Core hunched into herself, off to the side of the heartmound as the Blazes began their day. While some of their number stood sunning themselves, their dark chest fur soaking in the dawn sun, the rest were already warmed and working. She spotted Hero, who had returned some days before, shoveling out a burrow entrance, accumulating a mound of sand behind him. His muscles strained beneath his pelt as he threw all his effort into the chores.
Core sighed and nibbled her tawny shoulder, drawing her teeth through the already groomed fur for something to do. She wished she could muster the same disappointment that Hero must be feeling, that the old dominant male was trying to forget by focusing on the needs of the family, but she couldn’t. All she felt was… defeat.
Core couldn’t help but wonder if she even deserved to be the dominant female of the Blazes. She had only received the honor because Blossom and Teal, two other females in the gang, didn’t want to lead. Her litterbrother, Seed, had suggested her and Hero had surprised her by seconding Seed’s opinion. Now she needed a partner to lead with her, one with the qualities of a leader and who she could raise pups with. Hero would not take her as a mate, especially not with Ash’s absence still looming over the group.
That left Fiery, and Fiery had said no.
As Core lifted her pointed snout to watch the family, she realized that she had never been so isolated before. With all the responsibilities and no one to share them with, she really was alone.
That’s ridiculous, Core chided herself as soon as the notion entered her mind, your whole family is only a few paces away. She couldn’t make her paws move towards them, instead she held her forepaws to her chest, lengthy, blunt claws brushing her stomach. A flock of red and teal bee-eaters flew overhead, beaks and wings shiny. Her gaze trailed them as the frosty chill of dawn was driven off by the heat of the rising sun.
It didn’t matter how close she was to her family, if she were dominant female, she would always be far away. No one else but Hero could understand her worries, but he was lost in his own grief.
A gruff clearing of a meer’s throat distracted her from her thoughts. Her chin whipped to the side, to see a shadowy figure hovering on his hind legs, using his tail to balance. He blinked pale gray-blue eyes at her and quirked his head. “Core.” He greeted, voice neither conveying warmth or hostility.
“Smokey.” Core returned in shock, leaning forward to press her snout briefly to the side of his, sharing scent. “Do you need something?”
He didn’t answer. He dropped onto his haunches and gazed into the distance, his sharp face silhouetted. “Smokey.” Core tried again, tone soft and curious. “What is it?”
“I could be your dominant male.” He blurted without looking at her, his whiskers stiff with apathy. “Your partner.”
Core’s coarse fur bristled and for a moment she was stunned silent. Then she released a shaky breath. “You don’t have to-”
“I do.” He insisted, muzzle swinging to point at her.
Her brows were heavy over her grassy green eyes. “I assumed that if you wanted to be my partner- my mate– you would have offered from the beginning.” She murmured.
He rubbed a tired paw over his snout and dipped his chin to stare at the soil. “I know.” He muttered.
Impatience as well as confusion surged through Core and she shifted her weight, gaze burning as she studied Smokey. “Spit it out.”
Smokey’s lip curled, revealing gleaming canine teeth, but the gesture wasn’t aggressive. “I want to be your partner.” He explained, voice deep and rumbling. Core suddenly realized how mature he was. She remembered him as a bumbling pup and a pang of sadness cooled her light-doused coat. His mother, the previous dominant female Ash, wasn’t around to see what a fine meer Smokey had grown to be. “I know that Fiery refused so that he could remain with his new family.” Smokey admitted quietly. “And my father won’t be getting over Ash anytime soon. My oldest brother, Blink, is too focused on his sentinel duties to care about anything else. Seed is your littermate. That leaves me as the only eligible meer in the group.”
Core’s heart lifted but she dared not express excitement yet. “But you don’t love me.” She stated.
Smokey glanced at her, gaze round with tenderness. “Not as one would love a mate, no. But I care about you as my friend and the Blazes mean everything to me. Will you accept me, as your partner?”
Core’s tail tensed with thought. She was tempted to say no, that neither of them should take a mate they didn’t love. She respected Smokey, but she knew that she’d never care for him like that. But she knew he was right. The Blazes were out of options. The small family needed leaders, and Smokey and Core were all they had. And it would be wonderful to have someone to share the burden with. She gave a decisive nod. “Yes.”