Two Squared: 12
Rhianon stood at the Perspex staring into the enclosure contemplatively. She observed the large tigress as she lovingly licked each cub in turn, taking care to give equal attention to all (even though one little fellow seemed more interested in trying to get to his dinner than being bathed).
Rhianon tried to reach the Mistress Willow on the astral plane for the fifth time in as many weeks but was unsurprised when she failed yet again. Since the birth Willow had not responded once.
Rhianon had been outvoted when the idea of a forced return to human form had been suggested. Giles and many of the inner circle of the coven agreed that Willow’s return to human form was essential. Seven of their number in Kenya and Tanzania as well as two slayers and one watcher, had succumbed to AIDS in the previous three months and more than fifty percent of the members of the African covens were severely weakened by being HIV positive. They always struggled to support their sisters and brothers on the ‘dark continent’, sending modern medicines as well as traditional spell ingredients, but the situation had become critical. They needed Willow’s power to boost the spell so they might send the appropriate energy through to assist their fellow wiccans continue their healing work, despite their own illnesses. The British covens had committed to try to send a boost every few months, there was little else they could do. Willow was the only one who could directly control Gaia’s energy with the necessary accuracy.
Rhianon understood Willow’s unwillingness communicate or change. Unlike most of the other wiccans, she was a mother … had been for close on thirty five years. She had four adult human children, three grandchildren and another on the way. She had turned to white magic while still grieving for the children’s father, her lovely Luke, who had been killed in a motorcycle accident while on the way to work. He was thirty three and she but a month from delivering his fourth child. Rhianon had always fought fiercely to keep her children safe and happy, and stressed the importance of family togetherness. Tearing Willow from her children did not sit well. It did not sit well at all.
On her seventh attempt, in the ninth week of the cubs’ existence, Rhianon managed to convey their concerns and needs to Willow on the astral plane, though the senior wiccan didn’t fail to notice that Willow had barely changed, her almost human face the only shift in astral tiger shape. Like the fathers of her children she was choosing the tiger form over her human persona. Yet Rhianon persisted with her onerous task.
She requested that Willow consider the needs of the many over the needs of the few, adding that Spike and Xander had both displayed their ability to parent cubs. The connection was lost immediately.
Eventually, at Giles’ insistence, the older wiccan made contact again a month later. At three months old, the cubs were playful, eating a little solid food and venturing from their lair into the open enclosure. Rhianon had waited and watched for most of the afternoon while an apparently relaxed Willow kept a keen eye on her brood.
Initially Willow had been particularly mindful of the older cubs in the enclosure. Spike and Xander were also watchful that any contact was caring and friendly. The other cubs were still of an age where they would still have been with their mothers were they in the wild, instead they had their fathers and the others had Willow. Concepts of solo existence and territory were not yet an issue for the seven original children, so of late the tiny cubs occasionally played with their bigger cousins, clumsily pouncing on swishing tails, inadequately attempting to wrestle the larger bodies or simply following them around. Like human children, the older ones would eventually get sick of the younger ones’ games and take themselves to a place where the little ones could not follow, or growl a threat that would send the babies scurrying back to their mother.
The cubs were fed and sleeping as Rhianon finally made contact, beginning her discussion with a very quick “I’m a mother too!” reminder. Willow’s form shifted a little more toward human as a consequence.
Willow reluctantly agreed but with one irrefutable condition. She would change for the hours of the communing and power push and for no longer. Her cubs needed her and were still feeding every four to six hours during the day. She relayed to Rhianon, in no uncertain terms, that she would not return to full human form until her youngsters were ready for adult life. If that meant two years, then Willow accepted the consequences. By then she would have aged by ten years in human terms in the duration as a tiger. Rhianon also knew she would do it in a heartbeat for her own loved ones.
It was agreed and the following day Willow put her cubs to sleep, conveyed her intention to Xander and Spike as best she could then submitted to the spell. Xander took over her place and keeping the cubs calm and warm.
As her form changed she whimpered in pain, unlike the previous time she was now conscious for the entire exercise and even though agreeing to the process, a deeper part of her resisted vehemently and fought it. Eventually the process was complete, though like Spike and Xander before her, she was in no way fully human. Her red hair had been replaced by a mane of short orange and black that extended from her nose over her head and all the way down her back as her boys’ hair had done. She certainly still sported a tail and slightly furry ears, and hands and feet remained massive paws. But she was human enough to do what needed to be done.
They sat in a blessed circle and chanted for most of the night just as twelve other covens across the country did. The younger wiccans were initially horrified by Willow’s form, but eventually forgot as the hour wore on and simply performed their task as required.
Willow’s eyes shifted to black as she drew on the power and after so many months it felt a little odd. She embraced the tiger as well as human essence and allowed the magic to flow. After all the build up, the trauma of the last few months and the recent change, the ‘kick’ she was able to give to the outbound energies was almost an anticlimax.
She hugged Giles, and despite the odd feel of the large padded hands and her new habit of nuzzling under his chin, he was reassured. Dawn was positively yet happily tearful as Willow thanked her for all her assistance with the children.
Finally she thanked Rhianon sincerely, expressed her gratitude and promised to return to them when her children were grown. Rhianon simply smiled, and kissed her fellow wiccan as she settled under a blanket, nude once more. Rhianon and Giles reversed the spell, watching Willow carefully as she writhed a little then settled back into her tiger form. The wiccan then turned to Giles and was rather shocked to see the aging Watcher in tears. She patted his arm “Two years is not too long to wait for a lifetime of happiness and family surely?”
Ahmir was sitting on the ground his back supported as he leant against the snoozing figure of his favorite, Nadir, while hosting the now almost full sized tiger’s little cousins on and around his lap.
He had a flat half sized soccer ball that Umbhala had nailed to the end of a broomstick and was teasing the pint sized, almost predators in turn. They were all careful with their lovely carer, their cousin’s wrath far more fearsome than that of mother or fathers if a claw or tooth ever threatened to go astray.
Willow’s last born cub a pretty little yellow fellow, and smaller than the others even at six months, and was still in awe of his older white cousin. He too had always been the ‘runt’, though at least had a caring mother and did not have to feed from a bottle. He was thankful of the fact as he gradually came to know of Nadir’s difficult start. Of late they were often found together, and though the larger cat still allowed his little cousin to fight his own sibling battles, if the large cousins threatened him, a now powerful and very angry two year old tiger stood strong in his defense, and threatened retribution.
Ahmir encouraged the friendship and gave in to the sheer joy of watching the two play, his now sometimes manly, sometimes boyish laugh paying tribute to his own maturing.
The young man had barely two months of school left and was expected to do ‘extremely well’ in his A-levels. His father was keen on Cambridge but Ahmir honestly could not care… so long as he could study the unusual combination of a Zoology or Veterinary science as well as (at his father’s insistence) Commercial Law, or International Commerce. In the end it was so important to the young man that his interest in animal husbandry and ethical trade practices was respected, that his father even agreed to consider ‘other’ universities.
As Ahmir prepared to finish up school and go home for the long break until university started the following year, the older cousins were prepared for transport.
They would learn to hunt in the open, and be kept in comfort, and Umbhala would be there for almost three months and Ahmir for half that, but still Spike and Xander, along with Nadir, were in a state of desperate grief by the time the van arrived.
As the handlers approached with Umbhala, the group of near-adult tigers and their parents affectionately nudged noses and rubbed against each other repeatedly; the fathers licked over adored ears and under loved chins in desperate gestures that they hoped would last… until they were together again, but that could be forever… it had to last forever…
Nadir had to be sedated. The young tiger was so desperate as he saw his siblings and cousins tranquilized and caged that he lunged at the handler in a desperate effort to stop the whole proceedings, remembering their previous capture and his own injuries.
Nadir refused to eat and it was almost two weeks before he rallied enough to even pay attention to his fathers or other cousins. His fathers fared little better but at least they seemed to understand where their young ones were headed, and took heart that they might indeed have the experience of a full hunt.
Two Squared: 13