Bagheera is probably my favorite Disney character, and after watching the new Jungle Book I knew I had to write something for him. This fic is primarily based on the stories by Rudyard Kipling rather than the movie, so there are a few characterizations and events that deviate from what you might have seen in the movie. It also attempts to emulate a bit of Kipling's old world style. If you are familiar with the jungle book short stories then you will notice that parts of this fic cover the same ground as the the story Mowgli's Brothers, although I've hopefully changed it up a bit to give it a fresh perspective.
Submitted to C/P's monthly one shot contest for October, as well as the golden age challenge, summer olympics challenge, and build a bear challenge.
Thanks to azarathianscribbles for helping me out with a beta in the nick of time!
He loved better than anything else to go with Bagheera into the dark warm heart of the forest, to sleep all through the drowsy day, and at night see how Bagheera did his killing.
It was said that all the jungle knew Bagheera. But the truth was that Bagheera knew all the jungle.
"If I have learned anything from man, it is that the right piece of knowledge contains more power than tooth or claw, or anyone that wields them." It was why he made certain to keep ears in the dirt and eyes in the sky, whether Chill the Kite whistling down news of the Bandarlog migrations, or Sahi the porcupine relaying a rumor that a lahini of the Seeonee pack had lately adopted a stray man cub.
"Truly?" Bagheera asked, ears perked. The panther lay stretched along a lower branch of a banyan, head resting on his mighty paws as he flicked his tail from side to side.
"So they say, so they say."
"And who are they that speak such? The Free Peoples themselves?"
Sahi bristled. "Do you have cause to doubt my word? When we of the middle jungle scurry through the dirt and rotting understory, telling you of every word or cry that drops down while you loll about in your fine branches?"
"Careful with your tone, O Prickly One," he warned on a wide yawn, white teeth glinting like blades of pearl in the moonlight. "I meant no disrespect. But an odd event, this adoption. Not entirely unheard of, I suppose, though I have never before seen it take place amongst the Free People. But if masters of the jungle may be raised in man lairs, caged behind locks and iron, why not a manling raised in the cave of one of the wild Seeonee?"
"But he will not like it, he will not like it."
"Who? Akela?" The Seeonee pack leader was fair and strong, and Bagheera did not think he would be so particular. "I doubt he would disapprove if the wolf mother were insistent."
"Not Akela, not Akela. But Shere Khan!"
Sahi said the word as an oath, in a low, violent whisper, his long quills shaking like grass in a storm. In this part of the jungle, the tiger and his wanton bloodthirst were feared by some and loathed by many. Bagheera belonged to the latter camp. He well remembered the day when he first tread into these hills a stranger, unknown and knowing nothing, without master word or permission, ignorant of the many laws that governed all facets of jungle life, and the first creature whose acquaintance he had made was a prowling, insolent tiger.
"I do not believe I have ever seen you in these parts."
Bagheera met the tiger's eyes. "That is because I have never before been in these parts."
"Indeed. And who be you, Panther," the striped cat snarled, "to come into this jungle without anyone's leave?"
"I shall tell you my name when you tell me yours."
"You speak quite boldly for a stranger, and one so small at that. Come closer, and I shall give you a taste of true boldness."
The tiger postured well, baring every fang and venomous word with practiced ease; but Bagheera had lived the majority of his life before kings and princes, and had learned that the only real difference in quality between monarchs and those who trembled before them was an aptitude for bravado.
"Loud words and big talk and everything in between." Bagheera did not break the tiger's gaze for even a moment, nor turn his paw to the side. "You growl so loudly I'm sure the man villages fear you greatly. Yet I say that if you are indeed as bold as your claims, then you would have struck first and made speeches later."
The tiger growled and stomped and lashed his tail, but would do nothing of substance or courage. Bagheera had heard rumors of these lazy killers who hunted cattle from the plowed fields or carried away children from the man villages by night, yet for cowardice would do nothing against a proper adversary. Both parted without a single bent whisker, an uneasy detente that lasted many seasons.
Bagheera feared the tiger no more now than he did on that day. "Let the man eater roar," he purred down to Sahi as he drew up from his repose. He arched his back and stretched the disuse from his legs, then jumped lightly to the ground. "I would not heed his protests, nor be over worried about his wrath. In fact, it is for his sake that I go to secure the man cub's place in the pack. That tiger has been a thorn to these hills for far too long, massacring the cattle herds, hunting in the man villages so as to bring their fury upon our heads. I think it is time we set about evening the score."
For man, Bagheera knew, had long since unlocked the secrets of taming the jungle, and every beast in it, and it would be no small victory to make one of them an ally.
A bright and pregnant moon lit every corner of the jungle as Bagheera approached Council Rock. Akela lay, subdued yet regal atop the summit as the younger wolves brayed complaints at his feet.
Raksha, the She Devil so named for her unchecked ferocity on the hunt, the same lahini who sought to make the little frog, Mowgli by name, her very own, brought forth the man cub, his limbs flailing like broken twigs as she carried him gently within her jaws. The boy was small, much smaller than any human child Bagheera had ever seen, for the overseers of his cage had been wise enough to keep the youngest babes far from the menagerie.
Akela began the induction rites. "You know the law, you know the law. Look well, O Wolves."
Shere Khan lurked at the margins, intent on claiming the man cub for his own insatiable pride. "He is mine! He is mine! I felled his father in a fair and just hunt, and the boy was snatched out of my very jaws by those of you who would scheme against me. So I ask you, O Wolves, what have the Free People to do with a man cub? He is mine!"
Though Shere Khan had no right at the Council his voice could be heard in the returning echo of the young, restless wolves. "What have the Free People to do with a man cub?" The murmur grew, and spread, and festered as a wound that could not be ignored, and Shere Khan, who had long fostered such recalcitrance with his gifts of leftover scraps and promises of easy cattle kills had done good work in splintering the order of the pack, the very laws that bound their society:
Remember the Wolf is a hunter—go forth and get food
of thine own.
They clamored for someone to speak for the child.
"I shall speak for the man cub," said old Baloo.
They clamored for one more.
Now Bagheera, who like Shere Khan had no right at the Council, was wise to the sly maneuverings of that tiger. He knew the laws of the jungle as intimately as his first kill, and had prepared for this eventuality. "Though I be a panther and have no place at this Council, though I have no right to speak on the man cub's behalf, does not your law allow me to buy his life?" With his strong jaws he hefted his redemption price, a fat, young bullock, onto the rock where it lay red and bulging, a hundred tongues dripping with anticipation.
"Yes! Yes! Let the man cub be bought!" There were no more objections as the hungry young wolves tore into the bull's flesh. And though the hunt for Mowgli's bull had been long and arduous, securing the man cub's place in the pack was well worth the pleasure of incurring Shere Khan's rage, the tiger skulking back into the leafy shadows of the jungle.
Months passed. Bagheera thought the entire matter of the man cub finished on his end, and was surprised, therefore, when Raksha accosted him with a strange offer.
"Good hunting, Bagheera," she said by way of greeting.
"Good hunting, Raksha. How fares your little manling?"
"Mowgli remains small and fragile. He grows as slow as the tree trunk and his brothers outpace him in every way. But we sit him side by side the other cubs when they listen to old Baloo's lessons. He dances and plays and we hope learns something or another, though I fear he understands nothing."
"Man, you know, is slow to understand anything worthwhile. But he will learn our ways in time. And until then I have no doubt you will see to his survival."
"But will you not come to see him, Bagheera?
He twitched his ears. "Whatever would a man cub raised as a wolf want to do with a panther?"
"Mowgli was bought with a bullock, and ought to know who it was that paid for his life. And though he be mine I could not so soon forget that he also be a man. There is much he must learn if he is to survive the jungle beyond what our pack may teach him, or even old Baloo."
"And you think a panther might make up the difference in his education?"
Raksha lowered her grey head. "Perhaps."
Bagheera followed her, his mind weaving through memory, as she led him to her den. It had been countless seasons since Bagheera had secreted himself in the banyan's thick foliage like a right fool, a grown panther eavesdropping on Baloo as he taught the wolf cubs the sacred laws of the jungle. He ought to have learned those lessons when he was yet a cub himself, growing long and lean and fierce as every cub ought, behind the iron bars of his cage.
"But I did not want to teach you," his mother had confessed to him on her dying breaths. The years of imprisonment had taken their toll and were etched in every withered limb. "I thought to tame you. I thought: he has never known the wilds, and I shall teach him to be content with life as a palace toy."
And so it had been just as she desired for many years after his birth. Bagheera they named him, and paraded him through the streets of Udaiper in a bejeweled collar. In those juvenile days he had been proud to be called the king's own. He had held his powerful head high and flashed his razor teeth to the gaping peasantry, though he could not explain the strange yearnings to bound away and rip through the throats of those same onlookers, or the deep, unexplainable hungers that emerged with every new Spring.
"My heart, my own heart!" his mother had cried. "I soon must take my leave of this world, and now cursed be my name for hiding this truth from you: my Bagheera, you are not of man, or its cities, or its shiny trinkets. You are of a proud race, the mighty panther, one of the masters of the jungle."
"The jungle?" Bagheera knew nothing of the jungle, save that men spoke of it as a ghostly thing, a dangerous world and never to be traversed without care. "What know you of the jungle, mother?"
"It is where I come from. Indeed, it is where you belong. Listen well, my cub. You must not resign yourself, as I have done all these long years, to live within your collar. Make haste to the jungle, for from the jungle you have come, and from the jungle you must go."
"But how shall I break this lock? How shall I undo these chains?"
"However you must. Only promise me one thing: that you will not grow old in this cage."
What dying wish could be thus denied? For his strong mother who had been captured by a clever man trap in her prime, he promised her everything she asked. "But remember this," she said. "Man's world is governed by laws, and the jungle no less. Learn them and you will become its master, as I once was."
And Bagheera, unbeknownst to the nipping wolf cubs and the droning, old bear below, had learned them all, forward and backwards and forwards again. The law of the pack. The master words of the hunters. The codes that govern times of drought and times of plenty, or which tree roads are safe and which will not carry the burden of a leaping panther.
Raksha and Bagheera came upon the den in the darkest hour of night, when every star shines like a lantern of red flower. The little ones played, rolling about each other and biting into fur, but gamboled to their mother as she drew near.
"Go on, Bagheera," urged Raksha. "Say your hellos." Mowgli tumbled between the paws of his brothers as if he'd never been anything but a wolf. But his heritage betrayed him in other ways: his naked, petal-like skin was tattooed all over with the scars of both fresh and forgotten wolf bites, his face aflame with the steely gaze of man, and his mouth bent upwards in a smile, Bagheera thought, so bright it put even the starlight to shame.
Bagheera hesitated. "He will not remember me, Raksha. And surely you have taught him to be shy of the strange and the dangerous."
"Of course. We have warned him of the tiger and the crocodile, and yes, even of the panther. But for all our efforts, he is of stout heart. He runs off to any who he thinks might be a playmate, and will not fear you anymore than he does the rhino or the elephant."
As Bagheera neared the litter, the wolf cubs puttered back into the den on a word from their mother.
But Mowgli remained, uncowed by the mammoth paws stepping like falling leaves about him. He peered up into the gentle, black muzzle bending over him, nudging him softly in the shoulder.
"Little brother, remember well this face," Bagheera purred. "It is I who paid for your life with a bull." Now any decent wolf cub would have grown serious at such a remark. But this little frog would only gurgle a laugh of delight and bat at Bagheera's swishing tail. "Not the tail, if you please." Mowgli heeded, and instead went after his nose. "Or the nose."
The boy squatted with a grin, then ran off a few paces, bent down, and retrieved an object from the dirt. "Come see?"
Bagheera did not expect the child to speak. He stepped closer. His yellow eyes fastened to the bit of sharpened rock that lay in Mowgli's hand and which could slice through flesh as easily as any wolf claw.
"Look what you've fashioned." Bagheera looked closely at the child, and beyond the fat cheeks and bruised little legs he saw the glimmer of man. "And what do you suppose I might teach you, little brother? A man is born without fur, tooth, or claw, and instead is given a greater gift than these. Would the way of the panther be any better than that of a wolf, or a bear?"
But Bagheera harbored a great secret. Though he knew all the ways of the jungle, likewise did he know the ways of man, and it was that hidden knowledge which made him more terrible than any beast of the jungle, yet still not as terrible as man itself.
He leant down and whispered in the man cub's ears. "I must teach you what ways of man I know." He raised his head and said more loudly, "One day you will make an end of Shere Khan. Such was the reason I bought your life." To be a strong and faithful ally when he grew.
Yet when Mowgli shone his impish smile upon the proud, cunning panther, Bagheera felt a lesson being drawn upon his heart, something akin to his mother's fond gaze as she cleaned him within their shared cage, and wondered if this man cub would be the undoing of more that just the tiger.
Like any good jungle dweller, Mowgli was guided in most regards by his stomach. And so it was that his wolf father and wolf mother taught him to hunt like a wolf, to run on all fours within the pulsing heat of the pack, to tackle the buck as a single, throbbing unit. Baloo did his part as well. Understanding that men, as a general rule, are prone to adopt a diet much more similar to that of a bear than of a wolf, he taught Mowgli which foods in the jungle were safe and which would see him to a quick and painful end.
But there was one thing only Bagheera could teach him: how to climb.
It was four seasons after Bagheera had bought Mowgli's life. He was still as naked and exposed as his namesake, yet with every year grew taller and stronger, shedding another layer of weakness as a snake did its skin. He and Bagheera had made a habit of journeying together into the dark belly of the jungle, and on one of these occasions the man cub stopped along the trail and pointed to the uppermost branches of a tall maple.
"Do you hear the little people buzzing, Bagheera?" his young voice asked.
"Yes. Everyone knows of them. And what everyone knows is that they are not to be trifled with."
"But Baloo tells me the little people gather something rare up there, that it is sweet and sticky. He tells me I can eat it, and that it is as tasty as fresh meat, right off the bone."
"Did he? I would not call him a liar, but I will say that I do not share his opinion or regard. But if you must have it, if only for the sake of your tiresome curiosity, then I suppose I must teach you how to get it."
And so began the ritual of their lessons. Bagheera would come, hailing, "Come along, little brother." Mowgli would climb onto his broad back and shoulders, and though while he was very little his arms could not circumscribe the panther's thick neck, the child's grip was fast, and he would cling to that black, silken fur like a burr, never once thrown off through all the leaps and bounding.
"He rides you as man does the ox," Baloo would laugh at him, and the proud panther would simply raise his chin up high, and say nothing.
But as Mowgli's arms lengthened and strengthened he gradually found his way up the branches unaided. He began collecting his own nuts and honey, and it was time for Bagheera to impart a few new lessons.
Mowgli had lived withe the wolves eight seasons when they climbed one night to the very top of the canopy where they could look down over all the vibrating jungle. "Look well, little one," Bagheera said. "Every tree and fern that grows, every paw or hoof that treads upon the forest could be yours to master one day."
Mowgli sat leaning against Bagheera, picking his teeth with a sharp sliver of bone. "And why should that be so, when I am only Mowgli?"
"Only Mowgli?" Bagheera laughed. "'Only Mowgli,' he says. I should sooner say 'only Bagheera' or 'only Akela.' Do not forget, little frog, that you be a man."
Mowgli stood and howled. "A wolf! A wolf!"
"A man, and therefore endowed with all their tricks, their traps and ploys, their cleverness that make them masters all over, though you do not know it yet." Bagheera pointed his paw to a well-concealed box placed within a patch of overgrown ferns. "Do you see that?"
Mowgli sat on his haunches, leaning over. "I do. But what is it, Bagheera? I have never seen its likeness."
"A trap, made for one such as I. It is how men catch us masters of the jungle. A neat little box, the smell of flesh and blood. We walk in and a door closes behind us."
"But when they open it, could you not simply pounce upon them and rip open their throats, as you do to the sambur or boar?"
"No other reason than that they own the red flower. They keep it in sticks that spray us like a thousand stings of the little people, or hold it to our faces by the end of a broken branch, and so we can do nothing but slip our heads through the collar if ever caught."
"Man seems an enemy of the jungle, so they must be an enemy of me, and I say I do not like them or their tricky ways!"
"Yet you cannot escape what you are, and I say now is the time for you to learn their ways if you are ever to kill Shere Khan." For Bagheera had often told him that either he must take the tiger's life or the tiger would take his.
"Shere Khan, Shere Khan! You are forever throwing his name into my face. But tell me, Bagheera, how am I to learn man's ways when there is no man here to teach me?"
"Do you see that frog over there? Bring it to me. But not as a wolf, or a panther. Bring it to me as a man."
There was a small time of protest before Mowgli submitted. He went away and gathered an assortment of rubbish and debris, the neglected of the jungle, a few dead insects placed under an empty shell, the shell propped open with a small twig, and the twig tied to a piece of vine which Mowgli gripped between his fingers.
Bagheera's whiskers shook with his smile. "Very good, Mowgli."
Who of the jungle could outwit the snares of man? If not the sleek panther nor the wise elephant, then surely neither the small pond dwellers that are counted little more than snacks. Mowgli soon had the frog in hand, and he crushed its skull with a nearby rock and devoured it on their way back to Raksha's den, complaining loudly between bites that he would much rather have secured his dinner in the panther way. "For I like watching you hunt better than all things," he cried.
"That is because wolves hunt together, while the panther hunts alone."
"Yes, just so. You do not need help, and you do not carve out times or rules that must be followed. You hunt where you please and when you please, which is what I'd like to do, if only mother would let me."
"And do you please to hunt now, little brother?"
Mowgli's broad smile was answer enough. They searched for any signs that game was afoot, and in due course discovered the telltale markings of a pair of sambur. Like one mind split down the middle, they tracked the beasts through the twisting banyan trunks, around boulders and over thin streams, calling out to one another whatever their eyes observed of their prey.
"Here, Bagheera! Here the first one has veered to the right, towards the river."
"Then he will no doubt stop for a drink, and it is there we shall catch him."
Bagheera, with his legs that ran as a swift current, and propelled by a hunger not so keenly felt as his companion, sped far ahead of Mowgli. He reached the bank and the resting sambur, and lunged into the kill, and only as he partook of his third or fourth bite did he remember Mowgli.
The man cub was nowhere to be seen. Neither could he hear any trace of the second sambur. Surely, he considered, surely the man cub, who was taught to hunt in a pack, who had never hunted alone; surely the man cub Mowgli, who could no sooner subdue such a great beast as the sambur as he could Bagheera himself, would not pursue it alone.
Bagheera leapt into the jungle. "Mowgli! Mowgli!" He raced, watching for the pattern of man's strange footprints in the brown earth, his heart in pace with his paws, until he heard what he thought was distant laughter.
He followed the sound until Mowgli came stumbling into his paws. "I heard you shouting as one being hunted by the pack! But do not fret so, Bagheera!" Mowgli was bruised and cut all over, and limping besides. But his sambur was felled in a twist of vines and branches so deceivingly placed as to trip any jungle dweller who was not born of man, and all he would do was laugh and laugh. "Do not count these wounds as anything. Haven't I suffered more than this while playing with my brothers? I loved nothing better than catching this sambur, and I shall do it again and again until I can hunt like you, alone, and by no one's leave."
Mowgli was overtired from the excitement, and Bagheera carried him back to his den. He went inside and lowered the dozing child into the nest of sleeping wolf cubs, then slipped silently out again.
"A good hunting?" Baloo asked, munching on nuts and berries.
"Very good. He begins to think like a man."
"Of course he does. And he shall keep doing so, for he will only keep growing."
"And one day he will become a man. No longer a cub, but a true man!"
"And you know what is said: Man always returns to man."
"From man he comes, and to man he must go, in the end. It is the nature of such things." Bagheera ought to have rejoiced that his man cub had taken the first steps towards his inevitable fate, the fate that Bagheera himself had helped to write so long ago when he had brought a bullock to a midnight jungle Council. "But it is not yet the end."
Bagheera glided through the jungle like a sliver of moonlight. He envisioned Mowgli as a man, upright and tall, with shoulders as strong as the iron bars of his cage and the strength of the jungle in his stride. A man who held his back to the jungle. A man with his arms stretched wide before him, embracing the claim of man and its villages. Man goes to man, in the end. There existed none so proud as Bagheera of the Jungle, but he could not lift his head under the burden of the thought.
And it was then Bagheera knew he had been taught his final lesson from man. It was then Bagheera knew he loved this man cub.
In his heart he asked for a promise, such as his mother once asked of him – do not grow old in this cage. What he would never ask of Mowgli, his little brother, his little frog, instead he purred gently to the blank night air:
"Do not grow. Do not become a man. Do nothing for which I bought you with a bullock, so many seasons ago." And above all things:
Do not leave me.
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