Two Squared: 2
They had been in the enclosure for two and a half months.
When alone the two played together and slowly gave in to their feline nature. It wasn’t too hard. Xander remembered, indeed still had, parts of the hyena spirit, and Spike had lived with his demon for close on a century and a half. But this was different. Their minds, their spirit was there but everything else, their form and instincts were pure tiger. They had been lucky too, in an odd sort of a way, they had been changed to young cubs so they were in fact, growing tigers, learning their strengths and capacities naturally as any child of Sheer Khan might. They fought, climbed, growled, chased, ambushed and finally snuggled down every night together. It made the transition strangely simple.
By the fourth month they were both struggling to remember what it felt like to stand upright, to speak and be understood, eat anything but raw meat, or walk off a leash when away from their holding pen. In the first weeks they had yearned to be rescued, convinced that Willow and Giles would find them. Now, as their previous existence seemed to fade, they were beginning to not care.
Their holding area, their cage, was on the ground floor at the rear of the palace. It had Perspex surround, not bars, and was set up like a tiny rainforest for the viewer’s pleasure. The floor space was that of a medium sized house, and was covered in soft sand and fine bark throughout so the ground was both soft and warm. Handlers came in every day to exercise and school them. They were being trained as personal pets. One white tiger and one gold, they made a spectacular pair. Their eyes had kept their original color, though Xander’s were slightly more yellow than his chocolate of old as befitted his dark stripes.
Xander and Spike’s mental link seemed to have endured, and their communication via that was strengthened with each day. They also had instinctive body signals and growls that enhanced the understanding. The only frustration was the inability to tell their friend, their master Ahmil what they were trying to say. But he was both kind and attentive and sometimes got it right.
When the sun was scorching and the heat too much, they resorted to the palm and bamboo surrounded pool in their enclosure. Spike was initially very timid but confidence improved as he realized his own new natural talent for swimming. Once sufficiently wet, they generally retreated to snooze away the heat of the day under the shade cloth canopy amongst the newly planted second layer of rainforest plants. They always touched when they slept, more often than not a head resting on the other’s torso or a paw on the other’s back.
Ahmil never failed to visit them at the end of their exercise sessions, sometimes allowed to wrestle the young tigers by the handlers. Both Xander and Spike were extremely careful with their fragile human. The boy became bolder, and began to stay to groom and feed the two in their cage. The lad was enamored by his two pets. His father worried a little as the tigers grew, but standing at the training enclosure one afternoon late in the third month after their arrival he watched the *three* wrestling together, and could only smile, noting that despite all the growling, rolling around and batting, the fast growing cats had their claws retracted and only ever seemed to open their mouths over their playmates, never really biting down.
Giles was devastated and Willow frantic when the two did not return from their night of surveillance. They had sent Xander and Spike into a situation that was apparently benign, to simply investigate and observe, but it had consequently proven either deadly or magical or both.
After conventional methods of searching failed, and they discovered the night keeper had also gone missing, Willow and her coven attempted to home in on the magicks surrounding the zoo. The result was profoundly disturbing. They had known prior to the night, that there was a buildup, but the residual magical signature around the cat enclosures was extraordinarily powerful and ancient. Giles suspected a particular warlock from the Baltic state of Lithuania, Szolt, who was stronger than any others in Europe and a ‘gun for hire’ so to speak.
It was obvious in the end. There had been no abductions of the real babies, but in all cases of the ‘sandman’ attack on zoo creatures, humans had disappeared. There was somebody using the human life force and the newborn to create another, an identical animal, for sale.
Three months on Willow was finally given access to the transport manifests of customs around the days of Xander and Spike’s disappearance. There was nothing. So they inquired with all UK zoos and private game parks.
Willow and Giles realized in that moment, that assuming this is what had occurred and given the apparent numbers involved in animal trading globally, it could take months if not years to locate Xander and Spike.
Willow refused to give up. But by the fourth month of their disappearance, she and Giles broke their lease and packed up the house for the two, placing their rather meager collection of possessions into storage in the old shed behind the Watchers’ Council’s new headquarters.
By month five and a half with Ahmil, the (apparently) seven month old (former human/vampire) tigers, were perhaps a half of their eventual adult size, and though the sense of fun had not disappeared, the games were becoming more serious as physical skills were primed and their senses slowly honed. Spike had been a predator for over a century and adapted easily. Xander was a little more timid, though with his handler’s training exercises and Spike’s encouragement, he had begun to stalk beside his partner easily. Their play fights became ever more robust when left to their own devices, though there was far more hissing and swiping than real injuries. What did not change over time was the devotion to each other (if anything that grew), as did the fondness for their affectionate young owner.
Spike pricked up his ears, literally, as the two trainers began to speak at speed regards a hunt with their charges at the instruction of the young Master. The prospect was exciting, Spike licked his partner’s ears, rousing him from a twitch-worthy dream.
Through the link the white tiger felt the “Hmmm?”, then they both stood and stretched, took their daily bath and waited for the outcome of the overheard conversation.
It was not long in coming. A month later, they were lead out by one of the trainers, a tall, elegant man from Mali, who was a specialist in training ‘big cats’.
Umbahla had always been fair and helpful to the young tigers, and the connection with him was real. Both Xander and Spike smelt the excitement of their trainer, but still tried to stay calm. They had learned from bitter experience that any untoward behavior led to a harsh smack on the nose, quick strike of the long crop, or the rest of the day in a small cage at the end of the training enclosure.
They were let off their leads more frequently of late, trained to walk at heal, drop to a sphinx like pose when instructed, and return to their handlers on command. Spike was the less compliant of the two cats, though he eventually capitulated simply to avoid being ‘stung’ with the whip, or worse… confined. Now the reason for the discipline was obvious.
On this momentous afternoon, they were indeed ‘going out’. It was to be the first of many such excursions.
They were loaded into a brand new, made to order Range Rover, the back modified specifically to carry the tigers.
Xander was having flashbacks to other hunting adventures in Sunnydale. Although the human memories were becoming more and more distant, he couldn’t shake the images. His role as ‘bait’ and rather inadequate efforts, his feelings of shame and hurtful situations seemed to permeate his thoughts. Spike for his part remembered the thrill of the hunt and rejoiced in his new status back at the top of the food chain, yet felt his partner’s distress clearly through their link. He stood and moved to settle behind his hunting partner, licking his friend’s beloved ears and the nape of his neck and gently relaxing him as they bumped their way out into some of the more arid territory of Dubai.
After a good hour’s drive their leads were clipped back on and they alighted from the vehicle into bright sunlight, rather dazed. It was a game park, not of the enormous Kenyan/Tanzanian national park variety, but a game park none the less.
Xander and Spike were instinctively on alert. They could smell other animal scents, the scent of prey… hundreds of them. They could also smell other predators, in particular cheetahs and lions, though the scent seemed old. They had no place here, they knew that, yet their handlers gave them no choice.
They were led to a strategic place near a herd of antelope and encouraged to pause, plan, then move in for a coordinated attack.
Still young they enjoyed the sport immensely, caught nothing, and were returned home exhausted, still hungry and very happy. The hunting excursion became a highlight of every week until finally as the two turned one year of age as tigers, they caught a roebuck and shared the spoils. Ahmil was there to see it and most excited at the sheer magnificence of his two dangerous pets.
That day as they were being led back to their enclosure, both still rangy young tigers with blood still encrusting their whiskers and paws, the two dropped obediently beside their young master as he stopped to greet a couple of his father’s visitors. The boy grinned with pride as the two older men looked nervously from Ahmil to his pets and back. When Xander smelled a slight tinge of distress coming from his master however, he gave a low warning growl. Spike also picked up the tension and understood the Arabic. The family was sending Ahmil to a prestigious boys’ school in England when he turned fourteen, which was the coming fall. The white tiger also bared his teeth a little. Ahmil was not phased, but the men made a hasty retreat.
It was almost sixteen months since their disappearance and they finally got a break. An anomaly in some veterinary records coinciding with the dates of the disappearances, led Willow to reexamine all out going cargo on private and cargo planes. They found records of the export of the two cheetahs, and the black panther, four cougars, several lions and finally… a pair of tigers one white and one gold. The dates coincided and Willow was convinced.
She tracked down their destination with relative ease and managed to contact the transport company. Claiming to be a zoo employee eager to ascertain the wellbeing of the animals, the agent eventually gave her their ultimate destination.
Willow’s first inclination was to rush in, but Giles feared for the worst.
If the two had truly integrated with their other forms then the transition to human might be confusing at best, or deadly at worst. He counseled her and the both wrote to the Sheikh requested a visit, “on behalf of the Zoo”.
Two Squared: 3