I never really cared for The Jungle Book as I was growing up, but the 2016 version enchanted me, so here I am, despite being behind on all my other work. Let's have some fun.
The One and Only Disclaimer: It's older than me. It surely ain't mine.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
The Tyger – William Blake
Shere Khan had never been on good terms with Kaa. Then again, no one ever had. She was manipulative and treacherous, not abiding by the same rules that other predators did. Snakes weren't all that bad, in general, especially not to Shere Khan, but Kaa's size made her a menace. That seemed to happen in this particular jungle – creatures growing to unusual size. The elephants were larger than they should have been, and Shere Khan would know. He had seen normal elephants, and they weren't as big as the ones here, not nearly. Less than a day's journey north from Peace Rock, an orangutan by the name of Louie was twice the size of the others and still growing. In a few years, he would be a monster. Kaa was already one, and her size made her greedy. She ate far more than her fair share and did so by unfair means.
All this, Shere Khan knew and was disgusted by, but he had never expected Kaa to be so selfishly gluttonous that she would eat a man.
There was no blood and no sign of a bite, but all the bones were broken and the skin was discolored. Shere Khan knew Kaa's work when he saw it, but that wasn't necessary for him to know she had done it. He could hear her only a few paces away, slithering her overgrown body along the underbrush. She had killed the man and left him for later, confident that no one would touch her kill, and rightly so. No one would dare take from what Kaa had killed. They knew better. Shere Khan knew better. And he wouldn't want to eat the flesh of Man anyway, not unless he were absolutely starving, and maybe not even then. It was against the higher laws, ones that were steady and unchanging and transcended nature's fickle ways. Kaa broke both. Shere Khan kept both.
It was so incredibly selfish of her to do this. Kaa knew as well as anyone else that killing Man was dangerous. When one man fell, his pack often followed to find out why. Men were not animals, and they were not like animals. They did not leave things be. Men had died in the jungle before, and his pack always followed, and the pack always killed. Maybe it was vengeance, or perhaps it was a display of dominance, or maybe they wanted to be sure that whatever culled from them would not do so again. Shere Khan did not know why. He only knew that it happened, and everyone else knew it too. That Kaa would kill a man like this without thinking of how much trouble she could bring down on all their heads… well. It wasn't all that surprising. Kaa was foul and she did foul things. It was just selfish beyond belief. Shere Khan would have to put a warning out, just in case men followed this time. He hoped not.
Huffing out a snort of revulsion, Shere Khan turned away from the broken corpse. Leaving Kaa to her own blind greed was the only option here. He didn't want to be there when she came back for her meal. She might decide to eat him, too, and Shere Khan didn't want to test his ability to stand up to her. Her mouth was bigger than his, after all, and her fangs longer.
Before he had even taken three strides, an unnaturally hot wind rolled through the chill of the night and pushed up against Shere Khan's fur, ruffling his stripes. His nose wrinkled at the strange odor it carried, like black rock under the heavy heat of summer, but even stranger still. Shere Khan licked his whiskers. It was probably a Man thing, he surmised, and of course Kaa would not care for it. Kaa only liked food. Shere Khan, though, was too curious for his own good. It would probably get him into trouble one day. In fact, he was surprised that it hadn't already.
He sniffed the air, following the scent. He couldn't imagine that Kaa would take her kill too far from where she had found it if she didn't have to. She may have been greedy, but she was also lazy. She taxed herself as little as possible for the most food that could be had. No, whatever the Man-thing was, it had to be very close, and– oh.
He had never seen it before.
The cave ahead of him flickered and glowed hotly with orange light that was just as brilliant as his own fur. It was the Red Flower; it had to be. Shere Khan had never seen it himself, but he had heard of it and seen the distant glow of the Man-place, and this had to be it. The heat and the light and the color… yes. Oh, he had always wanted to see it, and wasn't this perfect? It was in a cave, and cave was just rock, and everyone knew that the Red Flower couldn't eat the rock. Here, he could watch it burn until it died without worry of it spreading.
It was a good thing that the man was not here. If Shere Khan had seen the cave before Kaa had made her kill, he would have approached out of curiosity and found himself in a cave with a man and a Red Flower. The Flower itself, Shere Khan was not terribly afraid of, but under the control of a man… that would be different. Man was different.
Shere Khan entered the cave slowly, cautious of the man perhaps having a packmate. Men had packs, didn't they? Or, did they not? Shere Khan didn't know, and didn't really care, only so long as they didn't bother him. Shere Khan was curious, not stupid. He may have been interested in Man, but he knew better than to stick his snout where it was likely to get bitten.
The warmth of the cave was delightful. Nights could get cold here, especially in the winter, when the days didn't have as much time to warm the ground. Shere Khan, finally confident that there were no other men around, eased himself onto his belly in front of the Red Flower and stretched so that it could warm him. It was beautiful, he thought, in the most dangerous of ways. Light, warmth, and destruction. That was what animals always said. Well, there would be no destruction that night. Only light and warmth. Shere Khan grinned, staring into the flickering Flower even as its heat made him feel drowsy. He would never get this chance again, so he was going to enjoy it while he could. Tonight would sate his curiosity of the Red Flower and bring him the best rest he had ever had. Shere Khan could already feel the warmth seeping into his bones. He groaned happily, sheathing and unsheathing his claws as he reveled in his find. Hot, bright light made his eyes glow almost as much as his insides.
"Could ge'used t'this," Shere Khan grumbled happily. He was warm. The stone he was sleeping on was warm. Warmth like this only came on winter nights if you had a mate, which Shere Khan didn't. This, though… he imagined that this was almost just as good as having a mate. Almost.
The sight of the Red Flower was enticing, but not enough to fend off the heady lethargy that had made Shere Khan melt. Warm and satisfied, the tiger fell asleep.
The first thing that Shere Khan felt was how much less the warmth was than it had been when he went to sleep, meaning that the Flower had probably died sometime in the night. Red Flowers never lived long if they didn't feed much and often. The second thing Shere Khan felt was a light, barely-there pressure trailing along his side…
Shere Khan opened one golden eye. The Red Flower was glowing, but only barely. Even if he brought it some dry grass to eat, it wouldn't regain its strength. The smell of its death filled his nose, but he didn't mind. Its death didn't smell all that different from its life, and he wanted to keep the scent for as long as possible.
But what was that fluttering against his hind leg…?
Shere Khan lifted his head to look at whatever was rubbing his fur the wrong way, and he had never been so surprised in his life.
"Ey!" he exclaimed, jerking his foot away from the tiny… creature that had been pawing at his fur. "Whaddaya think you're doin'?"
The tiny creature didn't answer. It simply turned its soft, dark eyes to him and stared.
Man-cub, Shere Khan realized with a start, taking in the sight of a foreign creature standing on two stubby, thin legs. The pelt was dark, much darker than a deer, but not black, not like the fur on the top of its round head. The legs were wrapped in– in– in something red, but the upper body was bare and unprotected. The little thing had deft, curling digits, but no claws. No shell, no armor, no teeth. It reminded Shere Khan of a newly hatched bird, but at least a baby bird had a beak.
It murmured at him, but not in any language he recognized. It might have just been baby babble. Some cubs did that. Wolf cubs did. Tiger cubs… well, he didn't know.
"Ey, now, li'l one, where's your dam?" Shere Khan asked, drawing himself closer to the cub. It toddled forward on its red-wrapped legs and reached out its tiny front paw to bat softly at his muzzle. Shere Khan's black lips twitched under the attention, allowing a flash of sharp teeth to show, but the man-cub didn't even flinch. The little thing was fearless. "Either you're jus' stupid, or you're a tough li'l bugger."
Dark eyes blinked. Golden eyes stared back.
"Guess that was your sire Kaa made a meal ou' of," Shere Khan mused, batting the cub with his tail. The cub squealed happily and lurched for the tail. Shere Khan twitched it out of the way and swayed it back and forth, charmed by the man-cub's delight. It wasn't so different from any other cub, was it? "Probably the best thing. Not for you, but the rest of us. 'E was in the jungle, an' Man only make trouble 'ere. But you can't make any trouble, can you? A cub like you, barely walkin'."
As if it understood, the man-cub plopped down onto its rear end, having caught the tail and was now settling down to happily chew on the black tip. Shere Khan growled, flicking his tail away from the drooling, gummy mouth, but the man-cub wasn't frightened. It simply grinned, showing the faintest hints of small, flat teeth, and went after his tail again. Shere Khan huffed.
"An' wha'am I s'posed to do with you, eh?"
Bagheera had heard from the peacock, who heard from a rhino, who heard from a crocodile, who heard from a bird, that a man had been killed in the jungle, and that it had been Kaa's doing. It wasn't as much of a surprise as it should have been. Kaa was a menace, and that wouldn't change until the monster of a snake died (soon, hopefully, but it was very likely that her size would give her enough security to live well beyond what was natural for a snake). Bagheera only worried about other men coming after their dead packmate. And yet, a whole season had passed without any further news and not a single flicker of activity from the Man Village, which most likely meant that any danger of retaliation had passed. It was a great relief.
Another season passed, and then another. A year. Shere Khan had shifted his hunting grounds further south, or so was the word by the vine, leaving the title of King temporarily unclaimed, although authority seemed to automatically shift to Bagheera and Akela. Bagheera couldn't say whether or not he was sorry to see the tiger go. He liked Shere Khan in the general sense. He liked his company. It was nice to have another Big Cat around. But Shere Khan was unrelentingly curious, even of things he ought to have steered clear of, and Bagheera had been waiting for trouble to come of it. It hadn't, yet, but Bagheera still waited, wondering if Shere Khan would bring trouble when he returned. He surely would return. Surely. Shere Khan had been King of the Jungle for too long to simply walk away forever.
Another year passed, still too soon to expect Shere Khan's return, but then word came of a cub under Shere Khan's protection, and that made Bagheera reevaluate his expectations. Most tigers weren't monogamous, but that was… not here. This jungle had law that was kept and a hierarchy that was respected, which Bagheera knew was highly unusual. It was abnormal, and so was Shere Khan and nearly every other animal in this jungle. The tiger was well old enough to have taken a mate before, and the fact that he hadn't could have simply been because tigers were so rare here, but it spoke more of Shere Khan's fastidious nature. If Shere Khan had found a mate, Bagheera knew it was likely that Shere Khan had made it a permanent arrangement, especially if the rumor of a cub was true.
Oh, mercy. Shere Khan with a mate and a cub. What was the jungle coming to?
As strange as the concept was, Bagheera didn't dwell on it much. The rumors still came, mostly from the birds, but they never said anything different from what they had said before, so once Bagheera was used to the idea, he stopped giving it too much thought. Shere Khan had a cub. Alright, then. Until something more substantial could be said about it, it wasn't any of Bagheera's business, was it? If he came across Shere Khan, he would congratulate the tiger on the blessing. Otherwise, it was of no concern, and it wouldn't be until… well, until the cub was grown, which was an entirely different matter. But, still, that was a good ways off, and wouldn't be any of Bagheera's business until Shere Khan returned and brought his family with him, if he ever did so. Who knew? Maybe, with a mate and a cub, Shere Khan would stay where he was.
Hmm. Well, despite Shere Khan's resolve to get himself into trouble, Bagheera would rather have the tiger back here, on home ground. There weren't all that many big predators in these woods. There were the wolves, and Bagheera himself, and Kaa, that demon of a snake, but that was all, really. And so few predators could cause problems. The crocodiles didn't count – they didn't actively hunt. They just waited for something to jump into their mouths. But since Shere Khan had left, Bagheera had noticed the spike in the deer population, which would be fine for awhile, but it would eventually make things difficult.
Eventually. Not now. For now, everything was just fine, and nothing would be changing anytime soon.
Of course not.
Since I write fanfiction mainly as a writing exercise, I would very much appreciate any and all feedback you can give. Thank you for reading.