The night air was refreshing to Usiku'ua's tired body and the starlight gave her acute night-vision more than enough light to see her way by. The gentle savanna breeze ruffled her sleek spotted fur and helped to keep the leopardess cool. Nights such as these had seen her and her mate, Penzi'Kali, sitting together under the wide black canopy and talking of things past and present, purring softly to each other and feeling at peace in each other's company. No other of Penzi's mates were so close, and Usiku'ua loved him all the more for it. It was to him the leopardess now went, though the normally happy occasion had a sense of sadness to it tonight.
Three months had passed since the incident when Usiku'ua's four spotted cubs had joined against their shadowcat brother. Nqema had never forgotten that day and seemed to go out of his way to make Kivuli uncomfortable more and more as the days went by. Usiku'ua was coming back home to find Kivuli scratched up and backed into a corner while her other four cubs casually played in the other. She knew exactly what had happened, but her other cubs always denied it; claiming that Kivuli had gotten into the thorns again. The leopardess was becoming more worried for her little shadow as the days progressed and she was frightened to leave the tree they lived in for long periods of time, always fearing that she would find her little shadow dead, and his blood on the claws of her other cubs.
Usiku'ua's pace quickened as she neared the spot that she and her mate came to on such beautiful nights. Penzi was already there and he turned his head to look at the approaching form, smiling when he saw his beloved Usiku padding across the grass, the starlight giving her coat a soft sheen. "Usiku..." the leopard "mrr"ed to his mate and moved to meet her. Usiku smiled faintly when her mate reached her and she buried her face into his neck fur with a purr; a single tear forming at the corners of her eyes. Penzi was taken aback by the forceful show of affection from his mate. Something, he knew, was bothering her immensely. Gently lifting a paw and putting it underneath Usiku's chin, he lifted her head to face him and gazed into her deep sapphire eyes. "Usiku. . .what's wrong?" he asked quietly. Usiku's tear-rimmed eyes made a lump rise in the leopard's throat.
Usiku told her mate what had been happening with Kivuli and the rest of their cubs. She told him how Kivuli was being endlessly harassed and how she was worried for his safety. Penzi listened intently, his frown growing deeper with every word. At last, he hung his head with a soft sigh. "I see..." he said softly. Usiku once more nuzzled her mate's neck gently and blinked back her tears. "He's so stoic about it, Penzi, but I know he's hurting inside. What are we going to do? No matter how I try, I can't get his siblings to leave him alone." she said softly. The leopard shook his head slightly, feeling the lump in his throat swell. Such intra-litter fighting was not uncommon, and he had lost a few cubs to it before. But he had always accepted it with resignation and moved on, though he found now that his heart ached with the knowledge that he might lose Kivuli. His beloved Usiku's little shadow. The leopard could not bear the thought, and he tried desperately to find a way to save his son. If not for him, then for Usiku, who obviously loved Kivuli with all her heart. A long moment of silence passed, then a single idea came to him.
"Usiku. . ." he began softly and the leopardess lifted her head to turn her moist sapphire eyes to the steely gray eyes of her mate pleadingly. One look set the iron-willed leopard's eyes tearing as well as he spoke his words, "We must send him away from here". Usiku'ua's eyes went wide in shock and she shook her head violently. "Penzi, no! He is so little, he cannot survive on his own yet! Couldn't we let him live with another? He would have no chance out there with..." she trailed off as her voice choked up and she began to weep softly. Penzi's own tears detached and rolled down his cheek slowly as his beloved mate began to cry into his neck fur. He closed his eyes and gently nuzzled her. "I know, Usiku, I know. But it's the only way. If he stays with you he will be slaughtered by his siblings, and none of my other mates would want to take care of one not their own. At least this way. . .he has a chance." the leopard whispered to his mate softly. Usiku could only cry all the harder; loving her little shadow so much that she couldn't possibly send him out to die in the harsh savanna, but feeling in her very soul that her mate was right.
The next day passed by in much the same way as all the rest had. Kivuli was first up and was out of the den before his siblings had even woken up and the questions began anew. Usiku listened to her son's purring voice with a heavy heart and a thin smile. Kivuli's peculiar speech problem that made him purr heavily when he spoke had only made his mother feel he was that much more special. But today, the little cub's questions hurt her very soul, knowing that she would never hear him ask them again. Even the others sensed that something was wrong and refrained from harassing their brother that day. The night fell swiftly and the family retired to their den. As they settled in, Usiku's eyes were brimmed with tears as the moment she dreaded with all her heart approached. Purring quietly to her cubs, they dropped off to sleep one by one except for Kivuli, who often stayed up a bit later to talk to his mother; the only fur who understood him.
After all his siblings were asleep, Kivuli looked up to his mother as he had on countless nights before. But on this night, he wore a frown. "Mom. . .what's wrrrong? You look sad." He said in his soft cubbish voice. Usiku's tears began to fall then as she regarded her little shadow with pure love and a tightness in her chest. "Come outside with me, my little shadow. There's something we need to talk about." she said quietly and nabbed Kivuli in her muzzle. Kivuli wore a puzzled expression as he was picked up and carried outside in his mother's gentle grasp. What is going on here? he thought to himself. His mother was acting so strange...
Usiku'ua carried her most beloved cub from their tree den and padded softly into the grasses, setting him gently down and then sweeping him into her arms with a soft sigh. "Kivuli...please forgive me..." she said quietly and hugged her little shadow as though he were already dead. Kivuli did not resist the hug, but his little muzzle wore a frown and he looked up into his mother's sapphire eyes with a look of dread. "Forrrgive you forrr what, Mom? What's wrrrrong?" he said quietly and reached up with his small paw to place it on her nose. The action made Usiku's mind flash back to when he had done that the very first time he had opened his eyes and she began to cry softly. "Kivuli. . .you have to go away. I have to send you far from here, my dear little shadow. I cannot bear to do it but I must. Your siblings will kill you if I don't. Oh M'rrill, forgive me..." she sobbed softly into her son's fur.
Kivuli's heart leapt into his throat. Away? Away to where? How would he eat? Where would he sleep? "Mom. . .what did I do? Why can't I stay with you?" he asked miserably, somehow thinking it was something he had done. Usiku shook her head violently and looked her son right in those deep emerald eyes she loved so much. "No, my little shadow. Never ever think it was you. You are my perfect little Kivuli'Nyamaa and I love you more than anything in the world. But I cannot let you be hurt by your siblings anymore. Please Kivuli. . .just go. Be strong, like I know you are. I love you with all my heart, my little shadow. Never ever forget that." she said miserably and let go her embrace. Standing swiftly, she turned and ran back towards her tree den with heavy sobs and a broken heart.
Kivuli, completely dumbstruck at what had just happened to him, could only stare with an open maw in utter disbelief as his mother ran away and left him, a tiny leopard cub, all alone in the gigantic world. A tear formed at the corner of his emerald eye and slowly rolled down his ebony cheek.