Tik-tik shivered and ruffled his fur in a wave from his whiskers to his tail. He sneezed. Rain again. Four suns of the stuff! He started forward again and stepped through a patch of dead leaves into yet another puddle, burying his paw up to the first joint. He hissed involuntarily.
Kao turned his head and clicked his teeth, black tail lashing. “Quiet!”
Tik-tik glared at him and heaved himself out of the indentation. “Knock it off, Kao. You’re not the boss of me.”
Kao whirled on one hind paw and swiped his claws past Tik-tik’s nose, making his whiskers wave in the wind of their passing. “Not yet, maybe,” he purred. The white fluff on the end of his foot was spattered with mud.
“Your feet are dirty,” Tik-tik noted.
“Pheh!” Kao spat and turned back to the path.
Tik-tik licked his chops and started after Kao again. The rain continued relentlessly.
“Tik-tik!” Mai-mai squealed, loping out of the cave to meet them. “You’re back!” She whizzed past Kao without acknowledging him and pressed her nose into Tik-tik’s shoulder. “It’s raining!”
“You only realized that now?”
“Hi, Mai-mai,” Kao greeted.
“Hi, Kao,” Mai-mai said without looking. “Tik-tik. Paw-paw is here.”
Tik-tik’s ears lowered. “When did he arrive?”
“Start of sun. He’s not well.”
Tik-tik, looking right at Kao, saw the flash of hunger in his eyes. Kao said nothing, just turned and went into the cave. Mai-mai watched him go.
“No, Mai-mai. Hush.”
“But…” She trailed off, worried.
“Come,” Tik-tik said. “I’m hungry and dirty. Let’s go in, see the others.”
Mai-mai clearly wanted to argue but followed him docilely enough.
Kao had walked over to the circle where Paw-paw lay and touched noses. Paw-paw barely responded.
Kao turned and saw Tik-tik. His lips were curled up in a smile. He looked to his left, past Tik-tik, to where Bo sat with his two females.
“Kao,” Bo greeted, his voice carrying in the small space.
“Bo.” His tongue curled out insolently and licked his chops. “Paw-paw isn’t doing well.”
Bo blinked and stood up, tail lashing. “Show respect, Kao.”
Kao glanced at the ailing form behind him. “He can’t hear me, Bo. He’s nearly gone.”
Bo stepped forward and growled. “You are out of order!”
“Tik-tik!” Mai-mai whispered urgently.
“Shh.” He stepped between her and the impending fight.
Kao saw him move. “You can’t protect her anymore, Tik-tik!”
Tik-tik blinked as Mai-mai’s tail lashed angrily. “Why do I need to protect her, Kao?”
Kao snorted. “Coward.”
Tik-tik roared. It came out of him almost from his claws and felt good, powerful. The sound filled the cave and Bo laid his ears back. Kao, on the other hand, looked satisfied. “I can’t fight Bo until I challenge you, Tik-tik. You’re his second.”
“Paw-paw is not dead!” Bo shouted.
Kao whirled and one paw shot out, his claws extended. The spray of blood flew all the way to the cave wall and Paw-paw collapsed in the gravel, his throat a bloody ruin.
“He is now,” Kao spat.
Bo stepped forward, his fur on end and his hackles bristling. “You should not have done that!”
“Why?” Kao sneered.
“Because now I can help Tik-tik, Kao! You are out of order!”
A brief flicker of uncertainty went through Kao’s eyes, but Bo didn’t give him a chance to react. He sprang forward with a deep, coughing roar. Tik-tik leaped with him.
The fight was unlike anything Tik-tik had fought to that sun. Kao seemed half mad with a wild insolence. Bo moved next to Tik-tik like they’d rehearsed it, but Kao was faster than both of them. His claws were everywhere and he nearly snapped Tik-tik’s foreleg with his jaws, missing by a whisker-length.
Tik-tik crouched, preparing to leap onto Kao’s back so Bo could take his throat. Some sound or movement made his eye dart to the side. “Mai-mai!”
Mai-mai, ears flat to her head and fangs clearly visible as she growled, stalked forward, front low to the ground. She hissed, a low and angry sound unlike any Tik-tik had heard from her. Kao paused, startled.
Bo jumped forward and his jaws fastened on Kao’s throat. He bound Kao’s forelegs in his own and curled onto his back, his back claws tearing bloody rents in Kao’s side and stomach. Mai-mai darted forward and swiped her front paw, all five claws out, across Kao’s muzzle.
“You will never have me!” she screamed.
Bo growled and tightened his grip. Kao’s struggles became wilder as he fought now for air. Bo strained, and Kao’s breath exhaled on a gurgle. He collapsed, dead.
Bo stood and shook himself. Glancing at Paw-paw’s body, his ears flattened momentarily. He met Tik-tik’s gaze and Tik-tik bent forward in a bow.
After a moment he heard the others do the same. When they all were bowing, Bo stood up to his full height and roared, deafening Tik-tik. Tik-tik straightened.
“Bo. You are leader,” Tik-tik said, his voice loud in the silence that followed Bo’s roar.
Bo looked at him, whiskers forward. “I…”
Tik-tik took a step toward him. “Bo. Paw-paw was old and his time was close. It would have happened anyway.”
Bo licked his chops and sat, his tail curling around his paws. “Tik-tik. I choose you as second.”
Tik-tik’s ears perked forward. “Thank you.”
“Mai-mai. Will you take Tik-tik?” Bo asked then.
Mai-mai blinked and stepped forward. She sat next to Tik-tik, her tail brushing his side. “Yes.”
“Yes?” Tik-tik blurted.
Mai-mai looked at him, her pupils dilated. “What did you expect?”
“I…” Tik-tik didn’t know what to say.
“Go, my friend,” Bo coaxed. “We will clean up the home. You chase your mate. You’ve earned it.”
Mai-mai was purring. She glanced at Bo and then swiped a paw across Tik-tik’s flank. “Catch me, if you can.” She whirled and was gone.
Tik-tik took off after her. The rain didn’t seem so bad, anymore. His tongue lolled out briefly and he sped up.