Chapter Sixteen: Introducing Little RenMature

"Raider! Raider, I need to talk to you -"

"Not now, Ren. I've got to spend at least ten minutes meditating to get in the zone before I go into the ring." Raider didn't budge an inch, but remained cross-legged, with eyes closed, on the floor where Molly had found her seconds before.

Molly wrung her hands. "It's very important -"

"In show business, nothing is more important than preparation," Raider said, her voice sounding as though it were made of silk. 

"But that's precisely what -"

"I've run through it with you more than enough, Ren, you can handle this. Get out there and earn your keep, will you?"

The pounding in Molly's chest was almost enough to break her ribs right open, but for some reason Raider's final demand cut deep and Molly threw herself from the room and ran frantically back to Prowler's wheeled cage. Maybe she had hallucinated the entire thing? She scooped up the torch and shone it inside. Still empty.

Fear suddenly fermenting into fury as though a switch had been struck in her brain, Molly screwed her face up and flung the torch at the carriage. It soared past the open bars in the left side and crashed against the metal panel on the right side with a chilling clang

Molly crouched on the ground and massaged her temples vigorously. Prowler's act would be starting at any moment, and she could only imagine what the snake-lady would be like in a foul mood.... Not that she wanted to imagine it.

A puff of hot breath tickled the back of her neck, something cold and wet pushed against her wispy hair. Molly gulped and blinked, turning around slowly and carefully so as not to throw herself off balance.

Her nose was inches from a triangular pink one, which was surrounded by layers and layers of fur and whiskers, all a-twitch with curiosity as it sniffed her face. Thick black stripes broke through planes of pale orange, boldly circling the beast's round, golden eye. The right eye.

The left eye of the beast was also golden, but because it was built of - Molly suspected, at least - real gold. It was a peculiar contraption, not as subtle or elegant as the work that Dr. Meriwether had done on Molly's face, but it was the same technology all the same. In the swift, mechanical shifting of the golden eye, Molly saw as much emotion as she did in its other eye.

And as she faced the beast head-on, moments from potentially losing her head to the jaws of a giant cat, Molly the Miracle Girl could only utter one word - "Beautiful."

The tiger bowed its head just briefly before pouncing in the direction of the circus tent, and vanishing inside the backstage cut in the flapping red canvas. It only took a fraction of a second for the first screams to ring out, and Molly leaped up and sprinted inside, where she ran headlong into Buck.

"Best stay back, little Ren," he advised her, holding her in place.

"No! It's - it's my fault -" Molly struggled against his grip. She strained to see into the ring; the tiger had pinned a young boy in the front row onto his back, and was dragging him by the scruff of his jacket into the ring. A couple of audience members wailed in terror, while other seemed to think it a part of the performance. Prowler stood center-stage, eyes attempting to pin the tiger in place, hissing loudly over the pandemonium, attempting to control the cat like she did the rest of her animals.

The tiger raised its head and growled in Prowler's direction, and the snake-lady stumbled back, reaching for something inside her purple velvet cloak. Her scaly fingers pulled out a long, thin blade.

A tiny voice burst through Molly's ears. She's going to kill me. I only wanted to play.

The metal arm on Molly's right side suddenly swung out against Buck's grasp, and she was loose. She barely felt her legs and she ran towards Prowler and the tiger and threw herself, arms spread, between the two. Prowler's serpentine eyes pierced Molly's, a cackling hiss beginning somewhere in her throat. 

Molly turned around to face the tiger. "Pick him up, and take him straight back to his mother. Right now."

The cat's giant eyes, one liquid-yellow, the other solid gold, bore into Molly's before it finally resolved to picking the boy up by his scruff once more and carrying him back to the sniveling lady in the row closest to the ring. 

"Now apologize," Molly commanded, surprising herself with her own improvisation.

The tiger bowed low and began to make a meek purring sound deep in its throat, and the entire tent seemed to heave a sigh of affection in unison. The boy giggled and reached out to pat the cat on the head, while his pale mother seemed to suddenly have a glow in her cheeks. 

Clapping. Cheering. The tiger sat next to Molly's feet. Prowler stormed away in a rage. The lights of the tent had begun to melt the black and white makeup on Molly's face. Everyone was applauding. But why?

"Ladies and gentlemen, Cirque Deviati is very pleased to introduce Little Ren, the first to ever successfully command the Mechanical Tiger!"

People standing, still clapping. Her palms sweating. More and more heat. The tiger flicked its tail towards Molly's leg. The voice in her head again; thanks, old girl

The End

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