but the sooner I have definite word, the sooner I can return with the news."

"I understand," Meiran said, and turned to Wufei. Suddenly, she just wanted to lie down, but rallied in the face of her husband's puzzled frown. "I leave this matter in your care, husband."

"I..." Wufei blinked, then straightened. "I'll return shortly with the warriors," he told the Jackal. "Wait here."

"Yes, sir." The Jackal bowed, not rising until Wufei had swept from the hall.

Meiran waited until the doors had shut behind Wufei, then she got up from her seat. She snapped her fingers at the serving maid, calling her over.

"Please bring food and refreshment for the messenger."

When the young Jaguar bobbed a curtsey and ran off, Meiran turned to the Jackal. He watched her, curious, his gaze traveling down to her exposed belly and back up again. She fought off the urge to wonder whether he thought she was just fat, and steeled herself.

"When you've delivered the message to the Bobcats, do you have another assignment after that?" Meiran racked her brains for the latest rumors on the Coyote's whereabouts.

"Normally when I'm down that way, ma'am," the Jackal said, "I head to the Mountain Cougars and see if they have work. Assuming the Bobcats don't need my services for longer."

"Oh. So...no chance you could carry a message?" Meiran calculated what messengers normally cost, knowing if he went farther than expected, he'd charge the Coyotes to hear the message. That wouldn't do. She chewed her lower lip, watching the door for Wufei's return. "Or...maybe, pass a message along, at least?"

"Is it something really important?" The Jackal had a kind face; he accepted the plate of food from the maid with a smile. He gave Meiran an odd look, his gaze darting down to her stomach again.

She realized she'd been unconsciously rubbing her stomach, and she flushed, certain she was red to her ears. "Ah...yeah...I need to find my husband's brother. He's a silver half-wolf, and he's gone to find the Plains Coyotes."

"Which pack?"

"Uh...Solo's. There's a half-fox that's part of their pack," Meiran said, nervously watching the door. She spoke in a rush. "See, I'm about to have my first litter—"

"Congratulations, my lady!"

"—Thanks, and I heard men go kinda...well, a little crazy," and she paused, relieved when the Jackal smiled and nodded reassuringly. "So I think his brother should be here. So he, y'know..."

"I understand. I'll make sure the message finds its way to the pack, as best I can."

"Oh, thank you. How much do I—"

"No charge for good news," the Jackal said, and bit into a pastry. He grinned around it, and bowed when Meiran stepped away.

She was almost at the door when Wufei returned, with ten warriors following him. He paused, and frowned at her.

"Are you okay, wife?"

"I'm fine," she snapped, not sure how to respond to the strangely soliticious look on Wufei's face. She wondered whether the symptoms of insanity were already showing themselves, and made a note to start tracking all such signs. At least then when she threw him out for getting on her nerves, she'd have a reasonable defense.

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The day was hot, and Quatre scowled at the shadows under the trees. Trowa glanced over, amused, and raised his eyebrows. "Still feeling claustrophobic?"

"A little," Quatre admitted. "Every now and then I think I should've gone back with the rest of my Clan." He noticed Trowa's expression suddenly fall, and he smiled to gentle the statement. "But then I change my mind," he added, elbowing Trowa. "It's just...I don't think I'll ever get used to shade. It's just...there's no shade in the desert, except in the tents."

Trowa laughed and shrugged, hefting his pack higher on his shoulder. "Does this mean you'd rather head home?"

"No!" The half-Lynx shook his head emphatically. "I'm just noticing it's different."

"It is," the Jackal agreed. His ears twitched, picking up birdsong off in the trees, and noticed it fell silent as they approached. He sniffed, and smiled, revealing his canines. "How about deer for dinner?"

"You spoil me rotten," Quatre declared. "I'll skin, if you can catch it."

"Catch it?" Trowa raised his eyebrows in his best haughty expression as he bent down, firming his bow as he re-slung it. Lifting it up, he pulled an arrow from his quiver, checking the fletch before nocking it. "Any minute now," he whispered, his ears twitching as he tracked the deer's presence in the woods.

The deer burst from the wood. The arrow flew, striking true, and the deer's legs buckled as it went down.

"Dinner," Quatre murmured, and leapt forward to deliver the killing blow.

When he sat back from slitting the deer's neck for a simple, painless death, he realized someone was blocking the sun. From Trowa's footstep behind him, he knew it was someone new, but the wind was pushing the Creature's scent away from him. Quatre sat back, shadowing his face with a hand, then realized the Creature was a spotted jaguar with her hair in two braids.

"Salli!" Trowa said, stepping past the deer to rub noses with her. His tail wagged fiercely, but then stopped. "Is everything okay? Are you alone?" He looked around, then glared at her, more worried than annoyed. "What's happened?"

"Nothing bad," Salli replied. "But Wufei asked me to find you. He's..." She broke into a wide grin. "Wufei and Meiran are going to have kits."

"Really," Quatre said, coming to his feet. "That's wonderful!"

She nodded. "And he...I think it's a good thing if Trowa is there, so if you don't mind the interruption of your journey...?"

"Not at all," Quatre assured her. "Trowa?"

"I agree." Trowa gave her a wide smile. "Let's eat, and in the morning we can start out. That okay with you?"

"Sounds good. Which of you is cooking?" Salli looked back and forth between them, and they stared at her in return. She made a face and crossed her arms. "I'm the messenger here. You feed me. Ingrates."

Trowa chuckled, and joined Quatre in skinning the deer.

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"Meiran," the Jackal said. "Chieftain of the Mountain Jaguars."

"Pregnant," the River Bobcat repeated. "The Plains Coyotes will know who this is?"

"Yes. Apparently there's a Mountain Wolf traveling with them, who's the heart-brother to the Chieftain's husband. She's worried he won't take the pregnancy well, and wants his brother there so he has support."

"I see," the Bobcat replied. He looked unconvinced. "And I should just tell them to get back home?"

"Right." The Jackal-messenger sighed. "You haven't had kids, have you?"

"Not yet." The Bobcat looked confused. "What about them?"

"Males don't always take it well. They get a little...anxious about it."

"Oh." The Bobcat nodded. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Not like we've got much say in stuff, once we've done our part, eh?"

"That's right." The Jackal glanced over at the meeting hall; the Valley Bobcat guard was waving for him. "My cue. Thanks for passing this along."

"No problem." The Bobcat replied with the traditional messenger motto that covered such kinds of courtesies. "No charge for good news."

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"So will you let them know? I heard rumors they've turned west," the Bobcat said. "You just need to tell a Wolf traveling with the Coyotes that his brother is about to have a litter."

"Wait...the brother is?" The Lynx took a half-step back on the crossroads. "I thought the Jaguars—"

Lynxes hadn't gotten any smarter, the Bobcat thought, and sighed. "No, the Creature's wife is pregnant. She's...Chieftain, or related to the Chieftain. Her husband's brother is needed there, y'know, in case he goes crazy or something while his wife is pregnant."

"Oh." The Lynx nodded, but looked dubious. "Okay. Solo's Pack, that has a Wolf with them. I'll keep my ears open, and pass it along."

"Thanks, you're a pal."

"No problem. No charge for good news, but...I don't know if a man going crazy over his wife's first litter really counts."

The Bobcat shrugged. "I'm not really sure myself."

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"Solo's Pack?" The Coyote shook his head. "I'm with Tido's pack, on my way back south. I know a few of Solo's pack. They're probably halfway to the Plains by now."

"I know you're not a formal messenger, but I've got to head east," the Lynx explained. "Duty calls, but this message has traveled a long way. I want to make sure it at least gets to the pack."

"If I cut west, I might cross their path at the River Valley," the Coyote mused. He was a darker-haired fellow, gangly, and younger, without the excitable edge of most of his kind. "Okay. The Jaguar Chieftain's brother is with Solo's pack."

"No, her husband's brother." In fact, the Lynx pondered, the Coyote seemed a bit slow. "He's going crazy from the whole pregnancy thing."

"The husband is pregnant?" The Coyote nearly spilled his drink, stunned.

"No, the wife is. The husband's going insane."

"Oh, how terrible." The Coyote nodded, clearly affected. "I'll make sure the message gets through. That's terrible news."

"Yeah, it is," the Lynx said, also upset at having to be the bearer of bad news. "But we messengers have a saying. No charge for bad news."

The Coyote raised his eyebrows. "Really?"

"Well." The Lynx shrugged. "It's something like that."

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"It's very important," the Coyote insisted, despite the Wolf's obvious misgivings. "Some Jaguar in the Hills is pregnant, and her husband's gone insane. Needs his brother there immediately."

"His brother's a wolf?" The Wolf frowned at this.

"I think so. He's traveling with Solo's pack, and if you're heading west, you should be able to catch up with them. Just let him know he's got to get home right away."

"I'll pass the news along if I see them," the Wolf replied. "But I've got to catch up with my pack at the Plains River crossing. If I don't see them..."

Wolves had to be the densest lot, the Coyote grumbled to himself. "Then could you pass it along to someone else?" He felt annoyed, having to spell it out like that. It should've been obvious.

"Oh. Right." The Wolf scratched his head. "Yeah, I can do that. Solo's pack. Insane brother. Right."

"Thanks. Good things rolling back at you for this one," the Coyote said, and turned south on the path, certain that the message was in good hands. Slow ones, maybe, but Wolves at least traveled fast. That was some consolation considering the brown Wolf hadn't seemed like the sharpest fellow in the pack.

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Heero saw the Bobcat from across the field, and frowned. The Creature was looking around, puzzled; perhaps he was lost. Heero might've stopped to exchange news, but he'd nearly caught up with Duo in the village down the road. The Coyotes had come through only the day before. He had no interest in stopping to chat. So he kept his chin down, covering the path in long strides, his silver tail flowing behind him. By the time he looked around, the Bobcat had disappeared, probably following the path into the woods.

He straightened his pack across his shoulders, certain he should be catching up to them within a mile or two. They'd been moving a great deal slower, staying around long enough to sell Duo's combs. He'd been through a number of villages where the girls were wearing the combs and preening to an almost sickening degree.

Heero stopped, stiffening at a sound, floating towards him on the wind. It sounded like...screaming?

"Duo!" Heero took off, running pell-mell towards the desperate, pained cry.

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"Put me down, you furry bastards!" Duo wriggled against Kio's hold on his arms, and yelped when Leo grabbed one of his legs. The half-Fox kicked with his one free leg, only to find Rio grabbing it. Then Solo grabbed Duo's tail, and the Fox was momentarily unable to speak from giggling too hard. "Stop that! Stop! Put me down!" His voice went up to a howl.

"This way, you mangy dogs," Kio ordered.

"Another bow-length," Sano directed, waving his arms.

"What?" Duo shrieked and began kicking even harder. "Solo, let GO of my—" His shouts dissolved into more giggles as the older Coyote proceeded to tug on the bushy red tail a few times. "Put me down!"

"On three!" Rio shouted.

"I don't even know WHY you're doing this!" The half-Fox tried to glare, accenting his words with powerful kicks against the holds on his legs.

"Oh, right. We haven't passed full judgment on him," Sano acknowledged. The taller Coyote made a point of clearing his throat, and said officiously, "Duo of the Coyote Clan, you are hereby condemned for your utter mopeyness these past three weeks—"

"My WHAT?"

"Mopeyness," Kio repeated helpfully.

"Is that even a WORD?"

"It is now," Leo said, and shrugged.

"PUT ME DOWN!"

"No!" Sano did a little jig in place, his bushy tail waving excitedly behind him. "Duo of the Coyote Clan, you are hereby sentenced to be dunked—"

"To be—" Duo twisted his head to glare at Sano.

"DROP THE FOX!"

Duo yelped, and the Coyotes froze. Looking past Rio, Duo could see Heero standing at the edge of the clearing, six Coyotes between the Silver Wolf and the trapped Fox. "Heero?" Duo blinked, realizing he'd just squeaked, and started to shake himself free of Rio's hold, but the Coyote didn't let go.

Heero bristled, his silver ears flat on the back of his head as he barked. "Drop him!"

"You heard him, guys!" Sano waved one arm over his head, and the Coyotes holding Duo moved as one.

Heero leapt forward, pushing past the Coyotes just as he heard a huge splash. "What did you—" He spun, recognizing Solo. "What was that for? You just threw him off a thirty-foot drop into a river!"

Leo looked baffled. "You said drop him."

————————————————————————

Duo shivered, pulling the linen blanket closer around him, and scowled at Solo. The Fox's hair was plastered to his head, and his braid was soaking the blanket. Duo finished wringing out his braid and flipped it over his shoulder. The Coyote grinned, baring his canines, and stretched, too casually. Heero sat next to Duo, his eyes darting around the collected group circling the campfire.

"So you're joining us for good?" Leo said. Kio reached over and tugged on Leo's shoulder-length auburn hair, and Leo responded by cuffing Kio in the back of the head without even looking. "We might as well stop calling ourselves Coyotes and call ourselves Solo's United Diversity Pack or something. What's next? Bobcats?"

Solo laughed, and even Heero grunted, amused.

"Ooh, big words," Sano said. "Hey, Solo, would we be the U.D.P—" He didn't get to finish the sentence, before Taro stuck an apple in his mouth. Sano made a face and took a bite out of the apple.

"Meiran and Wufei send their greetings," Heero said.

"Any news of Quatre?" Duo perked up, the white tufts in his ears already dry and fluffy as his ears tilted towards Heero.

Heero shrugged, but his tail wagged twice. Duo grinned, and Heero scowled, hunching his shoulders a little. "No. Sorry," he answered. "All I know is that he's traveling with Trowa. I think they planned to head east."

"East is good." Solo grinned and reached past Duo to shake a claw at Heero. "But the Plains are better. Ever been there?"

Heero shook his head.

"It's gorgeous...such beautiful wide-open spaces," Duo said, his tone reverent. He let the blanket slide off one bare shoulder as he caught the apple Kio tossed his way. "So...what made you decide to travel with us?" The half-Fox bit into the apple and crunched noisily, but his ears were tilted towards Heero, waiting.

"Ah..." The Wolf-boy stared down at his paws, and glanced over at Solo, who pointedly turned to chat with Rio. Heero frowned. So much for Solo repeating the invitation. "No reason. Just happened to find you."

"Oh, I see," Duo said, nodding sagely. "Just happened to come three days out of your way...maybe for the company?"

"I didn't think there was something wrong with wanting to see the world," Heero retorted. His tail wagged several times, and Heero's glare intensified as he grabbed his tail, wrapping it around him. He stopped, seeing Duo's surprised and slightly hurt expression, and shrugged a little. "But it's better to see it with someone else," he added in a soft tone.

"Any sights in particular?" Sano leaned back, flipping over on his stomach to reach for another wineskin from the pile of packs. His sandy-brown tail waved gently, smacking Leo in the face several times. "We can provide lots of sights. Like...things blowing up."

"With pretty colors," Kio added, grinning widely.

Heero looked a little worried. "That's not quite what I—"

"Solo's pack!" A Bobcat was suddenly in the midst of the clearing, looking at them with a desperate gleam in his eyes. "Are you Solo's pack?"

"Solo's U.D.P., at your service," Leo drawled.

"Uh..." The Bobcat frowned. "I was looking for Coyotes."

"That would be us," Solo replied. "What can we do for you?"

"And it wasn't us," Kio added. "That was some other Coyote. Or three."

The other Coyotes nodded sagely, while the Bobcat looked confused.

"Sit down, sit down," Solo said. "If you're not here to run us out of our camp, then you're a friend."

"I'm bearing a message," the Bobcat replied. "It's for a Jaguar's brother."

"A..." Solo's eyebrows went up, and he glanced at Heero. "Timing, boy."

Heero could only stare at the Bobcat, a strange feeling clenching in his gut. "What news?"

"Your brother's pregnant." The Bobcat frowned. "No." He laughed, a bit nervously when the entire ring of Coyotes gave him a baffled look. "No, your sister's pregnant, but her husband's gone insane. You have to come back to protect her."

"Insane?" Heero felt like the world had just dropped out from under him; vaguely he was aware of Duo's body right next to him, and an arm around his waist, steadying him. He leaned into Duo, grateful for the support. In a minute he'd get his breath back and be fine on his own. Right. In a minute.

"Hold on, there," Solo said, sounding far less like a joker and more like the leader of a pack. "What do you mean, insane?"

"I didn't have time to get the details, but apparently he went insane, and then she found out she's pregnant. And it's her first litter, too."

"Yeah. I see." Solo pondered that, and Heero knew he was being examined, but he could only stare into the fire, befuddled. Duo's arm tightened around his waist. "I don't think we should let him travel back on his own alone," Solo said. "Not under these circumstances." Heero belatedly realized Solo was talking about him.

"Some of us need to head west." Taro, one of the older Coyotes, finally spoke up. "Families and kin. We've been gone since last Summer's end."

Solo nodded. "True. But we can't leave a friend to deal with such a difficult situation by himself." The other Coyotes made agreeing sounds.

"One Jaguar," Leo murmured. "I think at least three Coyotes could handle that."

"It's just Wufei," Heero protested. "He'd never hurt—"

"He's the one who beat that Fox. I remember him!" Kio sounded shocked. He glanced around the campsite, his light brown hair flying around him as he postured, his tail smacking the ground behind him with solid thwacks. "We'll need six Coyotes to take him down!"

"But I can't believe—" Heero started to say, his eyes wide. Wufei? Go insane? The very idea itself was crazy. But if Meiran was pregnant...

"Twelve Coyotes!" Sano jumped to his feet. "Enough with our protection racket! We should do good deeds, and what's blowing stuff up compared to protecting a defenseless mother?"

"She's not exactly defenseless—" Heero interrupted. The half-fox's worried look became amused at Heero's mouth opening and closing at the noise around him.

"Twenty-four Coyotes," Taro replied. "Minimum. There's no way you have the fighting skills. You'll have to go for outnumbering him completely."

"Taro's right," Solo agreed. "It'll take a concerted effort. Organized, even—"

"Toss me that wine skin, Sano!" Leo shouted. "We'll blow up his house! Start by scaring him out into the open!"

"But my brother would never hurt—"

"With pretty colors!" Sano threw the wineskin, and it hit Leo in the head.

"It's just WUFEI!" Heero shouted, coming to his feet. He realized everyone was staring, and sunk back down. "My brother is a good Creature," he mumbled. "He'd never hurt his wife." He scratched his ear. "Besides, she'd probably kick his ass."

The camp was silent. Heero had given up; he stared sullenly into the fire. Duo nudged him, but Heero didn't respond. He just wanted to leave. Immediately. He'd had no idea things had gone so wrong back home. His only brother, abandoned, unable to handle the strains of marriage and responsibility. Heero should've been there, to help him...

"There's one problem," Sano said. Heero looked up to see Sano counting slowly, losing track twice, and starting over. "There's only eleven of us."

"Oh." Solo seemed to mull that over, then held up a paw. "Heero, Duo, myself, Sano, and Leo. And half the stores of saltpeter."

Heero gaped. The Bobcat messenger seemed stunned, while Duo looked pleased and scooted even closer to Heero.

"I don't think you'll need to blow anything..." He stopped, seeing Solo's dismissive wave.

"Well, that's settled! We leave in the morning!" Solo glanced over at Kio. "No, you're going with Taro and the rest."

"Heero," Duo whispered, tugging at the Wolf-boy's loincloth while Kio argued with Solo in the background. "Relax. It's under control. We'll help you deal with Wufei. Here, have some more dinner."

The Wolf-boy slumped, confused as he watched the Coyotes happily discussing plans, supplies, and routes. He turned to the half-Fox, a look of confused irritation on his face. "But I can't believe that Wufei—"

"I know," Duo replied. "Wufei's a good guy. If he went insane, it'd still be a very calm and controlled version of insane." He grinned cheekily. "Besides, you're cute when you're angry."

"I was not angry," Heero sulked. His ears went back flat on his head, and he absently groomed the guard hairs on his tail. Leo and Kio had begun rolling around on the ground, arguing over one of the wineskins, and their yips and yelps were met by raucous laughter from the rest of the Coyotes. The Wolf-boy sighed, and rested his chin on his hand.

"Right, not angry," Duo replied. "And now you're not pouting." He was rewarded with a single ear flick, and he grinned. "So...you just happened to be in this area?"

Heero nodded. "I was looking—"

Duo's eyebrows went up, and he froze. Except his tail, that is, which wagged just barely.

"For...Salli," the Wolf finished, dropping his eyes.

"Wufei's sister?" Duo looked confused.

"Kind of." He sighed again, and went back to watching the Coyotes argue cheerfully.

This was not how he'd imagined meeting up with Duo again. From being the inadvertent means for dunking Duo, and now finding out Wufei had had a nervous breakdown, when a first litter should be a joyful, wonderful event. Not a disaster. Heero sighed, exhausted. He stole a glance at the Fox, who was smiling at something Solo was saying, and wondered why none of the Coyotes seemed to be taking Meiran's pregnancy or Wufei's mental state very seriously.

I'll tell Duo the real reason in the morning, Heero thought, once we have privacy. He brightened at that, but his mood dropped back into the doldrums when he realized what would come next: and then I'll turn around and head back home. No reason for them to get involved, really. One paw stole down to check for the purple loincloth, tucked safely into his pack, but even knowing it was safe wasn't enough to lighten his mood.

Cautiously he shifted his weight on the blanket, and moved a little closer to the half-Fox. If he were home, with Wufei and Trowa, he could do that and they'd understand, but he wasn't sure how the Coyotes would react. He wasn't up to being ridiculed...it was bad enough, the way they'd just assumed Wufei could be a danger to someone that mattered to him... Heero sighed; he felt totally drained.

Duo felt the movement and turned to look at him. Those deep blue eyes were shadowed in the early twilight, but lit by the fire. He gave Heero a puzzled look.

"Ah," Heero said, surprised and embarrassed that Duo was letting him know that he'd noticed Heero's actions. "I'm...cold."

"Cold," Duo repeated, then grinned widely and opened his blanket, throwing the closest half over Heero's shoulders. "You could just say so, y'know." The Fox-boy moved closer, until his side and leg were pressed up against Heero, the warmth of his body radiating strongly.

I'd say something, Heero thought, if I could just get away from all these damn Coyotes. But then as soon as I do, I have to leave...

He wanted to brood, but couldn't quite manage wiping the little smile off his face as Duo wriggled next to him. The fish cooking in the coals smelled delicious, but the warmth of the slender body next to him, along with the shock of the news, the noisy conversation dulling in his ears, and exhaustion from two weeks of nonstop traveling – it all conspired against Heero. His eyes slowly closed; his head began to droop, and he vaguely registered an arm slipping around his waist and pulling him to lean his head on the Fox's shoulder. Heero considered arguing, but his nostrils were full of the Fox's spicy scent, and he inhaled deeply only once before letting his eyes close for good.

Chapter 2 by Sol 1056
Author's Notes:
Warnings: Minor OOC due to AU situations; shonen-ai; fantastical animal/people mixes; gratuitous use of improper Gaelic; crazy adaptations of Siberian and Native American traditions.

Disclaimer: We don't own, but we're having fun anyway. No harm meant. The lyrics quoted this chapter are adapted from Robbie Robertson's song, Golden Feather.

So. Yes. I am continuing this story. Quake in fear, everyone, and light little sticks of incense on your fanfic altars to Gail and Infini T, in thanks for their donation of $165 to MSF and UNICEF for the tsunami/earthquake relief funds. I'm actually rewriting early parts of this, and only doing word count on added sections, so hopefully within four chapters I'll have a multi-part epilogue that will wrap up and close things out nicely, so I'm reposting from the start.

Oh, and...no. No citrus. Still rated G.


When Heero woke up, the first thing he wanted to do was sneeze.

It took a paw against his nose, pressing hard, to keep from giving into the impulse. He lowered his hand...and hit hair. That was when he realized he had almost a mouthful of chestnut-red hair, as well as several strands tickling his face. Heero wrinkled his nose, and shifted, a little amused to hear a soft yipping as a warm body shifted next to him.

Duo was splayed half-across him, one leg and arm draped over him, and Heero craned his neck to see Solo curled up, back-to-back, with Duo. On Heero's other side, Leo's feet were against Heero's shoulder, and Sano's head was across Leo's calves. There were more bodies piled in a warm bundle, and Heero realized that somehow he'd ended up in the middle.

Probably a minor benefit — or drawback — of being the first one to fall asleep, he decided. It seemed to make sense, on a Coyote-logic kind of level, that the first person asleep was inadvertently designating the sleeping quarters for the night. There was only one problem, he realized at the same instant that he looked down to see Duo's sleepy blue eyes studying him. If he was going to say anything, he was surrounded by Creatures who'd be awake instantly, which meant now wasn't the time. Heero let his head fall back with a groan.

"Hey, are you okay?" Duo sat up a bit, wriggling his way up Heero's body to lean down, nose-to-nose with Heero. Duo's red bushy tail wagged a few times, and Duo looked worried, but amused. "Warm enough?"

Heero swallowed hard; his stomach did that same flip-flop that it'd done at the festival, when he'd woken up to find Duo sprawled against him. And this time he was almost positive it had nothing to do with drinking Bobcat wine.

He freed one hand from where it was trapped under Leo, and tentatively ran it along Duo's ribs, down to his hip. The fox made a squeaking sound, and wriggled again, in a manner that suddenly made it hard for Heero to breathe, but he wasn't sure why. It wasn't like Duo was laying on him as much as before...no, now the half-Fox had shifted to perch on Heero's stomach, his paws on the ground on either side of Heero's head. Duo grinned, showing a bit too much teeth; his sharp vulpines flashed in the dawn's rosy light.

"Come'on, Heero, your eyes are open, so I know you're awake," Duo whispered, starting to look puzzled.

"Ah...uh..." Heero wasn't sure what to say. His hands had found their way to Duo's hips, and he realized his thumbs were drawing little circles. How'd that happen? And Duo's tail was brushing back and forth across Heero's legs. The sensation was pleasant, but somewhat unsettling. Heero tried again. "Ah..."

Duo opened his mouth, but a second later there was no Duo on top of Heero. Instead, Duo was now sprawled across Leo and Sano, while Solo leaned over Heero, looking smug from catching Duo so off-guard as to shove him several feet. Sano woke with a yelp, and pulled Duo's tail. The fox shrieked, and Leo sat up with a bark, then tackled the Fox. Heero tried to ignore the noise, vaguely identifying the unexpected feeling of jealousy while the two Coyotes tormented Duo for waking them up.

"Amazing, Duo can make someone speechless and he didn't even have to rattle on," Solo observed. "All right, let's get some breakfast and then we've got to move out. Long way to go, today!"

He grabbed a hold of Heero's now-empty hands, and hoisted the young half-Wolf to his feet in a smooth move. Solo clapped a hand on the half-Wolf's shoulder, apparently oblivious to Heero's scowl.

"We can eat on the way," Solo continued, hoisting Leo to his feet next. "We've got a lot of ground to cover before nightfall!"

------------------------

Wufei brought his hand down, and squinted past the sun's reflection off the creek that ran just outside the village. "There she is. Sunbathing!" He sniffed at the sight of his wife, relaxing on her stomach, half-asleep on a large rock. "She's completely exposed."

In more ways than one, Trowa noted, but refrained from saying so. Then he noticed the object stuck into the creek shore, by the rock. "She's got her sword."

"Seeing for a good distance around is not necessarily a bad position," Quatre observed, coming alongside them.

"Still. She shouldn't be just...lying there." Wufei frowned and trotted off down the path towards the creek.

"Trowa," Quatre whispered, and Trowa nodded, stretching his legs to catch up.

"Say, Wufei," Trowa said, in an undertone. "Remember what Salli said?"

Wufei stiffened, and nearly tripped. His black ears went back, flat on his head, and his tail lashed around his ankles. "What about it," he asked, tonelessly, and a bit reluctantly.

"Maybe now is a good time to put that into practice," Trowa suggested.

Wufei sniffed again, but slowed his pace. At their footsteps, Meiran sat up a little, turning to see who it was. At the sight of Wufei she brightened, then scowled and rolled over on her side, her back to them.

"Meiran!" Wufei blinked at Trowa's narrowed eyes, and cleared his throat, trying again. "Meiran, we have guests."

"I see that. Entertain them." She didn't move, except for the merest tip of her tail, which flicked against the rock in an agitated gesture.

"Meiran," Wufei said, in a shocked tone. Trowa elbowed, and Wufei side-stepped, rubbing his ribs with a sulky glare. Then he took a deep breath, and trotted forward, his tone a bit more concerned. "Are you not feeling well?"

"I feel fine," she snapped. The tail-twitching became stronger. "I just wanted some time to myself."

"But you spent the morning—"

"I spent it with that harpy!" Meiran sat up, flipping around on the rock. Trowa made a show of averting his eyes while she grabbed for her top, jerking it on and tying the knots with shaking fingers. "She's driving me crazy, husband!"

Wufei, to his credit, didn’t mutter something like 'short trip,' Trowa noted. He approved, and made a note to mention the self-restraint, later. Quatre, appearing behind them, made a point of standing facing the creek, as though admiring some view other than Wufei's wife.

"She's just trying to help," Wufei replied. "I thought she's your friend's grandmother."

"She is." Meiran hopped down from the rock, and swayed for a heartbeat. Wufei caught her by the arm, and for a moment, she seemed to let him, before she moved away to yank her sword out of the sand and belt it around her hips. "But she's still...always complaining! Nothing is right! She's got absolutely nothing nice to say about—"

Trowa waited; Wufei waited. Quatre did everything but whistle nonchalantly, as though he barely noticed the argument. Meiran's eyes were large, her mouth in a round 'o'. Wufei finally raised his eyebrows expectantly, but she just clapped her mouth shut and stormed off into the woods, taking the path back to the village.

"That was strange." Wufei frowned, and waited a bit before following his wife. Trowa and Quatre fell in beside him. "See what I mean? She's not acting normal."

"Seemed relatively normal to me."

"No." Wufei looked preoccupied. "The only thing that ever gets my wife riled up like that is...well...me."

"I doubt she's having an affair with her friend's grandmother," Trowa replied.

Wufei nearly fell over a rock in the path, too busy staring at Trowa in shock. Quatre, meanwhile, paused to stare at wildflowers, and Trowa sighed, catching them both by the elbows.

"Come on," he ordered. "We'll need to see more of her behavior before I'll agree the pregnancy is affecting her."

"And less of your wife," Quatre added, in an undertone.

"What?" Wufei clenched his hands into fists. "Are you saying my wife is ugly! My wife is the—"

"She's what?" Meiran appeared from behind a bush, hands on her hips. "What? Well? What?"

Wufei shuffled back a step, then stepped forward again. "Stubborn! You're sunning yourself, and the midwife clearly said you should—" He caught himself, mouth shutting instantly.

"Just say it! I'm fat!" Meiran stomped her foot and spun, running off down the path. She yelled over her shoulder, "but I can still beat you back to the village!"

"No, you can't!" Wufei shouted, and took off after her.

Trowa watched them go, and sighed deeply before turning to Quatre. "What do you think?"

"I think..." Quatre stood up from where he'd knelt by the wildflowers. "I think if I can press these and take them home, my nieces would like that."

Trowa growled, but lightly.

"Ah, about them?" The Desert Lynx tucked the bundle of flowers into his pack, and brushed off his paws. "I think if we could lock them in a room together and leave them, they'd figure it out."

"I think being locked in a room and left is part of what got them into this situation," Trowa replied.

Quatre just laughed. "Come on. We've been traveling all this time, and I'd really like a half-hour for a long tongue bath."

"We could go swimming." Trowa wagged his tail.

"No." Quatre made a face. "You Canines."

"Feline."

"And don't you forget it."

------------------------

"So..." Solo leaned back, and looked at the sky. "We should be there by mid-day tomorrow, I think."

Heero resisted the urge to strangle the Coyote. He had an entire litany of reasons. First, he'd had no time to talk to Duo before the Coyotes had packed up the camp, said their goodbyes – a great deal faster than he'd expected, to be truthful – and started out.

Second, because it had quickly become obvious that everyone had different paces. Wolves could lope for hours, covering miles of territory without breaking a sweat. Foxes were at the other end of the spectrum; they were unbeatable for top-speeds at quick distances, agile at moving across unfamiliar terrain...but they couldn't keep it up all day. And even if Duo had, it would've worn Heero out to try to move that fast. Meanwhile, the Coyotes had a run-walk pace somewhere between the half-Fox's easy stride and the half-Wolf's longer lope.

It made it almost impossible to move at the speed Heero had wanted. It made it completely impossible to stay at Duo's side while doing it. All too soon, Solo had graciously suggested playing catch-up, with the group strung out over a distance. Heero led the way, while the three Coyotes strung out in a line, with the half-Fox at the very end. Every so often, Duo would put on a burst of speed, passing them in a blur of red tail and laughter. Ten or so minutes along the path, they'd come upon Duo resting by the path, curled up with his tail over his nose. He'd come awake as they passed, and fall into line behind them.

It worked well enough, especially since Heero had been worried about how pale and tired Duo got the first day, when all of them had tried to keep up with Heero's punishing pace. And Heero, despite wanting to be home immediately for Wufei, had offered to stop so Duo could rest – an offer met with a great deal of protest from the half-Fox.

And then there was the third reason.

The few times he'd tried to slow down to be at Duo's side... so had Leo. And if Leo wasn't there, grinning widely at Heero and chatting happily with Duo, it was Solo. Heero curled his paws into fists and concentrated on remembering that this would be Duo's family that he was slaughtering. Even when it'd been time for bed, they'd ended up in a pile.

Ahead, Solo and Sano were looking for a good place to camp along the path. Heero growled at the idea that in an hour he'd be sleeping with Duo...surrounded by Coyotes. He caught himself and gave Duo a crooked smile when the half-Fox shot him a confused look.

Of course, it was rather nice to have a Fox spread out across him every night, although he wasn’t sure he could take a third morning of waking up to find Duo perched on his chest, grinning at him. Heero was starting to form a plan to get rid of that grin, mostly due to the fact that his hands kept going to some interesting places...like Duo's flanks, where the red fur was just so much softer than he'd expected. And Duo's hips, where the red fur faded into tanned skin that shifted and twitched under his claws in the most delightful fashion...

"A little farther!" Solo yelled, from up ahead. Sano said something, and Solo cuffed him before continuing along the mountain path.

Heero lowered his head and glowered at the ground; it was getting dark under the trees. Much farther and the Coyotes wouldn't be able to see; the half-Fox would be mostly blind from sunset to moonrise. Foxes were diurnal, but could be nocturnal with a little moonlight. Unfortunately, the moon was barely a sliver...on the other hand, Heero considered, this meant an entire night of a warm body right next to him. He cheered up.

And then he thought of having three very protective, watchful Coyotes all around them...and scowled again.

"Eh, Heero," Duo whispered, moving a little closer. Leo was absorbed in adjusting the strap on his bag, and Duo chewed his lower lip before dropping his voice even further. "Are you...mad about us coming?"

"Mad?" Heero was startled. "What? No...I wa—"

"He's just cranky because he doesn't want us saving the day instead of him," Leo said. The Coyote put one arm around Duo, swinging the Fox around and suddenly the Coyote was between the two half-Creatures, an arm over each one's shoulder. Leo grinned at Heero, and hugged him close. "I'm wise to you, kid!"

Heero could only drop his head, quite certain that Leo's jest had several different meanings. On Leo's other side, Duo crossed his arms, an uncharacteristic pout crossing his face. Leo raised his eyebrows, noting the mirroring expressions, and quickly dropped his arms.

"Here's a good spot," Sano called. "Plus, the rocks around here make me suspect a natural saltpeter outcropping in the area."

"Excellent," Solo said, turning to walk backwards, his thick sandy-brown tail swishing around his ankles. "And elms. If we burn it down over the night, we can dowse it and take it for charcoal in the morning."

"Blue," Leo said, and laughed. "Beats same old gold, any day! And if we add some pine..."

He and Solo launched into a discussion on the different properties of tree sap, in creating explosions. Unfortunately, Leo saw no reason to move away as they set up camp, but stayed where he was. Right between Duo and Heero.

Heero scowled.

------------------------

"Is she sleeping late again?" The old Jaguar looked up from the stove, fixing Wufei with a stern glare. "That wife of yours is the laziest Creature! Slug-a-bed until after dawn."

"She's pregnant with her first litter," Wufei retorted. "Is breakfast ready yet?"

"She's barely into her second month," Grandmother Bao replied. She stabbed at the meat with a fork, testing it. "I had four litters and worked my way through all of them. Had the second one while I was hunting. Popped them out right there and kept right on going, I did!"

Wufei couldn't help but wince at the image, but kept his face as impassive as he could manage it. "Breakfast, Grandmother."

"It's not going to cook faster because your wife is demanding!" Bao huffed and took down a plate.

"She's not," Wufei snapped. "I just wanted to..." He scuffed his toes against the kitchen's stone floor, realized what he was doing, and pulled himself upright. "To take her breakfast."

"Such a sharp tongue in that head, too!" Bao didn’t even seem to be listening to him, and he glared, but she had proven herself impervious. Especially since her back was to him, anyway. "Not a pleasant word or smile for anyone. And always going on about how she's the strongest." Bao sniffed.

"She is," Wufei said. "She's the strongest female in the village. And she can be very nice." When she wants something, he added, but he wasn't going to give Grandmother Bao any more reason to fuss.

"Oh, I doubt it," Bao replied. She scooped out the breakfast rice, pouring it into a bowl. "There. She can have that."

"She needs meat." He shoved the bowl back at her.

"She's not getting any." She shoved it right back.

"I say she gets meat."

"Ha." Bao looked unimpressed. "You keep feeding her meat while she's pregnant, and she'll lose what little looks she has left."

"Stop saying that," Wufei replied, quickly losing his temper – but managing to keep his voice down. Meiran was asleep, after all, and he'd had a crazy notion – admittedly suggested by Quatre, but that was just a technicality – to surprise her with breakfast in bed. "She's not losing her looks. She's still the most beautiful Jaguar in the village."

Bao was silent for a moment, then carefully picked up the smallest piece of meat and put it on the bowl of rice. "There."

"No, more." Wufei pointed to the meat-pot. "She's eating for an entire litter."

"She's rude and spoiled. You're just making it worse."

"She's not rude, she's blunt and honest." Wufei wanted to roar at the top of his lungs. "She's not spoiled. She just believe in knowing what she wants, and giving it everything she's got."

"You've been bamboozled," Grandmother Bao informed him. But she took the second-smallest piece of meat and put it on the bowl. "She doesn't know a thing about being a good mother, and doesn't even seem to care."

"Does too! More meat!" Wufei lost his temper and stepped past Bao, pulling out his knife and stabbing it into the largest hunk of meat. He slapped it on top of the rice, ignoring the fact that it was nearly twice the size of the rice bowl. "And what she doesn't know is okay, because we'll figure it out together!"

With that, he stomped from the kitchen, his mood completely spoiled. In the main room of the house, he paused, taking deep breaths through his nose to calm down. The whole point of surprising Meiran and doing nice things – mostly so Trowa and Quatre would approve, and Salli would stop threatening to beat him at staves – would be quite ruined if he stormed into their bedchamber with his ears flat back. Wufei stared down at the meat balanced on the rice bowl, and sighed.

After a moment, he pushed the front door open, and leaned down to pluck a few of the wildflowers that grew outside their door. Meiran's favorite, they were golden fine-petaled flowers with a cinnamon scent; he couldn't help but smile even if he hoped no one saw him being so ridiculous. Meiran was beautiful, and definitely the most beautiful woman in the village; she was also strong, and honest, and forthright, and she was going to be the mother of his kits. She should have flowers with breakfast.

Thus convinced that his actions were purely out of a warrior's recognition and respect, and the duty of a good husband, Wufei paused at the front room's mantle before picking a pottery cup that looked like it might be the right size for the flowers. Dropping the flowers into the cup, he carried breakfast and the flowers up to the bedchamber, making a wish that none of the furor in the kitchen had awakened his wife.

------------------------

"I was right. Someone's coming," Trowa said, hopping down off the rock outcropping. He nearly stumbled as he hit the ground, and was surprised to find Quatre was there immediately. Trowa bumped into the shorter Lynx, who promptly put his arms around Trowa, with an innocent expression.

"Don't want you to fall," Quatre said, stepping back.

"Thanks," Trowa said, the picture of seriousness. His tail wagged a few times, and behind him, Wufei snorted.

"Idiots," Wufei muttered, and he made a face when Meiran giggled quietly. She recovered quickly upon seeing Trowa's sudden blush.

"So do you recognize them? Let me up on the rock, and I'll—"

"Stay right there," Wufei snapped. "You are not getting up there and wearing yourself out—"

"Oh, get over it, husband," Meiran retorted, a hand on her belly. It felt like it curved out more each day, to her consternation, and good for nothing but making Wufei act stranger with every passing day. "What are you going to do, put wrap me in felt and pack me in a box the whole time I'm pregnant?"

Wufei looked thoughtful. One paw stole to his sword, and he stroked the hilt with an absent-minded gesture.

"Don't you dare!" Meiran poked him in the chest. "Fine. I'll get up on my—"

"No need," Trowa replied, stepping in front of the rock, and effectively blocking Meiran's leap. He sniffed the breeze, and grinned. "It's definitely Heero. I think that's Duo with them, and three Coyotes. Solo, I recognize...I'm not sure of the other two. Leo and Sano, maybe."

"At least they didn’t bring the entire Coyote clan," Quatre said. "I'm not sure I'm up to that."

"It only takes one Coyote to blow things up," Meiran said, frowning. She sighed, clearly willing to set aside her argument with Wufei for the time being, and began packing up the dinner they'd shared in the mountain field. "Stomp out the fire, quick, then. It'll be one less temptation, at least."

"They'll find enough, certainly," Wufei replied.

He bent to help her pack up the last of the baskets that had held their dinner, piling it all into the blanket and throwing it over his shoulder. Meiran started to protest, and gave his offered hand a slightly askance look before accepting his help.

"Hey, guys," Quatre warned. "I think we just got—"

"Wufei!" Heero's shout echoed across the field, and the silver wolf became a streak through the tall grasses. Wufei had the presence of mind to drop the blanket and leap away from Meiran, and the next minute he was flat on his back, Heero perched above him with an anxious look.

"—Spotted," Quatre finished.

"Wufei!" Heero's hands were on Wufei's shoulders, pinning him to the ground. They rubbed noses, but Heero seemed far more frantic than usual, and Meiran couldn't help but wonder what had Heero so upset. "Wufei, are you okay?"

"I can't breathe. So, no, I'm not." Wufei grunted, but Heero didn't move. "Brother, you're heavy."

"First, are you okay? Not..." Heero seemed at a loss, suddenly, and he made a vague little motion with one paw. "Y'know."

"No, Heero..." Wufei repeated the motion, and gave Heero a look that said he was convinced Heero had been clonked on the head while training, one too many times. "I do not...y'know."

"Oh." Heero sat back, ears drooping, and at another grunt from Wufei, finally got up, giving his little brother a hand up. Then Heero noticed Meiran, and his eyes went wide. "Sister-in-law..."

Meiran wasn't sure whether to hide behind Trowa – Heero's ears were forward, tail wagging hard, and she certainly didn't want to be pounced like Wufei had – but she was just as tempted to preen.

She settled for the latter.

"A month and a half," she announced, hands under her rounded belly. "The midwives say it might be three kits. Maybe four," and she stepped forward, close enough for Heero to reach out and stroke her tummy. It tickled a little, and she giggled, only stopping at Wufei's jealous scowl. "Husband," she chided. "He can touch. He's not going to break me."

"He'd better not." Wufei picked up the blanket again, throwing it over his shoulder. Heero ignored them both and continued to pet her belly, apparently fascinated.

"Wufei! Meiran!"

Duo appeared, tossing off his greetings as he barreled into the group, slamming into Quatre with a greeting remarkably similar to the one Heero had given Wufei. Several nose-rubs later, and the Coyotes had joined them just as Duo and Quatre came to their feet.

Solo stalked right through the group, coming to stand in front of Wufei. Meiran's first thought was that it had to be a good thing that Wufei had both hands around the blanket, because Solo moved a bit too fast for any warrior's comfort level. Then she could only stare, bewildered, at Solo's actions. He took Wufei's chin in a paw, turning Wufei's head one way, then the other. Then he opened Wufei's mouth, hummed, closed Wufei's mouth, and stared into his eyes. Finally, he let go of and patted the black Jaguar on the head, oblivious to Wufei's thunderous expression.

"I think he'll be okay," Solo said to Heero.

"Hunh." Heero kept petting, and Meiran giggled, twitching away from him. "Look. I'm going to be an uncle."

"Heero," Duo said, trying to distract him. "Solo's saying everything's going to be alright. Wufei's fine."

"Okay." Heero leaned forward, and pressed his ear to Meiran's tummy, closing his eyes. "I'm gonna be an uncle, Duo."

"I caught that part," Duo said, grinning at Meiran over Heero's head. "I think he's kinda..."

"Yeah," Meiran said, and backed up.

Heero nearly fell forward at the loss of his support, but Duo caught him just in time. Then suddenly Leo was there, intercepting the catch and helping Heero upright while Duo pouted behind him.

Ah-hah, Meiran couldn't help but think. So that's how it is...she sighed and stifled the urge to pop Heero across his ears. Males could be so stupid sometimes. Then again...she caressed her stomach, and knew just the encouragement Heero needed to work up his nerve.

Behind them, Sano and Trowa were catching up on the news of the world, while Quatre and Solo hustled Wufei towards the path. Leo caught Duo by the elbow, dragging him to catch up with the rest, leaving Heero and Meiran to follow.

"An uncle," Heero whispered, eyes still slightly glazed. He trotted off after the rest of the group, and Meiran sidled up alongside him just as they crested the path that would wind down into the village.

"So," she whispered, her gaze on Duo, who was chatting with Quatre. "Given it to him?"

Heero's ears went back flat, and his tail drooped.

Meiran elbowed him. "You're a moron," she hissed. Her tail twitched around her legs. "You've had, what, a week?"

"Three days," Heero muttered.

"What are you waiting for?" Meiran rolled her eyes. "A written invitation?"

"Written?" Heero gave her a baffled glance. "Do I look human?"

"It's an expression," she said, snorting. "Well?"

"There's always..." He stared pointedly at the three Coyotes, ahead of them, bushy golden-brown tails wagging excitedly. "Never the right time," he added, downcast.

"I see." Meiran crossed her arms, found that wasn't as easy a position as before, and dropped them. "You give him the..." She checked to make sure they'd fallen behind enough. "You give it to the Fox," she hissed, "or else you won't get to touch."

Heero looked stunned, and dropped his eyes to stare at her belly. "But..."

"You heard me." She felt immensely powerful, suddenly, seeing a warrior reduced to a helpless look. "By nightfall tomorrow. Or else..." She pointed to her stomach. "You're cut off."

"Oh." Heero's tail drooped, then he took a deep breath, and nodded. "Understood. I'll do it."

"Good," she said, and patted him on the shoulder, beaming.

A muscle flickered in Heero's jaw, and he straightened up, striding up to the group ahead of them. Meiran watched his determined movements, nudging his way between Leo and Duo to pace right alongside the half-Fox, who grinned and threw his arm over Heero's shoulder, chattering about how marvelous it must be to be a new Uncle.

She caught up with the group just in time to hear Quatre's soft comment to Trowa.

"That's a truly dangerous woman," Quatre was muttering, but he sounded amused. "She can threaten a man into behaving and she doesn't even have to be married to him."

------------------------

And so it was that at nightfall, nine Creatures – two Jaguars, three Coyotes, a Lynx, a Jackal, a Fox, and a Wolf - strode into the Mountain Jaguar settlement. Salli stepped out of her home on the main path to greet them and was immediately accosted by Solo, whose tail wagged furiously while she swatted at him and told her to stop.

The trip up the mountain path had been noisy and joyous, but even noisier in complaints when the Coyotes discovered that dinner had been eaten and finished without their inclusion, and there were no leftovers in the baskets. Heero, however, had been grateful when Duo remained by his side, with Quatre and Trowa mysteriously flanking them. Leo had looked a bit irritated to find his place between Duo and Heero was no longer possible, but had given up with a shrug and gone to walk alongside Meiran.

At the Cheiftain's home, Grandmother Bao was waiting in the doorway, a lamp in her hand. When she saw them, she let out a huge breath and put her hand on her chest, as if greatly relieved. Meiran and Wufei approached her cautiously, and the rest of the group picked up on it, hanging back.

"Where have you been?" She shook her head at Meiran. "I expected you back before nightfall!" Bao rounded on Wufei. "It's dangerous out there. Wild animals! Wandering Creatures! Things like..." She looked past the couple, and her eyes widened dramatically. "Coyotes..."

"Solo's U.D.P., at your service," Sano said, with a deep bow. "Except we are a partial pack, so really that would be Solo's N.Q.U.D.P., currently."

"Worse," Bao breathed, her eyes wide, her spotted ears flat back on her head in terror. "Insane Coyotes."

"No, Grandmother, they're like this all the time," Salli said, stepping around to gently guide the elderly Jaguar back into the house. "I don't have the room, Wufei, so—"

"Of course," Wufei replied. "We'll set everyone up down here. We'll just need to push the furniture out of the way."

"Wait, they're staying here, too?" Bao's hand shook, making the lamp oil splatter on the flagstones. "Wufei...Meiran! Have you lost your minds?"

Both Meiran and Wufei looked oddly guilty, Solo noted. The parts fell into place, and he stifled a barking laugh. Instead, he pulled Salli close, and just watched, smug, while the old Jaguar fled.

Chapter 3 by Sol 1056
Author's Notes:
Warnings: Minor OOC due to AU situations; shonen-ai; fantastical animal/people mixes; gratuitous use of improper Gaelic; crazy adaptations of Siberian and Native American traditions.

Disclaimer: We don't own, but we're having fun anyway. No harm meant. The lyrics quoted this chapter are adapted from Robbie Robertson's song, Golden Feather.

So. Yes. I am continuing this story. Quake in fear, everyone, and light little sticks of incense on your fanfic altars to Gail and Infini T, in thanks for their donation of $165 to MSF and UNICEF for the tsunami/earthquake relief funds. I'm actually rewriting early parts of this, and only doing word count on added sections, so hopefully within four chapters I'll have a multi-part epilogue that will wrap up and close things out nicely, so I'm reposting from the start.

Oh, and...no. No citrus. Still rated G.


Meiran woke up to find the room draped in the earliest glimmers of dawn. She smiled to herself and rolled over, a little excited at the notion she'd woken up before Wufei. But the other half of the bed was empty, and the sheets were cool. She sniffed the pillow - scent still strong - so he couldn't have been gone too long.

She laid back and stared at the ceiling, wondering what kind of flowers he'd bring her with breakfast. For the past five mornings he'd brought her plenty of breakfast rice; sometimes even meat, and usually more than she could finish on her own, so she'd insisted they share. They didn't talk a great deal, and to her great shame it seemed to stick in her throat to thank him. He just seemed so nervous about the kits that he'd jump on every little thing, and she didn't want her gratitude to get stomped on, too.

Meiran sighed and rolled over on her side. The sun was almost up. He should be at the door any heartbeat now. But ten...then fifty...and soon the sun was peeking over the trees and still no sign of Wufei.

She threw off the covers with a sigh, and changed from her sleeping clothes into something suitable for guests. Her belly wasn't really that curved, but she was starting to wear her belt just a little lower on her hips. She groomed her tail neatly, tied her hair up in pigtails, and went down to see whether Grandmother Bao had shown up to cook breakfast, or was refusing to step foot in the house.

Part of Meiran almost wished it were the second. She felt sticky from the late summer heat, a little dizzy, thirsty...and mostly embarrassed. Wufei had brought her breakfast and she'd not even thanked him. And if that woman opened her mouth one more time...

------------------------

...That was it, Meiran decided. She opened her mouth, but Grandmother Bao just carried right on without a break.

"And all these friends he's tracked in, when you should be resting up. You barely sleep enough as it is! But he gets you up every morning the crack of dawn, and expects you to work all day." Bao tsked and checked the breakfast rice, stirring it a few times, then tapping against the pot with the wooden spoon with every syllable she uttered. "He has absolutely no respect for the mother of his children! The way he treats-"

No, that was it.

Meiran picked up the nearest piece of pottery - a flat plate - and threw it against the kitchen wall. It shattered, startling Bao into silence. Meiran didn't even notice. She was too busy screaming.

"IF I HEAR ONE MORE WORD ABOUT MY HUSBAND, I'M GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS!" Meiran balled her fists and threw her head back, shrieking.

It felt good. It felt damn good. She picked up another plate and threw it, satisfied when it burst into shards against the wall. And what had her most angry was that Bao's final words had been ones that Meiran knew probably fit her better than Wufei, any day. That made her anger twice as hot, and the good feeling not quite as strong - but it still felt good to holler.

"MY HUSBAND IS THE HANDSOMEST SMARTEST WARRIOR IN THE VILLAGE AND IF YOU SAY ONE MORE THING ABOUT I'M, I'LL..." She paused, took a deep breath, and kept going. "I'LL KICK YOU SO HARD YOUR ANCESTORS WILL CRY!"

The back door flew open, and Trowa and Quatre tumbled in, Leo right behind them. They looked worried, then Wufei shoved them aside. Meiran absently noted that he looked mostly stunned, and managed to close her mouth. She swayed, putting a hand on the table, completely drained after the burst of emotion.

"Meiran," Wufei said, reaching her in time. He caught her, held her up, and gave her a puzzled look. "Are you..."

"NO!" Meiran promptly burst into tears.

Grandmother Bao just looked smug, but began cleaning without another word.

------------------------

"It's because she's going to have kits," Sano explained. He had the pleasure of being the eldest present, while they waited for news on Meiran. It was almost sun-height, and they'd planned a day trip to the Mountain Wolf village to see Heero's home. He nodded sagely, stretched, and took another long drink of the fine Jaguar ale. "It does it to Jaguar females, I hear."

"That's really strange," Quatre said. "I wonder why they do that."

"I think I'm glad I'm a fox." Duo looked mystified, perched on the window seat. He scratched his nose and sighed. "Our babies come from trees."

They what? Sano blinked.

Quatre studied Duo with a slightly puzzled expression. "Babies don't come from trees," he retorted. "They come-"

"Down the chimney," Heero finished. He scowled at his lunch. He'd been in a worried mood - which for Heero translated mostly into ferociously short-tempered - ever since Wufei had hustled a sobbing Meiran back to their bedchamber. "Everyone knows babies come down the chimney."

Sano tugged on his ear, checking to make sure he'd heard that right. He'd figured Duo, at the least, would know. Granted, Duo had spent winters with the Desert Lynxes, and now that Sano thought of it, the Lynx babies were usually born in autumn so they could nurse in winter and be ready to move camp in spring. He realized Duo had probably never seen a pregnant Desert Lynx, but he'd always figured Solo had taken care of that part of Duo's education. The subject just had never had reason to come up, between them.

"They do not come down the chimney," Duo was protesting. "You can't take a chimney with you when you travel. What happens then? What if you go on a trip and come back to find the baby's been in your fireplace while you were gone for a moon?"

Heero looked stumped, then shrugged. "I think the birds that bring babies would know if you're home."

"What if it were winter? And you were making dinner? You'd cook the baby!" Duo's tail lashed furiously. He rolled his eyes and went back to studying his claws. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"No stupider than babies being born in trees!" Heero glared. "If there's a strong wind, they could fall right out."

"And land on their head," Sano muttered to himself. "Which would explain a great deal about both of you."

"Babies," Quatre announced with a great deal of finality, "do not come from trees. Or chimneys."

Finally, a voice of reason. Sano sighed in relief; this meant he didn't have to be the one giving The Talk.

"They come," Quatre continued, "from under rocks."

Sano choked on his drink.

"Rocks!" Heero snorted. "That's ridiculous. They'd get squashed."

"And what if someone else found your baby?" Duo's tail thrashed madly. "You could end up with someone else's baby and your own baby is squished under some huge desert rock-"

"That wouldn't happen! These are special baby rocks," Quatre replied, indignant.

"Uh..." Sano cleared his throat.

"Baby rocks! That's the silliest thing-"

"How is that any better than baby trees?" Heero arched an eyebrow at Duo, who tossed his head, sniffing. "At least with Wolf babies-"

"Babies do not come from trees," Sano broke in.

Heero looked smug.

"And they don't come from chimneys, either."

Duo stuck out his tongue at Heero.

"Nor do they come from under rocks," Sano concluded.

Quatre's eyes went quite wide, and his mouth dropped open. "So where do they come from? Is it true what the Bobcats say? You fish them out of the river-"

"No!" Sano pounded his drink on the table. "They come from... mommies." He dropped his head, staring into his drink again. He tugged on his ear, rubbed his forehead with a paw, and sighed deeply. "I'm not going to explain it right now. Just take my word for it. Mommies have babies."

"Oh." Duo exhaled suddenly in a fierce rush of air. "So we can't have babies, then? Me 'n Heero?"

"Uh." Sano's mouth fell open. "What has Solo been teaching you?"

Duo grinned widely. "The usual. Wombs, gestation periods, and safety issues for pregnant Creatures. Come on, Heero, I wanna see the Jaguar market." He hopped off his seat and dashed out, catching Heero by the wrist before Sano could say anything. "Coming, Quatre?"

"Be there in a bit." Quatre finished clearing his plate. "I'm going to find Trowa." He dashed off, into the back of the house.

Sano stared at his drink and decided having Duo for a little brother was bad enough. But he was never, ever going to have kids. With his luck, they'd all end up like their uncle.

------------------------

Duo laughed most of the way to the market, one paw wrapped around Heero's wrist. Realizing he'd managed finally to give the slip to all three Coyotes, he decided it was a good time to not let go. Besides, Heero didn't seem to be complaining, either, but walking rather close.

"He looked like he'd eaten a frog," Heero said. His smile was small, and still a bit tense, but he seemed a bit more relaxed.

"Yeah!" Duo tugged Heero closer and slung an arm over Heero's shoulders.

The silver half-Wolf had been acting strange ever since he'd arrived in the Coyote's camp, but at least his behavior that morning could be blamed on anxiety over Wufei and Meiran. Duo took the chance to hug Heero, trying to reassure him, pleased when Heero slipped an arm around his waist in return. He seemed nervous, though, but Duo couldn't blame him. Anyone would be after a concerted effort by Solo, Sano, and Leo.

"What I want are some of the pastries," Duo announced. They passed one stall with a collection of am'bhidh that made his mouth water. "Hungry?"

"You just ate."

"But how can you resist these?" Duo dug around for his pouch, pulling it to the front, and flipping the top open without taking his eyes off the pastries. "Want to split one?"

"I'll get that," Heero said, laying a paw over Duo's. "My treat."

"It's okay, Heero, I have weasel columns." Duo made a face. "Solo gave me spending money."

"Ah..." Heero looked a bit red in the face, and he didn't take his paw away. "My treat, and I'll get you a pastry all for yourself."

Duo frowned, suspicious. That was generous, but Heero wouldn't look him in the eyes, and it was making his hackles go up. "What's wrong?" He asked in a careful, low tone of voice.

"Nothing."

"Then why won't you let me treat?" Duo was starting to get annoyed. He shoved Heero's paw out of the way and dug his hand into the pouch. "I'm not always-" Then his paw hit something soft, and maybe...silky?

Heero, to Duo's astonishment, turned bright red and stepped back. He scuffed his feet against the ground, his paws clenching into fists at his side.

Duo couldn't help it. He pulled out the item, revealing a deep purple-blue silk loincloth. The Jaguar behind the pastry counter whistled in appreciation, and Duo let it unfurl, carefully draping it over his arm so it wouldn't drag on the ground. His first thought was panic, and one look at Heero's embarrassed expression made his mischievous side take over.

"Oh," Duo moaned, a bit too dramatically, but Heero didn't seem to notice. "I am in so much trouuuuuuuble..."

"Hunh?" Heero looked up at that, his brows furrowing slightly. "What?"

"Trouble! With a capital...whatever comes at the beginning of Trouble!"

"T," the pastry seller said, helpfully.

"That," Duo agreed. "Look!" He shook the loincloth in Heero's face, and dropped his voice to a panicked whisper. "I stole something...and I can't even remember where from."

Heero's jaw dropped open, mouth a round 'o'.

"Solo is gonna have my tail for dinner," Duo groaned, and tried to shove the cloth back into his bag, but succeeded mostly in flailing about while continuing the terrified whimpers. "I am in so much...trouble! Just...oh, and-"

"Duo, Duo, stop!" Heero caught the cloth, and gently took it away. He folded it neatly, then shoved it into the bag. "You..." He dropped his eyes again, stepping away with his arms folded. "Didn't steal that."

"I didn't?" Duo opened his eyes as wide as he could manage. "Then how'd it get in my bag?" When Heero didn't say anything and didn't even look up, Duo frowned and tried again. "I must've done something wrong! When Solo finds out-"

"It's a GIFT!" Heero clamped his mouth shut on the yell, glaring fiercely.

"Aw, Heero," Duo replied, tag wagging furiously back and forth. "You could've just said so." He launched himself forward, throwing his arms around Heero's neck, and rubbed noses once, then twice. Two paws found their way to his hips, and he made a point of rubbing noses with Heero one more time. Heero hadn't pulled away, so Duo did it again-

Someone cleared a throat behind them. Duo wagged his tail, and made a go-away motion over his shoulder; Heero had finally started reciprocating on the nose-rubs and Duo wasn't about to let him be distracted now.

"Okay, then," Trowa's voice floated over the market sounds. "Come on, Quatre. We'll go find the Coyotes. Or visit Sally. Or something."

"But," Quatre protested, saying something else but his voice was getting farther away.

"I have a new silk loincloth," Duo announced, breaking away from the nose-rubs long enough to gloat.

"You do."

"Took me long enough to get it," Duo added, playfully whacking his tail against Heero's flank.

"I'm..." Heero pulled back with a frown, looking down at Duo. His silver ears flicked forward, then back, suspicious. "What do you mean...did you-"

"No," Duo said, quickly, and patted Heero on the chest, reassuring. He took a heartbeat to flip the nipple rings up, then down, and smiled to himself at the way Heero's eyes closed momentarily. "Just that I didn't really believe you came all that way to find someone who should've been at the Mountain Jaguar village."

"You didn't?" Heero's eyes opened, surprised.

Duo snorted.

"Oh. Right. That's good." Heero smiled, and it was a bit too much of a smug expression.

Grabbing his pouch and cradling it closely, Duo arched an eyebrow. Clearly Heero could play that game when he wanted to, but Duo would show him how it was really done - after he got another nose-rub. Or two...and maybe a pastry. Or three.

------------------------

Autumn in the mountains always came early, and Heero presumed it was just from growing up around it that he'd never thought twice about the scenery. But with Duo hunting at his side, he noticed little things that he'd never stopped to consider before. Bird song that had no comparison on the plains, or the late-summer wildflowers that sprang up seemingly overnight; the deer gathered by the creek where the frogs sang at dusk.

Grandmother Bao had surrendered the house to Wufei and Meiran, and the six houseguests cheerfully moved in and made it their own for the duration of Meiran's pregnancy. To her credit, Heero noted, she didn't seem bothered in the least, although Luyin and Xing were with her nearly all the time.

It seemed as though the mountain caught fire overnight, going from pale to deep greens - the aspen, the elm, the tall pines - into a wild display of orange, yellow, and red. Quatre collected leaves to compare the vivid colors, while Trowa told stories at night about the legends he'd heard when traveling. Why the leaves turn in the fall, which led to why the bear sleeps, which led to even more fantastical stories of the deserts and the plains.

Heero didn't care if they were stories of how all silver Wolves were descended from rabbits, as long no one got in the way of his nightly chance to pet Meiran's tummy and press his ear to her stomach in hopes of hearing something. Every now and then he thought he could hear mewing, but his tail would always give him away by wagging. Duo, trying to help, sat on his tail one night. That was almost as distracting as Solo pitching cherry pits at Heero and Duo while they were trying to sleep.

Not, Heero decided, that being distracted by Duo was a bad thing. It meant he spent the nightly story-time curled up around a half-Fox who stroked his silvery flanks and groomed his tail. Better than with a half-Fox trying to steal the cuffs from his ears; Heero made a sleepy note to himself that it was time he start finding new necklaces and rings and bracelets and armlets and anklets for Duo to replace the ones Duo had used for his combs.

Maybe, Heero told himself, he'd do that at the Summer's End festival. He tightened his hold around Duo's waist, drifting off as Solo chanted an old Coyote story about how the world was made. Salli sat behind Solo, running her claws through his hair while he gestured broadly in the traditional movements of the story. The fire burned brightly in the hearth, illuminating the brilliant leaves Quatre had strung up across the mantle. Trowa and Quatre were curled together by the fire, the Lynx bathing himself while Meiran slept against Wufei; the half-Jaguar often spent the evenings honing his blades and listening to the conversation.

This one night, though, Meiran didn't get up at some unknown time and insist her husband accompany her to bed. Nor did she get up and bid her goodnights, expecting him to follow eventually. Instead, she got up and made her way to the kitchen - and Heero's ears perked up when the kitchen door opened and closed.

Wufei looked up as well, and Solo's story came to an abrupt halt. Heero noted that Salli had smiled at Meiran as the younger Jaguar passed, but made no move to join her. Duo blinked, yawning. Quatre snoozed on, though Trowa sat up with a start; Leo and Sano seemed worried.

"Little brother," Heero whispered, anxious. He nudged Duo to get up, so he could move, but Wufei stopped him with a gesture.

"No," Wufei said, barely louder than a breath. "I think..."

Salli beamed at Wufei, and nodded, but said nothing.

"Oh." Solo looked knowing, and waved his hands for the younger Creatures to settle down. "Coyote females do the same."

"What's that?" Trowa seemed confused. "But she's out at night alone..."

"That's how it we do it," Salli murmured.

"Yeah," Leo agreed. He scratched his head, then turned so Sano could groom the other ear. "It's the way some Creatures are. All on their own. No one else around."

Which was so like Meiran, regardless of what kind of Creature she was, Heero thought. And much like Wufei, too, for that matter...

"But unguarded," Trowa replied.

Heero sighed; he'd half hoped Meiran would let Wufei guard her despite the traditions, though he'd doubted that would happen. Wufei didn't look like he was going to move; he stared into the fire with a preoccupied expression.

Solo never started the story up again, although everyone by that point was awake. Instead, they watched the fire, stoking it up when it started to die, and waited the long night through.

------------------------

Trowa woke up when someone elbowed him in the stomach. He grunted, caught the offending arm, realized it was Quatre, and snuggled in closer. The bump came again, and he opened his eyes to see Mieran standing in the middle of the front room.

She had four kits in her arms; all were sleeping. Wufei stood before her, a look of utter astonishment on his face; when he raised a hand, Meiran tilted her arms so he could pet his children gently.

Gradually Trowa became aware the rest of the Creatures were also awake; Salli and Solo were grinning widely as they watched the new parents. Heero just seemed stunned, while Duo was hugging Heero. Trowa could hear small yips coming from Duo, and the half-Fox's bushy red tail slapped against Leo and Sano several times.

"Three girls, and one boy," Meiran said. Her words broke whatever spell was over them all, and next thing Trowa knew, Quatre had scrambled to his feet to wish her the best in fine Desert Lynx tradition.

Heero came to his feet just as fast, only to end up with the smallest - an all-black male - in his arms. He froze, not even risking juggling the kit into something more comfortable against his chest. Duo stepped forward, wrapping an arm around Heero while petting the kit at the same time.

"His eyes are closed," Duo whispered.

"For another few days," Meiran replied. She smiled at Heero's awestruck expression - that so closely echoed Wufei's. "Then their eyes will-"

Her words were cut off, when Wufei rubbed noses with her, then pressed his cheek to hers, and licked her face. She giggled, and he did it again, appearing to forget the rest of them completely.

"Upstairs," Salli ordered, coming to her feet. She took the last kit from Heero, who sulked, but didn't stop her. Placing the kit in Wufei's arms, she turned the young couple around and guided them to the stairs. "We'll bring you breakfast."

"Don't let Duo cook it," Wufei had the presence of mind to say, but anything else was lost as they headed up the stairs with Salli right behind them.

"Well, that ended happily," Leo declared. "All four born healthy, and looks like any temporary insanity is finally gone."

"To be replaced by a new kind," Sano noted. "Parenthood."

The three Coyotes laughed, a joke Trowa wasn't sure he got completely, but he was too busy hugging Quatre. The Desert Lynx was utterly thrilled with the event, and Trowa was more than happy to celebrate in any way Quatre wanted, even if it meant copious nose rubs. Especially copious nose rubs.

"So...I guess in a few days we'll head back, eh, Solo?" Leo elbowed the Coyote, breaking Solo out of his staring contest with the door to the stairs. "Solo?"

"Uh..." Solo scratched his head. "Actually, I might stay here."

"Stay?" Sano's eyebrows went up. "Why?"

"Because..." Solo wrinkled up his face, then glanced across the room. His gaze landed on Duo, leaning against Heero with a pleased expression. "Ah, because Duo's probably staying, and someone should keep an eye on him."

"Right." Leo crossed his arms. "An eye on the Fox, not on the cute spotted Jaguar that just went up the stairs...right?"

Solo turned beet red.

"Breakfast," Quatre murmured in Trowa's ears. "Let's cook it. Make that recipe with the rabbit."

"I'll be staying with Heero," Duo was saying as Trowa and Quatre left for the kitchen. "And there's not enough room for more than four."

"Four?" Sano's tone was disbelieving. "Who's the other two?"

"Us," Quatre replied, leaning into the living room to smile widely. He stepped back into the kitchen, and gave the startled half-Jackal another hug. "Oh, by the way, we're wintering with the Mountain Wolves."

"Oh." Trowa considered it - for a heartbeat - and couldn't think of any reason to disagree. Besides, his tail was wagging hard enough to make the kitchen table shake with every whack, so there was no point in pretending. He smiled and was treated to another nose rub. "It'll be a good winter," he assured Quatre. "And...in a few months, you'll get to see snow."

"I've seen snow." Quatre got out the pots in preparation for breakfast.

"But you've never played in it," Trowa replied. "I suspect we'll be playing in it a great deal."

"We will?" Quatre seemed puzzled, but let Trowa lean past him to get the rabbits hanging on the hook. "Why?"

"Because uncles are supposed to teach kits all sorts of things, and I guess we're all sort of uncles, now." Trowa grinned. "And we'll need to be there to make sure Duo doesn't teach them anything that will make Heero mad."

Quatre snorted. "Like that'd happen. One or two nose rubs from Duo - or those strange human things he likes called kisses - and you know Heero won't put up much of a fight."

A lot like Meiran and Wufei, Trowa thought. Laughter floated in from the living room, and he smiled. It was going to be a good winter.

=fini=

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