I apologize to everyone who has been waiting for this update. Life happened and things needed to get put back in order before I could even think of writing. Luckily, things are back to 'somewhat' normal, so my muse has granted me this opportunity to do some work. I hope you like it, and I will try my best not to wait too long for further updates.

Chapter 9: Reflections

It took several moments after Tygra left before Cheetara could compose herself enough to turn back around to look at Lion-O. With everything that had happened earlier today, her emotions were all jumbled up. She had kept herself calm in front of the kits and everyone else, but in reality, she was an absolute nervous wreck. The sight of him lying in that bed with his head covered in bandages and looking so pale did nothing to alleviate her feelings of dread and panic; and the labored sound of his ragged breathing wasn't helping her anxiety either. She also knew that there were bandages she couldn't see, the ones from the surgery to remove those horrid crossbow bolts in his side. As she stood there watching him, the images of Lion-O laying in a pool of his own blood kept flashing before her mind, and the sound of her own anguished screams continued to bounce around inside of her head.

She shook her head a couple of times to clear her mind before she looked around the little room. As she did so, she noticed a chair in the far corner. It was sitting next to a small desk that held a pitcher and a small basin that Cheetara assumed was used for washing up. Along each side the basin was placed a candleholder containing a long unlit candle. Not needing the extra light, since the candelabras on the wall were already lit and giving off a warm comfortable glow, she left them, and the table, as it was. She did decide, however, to move the chair closer to the bed so that she could be next to Lion-O, positioning it so that it was touching his bedrail even with his waist.

As soon as she had seated herself, she reached over and took Lion-O's hand into her own. She rubbed her thumb slowly across his knuckles a few times before slowly bringing them up to her face. She pressed her lips firmly into his fingers, and allowed herself to taste the salty flavor of his skin. All the while she was doing this, she inhaled deeply, reveling in his scent as she breathed his essence in.

'Oh Ancients I needed that' she thought to herself as she exhaled slowly. Almost immediately her body began to relax. She had indeed needed to do that, to reassure herself; but until that very moment, she didn't realize just how badly she needed that reassurance. It was one thing to see the rise and fall of his chest, and to hear the air go in and out of his lungs as he struggled to breathe, but she had needed more than that…. much, much more. She also needed to touch him, smell him, and taste him. She needed to feel the heat of his paw in hers, she needed to smell his familiar earthly scent and taste the flavors of his skin. She needed to use all of the senses available to her in order to prove to herself that Lion-O really was alive and there with her.

After several minutes, she reluctantly removed his hand from her lips and brought it to the side of her face where she nuzzled her check against it. Now that she knew that he was alive, she seemed to unwind a little more. Her heart-rate was beginning to slow down, and her breathing was gradually returning to normal as the tension and fears that she had suppressed all evening were slowly starting to fade away. Unfortunately for her, with the ebbing of her stress also came the deterioration of the cheetah maiden's iron-clad control. The tears that she had desperately been holding back began to flow freely down the sides of her face as thoughts of relief mixed in with her waning feelings of fear and despair. Cheetara knew that she had to let her emotions run free this time. If she even tried to bottle them up, they would slowly eat away at her like a cancer. So, in the safety and solitude of Lion-O's room, she allowed herself to weep as the realization of just how close she came to losing the young monarch that means so much to her finally settled in.

The night was dark and silent as an indistinct figure slowly crept down the shadowed hallways of the town guard's armory. It was almost alarming to see how easy it was for him to slip in unnoticed. The town had no trained military, and the guard members were little more than overdressed deputies. They were fine for dealing with drunkards and brawlers. They would even do well against the occasional cut-purse, but match them up against a trained and seasoned warrior, and they wouldn't even come close. He brought himself out of his reverie when he noticed that he had arrived at his destination. The 'Evidence Locker' was really nothing more than an oversized closet, but it held all of the items that he required. As he searched through the poorly organized collection of armor and weapons, he finally found what he was looking for. He reached into the loaded quiver and pulled out two crossbow bolts. After a quick inspection, he tucked them safely into his tunic and quietly slipped back out the door. Soon, he was out of the compound and ghosting down the alleyways. He had one more stop he needed to make, at the local Bazaar; then he would be off to find his prey!

Cheetara slowly fought her way through the many layers of slumber. She had sobbed for a long time during the night, trying desperately to release all the pent-up emotions she had carried around inside of her. It had worked, eventually; but all of the effort and energy she expended had left her exhausted, and before she could even comprehend what was happening, sleep had overcome her. As she became more and more aware of her surroundings, she realized that her head rested heavily on top of something firm but pliable. Whatever it was, it was warm, very warm. She opened her eyes to find herself lying across a hospital bed. Her lower body was still seated in the chair next to the bed, and her arms and shoulders were resting on the mattress. Her head, however, was nestled comfortably on someone's lap, and it was clearly a 'male' someone. As the events of the last 24 hours came flooding back to her, she felt an immense heat rise on her face and neck. She gasped as she finally understood what had happened. She quickly but gently raised herself off of Lion-O, trying not to jostle him but blushing profusely at the intimate contact she had just had with her king.

Looking around in embarrassment, she quickly came to terms that nothing illicit had occurred. With her cheeks still burning from improper thoughts, she noticed that even in her haste to move, she never released her grip of Lion-O's hand. Their fingers were still intertwined, and she was amazed at how natural it felt to her. Their hands seemed to be made for each other, fitting together perfectly like they were two pieces of the same puzzle.

Thinking along these lines, she couldn't help herself but compare his hands to those of his brother. While both brothers took good care of themselves, and both of their hands were calloused from training with their weapons, the difference was in how gentle they could be with those same hands. While Tygra would often caress her lovingly, his hands were never as gentle as Lion-O's were to her. It was apparent to her now, that whenever they had contact with each other, Lion-O had always touched her with the utmost tenderness. It also became clear to Cheetara that her hands had never felt as good in Tygra's grasp as they currently did in Lion-O's.

Pushing aside her thoughts of comparison, she sat down on the bed next to Lion-O. As she sat there watching him sleep, still holding his hand gently in hers, her mind once again began to wander in a direction that made her lips curl upwards with a smirk. In full repose like he was, Lion-O was beautiful; not just cute or handsome, but truly, truly beautiful.

Lion-O had grown a great deal in these last few months, in more ways than one. While still being younger, he could no longer be called the 'Little' brother any more, much to Tygra's dismay. He grew several inches in height, now making it necessary for her to look upwards slightly when addressing him face to face. This meant that he was actually a little taller than Tygra, but still shorter than Panther-O. His normally flame-like red hair was partially hidden in the bandages that wrapped around the top of his head, but she loved its bright color just the same. His face had become quite sculpted, with a strong jaw-line and rugged features. His lips looked soft, supple, and utterly... kissable. They were tempting really, very tempting; almost as if they were beckoning her to him. His shoulders and back were now broad and well-defined. His abs were toned and tight as they melted into his slim hips that gradually transitioned down into two powerful legs. His continuous training (not to mention all the extra chores that he took upon himself to allow her that free time with Tygra), along with their nearly constant battles, have ensured that he developed strong and lean. His muscular frame was now hard and chiseled, with almost no body-fat. In short, his body was gorgeous.

Cheetara's smirk faltered a little when she realized that his most amazing features, the ones that truly endeared her to him, were currently denied her. Those were his beautiful cerulean eyes. His eyes were so captivatingly blue that she often found herself mesmerized by them. Their calm depths reminded her of the great oceans that were near Thundara. Many times had she found herself getting lost in his gaze while they talked alone. Thankfully, he never seemed to notice when she did that; or if he did, he had the good graces to never say anything to her about it.

She, on the other hand, had often caught him staring at her. His sapphire-like eyes would pierce her with a look that seemed to go right through her. It was the kind of gaze that seemed to see past all of her walls and defenses and penetrate deep into her soul. It was normally after one of these kinds of moments that he would say something unusually astute to her, and she would actually wonder if he had the ability to read her mind.

Thinking about Lion-O's eyes made Cheetara's body quiver involuntarily, and definitely not in a bad way.

No, there was never a doubt in her mind that she reacted to Lion-O physically. She was all too familiar with the liquid heat that would pool in the core of her body whenever she was too close to him, or how her skin would tingle every time he 'Accidentally' brushed by her. She could not deny the way her body flooded with warmth when she would see him glisten after a rather hard workout. Nor could she forget the way that certain parts of her anatomy literally throbbed with desire after that particularly… NICE… dream that she had about him only a few nights ago; It took her forever to calm down enough to go back to sleep after that one. Oh Yes, she was very aware of how her body reacted to Lion-O. Heavens, just his smile was enough to make her heart flutter. But she knew that her feelings for him ran much deeper than that, and the attraction that she felt was more than just physical.

To her, Lion-O was a multitude of things. He was the king that was trying to rebuild his kingdom. He was fierce and brave in battle, but he was always quick to forgive. He would help anyone who asked, and often puts the needs of others before his own. He was both an encouraging smile, and a comforting hug. He was the one she went to when she needed to talk about her night terrors. He was the shoulder to cry on. He was her best friend that would listen to her rant, rave, and scream, but never judge her. He was a kind and gentle soul, but his desire to protect his 'family' could never be questioned. He was smart, scholarly and could be a serious negotiator, but he was also goofy and playful. He was the guy who would take the kits out on a picnic just so she could have a day alone with his brother. He was all of these things and more, and yet he was still 'just Lion-O'.

Try as she might, Cheetara could never get him out of her thoughts for very long. That was painfully evident yesterday during her date with Tygra.

She tried her best to concentrate on Tygra all day, she really did. She wanted to fix her relationship with him, but it obviously didn't matter to her subconscious mind. Her thoughts always seemed to somehow creep back to Lion-O and what he was doing.

After talking with Tygra about his favorite author, she couldn't help but wondering what types of books Lion-O enjoyed or what kind of performances he liked. It was especially difficult for her to focus on her date after that incident with the sandalwood; she could not get the picture of Lion-O chopping wood out of her mind. She found herself questioning what his favorite meal was at dinner and how it would feel if it were his arms wrapped around her instead of Tygra's while they danced. There was even the uncomfortable moment when she imagined that it was a certain lion's lips pressed against hers instead of his brother's. The awkwardness that happened afterwards, when she realized what she had done, was unbearable.

Then they were walking back to the camp, and the unimaginable happened. The fury that tore through her when she saw Lion-O lying there like that was unbelievable. She realizes now that her thoughts at that time were not only protective, but possessive as well, very possessive. He was HERS. She would be damned if she was going to allow someone to just take him away from her, and she would have done anything to eliminate that threat. Just like she was now willing to do anything to keep him alive. She wasn't ready to lose him yet, not now, not ever.

Cheetara sighs to herself as she is brought back out of her reverie. A smile slowly spreads across her lips as she looks down at the cat that she has come to love more than life itself.

"You know something Lion-O, Tygra was definitely right about one thing." she tells him softly. Bringing his hand back to her lips, she places a gentle kiss on his fingers before finishing her sentence, "You and I have A LOT to talk about when you get better."


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