Jeremy paused next to his father on the hiking trail, breath coming fast in his throat from the steady march upwards as he leaned on his walking stick, fingers clenching and unclenching around the smooth wood.
"What?" he asked, glancing up at his father's stiff form, body held still in the grey mist of the morning. The mountains were moist and cool, the sun still playing in the eddies of the horizon, leaving the sky pale and empty, clouds having lowered themselves in the night. A few distant ridges and peaks jutted out from the white sea, blue and hazy. It was a sight that Jeremy was used to, coming out here every year to camp, but it never dulled or faded with time. It was the most secret collection of things, the last magic of the deep south that no telephone or sidewalk could take away.
His dad remained silent, that look to him whenever he spotted an interesting animal or plant, but he didn't point, didn't eagerly begin explaining in that biology teacher way, voice hushed and excited.
Jeremy took a couple steps up the ridge, hiking boots clinging to the grit of the stone, and angled himself to follow his father's line of sight.
It didn't take but a minute to spot what he was looking at.
It was a cat, huge and utterly unlike any mountain lion or cougar. Easy twice the size of one, and all muscle under velvet fur, dark brown coat with even darker markings over its back and forepaws. It had a mane around its neck, not as thick as an African lion's, but impressive nonetheless, and a frill of hair that ran up its neck and onto its forehead. It's tail, long and graceful, was twitching back and forth, and...it was watching them.
It was almost two hundred yards out, separated from them by a deep gully, but Jeremy couldn't mistake those bright green eyes focused on them -- not with the wondering unintelligence of a mindless beast, but the calm assurance of a sentient being, looking them over with only a cursory curiosity.
"Oh my god..." Jeremy whispered, wonder and fear thrilling through him at the same time. He knew what this was, of course, how could he not -- but even with so many summers of camping or hiking the Appalachian Trail under his belt, he'd never seen one before. An ailure. A panther with the ability to change its shape to that of a man -- or a man with the ability to change his shape to that of a panther, depending on who you asked.
In school he'd learned about the Blue Ridge Pride, the cougars that lived in the mountains, and it was certainly an element that had heavily played into the stories told around campfires at night when he was a kid -- stories of giant cats slinking through the brush, stealing away wayward campers with nary a sound, or beautiful girls who would lure people off the trail, into the darkness, where only her glowing eyes remained.
For all that, though, Jeremy had never seen one before, not with his own eyes, and he didn't know what to do, what he should do. Fear and fascination warred in him, and sure, he wasn't a kid anymore, he knew that the ailure didn't hunt humans, unless you listened to the crazies with their conspiracy theories. All the same though, as far away as it was, Jeremy could see how the creature could tear them to pieces, and not much to it. A few great bounds and it could close the distance like it was nothing, and no amount of stick waving would scare it off. It was no witless cougar, scared off by prey that put up a fight.
It was some three hundred pounds of muscle and bone and teeth, claws hooked like talons, and even still as it was, it stood with the grace of thousands of years, the intelligence of a man set in the body of a predator. In the wan light of morning, it owned the mountains as easily as it stood upon them, blue light scattered over its coat, thin trails of moisture drifting by it like smoke, like something glanced in the distant past.
Then, as if it weighed nothing at all, it slipped off its rock and vanished into the mist, the flick of its tail the last thing Jeremy saw, and he began to breath again, heart beating with the mountains and the sun peaking over the ridge, spilling orange deep into the crags and gullies, breaking that last spell of the night.
It was a story he'd tell his grandchildren.
It was unlikely to happen, but Jensen didn't like to risk a camper being mistaken for a deer.
'Campers already?' Alona's voice broke his musing, her long body laying out over a strong tree branch. He glanced up at her, coming to a stop.
'Hikers,' he replied, licking his chops absently. He'd found a tasty squirrel for breakfast that morning.
'Seems like earlier every year.' The female ailure made her way down the tree, jumping from branch to branch and finally landing on the ground with a soft 'whump.'
'That's only because you're getting older, little sister.' Jensen bore no blood relation to Alona, but that didn't change their relationship. He'd been nearly twenty when she was born, and it was hard to deny that the outgoing little kitten had wormed her way into his affections. As if to prove it, she sauntered up, purring and butting her head up under his chin, an overly familiar move for someone to greet their alpha, but Jensen just winced his eyes in pleasure, enjoying the contact.
He paused to groom the side of her face before setting off again, trotting back towards pride grounds, Alona bounding ahead with all the enthusiasm of youth.
It was an exciting time of year for their pride -- the winter had thawed early, the fertiles going into their heats earlier than usual. It wouldn't be long now until the first of the birthings would begin, and soon after that the pride would be crawling in cubs. It was something that everyone looked forward to, whether or not they would be parents, and Jensen had always enjoyed watching the youngsters take their first unsteady steps, even more so once he became alpha, proudly watching his pride grow.
This year, though, was different.
For the first time in his thirty five years, he would be welcoming in cubs of his own.
After such a long wait, it had become clear that he wasn't destined to find a mate. It was something that saddened him still, from time to time, but he'd accepted it, taking it in stride with all the burdens of managing his pride. He told himself he would be content to consider the pride his family, watching other families grow and expand and taking what he could in knowing that it was his care and devotion that allowed them to do so.
That was, until Cosette had approached him.
An older ailure, she would be going into her last heat this year. She'd never mated, nor expressed any desire for children. She was a hunter, a warrior, and Jensen had been surprised by her offer -- to bear him young, since he had chosen to remain mateless, like her. He hadn't bothered to correct her. It wasn't a choice, like it had been for her, confident and strong in herself and having no need for another to stand by her side.
He wished, in a way, it could have been that. That he could claim to be as self destined as she. Instead, it was merely that Jensen had never found that bond, the feeling of being wound up in another. He had admitted to himself that he was probably over romanticizing -- that he'd fallen too deep into the stories his mother used to tell him when he was a kitten, about what it was like to find your mate, your other half. To hunt, to kill, to live and survive and raise young together, a part of each other.
He'd passed up chances -- fertiles that had cared for him, and he them, fertiles he could have easily mated with, now that he was older and looking back on it. But those chances were gone, mated to others and happy, and Jensen couldn't begrudge them.
It was his own fault for holding out too long.
Cosette wasn't his mate, or even a close friend. He respected her, and she'd always been a supporter of his, but they were by no means close or bonded. He'd been surprised by her offer, and, at first, turned her down. After while though, he'd come to the realization that he didn't have to have a mate to have children of his own.
Perhaps he'd never find his other half, but he could still have a family -- carry on his mother's proud line.
It was a big litter, especially for her first, and Jensen and a few of the others milled around in their human shapes to help, trying to ease her discomfort.
"It's almost over..." he started, then winced when she bit his hand and gave him a look. "...yeah, okay, fair enough."
He'd told her it was 'almost over' three kittens ago.
An hour later, though, her body finally went lax, eight blind and deaf kittens nursing quietly at her teats, her paws tiredly kneading at the air. Jensen stroked her neck, tried to calm her, while her mate, Katie, sniffed at the little ones before raising her head to butt it with Gen's. The fertile barely responded, healthy but exhausted, and more than ready to let everyone else take on the burdens of the day.
"Alpha," Misha's voice broke through the quiet, and Jensen glanced back over his shoulder at his beta. "Clayton went into labor."
Jensen let out a long breath, then looked down at Genevieve on his lap, then up at Katie.
"You got this?" he asked, not liking to leave a first time mother so quickly.
'We'll be fine, alpha,' Katie assured, moving around to lay down behind Genevieve, pillowing her head on her mate's neck as Jensen gently set the mother's head on the ground. He stood up, stretching his arms up high, wincing when he felt(and heard) several bones in his back creak and crack.
With a sigh he let his arms drop, following Misha out of the cabin and out onto pride ground, bare feet moving easily over the harsh stone, just as callused and strong as his paws.
It was going to be a long day.
Cosette, though, was still heavy with child, and it was beginning to worry Jensen. He didn't want the older werecat straining herself for his sake, and while there was a vet over in Bryson City that they used in emergencies, Jensen didn't like the idea of driving her down into town. It was always a bit of a production, and while he didn't begrudge the humans their curiosity, he knew he would be extra protective of a pregnant fertile. Fertiles were tender by nature, even if Cosette was less so than others. It raised the protective instinct that Jensen held. He hoped that they could avoid the stress and he waited to see which way things would go.
When she finally did go into labor, though, Jensen's relief was short lived.
After hours of pain and effort, one after the other, the older ailure pushed out six cubs. One after the other, silent, still little bodies that wouldn't respond no matter how many times they were licked or prodded towards heavy teats. Jensen tried to hold it back, tried to be strong -- he was alpha here, and more than just a father to this litter. His pride needed him, needed his strength, and Cosette had done this for him, was grieving because of him, working and straining her body, hours of torture only to deliver stillborn cub after cub.
'I'm sorry,' she said, when it was over, her voice worn, even in his head. 'It is...it is because I was too old. Too--'
"Don't," he interrupted, unable to listen to her take any blame for this. He pressed a hand to her cheek, rubbing through her whiskers. "Don't. It's not your fault. You didn't...you didn't do anything wrong. You sacrificed for me, and I'll always be grateful for that..."
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, feeling other members of the pride padding around them, moving in to comfort and support, rough tongues gliding over sweat slicked fur, doing all they could to help.
"Let me--" Jensen started, feeling like a puppet, like he wasn't really in his body. "I'll--"
He couldn't finish his sentence, but he could pick up each lifeless body, moving them away from Cosette, away from her guilty eyes. He wished he could do more.
He wasn't sure what to do with them, at first, or if there was something else he was supposed to be doing. From the back of the room he watched the others curl around Cosette, keeping her grounded in their family. Jensen just stood there, awkward and apart, back against the wall, one dead cub held loosely in his hand, the others laid out on a towel at his feet. They were still wet, and smelled of amniotic fluid and blood, that fresh born scent.
Jensen had never before identified it with anything but joy and life. Now the scent was too thick, cloying in the cramped space. He was watching his pride like they were strangers, something distant from him, something he couldn't be a part of, and the scent was hedging in around him, sticking to his skin.
He needed to leave.
He bundled the towel up too quick, feeling nausea cramp in his stomach at the way the bodies rolled and moved, afterbirth wet in the fibers under his hands. He tried to pause, to talk to Cosette, but he didn't even know where to begin, but when he came too close with them she shook her head, her pain coming through too clear, too bright in his head, and he stumbled back.
He didn't really know what he was doing, only that he had to get them away, get them out of here. Every minute with them was a reminder of that much failure. To his cubs, to his pride, and to the fertile who'd borne the burden for his sake.
He found a picnic basket in their shed -- one of the many left by campers or hikers that traveled through the pride hunting grounds. It was lined with soft fabric, bright red plaid, and it seemed...it seemed like something. Something better than the wet, grey bodies that he lowered into it, and he hoped that the bright colors would do something for them, as they moved on to the Great Pride, into the care of Saul'hrao -- an alpha who wouldn't fail them like Jensen had.
His hands didn't shake when he shut the picnic basket, didn't shake when he tipped the tiny wicker latch shut. He was steady as he stood, tucking the handle of the basket into the crook of his elbow, sure-footedly finding his way through pride ground, passing each small cabin and the occasional curious face.
He didn't say anything when Alona jogged over to him with a smile on her lips, asking him questions he didn't hear. He didn't stop when her smile fell to worry, her mouth forming his name. She drifted off behind him, like mist, like something not real. Like this was all a dream that would never come to pass.
Until he was at the bank of the river, loud and babbling through a calm section, wide and deep blue, cutting its way through the mountains. Cutting like a knife, and the unreality of the world lifted, and Jensen was just holding a basket of his dead children.
He knew, even then, what a disservice he was doing to them, throwing them away like trash, but he couldn't stomach the thought of putting them down in the Pale Gulch, letting their tiny bones mix in with those of the pride that had passed before, an eternal reminder. He couldn't stomach the thought of them being part of the pride at all, because if they weren't part of the pride, if they'd never been, then he had never lost them.
For a moment, just one, he shuddered, crouching down, and it was foolish, foolish, because it wasn't as if he knew them. They'd never even opened their eyes. He'd never named them or talked to them, they didn't have personalities or thoughts or any personhood for him to miss. He took a long breath, lungs expanding. It wasn't possible to miss someone he'd never had.
Then he made the mistake of glancing at the basket.
The temptation to flick the latch back and pull out each body, cradle it to his chest, was so overwhelming strong for a moment that he couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe through the pain, knuckles white tight clenched around the wicker, making it quiver and crackle in protest.
He angrily thrust the basket out into the river, pushed it out with enough force to propel it away from himself, into the current, eyes still tight shut. He just needed to get it away from himself. Far enough away and take everything else with it, everything he couldn't deal with, down the river and deep into the heart of Ansaul'inlan, where the sun never sets.
Jensen's body was frozen for a second, arms still outstretched, and it was only when he could drag another breath into his lungs that he managed to open his eyes and look up. Further down the river, being carried by the current, the basket was floating on the water, nothing in the world to suggest what it carried or where.
They were never his. There had never been a moment when they'd been his.
He felt the urge to cry, to toss his head back and scream into the mountains, let it echo off every crag and jagged edge, let every human and ailure for miles hear his grief. But he didn't. He didn't make a sound, getting to his feet, the temptation there and too easy. He was used to denying it though.
That was what he was. What it meant to be 'alpha.'
He felt the pull of responsibility towards his pride, and it was something of a relief to turn towards it, concentrate on that instead of anything else. He glanced at the river one last time before leaving, but the forest offered him nothing in return for what he'd given up.