His Reluctance

 

            Pofu was up bright and early. Well, maybe not bright. The sun hadn’t risen. The first thing he had noticed was that Geuzi was gone. It worried him. Pofu knew she had every right to want the cure, but he simply couldn’t bear the thought of what would happen if she did. He wasn’t quite sure what would happen but he couldn’t think of a single decent thing from the facts that he had pulled from her head without her consent, and most likely against her will.

            Taos came out, yawning and stretching. Pofu turned around with a smile. Taos groaned. “I said bright and early. You priders are supposed to get up late.” He moaned again, rubbing at his eyes with a forepaw. “Oh, godsIdon’tlikegettingupthisearly.”

            “If you want to sleep—”

            “No, no . . . I’m up. Stupid hour till sunrise.” Taos yawned. “Where’s Geuzi? Seen her?”

            Pofu shook his head. “She was gone when I was up.” He paused. “I was thinking we could talk somewhere else. You know, like the back of Pride Rock.”

            “Alright.” The two started their way around Pride Rock and up the back. “You know,” pointed out Taos, “this is where Fujo and Taabu practically proposed to each other.”

            Pofu smiled. “If you’d call it that.” He sighed. “He was a good king. Even if overweight.”

            Taos grinned. “So, how many fat jokes were there?”

            “Less than you’d think.”

            “Hnh.” Taos flipped down onto his back on the grassy rock. Pofu followed suit. “If I fall asleep, jab me.”

            “Right,” said Pofu.

Taos stared at the stars, waiting for Pofu to begin. He finally turned to look at Pofu. “Well?”

Pofu smiled. “It’s kind of hard to know where to start.” He sighed. “Taos, I love you.”

            Taos’s head snapped back to Pofu. “Pofu, I told you, I’m not like—”

            “I love you like a brother.”

            “Better. Please continue.”

            Pofu sighed. “It’s just been so hard, having you gone. I . . . I really, really missed you. You’ve been the best friend I’ve ever had. We had so much fun together. I could tell you anything, and you’d always be there, right there.”

            Taos chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I guess I never really realized how much I meant to you.” He looked back over at Pofu. “You really mean that?”

            “Yes, Taos. You’re everything for me. If you were a lioness, I’d have asked you a long time ago to be my mate. You’re something very special, Taos.”

            “I’m going to ignore that last part.”

            Pofu laughed. “Taos, I really do love you. You’ve done everything for me you could. Even when I was cruel to you, when I did everything I could to make you despair, you were there for me. Even then you were kind to me. . . . I don’t know if I realized it, but I think you knew what I was going through. You wanted to make me happy. And you did at your expense and pain.”

            Taos said nothing, merely staring at the stars. Finally, he said quietly, “Those weren’t happy days for me.”

            “I know. I—I just want to say I’m sorry for that. You have no idea how much it hurts me think of the pain I caused the pride . . . especially you. You were nothing but good to me.”

            “Pofu, I . . . I wonder about that sometimes. I didn’t always think too nicely toward you. I—I wanted to hurt you sometimes. Badly. I wanted to leave you, like the others left you. I wanted to leave you with no one to turn to, with no one to run to. I even thought about killing you. I mean really killing you. I tried to think of what would cause you the most pain, thinking about what to rip out first, and second and third. I still can’t believe I thought that. But I did. And then I just left you.”

            “You had every right to. I preyed on you more than anyone. I—I loved your misery.” Pofu bit his lip. “I’m really, truly sorry for that.”

            “I know.”

            There was a short pause. “Why . . .”

            “Did I leave you?”

            “I don’t have any right to ask you that,” said Pofu.

            “You have every right. From what it sounds like, I left you when you needed me most.”

            “Yes.”

            “I left . . . I left because I thought that you weren’t there anymore. I wanted to help you, Pofu. You were such a happy cub and such a cruel, cruel youth. I wanted to make you that cub again. I left because . . . I gave up. I thought you wouldn’t change. I thought that there wasn’t any hope for you. I gave up on you, Pofu.”

            The words hurt. They were the truth, and absolutely justified, but they still hurt Pofu. “You gave up?”

            “Completely.” Taos sighed. “I was wrong to. This is proof.”

            “No. You were right. I was hopeless. It was just luck . . . if you had given up a day before, or two days, whichever it was . . . I would have killed you, Taos. I would have killed you, and Fujo, and Kovu. And I would have been king. I would have been the same, bloody king that Jadi was. Maybe worse. I was a lost cause, if you had given up on me earlier. You stayed until I made you go. I told you to leave.”

            “But still . . . I shouldn’t have left anyway.”

            “If you hadn’t you’d be dead. Jadi would have killed you, like all the other males. I’m fairly sure he would have killed me, if I hadn’t been harmless in his eyes.” Pofu smiled. “I guess it’s good that you left.”

            “Maybe. But I still feel I gave up on you.”

            Pofu paused. “Taos, I want to tell you something I haven’t told anyone else. There’s a lot of things I want to tell you I haven’t told anyone. But this . . . Taos, you were the reason I changed. I was torn in half, my demons with a death grip on me, telling me to kill you all. Starting with you. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t let them beat me. I couldn’t let you die. I was horribly tortured, Taos. I relived every horrible memory this pride ever had. But you were the reason I never gave in. You made me stay me.”

            “It’s good to know that.”

            “Taos, you’re the best friend I have. You could have chosen any other cub, but you chose me. And I want to do anything for you. Anything.” He turned to fix Taos with his sightless stare. “And I’m not going to let you die, Taos.”

            Taos looked at Pofu, confused. “Die?”

            “I know what Geuzi has planned.”

            “She told you?”

            “I looked into her mind. I thought she’d be a threat.”

            “So you just barge right in? Have you been looking at my head, too?”

            No. I would never look in your mind without permission. But it’s a good thing I looked into Geuzi’s. I won’t let her do this to you.”

            “Do what, exactly?”

            “You don’t know?”

            “Nobody knows.”

            “Damn it, she’ll take your soul!”

            “No. It’s worse than that. We know that much. Actually, I’d like that. If she had my soul, wouldn’t I always be part of her? At least until she died.”

            “I want you you! I need you!”

            “Pofu,” said Taos gently, “she needs me, too. More than you do.”

            “She doesn’t!” yelled Pofu. “You have no idea how much I need you! I wasn’t just blind when you were gone, I was crippled! You always were there, and you left! I tore myself apart over that! I didn’t eat for days, I didn’t sleep for days, all because I drove you away! Those were the worst days of my life! Even worse than when Kovu and Fujo died, even worse than I felt when my father died! I need you, Taos! More than she ever could!”

            “Do you really think that, Pofu?”

            “Yes!”

            “You’re wrong. You have no idea what she’s going through. I’ve been with her for four years. She needs me. She is horribly, horribly lost. She doesn’t understand how to live. She wants to deal out punishment, make the world pay for how she feels. She’s killed so many animals, been kicked out of so many kingdoms. Do you know what she was doing before I found her? She was hiring herself out. She never learned to hunt. She would kill whoever you liked, let you use her body however you wished, only would you please feed her. She was an assassin, Pofu, and a whore. She still is, despite how much I’ve tried to help her. I can’t help but look at her and feel utter pity. She’s lost, Pofu, and she needs my guidance. She needs me.”

            “I don’t want you to die, Taos. Please. I won’t let you die.”

            “I may not.”

            “She’s taking your soul!”

            “No. She’ll use it. She’ll use it and destroy it. There won’t be an afterlife for me, Pofu. When I die, I’ll die dead. We just don’t know if I’ll go on living after she uses it, or die there. Does a body need a soul?”

            “I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out! Taos I—I love you! I won’t let her do this to you!”

            “Pofu, you’re getting too excited about this. She’s not doing this to me. I’m giving myself to her. I’m letting her do this; I want her to do this.”

            “You can’t mean that,” whispered Pofu.

            “I do. I understand the consequences; I could have pushed her away long ago, and told her to go away. She would have left. But I won’t leave her. When she’s run out of a kingdom, I’ll be right by her, because she needs me. All I want to do is help, Pofu. Can you think of any greater sacrifice?”

            “Taos . . . Taos, please . . . I’m asking you—no, begging you not to do this. You’re damning yourself. We were best friends. You valued no one’s opinion higher than mine, and the same for me. If that meant anything, please, don’t do this. Send her away. Just don’t let her do this to you.”

            Taos looked away, very unhappy. “Pofu, it does mean something to me. It means a lot. But that just isn’t how the world should work. The world would be a better place if we didn’t push animals like her away just because of the consequences of helping them. You don’t know how to sacrifice Pofu; none of the world does. But we would be much, much happier if we did.” Taos sighed. “If this is what you wanted to talk to me about, I’m sorry. I won’t change.” He stood to leave.

            Pofu felt a tear slide down his face. “Taos . . .”

            Taos turned, hesitated, then held out a foreleg. Pofu embraced him, weeping. “It’ll be fine,” said Taos. “I’m here.”

            “I won’t let you go,” whispered Pofu fiercely. “I won’t let you go.”

            Taos dropped his foreleg, Pofu still holding on. Taos put his back, rubbing the back of Pofu’s massive neck, nearly being dragged to the ground by the weight Pofu was putting on his neck. “Come on, Pofu. Just . . . control yourself.”

            Pofu let go of him, his eyes still leaking. Pofu rolled over and sat up. “Look,” said Taos, “you’ve lived all these years without me. You can do it now.” He gave Pofu a brotherly kiss.

            “But it’s so good to have you . . . You have no idea what it would be like if you were gone again.”

            “You have me now though.” Taos smiled. “I’ll try to make the best of it. And who say’s I’ll die, anyway?”

            “I won’t let her do this,” said Pofu. “She’ll never touch you, so help me.”

            Taos bit his lip. “Pofu, I don’t want you to do anything to her. Please. I . . . I brought her here for a reason. Just don’t touch her. For me.” Pofu frowned, not saying anything. Taos took it as willing acceptance. “Thank you.” He walked back down the back of Pride Rock, the sun illuminating some of the ground around Pride Rock.

            Pofu heard him go, tears still sliding down his face. Geuzi’s face flashed into his mind, angering him. He noticed how his claws slid out. He let them stay, digging them into the ground.

            I’m sorry, Taos. There are just some things I have to do.

 

 

 

            Geuzi finally walked into the den after the lionesses had caught breakfast. The meal had just begun when she arrived. Numerous heads turned toward her as she walked in.  A carcass had been left for her over by Taos, Pofu, and Shani. She headed toward Taos, then lied down when she reached the carcass.

            “How thoughtful,” she muttered before she began to eat.

            Taos smiled. “You seem happier.” Shani blinked. The lioness in front of her didn’t look happier at all.

            “That happens after you kill a few animals.”

            “You didn’t,” said Taos. He didn’t know whether or not to believe her.

            “No,” conceded Geuzi. “As much as I’d have liked to, no.”

            “Where were you?” asked Shani. “We missed you for the hunt.”

            “Ha, ha. I’m a guest. Honor me, hag.”

            “Is that how you treat your elders?” asked Shani, smiling.

            “All the time.”

            “Where were you?” asked Taos. “I was worried.”

            “Places.”

            “Doing what?”

            “Things.”

            “Any loss of life?”

            “No.”

            “Fine.” Taos resumed talking to Shani. He knew better than to press Geuzi farther than one-word answers. When she wanted to talk, she would.

            Geuzi ignored Taos just as easily as he ignored her. She lowered her head down to take a bite from her carcass when some movement caught her eye. After she took the bite she saw Pofu biting into his own carcass greedily. He had asked for one for himself, preferring not to share today.

            Geuzi watched in, smiling and eating her own carcass as she watched him with his. Pofu ripped the meat from the bones, his claws sinking into the meat, squeezing the juice from the carcass. She watched him with appraising eyes. And she liked what she saw. How his massive paws cradled the carcass, how big his body was, how overwhelmingly large and wonderfully toned those muscles of his were.

            She shuddered. The pride had definitely missed something when Pofu decided to be abstinent. His thick black mane told her that he would undoubtedly gave given the pride plenty of cubs, and many, many of them males. Geuzi licked her lips in a way that had nothing to do with how appetizing the carcass was. She might not be able to feel all of sex, but it was still the most wonderful act in the world.

            She smiled. Taos was right; she really did have a one-track mind. Or did fighting and sex count as two tracks?

            For the first time in the pride didn’t know how long, Pofu finished an entire carcass. He had simply gone to the hunters when they had come in, relieved them of the largest carcass, and lied down again by Taos and Shani again and began eating ravenously. He pushed his muzzle deep into the animal and dug his claws into it, taking his anger about the helpless corner Taos had backed him into out on the carcass.

            Shani did her best to ignore his sudden viciousness. Taos couldn’t help but stare. Pofu was finished with his carcass far before anyone else, despite the face that it was the biggest. He stalked out of the den, his mouth dripping and his paws leaving bloody pawprints on the floor of the den.

            “Um . . . that was . . . different,” said Taos. “I thought you said he barely ate anything.”

            “He does,” said Shani. “He was just—different this morning. I mean, he’s gone when I wake up, he stalks back into the den without even saying good morning, just telling me to bring back a carcass for himself, and then he just—brutalizes it. He looked like he was trying to kill it.”

            “Are you sure they finished the job when they hunted?” Taos tried to joke.

            “Oh, believe me. It was dead. I made sure of that.” Taos grinned, remembering Shani’s fanaticism about triple-checking her carcass. Geuzi had never done that, no matter how well Taos had taught her to hunt. Shani sighed. “But he’s worrying me. He reminded me a little of how he was before . . . You know, with the head problems.”

            “Are we caring, Shani?”

            “Not a chance,” she said smiling.

            “Head problems?” asked Geuzi, the other two turning to look at her.

            “You didn’t tell her?” asked Shani.

            “Hey, everyone misses some details. I have to introduce her to the whole kingdom.”

            “That’s still a pretty big thing to miss.”

            “Miss what?” asked Geuzi, irritated again.

            “Pofu can see your thoughts,” said Taos.

            “He what?

            “He can look into your head and pick out whatever he wants, whenever he feels like it, so long as he’s touching you.”

            “Really,” said Geuzi in an interested voice as she sat up.

            “It’s the reason we’re in the mess we are now,” said Shani. “He doesn’t want to have a cub and have it end up blind or have it go through what he went through.”

            “Which is what?”

            “Nothing short of hell.”

            “So it’s hereditary?”

            “He thinks it is. And when he feels something that strongly, he’s usually sure about it. You wouldn’t believe how many of the lionesses have tried to seduce him.” Shani smiled. “He just shuts out their pheromones like they’re not even there.”

            “And we all know who was first in line to try,” said Taos, smiling slyly at Shani.

            “Like hell. I wasn’t even at the foot of the line, you little whelp.”

            “So where were you in the middle?”

            Shani shook her head. “And these are the times I wish your mother slapped you.”

            Taos laughed. “So, where are you dragging me today?” asked Geuzi.

            “Well I . . . I was supposed to be spending the day with Pofu, but he left.”

            “And?”

            “And I guess I’ll wait for him to come back.”

            “Good.” Geuzi got up and walked out of the den. “I’ll be back when I’m back.”

            Shani watched her go. “Is she always that much of a jerk?”

            Taos smiled. “This is a good day.”

 

 

 

            Giza didn’t feel good, which was an understatement. She had a “ginormous tummyache. It had been bothering her for a while. It had started the day before, and she had told her mother, who immediately suggested lying down and resting. The words had miraculous effect: she felt so much better, and she thought she’d go play with her friends now.

            But despite her denial, the pain remained. Giza had told her mother about the bit of discomfort before she went to bed, her mother dismissing it as indigestion, and that it’d be better in the morning.

            But it hadn’t been. It had woken her up in the middle of the night, the pain having spread from just her gut. She had followed Geuzi out because she couldn’t go back to sleep.

            And she didn’t go back to sleep even when she went back. She stayed awake the rest of the night, the pain increasing. She’d barely touched her breakfast, despite her mother’s encouragement. She went out to play with the cubs, trying to ignore the pain. It finally evolved into the “ginormous tummyache” that forced her to go back home.

            She dragged herself up the ramp of Pride Rock and over to her mother, who happened to be into the den. She went up to her mother’s side, snuggling against it. “I don’t feel so good, Mommy.”

            “Oh? What’s the problem?” Uzuri licked her daughter gently. “I just hurt,” Giza said miserably.

            “Where?”

            “Everywhere. And I’ve got this ginormous tummyache,” she moaned.

            “Just rest,” said Uzuri. She looked up at Uwivu, who she had been talking to. “You see anything wrong?”

            “No,” said Uwivu. “Could be an infection.”

            Uzuri bit her lip. “I wish we still had Rafiki.”

            “Was he really that great?”

            “He’d at least know what was going on.” Uzuri stared down at Giza. She watched as her cub lied next to her side, eyes half open, moaning slightly with the pain.

 

 

 

            Pofu had come back, and Taos had left with him. Pofu had walked off most of the frustration he felt with Taos, and any that was still there had evaporated over the course of the day. Both of them had had fun, the fun generally consisting of stupid, stupid things, the most notably stupid being the two of them starting a stampede in the gorge just to see if Pofu could outrun it. Taos had to help Pofu out of the gorge, antelope galloping underneath them.

            They calmed down the stunts after that.

            They finally came back to the den in time for dinner, only to have Pofu’s promise from the previous night come back to bite them. Every cub wanted to hear the story now, save for one curled up by her mother’s side. She wasn’t feeling too good.

            Pofu went first while Taos ate. Pofu had eaten more than enough that morning. “So,” he asked the cubs, “what do you want to hear?”

            “Something funny!”

            “A love story!” Taos nearly choked on his meat.

            “No, make it scary again!”

            “That was the last story!”

            “Love story!”

            “Yeah!”

            “Yeah!”

            Pofu sighed. “Alright. Love story.”

            “YEAH!”

            Pofu looked over at Taos, who was shaking his head. Taos despised these. Pofu didn’t like them all that much, either. Pofu told them the story of Ashki and Askari. He made it up as he went, and usually by about half-way through he had the entire story done in his head.

            Ashki and Askari had been two ordinary cubs, save for the fact that Ashki was a princess, and Askari was just a boy, no special privileges at all. But he still was a male. The king had a son, a very possessive and jealous son. The prince was betrothed to Ashki; it was why she was considered a princess.    But Askari loved Ashki as well, and truly loved her; he didn’t simply desire her as a mate like the prince, Shaka, did.

            Shaka saw how much Askari loved Ashki, and hated him for it. His father began to grow old and weak, and Shaka took more and more control over the kingdom. But Shaka wanted more. He wanted to get rid of Askari, to make him stop meeting Ashki for those long walks and those nights spent staring at the moon together (Pofu despised having to censor the story for the cubs).

            But then the king abdicated, and Shaka ruled. His very first order was for Askari’s exile. Askari left, despite how he wanted to stay, and Shaka took Ashki as his unhappy queen. Askari was nearly driven insane without Ashki. He returned to the kingdom and demanded that Ashki come with him. Shaka refused, instead enacting the penalty for returning out of exile: death.

            Shaka had Askari herded off a cliff, watching happily with Ashki by his side. Ashki watched Askari fall and heard his terrible scream—and jumped off after him, so they would be together for eternity.

            Or, they would have been, if Pofu had gotten to that point in the story. The stories took quite some time, at least an hour, and usually more. The mothers loved them; they kept the cubs out of their fur. But Pofu didn’t finish the story. He was in the middle of a moonlit walk that would have undoubtedly ended in something wonderful (in his opinion) if it hadn’t been censored when Geuzi walked in.

            She had spent the day at the Tree of Life, looking over the cure over and over. She had walked into the den, took a glance around it, and headed for Taos when Giza caught her eye. “Oh, gods,” she breathed. She rushed over to the cub and picked it up, heading for the hole that led out the back of the den.

            “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” yelled Uzuri angrily. She followed Geuzi and her daughter out the back of the den.

            Geuzi dropped Giza as far away from the den as possible. Giza feebly swiped at Geuzi, her mind clouded. Geuzi turned to Uzuri. “She’s sick.”

            “You think I haven’t noticed that?”

            “Very sick. How long ago did this start? I mean anything.”

            “She . . . she had a stomachache. That was yesterday.”

            “Then this will be in effect by morning, at least.”

            “What?”

            “Your daughter has m’so.”

            “M’so?”

            Geuzi looked down at Giza. “It’s a disease that causes horrible pain. A few hours after getting it, they begin to feel it. Their body is overwhelmed with pain slowly. They finally go insane from it, and will attack anyone. Anyone scratched or bitten will be infected.” Geuzi tilted Giza’s head back.

            “What are you going to do?” asked Uzuri.

            “I’m going to kill her.”

            “No!” Uzuri launched herself at Geuzi, knocking her to the ground. They rolled once, Geuzi coming out on top.

            “Listen to me. It’s the kindest thing we can do.”

            Uzuri began to claw at Geuzi’s forelegs that pinned her, drawing blood from deep gashes. “No! I won’t let you! I won’t!”

            “We’ll kill her in the end!”

            “Geuzi!” Geuzi turned to see Taos coming out of the den. “Get off her!”

            “She asked for it,” Geuzi said, stepping off.

            “She’s going to kill my cub!” yelled Uzuri to Taos.

            “Geuzi!” said Taos, shocked. “I told you—”

            “The cub has m’so,” said Geuzi coldly.

            Taos looked at Giza, incredulous. “Rabies?

            Uzuri gasped. “Yes,” said Geuzi. “We need to kill it now. It will infect others.”

            “Giza is not an ‘it!’” yelled Uzuri.

            “Uzuri, please, calm down,” said Taos. “Geuzi didn’t mean anything.”

            “She’s going to kill her!”

            “She won’t. Geuzi, come with me.”

            Geuzi followed him, taking a look back to see Uzuri cradling her cub. “Don’t touch her,” she said. “It’s for your own good.” She followed Taos toward the den, stopping outside the entrance,

            “Alright,” said Taos quietly, “is there any way to save her?”

            “There are no plants. It’s fatal, and it will only get worse. We should kill the little thing now. You’re the one always going on about how I should be kind to others; well now I’m trying to.”

            “We are not going to kill her.”

            “We’ll have to eventually.”

            “Look, can’t you do anything for her?”

            “I tried. You stopped me.”

            “No, I mean can you do anything for her.”

            Geuzi stared at Taos. “Oh, no. No, no, no. Not going to happen.”

            “Come on, Geuzi.”

            “Do you have any idea how hard that would be? It might kill me.”

            “Oh, stop exagger—”

            “I am not exaggerating. I’m telling you the truth. It takes so much to heal something like this, it’s not funny. I doubt even Ila wouldn’t be drained.”

            “Look, can you at least try? You can stop if you need to rest.”

            “And it’s damn hard to stop once you’ve started. Besides, look at this,” Geuzi said, holding up a bleeding foreleg. “I’ve got this to deal with because of that idiot over there. I am in no shape to do that. Not when I’m done with me.”

            “Then do her first. She needs a lot more help than you.”

            “I’ll die before I put a cub before myself.”

            “They aren’t all out to get you. Please, Geuzi, just do it. Please.”

            “N—”

            “Just think about it.” Taos sighed. “At least go over there and comfort Uzuri. She needs it.”

            “Fine.” Geuzi walked angrily over to where Uzuri was staring at her cub, unable to touch it, and sat down. Taos watched the two, Uzuri silently weeping, before finally going back into the den. Pofu had gone back to the story. The cubs were listening, but the mothers had heard what had happened outside. They looked at Taos when he came in, their faces worried.

            “Pofu, can you be quiet?” asked Taos.

            “He was getting to the best part!” protested a cub.

            “Please. Everyone listen. All the cubs need to go back to their mothers now. Everyone is to stay in the den for tonight. If you have to use the grass, do it quickly, and be back here as soon as you can.”

            “Who do you think you are to be giving orders inside my den?” demanded Uwivu angrily.

            “I’m sorry, your highness,” said Taos. “Perhaps you’d like to tell the den what to do when a cub has rabies?” Uwivu was silent. “No one is to leave the den any longer than they have to. And above all, no one—no one—is to go back there on that ledge. It’s for your own good.”

            “It can’t be rabies,” said a lioness. It was Fina. “It just can’t.”

            “Geuzi says it is.”

            “What does she know?” asked Uwivu bitterly. “She’s been nothing but an ass.”

            “She knows a lot more than any of us. No one is to leave the den unless it’s absolutely necessary. Is that clear?” There was a general murmur of assent fro the lionesses. “Good. Pofu, come here.”

            Pofu walked over. “What?”

            Taos lowered his voice to normal volume. “We’re sleeping back here tonight. We’re blocking this hole. It’s the only thing that I can think to do. Just keep everyone in the den and away from Giza.”

            “Geuzi and Uzuri are still out there,” Pofu pointed out.

            “I know. But I can’t very well ask Uzuri to leave. And Geuzi needs to be there . . . for when it happens.”

            Pofu sighed. “You put too much trust in her.”

            “You don’t put enough.”

 

 

 

            “There isn’t anything we can do for her, is there?” asked Uzuri, her eyes still dripping. She looked over at Geuzi. “Is there?” she repeated.

            “No.”

            Uzuri turned back to Giza. The cub was moaning, her paws on top of her head. She was rolling back and forth slightly, eyes tightly shut in pain. Uzuri watched her daughter miserably. She had already tried to cuddle her and had been swiped at. All Uzuri could do was sit and watch. She turned to Geuzi again. Geuzi was staring at the cub calmly, claws out.

            “Aren’t you even sad? This is my daughter that’s dying!”

            “I can’t cry, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m unable to. But no, I’m not sad. I offered to put your daughter out of her misery and you turned me down.” Geuzi looked over at Uzuri. “You are choosing to put your cub through unimaginable misery, and then you’re going to have to kill her. And you think I’m cruel? Take a look at yourself. Your cub is gone. That isn’t Giza. I may be enjoying watching this cub die, but you . . . if you had and ‘decency’ or ‘sense,’ you’d kill her.” And long before she even got m’so, Geuzi thought.

            “I love her,” protested Uzuri.

            “You’re looking for a cure that isn’t there. This is foolishness. Every m’so victim has been killed. M’so isn’t rabies; it’s worse than rabies. But rabies is the closest thing that we have to comparing it. Do you know what happens when there is an outbreak of m’so? There is nothing but insanity. Animals attack each other, infecting more and more until there are no more to infect. And then they can only attack themselves.”

            “I don’t want Giza to die.”

            “She’s a cub. She has no right to live.”

            “She’s a cub! She has every right to live! My brother killed cubs; he ate them or simply killed them because they were males! Every cub my brother killed had a full life ahead of him, a life to experience and feel and be happy! They never got that chance that they deserved. There is nothing crueler than ending the life of a cub!”

            “Look here!” said Geuzi angrily. She turned her face to show her three scars across her left cheek. “I got these from a cub. I have had them since I was one. One! Do you think that cub cared about my life? Do you think any of the cubs that tormented me cared about me at all? Cubs have no mercy. They are selfish, they are cruel, and they are despicable. I would kill every one of them if I had the chance.”

            “They aren’t like that! They’ll love you. Cubs are one of the most wonderful things in the world. They’re absolutely pure. The only cruelty you’ll ever get from them is the cruelty you put into them. There is nothing that I have cherished more than having that girl come up to me every night, just come up and snuggle against me, and say ‘I love you, Mommy.’ Nothing.”

            “You’re a fool.”

            “You don’t understand!”

            “I understand more than enough.”

            “You’re the fool.”

            “Look who’s decided to torture their cub before killing them.”

            Uzuri didn’t have an answer to that. She looked down at Giza, watching her moan in pain. Giza didn’t fall asleep, the pain keeping her awake. The lionesses stayed awake as well. Uzuri couldn’t sleep. She was worried about her daughter, and didn’t dare leave Geuzi along with her. Geuzi wasn’t about to fall asleep around a rabid cub.

            Giza grew steadily worse. Her body began to move more. By sunrise, small bits of foam had begun to outline her mouth. Geuzi and Uzuri stared at Giza all night, thoughts flying through their heads as they sat in silence.

            Finally Geuzi stretched out a paw to Giza. Uzuri didn’t stop her. She knew her daughter’s time was up. She looked on, a fresh stream of tears coming forth as Geuzi stretched her claws toward Giza’s neck. Geuzi bit her lip. She put her paw on Giza’s neck. Giza swiped at her, unable to reach Geuzi from the position she was in.

            Geuzi stared down at the cub, then retracted her claws. She closed her eyes and became very still. Uzuri watched the paw on her daughter’s neck, crying. Finally she couldn’t bear the waiting any longer. “Do it now, Geuzi. Please.” She looked up at the lioness. “Geuzi?”

            Geuzi was breathing heavily. She began to swing forward and backward a little bit as her chest heaved. Her muscles slowly grew more prominent as they were flexed more and more, the ones in Geuzi’s shoulders actually pulling the flesh on her forelegs so much that it broke apart what clotting had built up overnight. Geuzi’s breathing became more and more labored.

            “Geuzi?”

            Every muscle seemed to be stretched to its breaking point. Geuzi’s body was rigid, her muscles standing out. Her heart beat faster and faster. Uzuri watched her, worried. Geuzi eyes screwed up, the sounds of her breath easily audible through her open mouth. Then, suddenly, it all stopped. Geuzi’s muscles stopped straining. She collapsed.

            “Geuzi!” Uzuri stared at her, watching Geuzi’s chest heave up and down. “Geuzi, are you okay?”

            “Mommy?”

            Uzuri turned around to see Giza pushing herself up from the ground. “Giza!” Uzuri bent down to embrace her daughter. She kissed Giza. “Oh, I love you so much.”

            “Mommy, what happened? I had the weirdest dream. And it hurt so much.”

            “You’re okay now.” Uzuri licked her daughter again. “Oh, I’ll never let you out of my sight again. Geuzi—” Uzuri turned to look at the lioness. Geuzi was still on the ground, chest still going up and down frantically, but less than before. “Geuzi? Taos!” Uzuri yelled. “Taos, get out here!”

            Taos ran out. “What?” He spotted Geuzi. “Geuzi!” He ran to her, knelt down by her head. “Geuzi?”

            Taos had to strain to hear her words. “Damn you and your good influence,” Geuzi whispered. She slipped into unconsciousness.

 

 

 

            Geuzi woke up slowly, refusing to open her eyes. She simply lied there, letting the noise of the den wash over her. There were a few lionesses talking. She recognized them as the older ones. But she didn’t hear Shani’s voice. The sound of the laughter of the cubs was heard, as well as the sounds of little shuffles as they wrestled.

            Geuzi’s exhaustion was gone, or very nearly so. She could hear Taos talking to Pofu, with Pofu’s words about her. “I’m saying that anyone would have felt sorry for that cub. She didn’t have a change of heart, Taos, and she never will.” Well, thought Geuzi, that much is true. “Just leave her.”

            “For the four hundred and seventy-ninth time, no. Why does everyone expect me to leave her?” said Taos. “She needs me. I brought her here for a reason. If anywhere can make a better person, it’s here. In my opinion.”

            “And you weren’t homesick?”

            “Maybe a little.”

            “She’ll use you, Taos. Use your soul, and get rid of you.”

            “I know, Pofu. We’ve been over this. Please, just drop it.”

            “Fine.”

            Geuzi was puzzled. There was no way Pofu could know. Taos said he wouldn’t tell, and he never, ever lied. Geuzi realized it and smiled. Pofu must have pulled it out of her head.

            Jerk.

            Geuzi rolled onto her back. She wanted to go back to the Tree of Life. She had the drawings memorized, but it felt good to have them there. She just needed to get the materials, and it would work. A cry of “She’s awake!” came from one corner of the den, interrupting her thoughts. Geuzi cursed herself for rolling over.

            A small thing landed on top of Geuzi’s chest, squeezing it. Geuzi let out a gasp if surprise. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!” Geuzi raised her head to see Giza hugging her chest. A broad smile was across the cub’s face.

            “Get off me,” said Geuzi, disgusted.

            Giza sat up so she was sitting on Geuzi’s chest. “See? I knew you loved me.”

            “Uh, no. Ew.”

            “Come on. Not even a smidgen?”

            “No smidgen. Get off me.”

            “Then why’d you do it?”

            “I don’t explain myself to cubs.” She pushed Giza off her. If this weren’t the Pridelands and Taos hadn’t stressed so much to play nice, she would have smacked the cub clear across the den. As it was, Giza was bumped off her, though not as nicely as she’d have liked.

            “Why?” she asked.

            Geuzi let out a snarl as she swept back a clawed paw. “Geuzi,” warned Taos. Geuzi settled for slamming her paw against the floor of the den.

            “Taos!” she complained.

            “Just control yourself, Geuzi.”

            “Maybe I’ll take out my anger on you.”

            “Can’t touch this.”

            “Oh, I’ll touch it, alright.” Geuzi looked down to see Giza entwining herself in her legs.

            “Thank you,” the little cub said again.

            Geuzi nudged Giza away. “Get away from me, you little—thing.”

            “But—”

            “Giza, could you please just leave us alone?” asked Taos. “For a few minutes?”

            “Alright,” said Giza grudgingly. She walked back to the other cubs.

            “Geuzi, be nice to the poor cub,” said Taos.

            “Over my rotting corpse.”

            “You saved her life, Geuzi. She’s just trying to show her gratitude. Why be so nasty?”

            “How long was I asleep?” asked Geuzi, ignoring the question.

            “A day,” said Taos.

            “A day?!”
            “A day.” Geuzi began looking over her body frantically, checking to see if everything was still there, scowling when she noticed her forelegs, the gashes the Uzuri placed still there. She’d fix those later. “But the hunters should be back with breakfast soon.”

            Geuzi scowled at Taos about a minute later when she finished making her checks. “This is your fault.”

            My fault?”

            “You and your stupid sacrificial shit.” Taos smiled as she lied down, finally satisfied that everything was there. “Me feeling sorry for Uzuri. Bah.”

            “And you didn’t feel sorry at all for little Giza?”

            “No.”

            “Not even a smidgen?”

            “There are no smidgens of love in this den for any cub. Not from me.”

            “’Cause I think Giza’s got a bit of a hero-worship thing going on.”

            “If I find her stalking me one more time, she won’t live. And she had better remember that I warned her.”

            “Stalking?”

            “I go to take a leak and she just follows me.”

            Taos threw his head back, laughing. “That’s a new one!”

            “One of these days, I’m going to tear out your sense of humor and rip it to shreds.”

            “Like hell,” growled Pofu. Taos was stunned by the dead seriousness of Pofu’s tone.

            “Pofu, it’s just a joke.” Pofu didn’t answer, moodily setting his head on his paws. “Cheer up. Show me happy.”

            Pofu frowned.

            “Okay, show me sad.”

            Pofu frowned.

            Taos sighed. “Forget it.”

            “My face was starting to hurt,” grumbled Pofu, turning onto his back.

            “See, that’s a joke.” Taos turned back to Geuzi and began to speak when he saw she, too, had her head down. “Are you two trying to sleep?”

            “A little,” said Pofu.

            “Oh. Well then, I should probably just—”

            “—shut up,” finished Geuzi. Her ears flicked upward as she heard a snarl escape Pofu in response to what she had just said. It amazed her how strong his devotion to Taos was. Taos had been gone for eight years and Pofu still considered him a friend, even if he did leave him. She was fairly certain Pofu would die for Taos. She was pretty sure that he’d do as Taos asked when push came to shove, though.

            He must have had a hell of a childhood, she thought, getting the complete mindset of an adult as soon as he was born—Geuzi stopped and smiled. Well, maybe there is someone that was worse off than me, she added as an afterthought. She smiled. She knew just how to get Pofu out of the way.

            The meat finally arrived five minutes later. Geuzi immediately began wolfing her food down, only slowing down when Taos told her to. “I have places to go,” she said sourly. Not long after that she was finished and out of the den again. Taos shouted to her, “Be careful! You might hurt something!” He heard her bitter burst of laughter. He turned to Pofu and Shani, who were next to him. “Well, she might. She’s been through a lot. She’s overtaxed her body before.”

            “Haven’t was all?” remarked Shani dryly. “Look at me, hunting at the age of eighteen.”

            “Have you ever held your breath till you fainted?”

            “No. No one’s that stupid.”

            “She has. And she can’t help it.”

            “Do you expect me to coddle her and say, ‘Oh, you poor thing’ the next time she comes into the den?”

            “She’d kill you if you did that.”

            “Then maybe I will. It’s nice to know when you’ll die instead of waiting for old age to come around and kick you in the arse.”

            “If you say so, my elder.”

            “Pofu, should I cuff him?”

            “You’d have cuffed me,” he pointed out, pushing himself from the floor. “Nice and hard, too.”

            “Yes, but we want him to stay.” Shani turned to Taos. “Are you staying?”

            Taos looked at his carcass. “I . . . Well, Geuzi doesn’t really like being pinned down.”

            “Oh, for Aiheu’s sake,” said Pofu. “You’re in the position you’re in because you’ve always done things for her. Do you want to stay?”

            “Well . . .”

            “Complete honesty, Taos. I’d do no less for you.”

            “I don’t know. I guess, but . . . well, that cub-queen really does look like she wants me gone.”

            “Uwivu’s not queen,” said Shani. “She’s just in charge because Uzuri hasn’t stepped up. The kingdom’s a mess.”

            “Look, Taos, do what you want for once,” said Pofu. “Are you a lion or not? The pride is pretty much desperate enough to let the next rogue that comes in take over. I’m not going to rule. I’d have no control over the lionesses anyway; half of them hate me for my inaction with Jadi and the other half are like Shani, half-dead—”

            “I’ll show you half-dead—”

            “Fine, quarter-dead.”

            “Better.”

            “Taos, we need you here. I mean, yeah, we’ll get along, but it’d just be . . . better.”

            “Pofu,” said Taos, “I don’t know any more about ruling that that Uwizu—”

            “Uwivu.”

            “Whatever. I wouldn’t be that much help. You guys would be fine. Like you said, sooner or later a rogue will come along and he can take the job.”

            “I’ve yet to hear a story where a rogue rules a kingdom well,” said Shani.

            “I’ve seen it happen. Besides, the kingdom would learn to get along better this way. Less fights.”

            “Or total war,” said Shani.

            “Have you had any happy thoughts while I was gone?”

            “Well, there was Uchu.”

            “Uchu?” asked Pofu skeptically.

            “Yes. I loved her.”

            “You’re in wonderful humor today, Shani.”

            “No. I did. She was a wonderful cub. I loved her. Until I found out she had that little murderous streak.”

            “Kind of ruined everything, didn’t it?”

            “Somewhat.” She turned back to Taos. “So, are you staying or not?”

            “I’ll . . . think about it.” He looked up at Pofu, who was still standing and waiting to leave. “Are you trying to make a point?”

            “Subtle, isn’t it?” Pofu said.

            “Alright, I’ll go.” Taos pulled one last bite of his carcass off and followed Pofu out of the den.

            “If you two get into any trouble—” said Shani, imitating Taos’s late mother.

            “Then you’ll dump me in the Graveyard and make me find my way home. I know.”

            Shani smiled. Of course he did. This was his home, after all.