Their Struggle

 

            Taos came back with Pofu after a day of slightly less stupid, foolhardy, and dangerous stunts, slightly only because they had used up all their best (and therefore stupidest) ideas the day before. It was still much more fun than Pofu had had in a long time, despite the fact that he had nearly died more times that day than any day with Jadi. He prayed Taos would stay. And if Taos didn’t . . . well, Pofu might just leave with him. There were so few lionesses here that did like him. He was sure that Uwivu would have exiled him if she felt she had the power. She hated all males, thanks to Jadi and Nafsi. Especially Nafsi. Pofu couldn’t remember ever seeing such bitter hate.

            He and Taos walked into the den, laughing. Taos was exhausted, but the day only touched Pofu’s stamina. He felt that his endurance and strength were the only decent things that had come out of his nightmarish episode with his own mind. Those, and a healthy respect for privacy.

            Pofu smiled as he thought of the plans for tonight. Stargazing, him and Taos, on the back of Pride Rock, Pofu seeing everything through Taos’s eyes. He hadn’t actually done that since Jadi had begun to rule. He only had his memories of the times he’d spent with Tumai, staring at the heavens through her eyes. With her permission, of course.

            But the two of them would have to get past the little sea of midgets first.

            Every cub remembered perfectly well that Taos owed them a story. He’d have to appease them. Besides, Pofu wanted to hear some of the things that had happened, too. He talked happily with Taos until dinnertime, noticing how Taos seemed to grow more and more uncomfortable. Finally dinner arrived, the sun beginning to set. Shani joined the two of them, brining a full carcass for Pofu and demanding that he eat it. “I don’t want to have you starving,” she said.

            “Shani, I won’t starve,” Pofu protested.

            “Eat,” she demanded.

            “Shani—”

            Eat. I swear, if your mother was alive . . .”

            Pofu began chewing away at the carcass. “Why don’t you just eat it, Pofu?” asked Taos. There’s plenty of meat.”

            “There wasn’t,” Pofu said.

            “Huh?”

            “I told you he gave away his food when Jadi ruled,” said Shani. “He had to get a long on a few mouthfuls a day, all because that brute wouldn’t feed the cubs properly. And I keep telling him that he doesn’t have to do it anymore, but . . .” She waved a paw at Pofu.

            “He ate a whole one the other morning,” pointed out Taos.

            “That was different,” said Pofu.

            “How?” demanded Shani.

            “I wanted to do it then.”

            “Then want to now.”

            “It’s a pain, Shani. I have to speed up my metabolism to get rid of what I have, and then I have to slow it back down to a normal lion’s pace. It’s not fun.”

            “And I have to endure these complaints every time. You think he’d cooperate.”

            Taos smiled. “I know what you mean. It’s just as much of a pain controlling Geuzi. I don’t know how Ila ever did it.”

            “Ila?” asked Pofu through a mouthful.

            “She was a lioness that took Geuzi in. If it weren’t for her, Geuzi might not be alive.” He took a bite out of his own carcass, swallowed.

            “Why?” asked Shani.

            “Well . . . it’s a long story, but the short version: Ila taught Geuzi how to heal. And she was the one who told Geuzi to fight back against the cubs that teased her. She helped Geuzi get stronger. Apparently, she—Geuzi—was completely weak before she met Ila. She didn’t ever develop her muscles too well. So Ila decided to help her, put her through exercises until now she’s at the point where she’s go so much strength and endurance, I’m pretty sure she could outfight and outrun me.”

            “Hnh,” said Shani. “So what’d Ila get?”

            “I—I don’t really thing she got anything for what she did. I think Ila just felt sorry for Geuzi. That she loved her.” Taos looked out of the den again. The sun was still climbing steadily toward the horizon.

            “Why do you keep doing that?” asked Pofu. “You’ve been doing it all night.”

            “Doing what?”

            “Looking outside.”

            “I’m just worried about Geuzi. She—well, she’s just never gone this long without telling me. Unless . . .”

            “Unless what?”

            “She could be out killing someone,” said Taos reluctantly. He looked away from the mouth of the den to see Shani’s shocked face. “Oh, no, I’m sure she isn’t doing that. If she does, I told her I’d send her away. She wouldn’t risk it. Not here.”

            “We’ve had more than enough killings,” said Shani coldly.

            “Don’t worry. She’s not.”

            “I don’t see what you’re worried about,” said Pofu. “She was gone this long the last time.”

            “No, I saw her,” said Taos. “She showed herself to me.”

            “Where?” asked Pofu suspiciously.

            “She was in Rafiki’s tree.”

            “She was WHERE?” yelled Pofu.

            “What? It’s not like she’s going to tear it up.”

            “Oh, I bet she would,” said Pofu viciously. “I wouldn’t put it past her. Being the witch she is—”

            “She is not a witch!” yelled Taos. Pofu and Shani stared at him, stunned by the outburst. “And don’t you dare call her that again! Ever!” He stared at Pofu, his face angry, the anger ebbing away quickly. “Just don’t. Please. Just not that.” He sighed. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that.”

            “Don’t worry,” said Pofu. “Everyone has to blow off some steam. I don’t know how you manage to hold it all in. You don’t even curse.”

            Taos smiled. “It’s just something you don’t need to do.” He bit his lip. “I’m just worried about Geuzi.”

            Pofu stared at Taos as his friend looked outside the den again. It could be seen out of the back of the den that the sun had almost touched the horizon. “Taos?” said Pofu.

            “Hmm?”

            “If you really are that concerned, let’s just go look for her.”

            “Thank you,” said Taos, relieved.

            “Anything for you.” The two got up and headed out toward the savannah.

            “And what do I do if you don’t come back?” called Shani.

            “I dunno,” called back Taos. “Give our carcasses to the cubs, I guess.”

 

 

 

            It was getting late. Geuzi knew she should have been back at the den by now. They’d be eating dinner. And Taos would be pining for her. She smiled. She knew exactly why he had brought her home, even if he thought she didn’t. She wasn’t exactly sure what she would do when the time came. But he’d have second thoughts if he knew what I have planned, she thought. As soon as she got Pofu alone . . .

            She heard her name ring out through the air, cutting through the sunset. “Geuzi!” It was Taos. She banked away from the voice, the voice also going away from her. She’d be back at the den when he finally came back, having looked for her all night, and she’d laugh at his surprise. It’d be fun. But then, as she walked back, she heard another voice call out her name, deeper and much louder.

            “Geuzi!”

            Geuzi stopped dead. “Geuzi!” it called again. It was Pofu. She couldn’t believe her luck. She walked over a hill to see him, standing there, listening. He let out another cry of “Geuzi!” as he began walking again, his massive frame making no noise as he moved through the grass, his heavily padded paws leaving imprints of his weight on the ground. Geuzi smiled.

            Pofu. Pofu alone. Pofu completely, utterly alone.

            She’d enjoy this.

            “Pofu,” she called. His head snapped toward her, the rest of his body following it a second later. She walked down to him, turning on her charm

            “Where have you been?” he demanded. “Taos and I are having to comb every inch of the kingdom for you.” He smelled the pheromones coming from her, his eyes widening in surprise. “Geuzi,” he rebuked.

            “Yes?” she asked, her tone seductive.

            “Turn those off.”

            “Turn what off? These?” She blew a breath at him, knowing how the pheromones would go with it.

            “Yes. Those. You’re wasting your time. They don’t work on me.” It was true. He simply shut out the hormones they triggered, the pheromones simply building up inside him until they faded away, their effect gone.

            “Oh, but they could.” She made to rub against him, but was pushed away. “Pofu, why don’t you just give in? Just once?”

            “You’re Taos’s,” he said. “I don’t want anything to do with a soul-stealer.” He paused before heading toward Pride Rock. “Why don’t you just sacrifice a newborn cub? They’re pure. And we all know how much you love—” He stopped, feeling her grab onto his tail with her mouth.

            “It won’t work,” she said, dropping the tail and rubbing against him as she walked to his head. “It needs to be a—mature soul.” She kissed the underside of his neck, then nibbled it. Pofu jerked away. He didn’t like at all the idea of having her teeth around his neck. He didn’t trust her. She was, after all, a killer.

            “Fine. Great. A mature soul. Now can we go back? The sun is almost down, if my time-sense is correct, and I have plans.”

            “Yes,” she purred. “Plans with me. Tonight.” She moved to the other side of his neck and kissed him again, her tail wrapping around a foreleg.

            “You’re Taos’s,” Pofu said coldly.

            “I’m mine,” she said, her voice set alight with passion. “I do as I please.”

            “I won’t.” He couldn’t believe how she reeked of pheromones.

            “You must want it,” she said. “A lioness. At least to know what it’s like.” She rubbed against his shoulder.

            “I have plenty of others’ memories of sex.”

            “But don’t you want to know what it’s like? For yourself?”

            “Not considering the consequences.”

            She pressed herself tight against his front, her tail wrapped firmly around his foreleg, her mouth leaning up to whisper in his ear in a low, husky voice, “I don’t care about the consequences, Pofu. I want you. I want you so much. This—body, if you want to shame it by calling it that, oh, these muscles . . . I want you, Pofu.”

            “No.”

            “I’ve always wanted you. Since I saw you. Since I saw that wonderful, thick, black mane in that savannah. I’ve always liked big lions but Pofu . . . oh, Pofu!” She nibbled at his ear. “Oh, gods, if only I could have you . . .”

            “No, Geuzi. We need to get back—”

            “I need you, Pofu.” She began to kiss him passionately, her words coming between the licks. “Oh, gods, I want you. Oh, just take a look inside my head and you’ll see. Pofu—Pofu, you have to take me.”

            Pofu swallowed. He could look into her mind; she was touching him far more than was necessary for the link to be established. He had nothing to lose. He looked inside. She spoke the truth. She wanted him tonight. The frenzy of lust that she had worked herself up to was incredible, and hadn’t all been worked up just now. She honestly had wanted him before this. She didn’t force the pheromones out through her now; they flowed, they poured, all in an attempt to seduce the male in front of her, the male that most nearly embodied everything she found appetizing in a lion.

            But most of all she wanted him.

            He retracted out of her mind to sense her staring into his eyes. She bit her lip. She drew her face up close to his. “Take me,” she whispered. Pofu stared at her with his sightless eyes. It was wrong to do this, especially behind Taos’s back. But now, just a chance, even a chance . . . He could sense Geuzi beginning to lower her head in defeat.

            Taos need never know about it, he thought.

            He let his hold on the pheromones loosen, the overflow pouring into his mind. He lowered his head to her neck and let his tongue snake out. He kissed her gently, his large, warm tongue caressing her neck. Geuzi closed her eyes in pleasure, opened them at the end of the kiss. She stared up into Pofu’s colorless eyes.

            “You can do better than that,” she said seductively. She could practically see the pheromones at work in his mind, pushing him, coaxing him, begging him to—

            Pofu let go of the hold on the pheromones. He pressed his muzzle to Geuzi’s neck, forcing her to the ground. It was the start of something that continued the whole night.

            But the sight wasn’t unseen. They were watched. Taos watched them silently as the two copulated over and over. Taos felt tears slide down his face at the sight of the spectacle of lust.

            How could you? You were my friend, Pofu. How could you?

            Pofu didn’t see his friend sitting on the hill, watching him make love for the first time in his life. Neither did Geuzi, although it was most definitely not her first. But finally, they finished. Pofu lied down next to Geuzi, exhausted. Taos stared down at the two as Pofu moved a hind leg over Geuzi, Taos’s body having run out of tears, instead releasing cold, bitter feelings. He turned toward Pride Rock as Pofu snuggled closer to Geuzi.

 

 

 

            Taos walked into the den, his head held high. Most of the den was awake, and they’d go out to hunt soon. They were leaving still later, relaxing into the comfortable routine of having no one force them to catch meals at a certain time. They were relaxed, beginning to feel at home once again. Not everyone welcomed the changes, however. The cubs didn’t understand why they felt this way. They had lived their entire lives on a schedule and under tension. Relaxation was odd.

            Taos walked over to Shani, who raised her head as he approached. He announced in a carrying voice, “I’m staying.”

            “Good,” said Shani, laying her head back down. “Well, now I can die in peace,” she said, smiling at her little joke.

            “Excuse me, rogue,” said Uwivu, walking up to Taos. “Who do you think you are to say if you can stay or not?”

            Taos turned to her, a humorless smile on his face. “I’m only going to say this once, cub. This is my home. I have never been exiled; you can’t just kick me back out. So if you do want me gone, it’ll mean banishment. Go ahead and see if your power goes that far.”

            “I am queen,” said Uwivu coldly.

            “You are nothing, cub. You have no status. You are most certainly not my mate. I’m king now.” Uwivu snarled at him. “There is no more cub-queen. This is my kingdom now.” He turned to the rest of the den. “You hear me?” he yelled, much louder than was necessary. “I’m king! I am! Me! I’ll take any challenger to the throne! Anyone! Step right up!”

            There was silence.

            Taos turned back to Uwivu. “Anyone,” he said, making her icy voice seem like a warm summer day.

            Uwivu glared at him angrily, tempted to take the line he offered. She had nothing left here. Nevertheless, she forced out levelly, “Yes, sire.”

            Taos watched her go back to her space in the den, then lied down next to Shani. “Taos?” Shani asked. She received a grunt in response. “Are you alright? You’re acting—strange.”

            “Be careful how you speak to your king, lioness,” he said. He looked up at her with a smile that took all of the venom out of his remark. “I’m just—tired.”

            “You were gone all night,” she observed.

            “Yes,” said Taos. He offered nothing more.

            “Well, if it isn’t too demeaning for his royal majesty, do you think you could scratch my back? There’s a place there that I can’t reach.” Taos extended his claws to Shani’s back. “Lower . . . little higher . . . yes! Right there. Ohhh. That’s it . . . So, where’s Pofu?” Shani yelped as Taos’s claws dug into her. “I said scratch, not maim!”

            “Sorry,” said Taos honestly. “I’m a little out of it today.”

            “Obviously. You were acting as if you were hyped up on one of Rafiki’s herbs when you came in. I’m surprised your speech wasn’t slurred.”

            “Shani, he only got the dosage wrong once,” Taos said, glad that the conversation was moving away from the previous night.

            “Twice. And both times were hilarious, and you know it.”

            “Yeah,” he said, remembering how one lioness and one cub had stumbled around the den drunkenly on two separate occasions. “You know, you’ve been a lot pleasanter, Shani.”

            “I had to butter you up to stay,” she said with a smiled. She purred with contentment as Taos’s scratching hit another sweet spot. “But now that you’re staying, I’m back to being the biggest crab around.” She sighed happily again. “Just as soon as you’re done scratching my back. No rush. Ohhh, that feels good.”

            “Well, then maybe I won’t stop scratching.”

            “I wish you wouldn’t.”

            “Shani, isn’t it nicer to be pleasant to be around?”

            Shani grinned as she closed her eyes. “Not a chance. It’s a lot more fun to crab. And when you get to my age and begin to get my aches and pains, you can complain, too.”

            “But being nice seemed to come so naturally to you.”

            “That’s because it did. I’m a very nice lioness Taos. I simply choose to be a pain in everyone’s ass. Shh, don’t tell.”

            “Why don’t you be nice? For me?”

            “It’s more of a challenge being jerky.”

            “Come on. For me.”

            Shani smiled. “Maybe. I’ll give you this: keep scratching my back like that and I’ll be the sweetest so-and-so there is.”

 

 

 

            Pofu woke up, slightly tired. His internal clock said it was somewhere near midday. He rolled onto his back, groaning slightly. It hit him: Geuzi wasn’t in his legs. He heard a flop and then heard Geuzi say, “Breakfast.” The sweet aroma of meat rose to his nose. Buffalo. His favorite.

            “I thought you didn’t hunt,” he said, rolling back over onto his stomach. He took a bite out of the carcass. Delicious.

            “I don’t group hunt. I solo just fine.”

            “Get some yourself,” he said, motioning her toward the carcass.

            “I’ve eaten,” she said. She came closer just the same.

            “Shame. There’s nothing like buffalo. My favorite.”

            “I know. That’s what Taos said.” She liked down next to him. “I’d get you anything after last night.”

            Pofu stopped chewing. The wonderful meat didn’t taste quite so good. He forced himself to swallow. “Geuzi . . .”

            “Yes?”

            “About last night . . . just keep it between us. Don’t tell Taos.”

            “Don’t worry,” Geuzi said with a smile. She gave him a lick on the ear. “I got what I wanted,” she whispered into his ear. “I’d really look forward to another night like that, though. Any time.” She gave him another lick, and paused waiting for him to do something. Pofu was frozen. Geuzi smiled. She wouldn’t push him. She stood up and walked away from him.

            Pofu tried to fight down a violent urge to vomit as a wave of guilt overwhelmed him. Despite his bodily control, his stomach still heaved. He couldn’t keep it down. He puked, right on the carcass. Buffalo would never taste pleasant for him again.

 

 

 

            Geuzi was surprised to find several animals at the den other than lions, all of them outside of it, Taos in the center of the group. As Geuzi walked by them into the den, she could swear she heard Taos actually trying to solve their problems. She smiled. Everywhere he went, he just couldn’t resist trying to help others.

            Geuzi lied down in the den, thinking about how, in a few days, she would be out of the Pridelands. As soon as Taos got finished with the icky, disgusting, formal business of—

            “Where were you?” asked Shani, lying down beside her. She didn’t look like the happiest lioness around. And, strangely enough, there was a cub on her back who was vigorously scratching at it. “Taos looked all over the kingdom for you last night.”

            “I was out,” said Geuzi. “There are other places besides the den, you know.”

            “Oh, how wonderful. I never would have guessed.” Acidic tones had crept into Shani’s voice again.

            “What are you pissed at me for?”

            “I do not look well on anyone who missed their shift for hunting,” Shani said coldly.

            “Back to your fanatic obsession again? Look, hag, I am not a member of this pride; I do not group hunt.”

            “Then you’ll be getting your own food.”

            “Says who?”

            “Says Taos.”

            “Taos doesn’t have any power.”

            “Where’s Pofu?” snarled Shani.

            “Where I left him. Why?”

            “Taos has been looking for him. And when he finds out you’ve killed him—”

            “I did not kill him. I simply got from him what I doubt you’ve ever gotten once in your life.”

            Shani’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. “He wouldn’t.”  

            “He did. And he was wonderful.”

            “I don’t believe you.”

            “You think I care?”

            “I don’t give a shit about your opinion. You’re on hunting duty for the next five days. I will not tolerate absence.”

            “I’d like to see you make me.”

            “I will,” said Shani, her claws coming out. “Because I’m in a wonderful mood today. I’d be more than happy to thrash you.”

            “You and what army, you old hag?”

            “I’ll do it myself. I’ll get Taos if I have you.”

            “Taos won’t lift a paw against anyone. Especially not me.”

            “Oh, I’d say you’ve fallen from grace,” said Shani, nodding behind Geuzi.

            Geuzi turned to see Taos walking toward her, a mandrill by his side. “Guess what?” Taos said. “You’re going to become a wonderful, contributing member of the Pridelands.”

            “Very funny,” said Geuzi, turning back to Shani.

            “You will not speak to me in that tone,” said Taos coldly. Geuzi’s had snapped back, surprised at the ice in his voice. “You are going to teach Erevu here everything you know about healing. He’s so generously offered his services, and you are not going to say no.”

            “I do what I want,” said Geuzi firmly. She began to turn back to Shani.

            Taos’s paw caught her jaw, forcing her to look at him. He held his face close to hers, his blue eyes boring into her. “You are not to talk back to me. There are punishments just waiting, specially for you.”

            You are not my boss.” Geuzi glared back at him angrily.

            “You will obey your king.” Geuzi gasped. “That’s right. I’m staying. So if you don’t like it, leave. And take your lover with you.” She could see the rage in his eyes a moment before he tossed her head aside. He walked away angrily, only leaving behind the words, “Shani, come here. I need your opinion.” Shani stood up, the cub on her back still hanging on until Shani told her to get off.

            Geuzi watched him go, in shock of what had happened. He had seen them last night, and he was angry. She’d slept with plenty of other lions, and he hadn’t said a word. But he wasn’t just angry now, he was furious. His anger was beyond words.

            A sudden, horrible thought struck her. Was his soul even pure anymore, or had this finally tainted it? No, no she was sure it was fine. He did this out of emotion, not out of hate. He did it out of love for her. But this change . . . who knew if his soul would stay pure when he was like this? He was acting irrationally, like he’d do anything. She swallowed nervously. One slip and she’d have lost everything, and would have to start over.

            “Ma’am?” Geuzi’s head jerked out of her thoughts to look at the mandrill. Erevu, that was his name. “Shouldn’t we get started?” he asked politely.

            “Yes,” said Geuzi. “Yes, I suppose. Follow me.” She began to lead him to Rafiki’s tree. It was as good a place as any to teach medicine. Besides, she’d be out of here in a few days; Taos never did stay angry long, and as soon as all the pressures of ruling mounted up, he’d be more willing than ever to leave.

            It was amazing how she underestimated Taos’s anger and perseverance.

 

 

 

            Pofu was walking back to Pride Rock. He didn’t know how he was going to live with himself when he was with Taos. This wasn’t guilt he was feeling. Guilt made you squirm, made you feel bad about what you did. It didn’t tie up your stomach in knots and pull them tight, it didn’t make you regret every step that you took closer to the source of the feeling. This was more than guilt.

            He kept telling himself, I did this because I had to. It was the only way. It wasn’t working. The guilt beyond guilt kept getting worse.

            And then Taos was there. Right there, in the savannah, walking toward him. Smiling. Pofu relaxed slightly. Very, very slightly, right before the guilt took even more of a hold than before. “You didn’t come back last night, Pofu.”

            “I—I was looking for Geuzi. Remember?”

            “She showed up at the den. Around midday.”

            “Oh.”

            “But you didn’t meet where we agreed to. Remember, over by Rafiki’s tree?” asked Taos, an almost unnoticeable tone of unpleasantness in his voice.

            There? I thought it was the gorge wasn’t it? Or was that the second place? I forget.” Pofu began to head past Taos.

            Taos clubbed him across the face. Pofu staggered, surprised by the blow. “Don’t lie to me,” hissed Taos.

            “Taos . . .” Pofu didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t Taos. Taos didn’t get angry. Taos didn’t even curse. The lion in front of him was so filled with blatant rage . . .

            Taos hit Pofu again, claws out. “How could you?!” he screamed. “How could you do this to me, Pofu?”

            “Taos—Taos, I don’t—”

            “Don’t you dare tell me you don’t know, you son of a bitch!” He hit Pofu again. “I saw it! I saw the whole damned thing!!”

            “Taos,” said Pofu quietly, “I understand if you’re angry, but—”

            “Angry?! Angry?! Pofu, I am f---ing pissed!! You f---ed her! I saw you, the whole damn night! Do you know how much that hurt?! I wanted to marry her, Pofu! I brought her here to get married! And then you do that!” Tears began to come from Taos’s eyes. “You were my best friend, Pofu, and you lied to me! Right to my face! You said you loved me, Pofu! You said you cared more about me than anyone in the world! And then you do this to me! I should have known you were the same lion that drove me away from here!”

            “Taos—Taos, it’s not true—”

            Taos slashed Pofu across the face again. “Don’t lie to me! You’ve lied to me all my life! You’ve played me for a fool! And I’m TIRED OF IT! I’ll kill you, you bastard!”

            He launched himself at Pofu, Pofu falling to the ground. Pofu hit Taos off of him, hoping he wouldn’t have to hit Taos again. Pofu’s head wad was knocked back to the ground as Taos leapt on him again, sinking all of his weapons into Pofu. Pofu roared out in pain. He took the only option available to him. He hit Taos, as hard as he could.

            Taos staggered, dazed, and was sent rolling by Pofu’s next blow. Taos wouldn’t have had a chance if Pofu was trying to kill him; Pofu knew how to kill expertly, he had learned it all from others’ minds. Taos didn’t think about the possibility; he was consumed by his rage. He leapt up at Pofu again as soon as Pofu had gotten to his feet. Pofu hit him savagely across the face, knocking him to the ground, sending him rolling, Taos stopping on his back.

            Pofu didn’t wait for Taos to get up; he went straight to him and clamped down on a foreleg. Taos roared in pain and lashed out at Pofu’s face, getting him across the cheek, and then swung again.

            Pofu’s left eye disappeared with the blow.

            Pofu may have been blind, but the pain was still unbearable. He let go of Taos and staggered back. Taos didn’t back down; the right eye was gone as well. All that remained was some of the organ that was still there, a gash in each eye. Pofu sank to the ground as Taos bit as hard as he could into Pofu’s shoulder, Pofu roaring in pain. Taos dealt Pofu an uppercut, turning him onto his side, and began to attack Pofu’s underside. Pofu may have not wanted this fight, but for Taos, it was to the death.

            Pofu thrashed in pain, instinctively fighting for his survival. He finally managed to hit Taos off him, and didn’t hesitate. He grabbed a foreleg in his mouth again. He turned, foreleg still in his mouth, gaining speed. On the third full turn Taos was literally airborne. Pofu slammed Taos’s back into a tree. The thud was sickening. Taos lay still, whimpering at the base of the tree.

            Pofu placed his massive paws before Taos’s face, his eyes weeping blood, Pofu’s head being filled with pain. “You don’t know what I did last night,” he said quietly. “You have no idea. Yes, I got carried away; I couldn’t help that. But how I’m paying for it . . . Geuzi will have my cub, Taos. And it’ll see minds, just like me. And it’ll see yours. Your mind, Taos, your perfect soul. And it’ll have that. And all of your memories. And my cub will take your place. Your soul won’t be touched, Taos. But my cub won’t ever live to see Heaven. And I did that for you. I made love to Geuzi for you. I went against everything you told me for you. I broke your trust. I’ve probably ruined our friendship forever. But I did it so that you’ll live. My cub will die dead, but there’s an afterlife for you.” Taos stared up at Pofu’s blood-stained face in silence, Taos’s pain showing clearly in his face. Pofu swallowed. “If you want to kill me, if you want to banish me from your life forever, go ahead. You’ll live. That’s enough.” Pofu walked back to Pride Rock, Taos staring at him as he left.

 

 

 

            Pofu walked up the stair to Pride Rock. The pain in his eyes was unbearable, even when he tried to dull the nerves. His blindness would be obvious now to anyone. As he walked into the den, he heard gasps. He hadn’t bothered to wash off the blood. It had undoubtedly dripped down his muzzle, leaving streaks.

            Shani rushed to him. “Pofu, what happened?” She put a gentle paw to his face. “Who did this to you?”

            He pushed her paw away. “No one. I—tripped.”

            “You tripped?

            “Yes. I was in a tree, and tripped and landed on this branch, and it didn’t really hold that well, I mean, how many branches would hold me anyway, and I kind of just fell and . . . and I tripped.”

            “You’re a horrible liar.”

            “Yes, I know.”

            “Well, come over here, and I’ll clean you up.”

            “Shani, I’m fine.”

            “Pofu, you are going over there. You are having your face washed. You are not going to protest.” A steely tone had entered her voice that Pofu knew too well. If he refused, he was fairly sure she’d try to wrestle him down and drag him over there. It was her “I’m getting my way, or so help me Aiheu someone is going to pay” voice.

            Pofu walked over to Shani’s corner and lied down as she began to lick the blood off his face. It must have disgusted her, but she did it just the same. She stayed on the edges of his eyes, making sure she didn’t put him in more pain than he was already in. She finally finished, talking all the while about what a shame it was, and what nice eyes he had had.

            And she called him a bad liar.

            Pofu stood up when she said, “Okay, that’s the last of it.” She looked at him as he headed out the back of the den. “Where are you going?”

            “Up back,” was all he said before continuing on his way.

            Shani stared at him, watching him go, then laid her head back down. She sighed. She knew the uselessness of pushing him for information. If he didn’t want to tell, it’d be far too much work to try to get it out of him. But Taos was here now. The king could punish Pofu’s assailants.

            The attack might not have affected the way Pofu moved and sensed, but no animal should have their eyes slashed out like that. As she looked outside at the darkening sky she thought sadly of how his eyes would look: completely yellow-white, no longer having irises just a shade darker than his “whites.”

            Her vision of Pofu was interrupted as Taos limped into the den. Shani stared at him. “And what happened to you?”

            Taos glanced around the den quickly. “Um . . . uh, it’s a long story.”

            “I’ve got time.”

            “Uh . . . Well, you see, I kind of—tripped.”

            “You tripped.”

            “Yeah, I was in this tree—yeah, climbing Rafiki’s tree—and I kind of got the wrong branch and it cracked and all kids of falling and screaming happened and I landed, and the branch kind of scratched me. . . . So yeah, I tripped.”

            “You’re a horrible liar.”

            “Yes, I know.”

            “Would this have anything to do with the sad state Pofu’s in?”

            Taos swallowed. “I—wouldn’t know.”

            “Such a bad liar.”

            “Shani—”

            “No, I understand if you don’t want to tell me. I learned a long time ago that little cubs have secrets, sire.”

            “Don’t you ‘sire’ me.”

            “Yes, your majesty.”

            Taos sighed. His body still burned from the torn muscles and the sleep deprivation. He hadn’t slept since yesterday. The alertness that his blind rage had brought on had worn off after the fight. He wanted to sleep. But before he even thought about it—“Shani, where’s Pofu?”

            “He’s out back. I think he went up the back of Pride Rock. Why?”

            “There’s something I need to finish,” said Taos. He stalked out the back of the den.

 

 

 

            Pofu lied on his back, the pain all he could concentrate on. His eyes gave him more pain than he could have imagined. He wasn’t used to deadening pain. Despite all his efforts, he still felt a dull ache where his eyes were, or what was left of them.

            He didn’t see any point in healing them. He was blind as it was. He had seen fine with them, he could see fine without them. He didn’t expect to be alive much longer to enjoy his eyes, healed or unhealed. Taos would seek him out.

            Pofu thought bitterly about how he could count those that would miss him on one paw. Maybe Shani. Maybe even Geuzi. And Fina. She had been rather good to him, ever since she’d lost everything she had at Jadi’s paws. She’d even hinted at wanting to be his mate, even before Taos came, back during Jadi’s cruel reign. He’d looked into her mind and found, surprisingly enough, honesty. He’d told her no. He had to. He couldn’t have a mate. A mate would have cubs. And cubs were one thing Pofu had refused to give, not wanting to pass on his blindness, or his powers. Until now.

            That was it. Three lionesses, one a maybe, one extremely doubtful. And the cubs, of course, would miss their stories. But Taos wouldn’t miss him. That hurt the most. Taos had stood by him, given him a friend when he had no others.

            And now Pofu was paying for all the cruelty he had given Taos. He had made sure that Taos would live a good, long life, but he had even hurt Taos then. He had taken the lioness Taos loved. But he would pay for that, too. He was giving Taos the soul of his cub. Now he would give Taos his life, with the wish that it would be the only kill Taos would have to make, and the hope that Taos would consider Pofu’s debt to him settled.

            Pofu heard pawsteps coming up the back of Pride Rock, ones he recognized easily. He thought sadly of what a horrible state he was leaving the kingdom in, if there even was a kingdom anymore. Chaos, that’s all there was. Anarchy.

            He could have even stopped it at one point. He could have tried to kill Jadi, tried to kill Uchu. He might have died, but he wouldn’t be the disgrace he would die as now. No, he had waited, “serving the kingdom,” letting good animals die. There was no kingdom now, all thanks to his inaction.

            The pawsteps stopped just a little ways from Pofu’s hind legs. “Pofu,” said Taos.

            “Yes,” Pofu whispered.

            “This fight ends here.”

            Pofu swallowed as he closed his eyelids, bringing forth blood. “Alright,” he said. He arched his head back, exposing his neck. “Just do it quickly. It’s all I ask.”

            “Quickly?”

            “Please.” Just let me find peace.

            “Alright. Thank you.”

            Pofu blinked, more blood coming. “Thank you?”

            “Thank you. Now would you like the longer version?”

            “You—won’t kill me?”

            “No.” Taos walked next to Pofu and lied down on his back. “May Aiheu claim me the day that happens.”

            “But Taos—”

            “Pofu, be quiet and listen. Alright? I have a few things I want off my chest.”

            “. . . Alright.”

            Taos stared at the sunset. “I suppose I should begin with what I did to you today. . . . Pofu, I don’t know what to say about your eyes. No one should have to go through that, blind or otherwise.” He paused. “How bad does it hurt?”

            “Not too much. I’ve suppressed it.”

            Taos closed his own eyes. “Oh gods . . . Pofu, I am very, very sorry for that. I acted and I didn’t think at all. I just—I just saw you, and Geuzi, and—and that hurt, Pofu. I knew she was far from chaste, but it hurt. I didn’t expect you to become one of her lovers. Everyone else was just a lion, some random lion, but you . . . I knew you, Pofu. And I love Geuzi. And to have you take her like that . . . from me . . .”

            “I—”

            “Pofu, I didn’t know what did last night. You’re giving up the soul of one of your cubs for me. I know that must not be easy, what you’re doing. But I didn’t think. I acted. And I’ve hurt you, horribly. Pofu, I just hope you’ll forgive me. For everything I’ve done today.”

            “Taos, I deserve—”

            “Oh, don’t give me that heroic crap—”

            “Shut up and listen. Please. I needed today. I’ve never felt so . . . the only word I can think of is ‘carefree.’ Taos, today and last night I paid for what I did too you all those days when we were together.”

            “I only feel worse. You have no idea what’s eating at me, Pofu. All of this guilt. I shouldn’t have left you. I’ve been tortured by that thought ever since I did leave. I’m an insomniac, Pofu, did you know that? All those nights, just thinking about how much you’d miss me . . . hoping you would miss me, and not turn into this monster when I was gone.” Taos shook his head. “I can never stop thinking ‘What if?’” He sighed. “I should have stayed.”

            “If you had, you’d be dead. Uchu would have killed you like she did Gyka.”

            “Maybe. But maybe we could have found a way, and none of that would have ever happened. Maybe we could have stopped anything from even starting.”

            “We won’t know, Taos. But I doubt anything could have been done. Uchu had powers that would have overwhelmed anyone. It wasn’t Jadi’s fault that he ended up that way. She would have ruled with or without him. It was just easier with him.”

            “I still can’t believe all of that happened. It’s crazy.”

            “I know. But it did happen.”

            “And look where we’re stuck now.” Taos looked over at his friend sadly. Pofu’s eyes were leaking blood, even now. Taos knew he would never be able to look at Pofu and not remember what his friend had done for him, and what he had done to Pofu out of anger. “Pofu, I’m sorry. Really.”

            “I know.”

            “I can’t believe I acted—”

            “You’re repeating yourself, Taos.”

            “It’s something I feel I need to say.”

            “Taos, I understand what you did.”

            “I don’t.”

            “Taos, you love Geuzi. You know that, or else you wouldn’t want to marry her. Asking someone to be your mate is a big step, and it’s something that I’m not sure I could do. You did what you did to me because you love her, Taos. You love her, and I did something horribly wrong in your eyes. You did what you felt you had to.”

            “I’ve never felt anything like that, though, Pofu. I’ve never actually hurt anyone, I’ve always tried to help others, and I’ve gone and done that to you. It isn’t like me, Pofu.”

            “Every animal does things that they don’t understand fully.”

            “I don’t. I’ve always done the good thing, the right thing. How is this right? Tell me that, Pofu.”

            “Taos, you acted emotionally. You didn’t think. You acted. You said that yourself.”

            “Pofu, I don’t think I did the right thing.”

            “Maybe . . . you didn’t,” said Pofu. “Maybe you just didn’t.”

            “I don’t want that, Pofu. I want to stay pure. I want to help Geuzi . . . I want to help you all.”

            “You can help us now, Taos. You can stay here, and rule.”

            “Pofu, I’m king.”

            “What?”

            “I have been since this morning. I’m staying. I thought that I could help you all. And . . . and I could . . . punish you, I suppose was part of it.”

            “Then why feel guilty?”

            “Huh?”

            “Taos, the thing I wanted most in the world was you back. You don’t have a debt to pay to me. You don’t have a debt to pay to any of us. You’re here; that’s what I want. I want my friend.”

            Taos smiled. “Gods, I never thought you could sound so mushy.”

            Pofu leaned over and gave Taos a brotherly kiss. “I’m just glad you’re back, Taos.”

            “Yeah. Maybe we can make this work.” Taos looked up at the night sky, seeing it littered with stars. “Such a pretty night.”

            Pofu hesitated. “Do you—mind if I look?”

            “I do if you feel the need to ask.”

            “Thank you.”

            Taos looked down as Pofu’s tail wrapped around his hind leg. “You can see just by that?”

            “Yes.”

            “Wow.”

            Pofu’s face stared blankly toward the heavens. “Wow.” Taos smiled. “I’d almost forgotten how pretty it is . . .”

            Taos sighed. “You know, we’ll need a new advisor now that Nadhari’s . . . gone.”

            “Mm-hmm.”

            “How about another bird? Like Zazu? Remember Zazu?”

            Pofu smiled. “And the time he . . .”

            The night went on, the two friends finally talking freely. Things would work out. They knew it would.