Marina sniffed at the discarded can behind the big box of discarded cans, hoping something would be left from the humans. No luck here, either, so she pushed away, stomach growling, and moved to the next one. She was pondering traveling further downwind, into unknown territory—which was less appealing than an empty belly, a reminder of how lost she was without a family out here in the wilderness—when she heard it. The cries of a cub, miserable mewling coming from around the corner.
Marina's instincts drove her forward, though she'd never been a cub carer in the family. She used to hunt, until her hunt had separated her from the rest.
She looked around the wall warily, and then stopped in her tracks. The crying came from a human cub. Long fur on the head, fluttery purple on the rest of the body. Marina licked her whiskers and sniffed the air again.
The human cub smelled not like it should. Like nothing at all, in fact.
She must've stood there staring for too long, because suddenly, the human was in her face, a long drawn sigh escaping their mouth.
"Whoa. Where did you come from?"
Marina swished her tail in warning, flashed a fang for good measure.
"Won't hurt you, kitty, don't worry. Can't, see?"
The upper paw of the human slid through the ground and then into the air again. Marina took a step back. The human kept looking and looking, not moving again, and then it made a sound Marina didn't recognize.
"Curious, aren't you, Marina? And brave."
At her name, she sat back on her haunches. Sadly, her hunger was not forgotten and the human made the same noise, this time showing their own fangs.
"You're lost, but you're in luck. I know where your home is. Or at least I think… Would you like to try and see if we can find it?"
Definitely, she would, so when the human stood, Marina followed.
"My name's—was Simone. Nice to meet you, kitty."
Marina gave a whine and bumped her nose into Simone's hand. Not ignored, the gesture, even though her whiskers passed through it, giving her a chill.
It felt like forever, as they meandered through the human forest of stone, but then the walls of home came into sight and Marina felt like weeping forever.
"So you are from the zoo," Simone said. "I guess you're lucky, then. Off you go."
Marina felt like this kindness should be returned. Not out of obligation, but because Simone had been crying and no cub should suffer like that. Instead of jumping over to the gate, she leaned closer, circling Simone's legs.
"Oh. Thank you, but—"
Marina stressed her offer for help with the growling intended for the cubs of her own family. Simone huffed and curled closer to the ground.
"You can't help me. You'd have to be like me, but you aren't yet. So go ahead, go home."
Simone showed her teeth and Marina tried to match it, before she reluctantly left.
Summers and winters came and went. Their cubs had cubs of their own, and Marina had slowed in her hunting. She spent the days letting the little ones practice pouncing on her tail.
Until, one evening, Simone appeared next to her.
And Marina knew, from her smells, from her touch, that—
"Have you been thinking about it all this time?"
"Word can. Weird." And it was, to feel her sounds turn into human ones.
"Yeah, I see that. I guess out here in the netherworld we can understand each other differently, huh? Do I seem to speak panther to you?"
"Perhaps," Marina thought and it materialized into speech. "Weird." She swished her tail with impatience. "Go."
Simone made that strange sound again, only now Marina could tell what it was. Laughter. Though small and sad.
They walked again, side by side, until Simone stopped in front of windows. Inside, two humans yelled at each other in the midst of a dirty nest, abandoned and decrepit.
"They're the ones who hurt me," Simone whispered. "And I want nothing more than to hurt them back. It's why I'm stuck here."
"You mine. Friend. Family."
Later, as they stood atop a tall metal tree, Simone's legs dangling in the wind, Marina felt it.
A pull, growing stronger with each happy laugh bubbling out of Simone.
"Kitty, can you feel—Whoa. Shall we, then? Another adventure?"
Marina placed her paw in Simone's hand and let go.
Together, they were both found.