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What Lies Within

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In the vast, green jungle, the peaceful sounds of birds tweeting and rushing water was suddenly shattered by a loud, violent roar and the cracking of gunshots.

 

A large, black blur suddenly flew through the underbrush, followed by many masked men a few moments later. These men skidded to a stop, looking around the large trees quickly. “Where did it go?” One of them demanded,”We can’t lose the experiment!”

 

The blur leapt out from the green bushes, a roar escaping as their huge paws slammed into the first man’s stomach, teeth sinking into their neck. The man screamed, falling to the ground. Two other soldiers cried out, turning their guns to the large creature and shooting.

 

The panther turned, running back through the trees. His sensitive hearing heard the man yell,”Don’t let it get away, shoot if you have to!!”

 

Running as fast as it could, the panther skidded around a tree, ignoring the leaves slamming into his face. He noticed a light ahead, and desperately hoped that there was some type of freeway or town that he could hide in. These bastards wouldn’t chase him around people, where they might be discovered. It was his only hope, the only chance he had for safety-

 

But as the black big cat broke through the trees, he let out a cry, skidding to a stop right at the edge of a tall, shaky cliff. His ears flattened against the back of his head, brown eyes staring down in fear. His body turned, trying run back into the trees before they caught up with him, but it was too late.

 

The men now stood near the edge of the cliff as well, using their bodies to block any escape from the open cliff. One of the closer men smirked, and declared,”Nowhere for you to go now, Stark .”

 

The panther’s body shuddered, his hackles raising as he hissed loudly. No! I can’t go back! You can’t make me!! The men moved forward as large paws moved backwards, and he released a violent roar.

 

As the soldiers moved forward and he moved back, the ground underneath them suddenly wasn’t as secure. The combined weight of a large panther and full grown men wasn’t easy for the cliff to hold. Tony realized this right away thanks to his sensitive paws. He quickly backed all the way to the edge, putting all his weight into the ground.

 

The rock crumbled below them. Tony’s body tensed, paws spreading out. But he didn’t let go, because falling to his death was better than whatever HYDRA was going to do to him. As the rock fell, his brown eyes stared at the panicked soldiers with pride.

 

The rock broke apart as he fell. But instead of falling for a while, he slammed into rock below it. His body flopped, rolling off the edge of the rock and tumbling down the rest of the mountain. He let out yowls of pain all the way down, until something cold and wet surrounded him.

 

It hurt, but the adrenaline was still pulsing through his body. He stood up, his wet fur dragging a bit. Frantically, the big cat looked around, before noticing something next to him. The river was much larger and deeper next to him, with a waterfall falling into it.

 

Why couldn’t I have fallen right there?! Tony wondered angrily, but didn’t dwell on it too long. He ran into the water, his paws paddling frantically and ignoring the burning pain in his body, he didn’t know how fast they could get down the cliff, he needed to move fast.

 

When his eyes caught the sight of something behind the waterfall, he quickly swam towards it. He pushed through the rushing waters, and found a small cave. Quickly, he pushed himself from the water, pressing himself as far back as he could, and desperately hoping they wouldn't be able to find him.

 

Curled up tightly, he listened as intently as possible. His intelligent eyes watched the movement beyond the waterfall, watching them pace and look around the river. Tony was thankful he stayed in the water, he didn’t leave any tracks.

 

It felt like hours passed by before he finally saw them gather together in front of the waterfall. He couldn’t hear a thing they were saying over the rushing waters, but he saw one man point, and they all rushed off together. Still afraid, he remained tense, waiting to see if they were going to come back.

 

After several long, painful moments, they didn’t appear in his vision anymore.. They were gone. Instantly, relief filled the panther’s system. The adrenaline vanished, his legs shaking a moment before giving way. He crashed to the ground, too exhausted to get back up. Finally.. I finally escaped..

 

The big cat released a huge, thankful sigh. It had been so long, he was so tired.. Tony didn’t even have enough energy to stay cautious any longer.. He just wanted to rest. His brown eyes slowly closed, as he fell asleep to the sound of rushing water.

 

-- -- -- -- -- --

 

Thankfully, when Tony woke up, he was still alone underneath the waterfall. The panther sighed in relief, before his left front leg began to throb. He growled slightly, pushing himself with his other paws. After testing the paw a few times, he realized he could still stand, but it hurt rather pretty badly. Of course, it was nothing compared to the other things HYDRA did.

 

Tony’s sleek, lean body turned, stalking towards the edge of the waterfall. He poked his head out slightly, brown eyes examining carefully. When he saw nothing, he waded out into the water again, swimming over to the shallow end. This time, lifting his head into the air. His black nose twitched slightly, as he sniffed the air for any scent of them. Any scent he caught was days old, so he then began to wade through the water.

 

Despite the pain in his body, he knew he couldn't stop stop. I have to keep going.. Tony thought with determination. I don't know when those sick fucks will come back, they want me alive, they won't just give up.

 

The panther cringed as memories of the pain and experimentations crawled into his brain, but shook his head quickly. No, he couldn't think about that. He was safe, and if he wanted to keep it that way he needed to remain vigilant.

 

Staying in the shallow water as to not make tracks, the genius never allowed his mind to wander again. He didn't know how long he had been asleep, they could be anywhere, he needed to stay alert.

 

The wilderness around him was obviously nervous about the appearance of the big cat. He could hear birds nervously chirping, and the sound of animals slinking around quickly, to avoid him.

 

His stomach was desperately clawing for some sustenance, but even his animal instincts knew that running away was the safer decision.

 

He looked around the large trees, he took a sharp left turn, deciding that he had gone far enough away. It was safe.. For now.

 

Tony’s sleek body sloshed onto the grass, which tickled his abused paw pads slightly. He brought his back legs up, shaking the water off them, and making his way through deep forest, long tail swishing above the ground.

 

Just as he passed through the large brush, he heard something else moving. He heard voices.. His ears rose on his head, paw stopping in midair. His sensitive hearing listened closely, trying to discern if it was the Handler and the other soldiers..

 

No, no.. That’s too high to be HYDRA soldiers.. Too high to be an adult.. He thought. His black paw slowly lowering to the ground as instincts took over. He lowered himself into the greenery, haunches raised. Then, the genius tured panther began to creep forward.

 

As he crept closer, ears flicking towards the noise, he started to realize what exactly was making it. It wasn’t Handler, or the soldiers… It sounded like something else.

 

It sounded like kids.

 

I haven’t smelt anything but forest for miles, how did they get all the way out here? He thought worriedly, his sensitive nose taking in the air once more as he crept closer, his head pushing through the trees to get a view of the group. He could see three of them.. And they weren't just any kids..

 

-- -- -- -- -- --

 

“We’re lost!” Lila exclaimed sadly,”How are we supposed to find mom now!?”

 

Cooper had taken a seat, his longer black hair falling into his eyes. “Why are you yelling at me?!” He snapped,”It’s Nathaniel’s fault anyways!”

 

The two year old in question didn't seem to care that he got them lost. Instead, he was laughing and clapping his little hands. “Green! Green!” He squealed,”We got trees!”

 

Cooper frowned at his brother, feeling a slight annoyance at the fact he got them lost.. Of course, Nathaniel was 2, he didn't know much better.

 

They had been heading towards the Wakandan palace. T’Challa was moving them into hiding because some asshole named Ross was hunting them down, trying to find their father. Of course.. The teenager muttered darkly. Clint seems to ruin everything these days.

 

But along the way their ride had to stop because of some technical difficulties. Nathaniel had apparently seen something interesting in the forest, and his little legs moved as fast as he could to get it. Cooper knew their mom was stressed, she didn't need to be panicking about Nathaniel right now. So he figured he would just be able to run in, grab Nathaniel, and his mom would be none the wiser.

 

But when he and Lila caught up to Nathaniel, they realized that they had no idea where they were. The three kids were surrounded by giant trees and large plants that covered their vision for miles.

 

Trying to wander only sent them in different directions with no real clue as to where their mother was. They were completely, and utterly lost.

 

Lila looked around again, messing with her  dark hair for the probably hundredth time in the last five minutes. “Maybe we should look around some more? Someone might find us!” She nervously suggested.

 

“No, we should stay here,” Cooper firmly declared,”What if we’re closer than we think, and we leave, and they miss finding us?”

 

“But if we’re closer than we think, shouldn't we just look around? Maybe we’ll find people!” She exclaimed, her hands shaking with anxiety.

 

“I know what I'm doing, Lila, okay!?” Cooper yelled,”Don't argue with me, I'm the oldest!”

 

Lila angrily stepped forward, pointing her finger in his face. “Just because you're the oldest doesn't mean you know everything!” She hissed,”You got us even more lost!”

 

Cooper and Lila continued to yell, arguing over their predicament out of fear more than hatred. Nathaniel watched his siblings for a moment, frowning at all the loud noises. It reminded the toddler of when mommy and daddy fought before daddy left. He didn't like that..

 

Suddenly, there was a small rustle behind him. Nathaniel turned around, his dirty blonde hair shaking in the small breeze, and tilted his head. It took a moment, but he saw it. There, in the bushes, he saw a big nose with whiskers and brown eyes staring out at him.

 

Instantly, his little mind was reminded of the cats on their farm. They weren't really pets, but his mommy let them stay and fed them because they took care of the rats. Nathaniel loved kitties, and seeing a super huge kitty was even cooler! He didn't know kitties could be that big.

 

Using his small limbs, he pushed himself onto his feet and toddled over to the green bush, giggles escaping him.

 

As he moved closer, the big kitty pushed his head all the way out of the trees. Oh! The kitty wanted to see him too! This made Nathaniel even more excited.

 

“Kitty!” He said happily, reaching the big black cat, his small hand reaching up to touch it, and..

 

“NATHANIEL NO!” Lila’s voice screamed, making the toddler stumble in surprise and fall back on his butt. Lila instantly yanked him closer, lifting him to her chest and backing away from the big kitty. Nathaniel instantly started to cry, his hands reaching for the kitty still.

 

Surprisingly, to Cooper, his sister’s scream didn’t scare off the panther. In fact, the big cat instead rose to his full height, creeping out of the bushes and into full view. Oh dear god.. He’s huge, it’s going to kill us! Cooper felt his heart trying to break through his chest, his hand scrambling to find a weapon.

 

As the panther padded closer, Cooper’s hand found possession of a large rock. He quickly moved in front of his siblings, and raised it above his head. “G-get away from us! I’m n-not afraid to hurt you!” Cooper yelled.

 

“No! Don’t hurt kitty!” Nathaniel sobbed, causing Cooper’s eyes to flick towards him for a moment. But in that simple second, the big cat had managed to take many steps closer.

 

“STAY AWAY!” Cooper yelled, throwing the rock as hard as he could. It crashed into the panther’s head, causing the animal to flinch, ears flattening against his head. Cooper could see the blood on the panther’s head from the hard hit, but surprisingly, the creature didn’t get angry.

 

Cooper’s hazel eyes watched him carefully as his breathing picked up, their eyes remained locked for several moments. The big cat’s eyes seemed.. Calm, and calculated, as if he was thinking of something.

 

The big paws moved closer, and this time Cooper didn’t move, he stayed perfectly still. Lila began to get nervous as well, and whispered,”Cooper..”

 

“Shh..” The older boy said, as the panther took one last step, before sitting down. It’s tail swished on the ground slightly, but other than that it remained still.

 

Slowly, Cooper reached his hand out, trembling slightly, and walking a little closer. Then, he slowly lowered his hand onto the top of the panther’s soft head. Cooper tensed, waiting for his hand to be bitten off… But nothing happened.

 

Opening his eyes, he moved his hand to it’s ears, experimentally scratching behind them. A loud, relaxed noise that Cooper wasn't expecting to hear escaped the cat, leaning into Cooper’s hand.

 

The panther seemed to forget just how heavy he was, however, as he and Cooper both toppled to the ground. Cooper cried out in surprise, sitting up quickly as he turned back to the panther. It was now rolling on the ground, it’s fuzzy belly visible as it let out happy noises.

 

Lila giggled, placing Nathaniel down. “Aww! He’s just a big sweetheart!” She squealed happily, moving over to rub the panther’s belly.

 

“Pet the kitty?” Their two year old brother asked hopefully, walking over, and looking at his siblings innocently.

 

Cooper let out a soft chuckle and nodded. “Yes Nathaniel,” He responded,”You can pet the kitty.”

 

Nathaniel let out an excited squeal, clapping his hands and running over to the cat, flopping on the middle of the panther’s belly. The cat’s tail thrashed for a moment, a surprised chuff escaping him, before he relaxed. Nathaniel smiled, running his chubby fingers through the fur.

 

The kids took in the warmth and safety the panther gave off, and started to relax for the first time in hours. The stress of their parent’s fighting, the trip to Wakanda, knowing they were being chased, and getting lost had finally caught up with them. They were all so tired..

 

Nathaniel was the first to fall asleep, curled against the panther’s belly. Lila want next, asleep next to the two year old. Cooper was last, petting the panther’s head a little longer before moving to the other side of Nathaniel, to keep the toddler warm, and allowed himself to relax into sleep.

 

After all three had gone to sleep, Tony lowered his head to the floor, his tail curling over the children’s backs protectively. I don’t know what they are doing out here.. Or where we are, but the least I can do is keep them safe until they’re found.. He thought. I know Clint and the rest of team Cap are probably searching for them. After they’re found, I’ll keep running. It’s not like they’ll realize it’s me, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t care..

 

They already proved that much.. So why would anyone care enough to look for me?