Chapter Fifteen: A Change of Heart?
Kenobi cracked an eyelid. The cool, brisk breeze and the lightening sky told him it was nearly dawn. He craned his neck, as he laid on his back in Naomi’s paws, to look at Garoe.
As much as Kenobi’s body begged for more sleep, he knew what he needed to do.
Carefully squeezing out from under Naomi’s brown paws and stepping over her copper-colored arms, Kenobi was certain not to wake her. When he was finally free, he stretched forward, extending his front claws. He yawned and rubbed one eye with his paw; at the same time pushing his black hair tuft away from his eyes.
As he put his paw down, Kenobi looked to where Garoe was sleeping, by Manzi and Noah. He took in a deep breath, putting on his air of confidence before he walked toward them.
Without making a sound, he approached Garoe. Kenobi gently nudged the mud-colored cub on the shoulder.
Garoe sleepily opened his exposed eye. It snapped open with he recognized Kenobi.
“Relax,” Kenobi whispered. He smiled.
Garoe swallowed and stood. His long, brown hair tuft further covered the right side of his face. He whispered back, “What do you want?”
“Come with me for a minute.” Kenobi turned and walked away a few steps. He stopped once to make sure Garoe was following before Kenobi led him to the small tree that overlooked the pride. He’d seen Manzi and Garoe up there before.
Kenobi turned to face Garoe before he sat down. He almost enjoyed Garoe’s bewildered expression as he started, “Look Garoe: about what I’ve said before… I think we got off on the wrong foot.”
Garoe cocked his head, expression flat. “What do you mean?”
“Garoe, I haven’t been that nice to you. I guess I was just jealous because Antonio accepted you into the pride so quickly.” Kenobi paused and looked down at the pride. “And I was worried when that masked cheetah and that… reptile came after you and the others.” He turned back to Garoe before he continued. “I know that they were really after you, but that means you put the others in danger. I guess I got mad at you for that. You see, I want to be Antonio’s successor. If I want to that, I need to try to put my friends first. You know, for practice.”
Garoe nodded and sat down.
Kenobi continued. “Now that Manzi has made you her friend, and Antonio made you part of the pride, I decided to change the way I thought of you. Any friend of Manzi’s is a friend of mine.”
Garoe looked down at the pride and put a paw on his amulet before he turned to Kenobi. “So, you have a change of heart?”
Kenobi broke into a smile and nodded, his black braid swinging over his copper-colored shoulder. “Can we be friends?”
Garoe looked Kenobi in the eye. “We can, but—”
“Great!” Kenobi said before Garoe could finish. “If you don’t mind, I’d like you to play with me and Noah later today. Please?”
“I will think about it,” Garoe said, standing.
“Thanks, Garoe!” Kenobi’s chest swelled with pride as he trotted down the hill. Feeling pleased with himself when he got to the bottom of hill, he lay down and rolled in the tall grass, startling a bird. So far, so good, he thought.
Later that day, Manzi stepped away from the bustle of activity to catch her breath. Playing a game of tag with the cheetahs was impossible without getting completely winded.
As her breathing started to steady, Manzi heard heavy footfalls behind her. “What’s up, Shani?” she asked without turning around.
Manzi cocked an eyebrow as she looked up at the zebra. “What?”
Shani’s green eyes shifted for a second. “He’s up to something and I’m pretty sure it’s about Garoe.”
Manzi stood. “Slow down, bud nipper. What in the world are you talking about?”
Shani knelt down so Manzi could climb on his back. Getting up, he said, “I was grazing early this morning, before dawn, and I heard them talking. Actually, Kenobi was doing most of the talking.”
“What did he say?”
“In short, that green-eyed schemer said he wanted to make up lost time and make friends with your skinny stray.”
“You do realize that’s all you’ve said this morning?”
“Shani, this is really serious,” Manzi snapped. “That doesn’t sound like something Kenobi would do.”
“Unless there’s something in it for him,” Shani added.
Manzi suddenly felt dread bubbling in her chest. “You know what you said to me yesterday about Kenobi—?”
“—wanting to hire that masked cheetah? Yeah. He said that to Ruka but everyone thought he was joking.” Shani turned his head so Manzi could make eye contact.
“He wasn’t kidding, Shani.” Manzi swallowed. “He’s dead serious about this.”
“Did you have to say ‘dead?’”
Manzi ignored the comment. “Do you think Kenobi’s actually made contact with Qymaen?”
Shani’s striped shoulders shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“He was out awfully late last night.” Manzi told Shani about the conversation she had with Noah.
Shani blew through his nose in a sigh. He looked at Manzi again. “What do you want to do? This could get really ugly.”
“I know. But what can we do? We don’t have any solid proof. Just a few suspicious overheard conversations, and bad feelings of our own.”
“Antonio will believe you, won’t he?”
“Of course.” Manzi nodded. “But I’ve been wrong before and Kenobi will never admit to what he’s been doing.”
Shani snorted. “That black-maned rascal can be as smooth as a snake.”
Manzi sighed. “I’ll talk to Garoe. Maybe he can tell me more.”
“Let’s hope so. Maybe if we’re lucky, we can catch Kenobi red-pawed.”
Manzi only nodded, too busy thinking to answer. When she and Shani returned to the pride, Manzi was surprised to find Garoe playing with Noah and Kenobi. He was smiling, but unlike Noah and Kenobi, he wasn’t laughing.
I’ve never heard him laugh, Manzi suddenly realized. She’d never thought about it before. Then her attention turned to Kenobi. She leaned further onto Shani’s neck, pushing his gray, stiff mane aside. “Garoe seems to be having fun,” she said. “Kenobi looks like he’s having fun with him.”
Shani nearly snorted. “Yeah, but what kind of fun? It’ll take more than one game of tag to make Kenobi accept your stray. He’s having more fun with Garoe’s mind and emotions, I think.”
“Maybe so,” Manzi replied, searching Kenobi for any signs he was plotting. Not seeing any she said, “I will talk to Garoe, though. And Noah, too.”
Shani seemed surprised. “Why Noah? You hardly know him.”
“Because,” Manzi started as she jumped down from Shani’s back. “Noah knows more about the masked cheetah than I do. Besides, he’s a natural eavesdropper and has a quick mind. If anyone can help me solve this mystery, it’ll be him.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Shani scolded, nudging Manzi with his muzzle. He almost knocked her over. “What about me? I deserve some of the credit.”
“Oh, yeah?” Manzi teased, grinning. “For what?”
“Well, who had to put up with carrying that strange lion cub on his back, and suffered four scratch marks to boot!” Shani paused and craned his neck to examine the small, healing scratches on his flank.
Manzi giggled. “Uh, you did.”
“And who alerted you to Taiche and Mifi’s hare-brained scheme? Then who helped you rescue them from the two worst bounty hunters on the whole plain?”
Manzi grinned again. “You did, Shani.”
“Yes, me. And now I’m still sticking my striped neck out for that mud-colored friend of yours.”
Manzi rubbed against Shani’s foreleg. “Yep. And I love you for it, you know that.”
Shani laughed. “Thanks for the reminder.” He shrugged before he nuzzled Manzi’s crimson fur. “Just do me a favor and don’t confide in that cheetah cub too>/i> much. You know how talkative they are.”
Manzi gently batted Shani’s brown, velvety nose. “No problem. But I didn’t need you to tell me that.” She gestured with her head to where Chee was telling the other cubs the latest gossip, her favorite pastime besides goofing off.
Shani just looked down at Manzi, winked, and nodded.