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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
"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.
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.
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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.
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.
"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—"
"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.