All characters in this story belong to Samuel Reiman and Kovukono, and are not to be used without the permission of the writers. E-mails may be sent to srreimanabroad@aol.com and conor0191@aol.com.

I Don’t Love You

 

            Weusi looked into the empty den with appraising eyes.  It could only hold about ten full-grown lions, not that they had ten full-grown lions at that time.  She looked back at Jabari, his cold green eyes staring at the den as well as his red mane twitched slightly in a breeze.

            “This one seems nice,” she said, her voice happy.

            “No,” said Jabari, his voice flat and final.

            “Oh, but please?” asked Weusi.  She went into the den, looking around at it.  “It seems like such a nice place.”

            “It’s too big.  We don’t need it.”

            “It just gives us room to grow,” she said, her voice beginning to lose some of the happy glow it had.  “When we get a few cubs, this place could be perfect. We could start a whole pride, right—”

            “I said no.”  Slight anger had entered his voice.

            “But we have to think of the future, dear, and make sure we give our cubs somewhere they’ll enjoy, and be happy and—and maybe we could even start a kingdom here—”

            “We are not picking this den.  That’s final. I don’t like it.”

            “But—but Jabari, please—can’t we get something I—”

            “Final!”

            “But—Jabari . . .”  All of the false, cheery happiness that had been in her voice was gone.  Tears began to form in her beautiful green eyes, eyes that seemed almost crystalline in their beauty.  “Jabari, please, I just want a home so much.  We’ve been moving everywhere and there’s been so little rest and I’m just so tired of it Jabari, I really am, of all of it.  I just want to stop and settle down and be normal.  I just want a good life for us and our cubs and—”

            “We have no cubs,” said Jabari.  “No one but us.”  His tone almost seemed to suggest he’d rather keep it that way.  “What’s with your obsession with cubs lately?”

            Weusi looked at the ground, afraid to say it.  She didn’t know how he’d react.  “Jabari . . . I—I think I’m pregnant.”

            Jabari stared at her for a moment, then turned out of the den, swearing.  Weusi felt a tear slide down her face as she watched him.  That hadn’t been what she wanted at all.  She walked out to him, worried.

            “Please,” she said, “don’t be mad at me.”  Jabari said nothing, looking away from her.  “I—I don’t know if I really am. I just—I thought you’d be happy.  You could have a son, and . . . and . . .”  She could see her words were getting nowhere.  “Please,” she said, “I love you.  Don’t you love me?”

            “Yeah,” he said.  “Sure.”

            “Jabari . . .”  His words had never sounded this false before.

            Jabari sighed and turned to her.  He tipped her chin up to hers with a paw.  “Really, I love you,” he said.  “I married you, right?  I don’t make mistakes.” He smiled.  She smiled, too.  He was happy.  “This just . . . it kind of snuck up on me.  I wasn’t expecting it.”  He turned away, the smile fading.  “I’ve just got a lot on my mind.  You, and the rainy season coming up, and now this . . .”  He shook his head.  “Gods damn it!”

            “I—I just wanted you to be . . . happy.”  She hung her head.  It always seemed so hard for her to satisfy him.  She tried so hard, she knew she did.  But she just wanted cubs so much, and she had known he’d be happy to hear about it.  But all she’d done was screw up again.  “I promise they won’t be that much trouble,” she said earnestly.  “And besides, we don’t know; I may not be pregnant.  I’ll try to make it better, really.”

            Jabari stood there, staring out over the savannah.  He could tell she was trying.  It just didn’t seem to ever turn out right.  She could do nothing correct for him, it seemed sometimes.  But she tried, he had to give her that.  He could indulge her, just a little bit.  “We can stay here tonight,” he said.

            “What?” she asked, ears perking up.  “You mean, in this den?”

            “Yes.”

            “Oh, Jabari!”  She wrapped a foreleg around him enthusiastically in a hug.  “Thank you!”

            He pushed her away slightly to look her in the eyes.  “But only tonight.  I don’t want to hear complaints tomorrow.”

            “Oh, you won’t, I promise!”  Weusi turned back to the den, saying how happy she was.

            He could tell from the way she began to dream out loud about what a perfect little place it was that she wouldn’t leave quietly tomorrow.  He’d say it was time, and she’d want to stay, and he would insist.  And she would beg him, and he would have to beat her, and they would move on.

            It seemed that it never ended, all of her begging, and her attempts to please him, and his pleading with her and all of that beating that was needless, if only she would listen.  He sighed.  He wished it would work out.  He hoped it would.  She was, after all, his mate.

 

            The morning came.  They hadn’t spoken another word to each other during the rest of the night.  They needn’t have to anyways; they both knew what the other one was thinking.  Weusi dreamed peaceful dreams, Jabari didn’t dream at all.

            He had stayed awake most of the night.  All the traveling that he had been doing with Weusi was starting to get to him too.  But the problem for him was her.  She wasn’t going to learn.  And her constant whining and daydreaming out loud . . . he didn’t know why he was still with her.  Weusi wanted to stay and he wanted to leave, the opportunity had always been there for him.  When he married her he had been so close to Weusi, but now it seemed there was no connection between them.

            The lands suddenly became illuminated by the sun’s red glare.  There was the whole savannah in front of him.  Freedom.  There was no one out there to care for, no one to argue with.  If Weusi wanted to see him happy she should’ve seen him then.

            But Weusi was still asleep.  Jabari’s best opportunity was now, and he knew it.  But as he got up and started to walk off, that ever-irritating voice sounded from behind him.

            “Jabari, where are you going?”

            “I’m leaving, Weusi.”

            “Leaving?”  She got up.  “But, Jabari, can’t we stay here – please?”

            “You get to stay here.”  He added, “I’m leaving.”

            “When will you be back?”

            “I’m not coming back,” he said sternly.  “It’s just better this way.”

            “No!”  She ran and stood in front of him, trying to block his path.  “Jabari, please don’t leave.  I love you.”

            “I love you too, Weusi.”  His tone continued to sound otherwise.  “But I just think it’s better this way.  You want to stay here don’t you?”

            “Yeah, but I’d rather be with you.”  Tears started to form in her eyes.  “Jabari, I’ll come with you.”

            “That’s beside the point, Weusi.”  His voice started to get angry again.  “I’m not leaving to find a better home; I’m leaving to find a better mate!  One who doesn’t complain and daydream all the time, and actually knows how to face reality!  And you are going to stay here.”

            “But why?” asked Weusi, failing to believe what he was saying.

            “Because—”  He stopped.  Maybe it was best if he done this at her level.  “Listen, Weusi.  I’m tired of being around you, I’m tired of having to listen to you, and I just want a break from it.”

            “You will come back though, won’t you?”

            Jabari sighed; whether what he was about to say was the truth or not, it would at least cease her questioning.  “Yes, Weusi, I’ll come back.”

            “You promise?

            “Yes, Weusi, I promise.”  He wanted to walk off, but he knew Weusi wasn’t going to let him.  “Listen, Weusi…how about I try and find a place that we can live while I’m gone, and then when I come back, you can follow me there and we’ll live there together.  Would you like that?”

            Weusi remained down-hearted about him leaving her, but she still was able to give a faint nod of the head.

            “Good,” he said.  “I’ll see you later.”  He started to walk off again.

            “Jabari?”

            He stopped again, trying not to let his irritation show.  “Yes?”

            “You’ll be back soon, won’t you?”

            He looked back at her.  “Do you want me to find this perfect place or not?”

            “I guess so,” she replied quietly, knowing what he was about to say.

            “Then probably not.  But I will come back, you can count on that.”  He smiled at her again, she smiled back.

            Just to see him smile, she thought.  He will come back, I know he will.

 

            Jabari lapped up water thirstily.  Three days ago he had picked a direction and started walking.  It wasn’t that bad, traveling.  The only thing that really amazed him was that he missed having company.  Not her company; she could make a rock talk back with the way she blathered on.  But just someone to converse with.  It wasn’t such a bad thing to want, was it?

            But other than that, it was so much better.  No whining, no nagging, no “Can we do this?” Jabari stopped drinking and almost chuckled quietly.  The little fool actually thought he’d be coming back.  That was one of the perks of being out here; he didn’t have to reflect on making the mistake of marrying her.

            But if she’s pregnant . . .

            That thought kept on slipping into his mind, completely unbidden.  What do I care?  She’s not my problem anymore.

            Do you think she can take care of cubs?

            It’s called natural selection.

            She’s at the bottom of the food chain.  She can’t hunt and mother and worry all at one time.

            She’ll find another mate in no time at all.

            She has to realize you’re not coming back first.

            Jabari just wanted to get rid of that annoying little voice.  He had an increasing suspicion that it was called a conscience.  Thankfully, though, it was an annoying little voice.  It didn’t take much more than looking around at all of the choices, all the ways to start over again without her, to drown it out.

            He could do better than her this time around.  He could join a pride, if one would have him.  Or he could even take over a pride, make it his own.  Or he could simply find another mate, and he could try it that way again.  He was momentarily annoyed by the indecision he had.  Then he smiled.  This wasn’t indecision; this was freedom.

 

            Weusi lied on the floor of her den, waiting.  There wasn’t that much for her to do, other than to wait and hunt for food.  On the other paw, she was almost sure she was pregnant now.  When she checked her features in a pond, it showed a stomach that had almost undeniably expanded.  She smiled when she saw that.  She didn’t know how long she had carried; she could have caught right before Jabari left, or, she thought with happy excitement, it could have happened as long as two months ago.

            She did her utmost to make sure she was in good health; never before had she paid so much attention to hunting.  She couldn’t afford injuries.  She would try to get the best buck she could without putting herself at undue risk.  She would eat as much of the carcass that she could, happily reminding herself she was eating for two now, or maybe three, or maybe even four.  She knew Jabari would be happy when he came back, she just knew it.

            She missed him horribly.  There was no one to talk to, although she had been visited twice by a very nice leopardess, although the leopardess seemed to doubt her sanity a bit.  “He’ll come back for me,” she would tell her, and would always receive answers such as, “What if he didn’t?”

            But then she saw a wonderful thing on the horizon.  A small figure, moving toward the den steadily.  Weusi looked at it hopefully.  The figure became more and more distinct as it moved toward her.  Weusi stared at it, her excitement rising.  Yes, it was big, and—and it was coming here, definitely here—and a mane!

            “Jabari!” Weusi cried happily.  She began to run him.  “Jabari, I’ve missed you so—”  She stopped, seeing the figure up close for the first time.  “You’re not Jabari,” she said quietly.

            The lion blinked.  “I certainly hope not. I’d like to know when my name’s changed.”  He smiled at Weusi.  “No, I’m Bagra. And you are . . .”

            “Weusi.”  Weusi looked away.  “I was almost sure . . .”

            “Sure of what?” Bagra asked kindly.

            “That you were . . . him.  Jabari.”

            “Who’s he?”

            “He’s my mate,” said Weusi.

            “And he left?”

            “Uh-huh.  But he’ll be back,” said Weusi firmly.  “He said so.”

            “Oh. I just came this way.  I was looking for a place to spend the night, and I saw that rock over there, thought it might be big enough to have a cave.”

            “It does have one.  It’s where we live.”

            Bagra’s eyes widened.  “I beg your pardon.  I didn’t know . . . I should find another spot then, right?  It was nice to meet you, Weusi.  I hope your mate comes back soon.”  Bagra turned to go.

            “Oh, but you don’t have to go!” said Weusi.  “There’s plenty of room in the den.  Come on, I’ll—”  She stopped as she felt a sudden drop of rain hit her head.  There was another, and another.

            “Bugger,” grumbled Bagra as the sky suddenly released what looked like its full load of rain.  “I was hoping it’d hold.”

            “Come on!” yelled Weusi, running back toward the den.  Bagra didn’t need to be told twice.  By the time the two reached the den, both were soaked by the sudden downpour and Bagra’s mane was limp around his neck.  Both tried to shake themselves dry as the entered the den, then they lied down.

            “I’ll leave as soon as it’s over,” Bagra promised.

            “You can stay if you want,” said Weusi.  “I’m sure Jabari wouldn’t mind too much.”

            Bagra smiled.  “Thank you, but . . . well, it would look bad.  For you.”

            “No, Jabari would understand, he knows I’d never lie to him.  Oh, he’ll be so happy when he comes back.  He went to find a better place to live.  And he’ll be back soon—well, maybe not soon, he said it would take a while—but he’ll come back and we can take our cubs over there and he’ll be so happy, I know he will be.”

            “Cubs?” asked Bagra.  “I didn’t see any.”

            Weusi giggled as she turned over onto her back.  “Look.”

            Bagra looked at her stomach.  Yes, it really was bigger than normal.  But something else caught his eye, even more than the bulge.  On her side were two long claw marks that had healed, but the fur hadn’t quite grown back.  He looked up at her face, seeing her happy smile that she possessed whenever Jabari was brought up.

            “Go ahead, you can touch it,” she said.  “I heard they kick when they’re in there.”

            Bagra shook his head.  “No thanks.  But . . . if you don’t mind me asking, what’s that from?”  He traced his paw along the scars.

            Weusi’s face fell.  “Jabari,” she said.

            “Your mate did this to you?”

            “I deserved it, though,” she said.  “I was being stupid, he said so.  I didn’t listen, so he beat me.  I needed it.” She spoke the last sentence with conviction.  “Jabari just wants the best for me.”

            Bagra suddenly saw who he was talking to.  Pieces began to fall into place with horrible realization.  He saw how far Weusi was gone.  She loved her mate unwaveringly, and he . . . he had left her.  It was the only possible explanation.  There was nothing wrong with this den, nothing wrong with the lands around it.  Jabari was gone, and here she was, with his cubs inside her, waiting for her faithful lover to return.  It broke Bagra’s heart.

            “Why don’t you tell me . . . tell me about where you came from?” he asked.  “Your whole story?”

            “I’ve never had anyone ask me that before,” said Weusi, turning over.  “Me and Jabari were in our own pride, and we were just cubs together, and . . .”  Bagra smiled.  He knew she would talk for hours.

 

            “Jabari?” the lioness asked.  “That’s a nice name; mine’s Ketisha, Keta for short.  So what brings you here?”

            “I was just traveling and I happened to see you.  Do you live on your own or with a pride?”

            “A pride.  We have a king and queen and all that monarchal stuff. I’m not in it at all, really.  Our king is Rajua and our queen’s Pinduli.”

            “Do you think they’ll let me stay?”

            “I should hope so; that’s what they did for me.  Of course, you’re a male, but I think they’d rather live with you than have to deal with the fact that you could attack them whenever you want.  You seem like you’re pretty strong.”

            “Well, when you’re a rogue like me you have to stay strong or anybody could kill you within seconds.”

            “Hmm.  Well, come on Jabari, we can’t be standing out here all day, follow me.”

            Jabari followed her without hesitation.  Ketisha was nothing like Weusi, and he was glad that he had found someone who wasn’t; he had been in need of a companion for a while.

            Rajua and Pinduli gladly accepted him into their pride.  Many of the others opposed their decision but out of good hearts, or overcome by feelings of fear; the two did not go back on their decision.

            Over the next few days they begun to feel more secure, Jabari did not seem to be a threat to their reign or any other members of their pride.  Jabari himself loving every moment that he spent there.  Everybody seemed to know what they were on about, everybody listened if he, or someone else, said something, but most of all, Jabari felt himself falling in love with Ketisha.  She was sensible, she was strong, and she didn’t aggravate him at all.  But most of all she was beautiful, and although Jabari had taught himself not to be a fool for good looks, like he had with Weusi, Ketisha’s charm and personality were just what he needed.

            Ketisha replaced Weusi, and soon he had almost completely forgotten about her.  But that was before he met Juveda.

 

            Rajua and Pinduli had decided that it was best for them and Jabari himself, if they went and showed him the lands and explained how they did everything.  Although Ketisha had done her best at making him settle in well, he knew that they would tutor him a lot more efficiently than she had, just from their experience and position.

            As they took him around he noticed that many of them were on edge, not really willing to accept him as a member of their pride.

            Finally, Pinduli said, “I think that’s about everyone.”

            “Er…well, there is one other lioness…but…” Rajua glimpsed over at Pinduli, wondering if he should tell him or not.

            “Who?” asked Pinduli.

            “You know,” then in a whisper, “Juveda.”

            “Oh.”

            “Who’s Juveda?” asked Jabari.

            “I guess we should tell you, just in case you stumble upon her one day when you’re out and about.  Come on.”  Pinduli led them off across the plains.  As far as Jabari was concerned, Juveda could have lived in another pride with all the distance they traveled.  Eventually, though, they arrived at a high hill with a cave buried at the bottom of it.

            “She lives quite far away,” Jabari stated.

            “She likes to be alone.  She only stays with us so someone can catch her food and protect her,” Pinduli replied.

            They arrived at the den a few minutes later.  Jabari was told to wait outside while Pinduli and Rajua went in.

            “Juveda, we have a visitor for you,” he heard Rajua say.

            “What the—why the hell are you two here?  Just think you can walk in on me like that, do you?  Whilst I’m asleep?  Go on, get outside—be gone with you!” came the reply.

            He was then met by the sight of Rajua and Pinduli walking out backwards by some ragged lioness trying to swipe at them.  Juveda looked over at Jabari once she had them out.

            “Is this some kind of joke?” She turned back on the king and queen.  “Think this is funny do you?  That’s not him, I know it’s not him, he’s a bloody rogue!” She jumped back around to Jabari, “What the hell are you doing here?  You think you can just come right up here and expect me to be friends with you?  You are not him and you never will be!  And you two should know that!” She returned her gaze to Pinduli and Rajua, who gave in return stern faces that showed no particular emotions, “Listen to me.  I AM NOT—some kind of—thing—I have a heart you know, and it doesn’t need to be twisted or broken any more than it already has been!  You two are just so—” She started to break down. “GO AWAY!  Just go—away!”  She then turned and walked into her den, collapsing and sobbing inside.

            “That’s Juveda,” said Rajua, “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

            Jabari didn’t need to be told twice, he quickly caught up with them.

            “She didn’t know what she was saying, Jabari, just ignore whatever crap she comes up with,” advised Pinduli.

            “What happened, did her mate leave her or something?”

            “Yes, sadly.  She’s been like that ever since he did: aloof, hysterical—just typical old Juveda.”

            “Hmm,” was Jabari’s only response.  He had not thought that much about Weusi recently, but what would she be like when, if ever, she realized that he wasn’t coming back?  Jabari hated thinking about it, but he couldn’t get the question out of his head.  He had found the perfect place like he said he would, now, according to his “promise”, he should return.

            It was late in the evening when Jabari caught up with Ketisha.  He had decided that it was best if he went back.  He may regret ever doing so, but it was better than having the mystery lie unanswered in his head.

            “Jabari!  I’ve been looking all over for you.”

            “I’ve been looking for you too, Keta.”

            “Hey, Jabari, I was wondering, I think we should make tonight somewhat—you know—special.  I want to spend the night here, just me and you.  We’ll have lots of fun together,” she smiled, “Lots and lots of fun.”

            “Yes . . .well . . . Keta . . . I’m afraid that I have to go somewhere tonight.”

            “Where?”

            “Oh . . . just to see a friend.  She lives nearby and I think I should go and see her.”

            “There’s no—relationship between you two, is there?”

            “Not exactly, I mean, she really likes me but I—she’s not as great as you, let’s leave it at that.”

            “Then why worry?  Come on Jabari, I’ve been looking forward to tonight all day!  Please don’t let me down.”

            “Sorry Keta, I’m afraid I have to do it tonight.”

            Ketisha finally calmed down, “Have to?” Jabari nodded his head slowly in response. “Oh darn it, I was really looking forward to tonight.  We can do it tomorrow though, right?”

            Jabari sighed; he’d let her down enough, she didn’t need this. “I’ll be gone a few days.  I’m sorry, Keta.”

            “I’ll come with you then,” she suggested.

            “Sorry, that won’t work.  It would be too risky because this lioness – well – she really likes me.  I doubt she’d appreciate your presence.”

            “Jabari, you can’t leave me here on my own for that long.  If you go, I go, if not we both stay.  Clear?”

            Jabari looked down at her.  Oh yes, she was clear.  But who did he really want more?

 

            Jabari recognized the large rock easily.  “That’s it,” he told Ketisha as he continued toward it.

            “That big thing?” asked Ketisha.

            “Yeah.”

            “You made it sound like a pile of mud.  Jabari, that’s not too bad of a den.”

            “It’s too big.  I just don’t like it.”

            “I do like home better,” admitted Ketisha.

            “See?” asked Jabari with a smile.  Ketisha smiled back.  “We’ll take her back with us.  She’d like that.”

            Ketisha smiled and stepped closer to him.  “Why do I get the feeling you’re not telling me everything?”

            Jabari nuzzled her slightly.  “Because I’m not.”

            Jabari.”

            “I’m not sure you should know yet.  It’s just—I don’t know what you’d think.”

            “I think you already know what I think,” she said happily.

            “We can’t get married until we get back home,” he teased, and almost instantly felt his insides twist.

            “I’ve told you,” Ketisha said, a note of seduction entering her voice, “we don’t have to wait until we get home for everything.”

            “Patience is a virtue, little one,” said Jabari with a smile.  He knew that Ketisha wasn’t kidding, though.  Every night on the trip she had done her best to have a “fun” night.  Jabari wasn’t exactly unwilling.  He hadn’t touched Ketisha, although the desire became stronger and stronger the longer he stayed with her.  He half-hoped Weusi wasn’t here, so that tonight he could say firmly that she was gone, that she had run off and there was no chance of finding her, and he could turn to Ketisha and give in.

            He looked at the den and saw a figure standing in the entrance.  As he got closer, he could see, as he guessed it was, that it was a lioness.  A little closer and he could see Weusi’s smiling face.  She suddenly ran to him.  When she reached him she nuzzled him happily.

            “I knew you would come back,” Weusi purred happily.

            “How have you been?” asked Jabari.  He was surprised at the sudden rush of happiness he felt when she touched him.  Then he saw Ketisha’s frown.

            “I’ve been great!” she said.  “Here, there’s something I want to show you in the den.”  She began to go to it happily, then stopped and said “Come on!” before continuing on her way.  Jabari and Ketisha walked on to the den together.

            “Friend, huh?” said Ketisha in a low voice.

            “I—I’ll tell you everything later, Keta.  Please, just trust me.”

            Ketisha hmphed and continued to frown.  Jabari felt that she had softened a little, though.  The two walked to the den entrance, and Weusi called out happily, “Okay, you can come out now.”

            To Jabari’s surprise, two cubs shuffled out of the den into the sunlight, a boy and a girl.  The first thing across Jabari’s mind was how he was ever going to explain this to Ketisha.  She would obviously know they were his; the boy looked just like a miniature of him, save for the tail, which had an end that looked like it had been in mud. The girl had a good deal of his looks, too.  Both had tan fur, the girl’s being lighter than the boy.

            “Wow,” said Jabari.  “I—wasn’t expecting that.  So . . . you were pregnant?”

            “Uh-huh,” said Weusi happily.  “They came just two months after you left.”

            “So, uh, what are their names?” asked Jabari, feeling Ketisha’s eyes burning holes in his side.

            “Well, this one’s Aushi,” she said, indicating the girl, “and this one’s Ruya.”

            “Good names” was all Jabari could think to say.

            “You really think so?”

            “Sure.”

            “Mommy, who’re they?” asked Aushi in the way that a cub had of bluntly asking questions.

            “This is your father, Aushi.  He finally came back.  And this is—who is she, Jabari?”

            “Her?  Oh, that’s Ketisha.  She’s from the pride that I found.”

            “You found that perfect place?” asked Weusi excitedly.

            “Yeah.”

            “That’s wonderful!  Do you think we should go today, or start tomorrow?”

            “Uh, I don’t know.  Tomorrow, I guess.”  Jabari began to head for the den, looking at the cubs.  Both of them stared at him.  Everything would have been normal, except for them, he reflected.  They didn’t know what to make of him.  He was a stranger.

            He encountered another shock as he walked into the den.  He looked back at Weusi and asked, “Who the hell is this?”

            “Jabari!” said Weusi.  “Don’t curse around the cubs!”

            Who is this?

            Weusi joined him in the entrance of the den.  “That’s Bagra,” she said.  “He’s been so helpful while you’ve been gone.  He’s helped with the cubs and the hunting and everything.  He’s been so nice to me—”

            “I’ll bet he has,” said Jabari, icy tones in his voice.

            “Please,” said Bagra, obviously knowing what Jabari was seeing, even if Weusi didn’t, “it wasn’t like that.  She just needed help—”

            “And you helped her.  I see.”  Jabari turned to Weusi, slightly surprised to see that the bitterness in his voice wasn’t all faked.  “Been enjoying your new mate?”

            Weusi’s jaw literally dropped.  “Jabari, I—no!  Jabari, it isn’t like that, please, you have to believe me.  Please Jabari, I love you, you know that.  He hasn’t done anything like that with me.  He’s just helped me.”

            “Don’t lie to me,” said Jabari, anger brimming in his voice.

            Weusi knew what would happen.  The time that had gone by had only made the memories of the beatings seem so much worse now.  “Jabari—Jabari, please—we didn’t do anything—I swear we never did!”  She was close to tears.

            Bagra also saw the potential threat.  “Jabari . . . if I could just talk with you?  Alone?”

            Jabari turned to Bagra with a glare.  “Of course.  Weusi, leave.”

            “Weusi, you don’t need to,” said Bagra quickly.

            “Who do you think you are to give orders to her?  In front of me?” snarled Jabari.

            “I—I didn’t mean it like that.  I just meant that we could go somewhere.  She won’t have to—”

            “Fine,” growled Jabari.  He stalked out of the den angrily.  Bagra followed.

            “Uh, here, I know a place,” said Bagra.  He uncomfortably began to lead the way.  They finally ended up on a hill overlooking the savannah.  Bagra sat down.

            “What do you want?” Jabari asked.

            “Just to talk.  About Weusi.”

            “About Weusi.  About how well you know her?” asked Jabari bitingly.

            “I . . . do know some things about her that you probably wouldn’t like known,” said Bagra, looking away.

            “Like what?”

            “The beatings.  And—and how you left your home—”

            And you will speak to NO ONE about that!” hissed Jabari.  “I never want to see you anywhere near her again!”  If Weusi was going to make his life miserable, and it very well seemed that she would as almost all the plans he had built were falling apart, then he was going to make her life a living hell.

            “I don’t think that’s necessary—”

            “And how many times have you ‘known’ her?  Hmm?  I should kill you—”

            “We haven’t done anything like that.  I care for her deeply, maybe even love her, but I never touched her.  Not once.  I wouldn’t stain her like that for you—”

            Stain her for me?  I don’t doubt that you’ve already done that.”

            “You don’t understand how much she cares for you, Jabari.  You’re just about all she’s talked about.  She wants your opinion for everything.  It’s always, ‘Will Jabari like this?  Will this make him happy?’  Jabari, she lives for you.  And the way you treat her—”

            “Is nothing less than she deserves.”

            “You are practically a god to her­—”

            “She is my mate,” said Jabari angrily, truly angry this time.  “And you have no right to tell me what or what not to do with her.”

            “Jabari,” said Bagra softly, “that’s the same thing that forced you to leave home.  If—”

            Bagra was cut off from a sudden swipe across the face from Jabari.  “Shut up,” said Jabari furiously.  “I don’t want to see you anywhere near her again.  Or around me.  Because the next time I see you, I will kill you.”

            “Jabari, please, just think of the cubs—”

            Jabari slashed at Bagra again, only catching the end of his muzzle this time as Bagra jumped back.  “You have no right—”

            “I’m a father to them!” said Bagra angrily.  “I never thought you would come back, not from the way you treated her!  I did the best to take care of her cubs, and of her!  I thought they probably would never see their father!  I gave them, all of them, all the love I had—”

            “I don’t give a damn,” said Jabari, his voice level and hiding anger.  “I will do whatever the hell I want with them.  I want you to get the hell out of my life.  I will kill you the next time I see you.”

            “Jabari, please—” But it was too late.  Jabari was already walking away, back toward the den.  Bagra hung his head, then began to walk the other way, doing something he had never done since he was a cub: praying.

 

            Ketisha was talking with Weusi in the den, or rather, was saying a few words between a constant stream that poured from Weusi’s mouth.  “. . . and I’ve been waiting for him ever since,” said Weusi.

            “Mommy, Ruya’s hungry,” said Aushi.

            “I don’t know why he would be, we all just ate yesterday.”

            “Well then maybe he just needs to use the grass.”

            Weusi looked down at her son to see him looking up at his mother with pleading eyes, eyes that were so much like his mother’s in their crystalline beauty.  She smiled.  “Come on, Ruya, I’ll take you.  Aushi, you want to stay here and keep Keta company?”

            “Okay, Mommy.”

            Aushi sat down in front of Ketisha.  Ketisha expected her to start talking where her mother left off, but surprisingly enough, Aushi was quiet.  Ketisha said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve heard your brother say two words since I got here.”

            “He doesn’t talk,” said Aushi.

            Ketisha smiled.  “Shy?”

            “No,” the little cub said.  “Ruya just doesn’t talk.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “He just doesn’t.”

            “At all?”

            “Uh-huh.  Mommy said he was cute.”

            “Cute?”

            “Uh-huh.  She said that animals that can’t talk are cute.”

            “It’s mute, Aushi,” said Weusi, bringing Ruya back in.  “Not cute.”  Ruya scampered over to his sister and tackled her.  Aushi squealed as she was knocked to the ground.  She immediately began to wrestle with her brother.

            Weusi chuckled.  “Aren’t they just wonderful?”

            Ketisha looked down at the pair, knowing what they meant for her and Jabari.  The little furry ball rolled on the floor of the den, a living testimony to Jabari’s marriage.  “Of course,” lied Ketisha.  “Wonderful.”

            “I love them so much,” said Weusi happily.  “They—Jabari!” Ketisha turned to see Jabari in the entrance of the den. “Where’s Bagra?” Weusi asked.

            “He left,” said Jabari.

            “What?”

            “He left.  For good.”

            Weusi seemed shocked.  “I never got to say goodbye,” she said quietly, looking down at the floor of the den.  “I wanted to thank him.”

            “I’m sure.”

            “Jabari, you have to believe me,” said Weusi, “there was nothing between us.”

            “I wasn’t thinking of that,” said Jabari.  “But if it’s obviously on your mind . . .”

            “Jabari, I didn’t, I swear.  I love you, Jabari.”

            “Mm-hmm . . . Look, I need to talk to Keta.  Come on, Keta.”

            “Do you want me to come, too?”

            “No.  Just stay here.”

            “But Jabari, I haven’t seen you for so long—”

            “It’s getting dark, Weusi.  I’ve had a long walk over here.  I’m tired.  Just stay with the cubs.  Put them to sleep.”

            “Alright,” said Weusi.  She turned back to the cubs, then looked back at Jabari and Ketisha as they were leaving.  “When will you be back?”

            “I don’t know, okay?” said Jabari, irritated.  It definitely felt like it used to now.  Her talking and clinging and just being annoying.  “If it’s too late, I’ll just sleep out there.  I’ll be back in the morning at least, I promise.”

            “Okay,” said Weusi agreeably.  She settled down in the den.  A thought flicked across her mind and she looked back at Jabari and Ketisha’s forms getting smaller and smaller.  She tossed the thought away immediately.  Jabari would never do that.  Jabari loved her.

 

            Ketisha found herself being led into a rather nice spot of savannah.  Jabari sat down.  “Keta,” he said, “just let me explain.  I’m married to Weusi—”

            “I think I figured that out,” said Ketisha dryly.

            “Look, it’s not that I want to be.  It’s the worst mistake I made.  She’s so annoying, she drives me up the walls—I don’t want to be married to her.” Jabari sighed in frustration. “But I’m stuck with her.”

            “And?” asked Ketisha.  “You said you weren’t telling me everything, Jabari, but I never thought it was something this big.  You said she was your friend—”

            “What was I supposed to tell you?”

            “The truth would have been nice!”

            “What if I did, Keta?  What would you have done if you had known all along?”

            “I . . .”

            “Exactly.  You wouldn’t be here.  You would never have come.  I would have . . . lost every chance I had with you.”

            “Jabari . . . I—”

            “I want you, Ketisha, not her.  I left her and I thought I had a chance at a new life; I would never have to hear the name ‘Weusi’ again.  Then I met you, and I knew what I wanted.  I would have asked, but to just know that she was out here, alone . . .”

            “You felt guilty.”

            “Yes.”  Jabari looked into Ketisha’s eyes, placing his paw underneath her chin.  “Ketisha, I’m telling the truth.  I’m telling you everything.  I don’t want to be with her.  I want you.  Not her.”

            “Jabari,” she said, pushing down his paw, “how do I know you’ll mean that tomorrow?  Or the next day?  Look at what you’re doing with Weusi.  You could be doing the same thing with me.  You could want to go back to her, and your cubs—”

            Never,” said Jabari.  “I want to forget about them.  All of them.  We can leave them back at your home, and go off on our own, together.”

            “I don’t want to leave home.”

            “We can stay, then.  But I don’t want to spend the rest of my days with her.  Not her.”

            “How am I supposed to believe you?”

            “You have to trust me, Keta.  I just want a second chance.  Is that so wrong?”

            Ketisha looked at his eyes.  She reared up on her hind legs and pushed him to the ground on his back.  Jabari looked up to see her over him.  “I don’t know,” said Ketisha with a smile.  She ran a claw down his chest.  “Persuade me.”

            Jabari leaned up and kissed her, beginning something that would undoubtedly be “lots and lots of fun.”

 

            The pride welcomed Weusi and her cubs, swallowing whole Jabari’s story of wanting to find a home for Weusi.  It didn’t go unnoticed by them, however, that Jabari began to spend more and more time with Ketisha as Weusi began to adapt to pride life once again.  They all saw what was happening, but none of them thought of even telling Weusi.  It was just unthinkable.

            Jabari, on the other hand, wasn’t the same story.  “Jabari,” said Rajua, the king, “I want to talk to you.”  Jabari followed him, and found that the king had a carcass waiting for the two of them to talk over.  “Please, eat,” said Rajua.  Jabari did.

            “So what is it, sire?” asked Jabari after swallowing a bite.

            “It’s about you and Weusi.”

            “Has she done something wrong?”

            “And Ketisha.”

            “Ah.”

            “I’ll be frank with you, Jabari.  I don’t want to see it happening anymore.  Weusi is your mate.  You need to be good to her.”

            “I have been,” said Jabari. “I brought her here, didn’t I?”

            “Jabari, a marriage is a sacred thing.  You don’t just toss it away easily.  I know it’s not really my business, but I don’t want to see a member of my own pride hurt like Weusi will be.  I want you to stop seeing Ketisha, for all of your sakes.  Please.  Weusi loves you very much.”

            Jabari stared down at the carcass, playing with a little piece of meat on the chest.  He didn’t say anything for a while.  “So, sire,” he finally said, “how’s your son?  The prince?”

            It took a moment for Rajua to realize the outrageous thing Jabari was suggesting.  “You wouldn’t,” he whispered.

            “I would,” said Jabari.  “And Daddy would be next.  I would suggest staying out of my affairs, sire.”  He walked away, Rajua staring at him in horror.

 

            “Shh,” said Juveda.  “I told you, I don’t want no more visitors—who the hell are you?”

            “I—I’m Weusi—”

            “Don’t speak so loud, you’ll wake up the cubs.”

            “Oh, I didn’t know you had cubs,” said Weusi kindly.

            “They’re none of your business,” said Juveda shortly.  “Go away!  I don’t need sympathy!  I’m not meant to be gawked at, thank you!” she said, turning into the cave angrily.

            “But I didn’t mean it like that,” said Weusi.  “I’m new here; I just wanted to introduce myself.”

            “New here?” asked Juveda.  “No one’s new here.  It’s the same old shit you get everywhere else.  ‘I’ll be there for you—’  Bah!”

            “What?”

            “What do you care?  What do you want from a ‘crazy old loon’?”  She turned and fixed Weusi with an icy, firm glare.  “I’m not crazy,” Juveda said fiercely.  “I’m not.”

            “I never said you were,” said Weusi agreeably.  “I just wanted to meet you.”

            “Sure you did,” said Juveda.  “What do you care about someone like me?  What does anyone care about someone like me?  He didn’t stay, why should anyone else?”

            “Who?”

            “My mate, who do you think?  There isn’t anyone else to think of, is there?”

            “Um . . .”

            “Oh, what do you know?  Be gone with you!”

            “But please,” said Weusi, walking into Juveda’s den, “I just want to talk.”

            “What for?  So you can go back to all of your little friends and tell them about me?”

            “If you want, I won’t tell anyone I was here.  Except maybe my cubs.”

            “You have cubs?” Juveda said.  “It certainly is nice to know Rajua still hasn’t given up the game,” she said sarcastically.  “I should’ve married him; he had something to stick around for.”  She looked up at Weusi and said, “Never get married.”

            “But why?”

            “Why do you think?  It brings you nothing but pain!  Look at me.  Look at Pinduli, she’s really happy.”

            “Pinduli loves Rajua.  She’s happy—”

            “That’s what they all want you to think.  But up in here—”  Juveda tapped her head.  “Nothing good up here.”

            Weusi was having doubts about Juveda’s facts, not her sanity.  “But I’m married, I’m happy.”

            “Married, are you?  You poor thing.  I only hope that it takes as long to get you as it does to get Pinduli.”

            “What get me?”

            “Marriage!  You’ll get sick of him, or he of you!  Mark my words, he’s probably off with some girl right now—”

            “He’s not!” said Weusi angrily.  “Jabari would never do anything like that!  He loves me just as much as I love him!  He’s at the den right now, with our cubs!”

            “Maybe now, but tonight, or the next night, or the next one . . .”

            “Shut up!” said Weusi.  “You don’t know a thing about Jabari!”

            “He’s a scumbag, that’s what I know,” said Juveda.  “The royals even tried to push him on me as my mate!  You think I don’t remember my mate?  I’m not crazy!”

            “Jabari would never be disloyal,” said Weusi firmly.  “He has cubs to think about, he has me to think about, and he knows I love him.”

            “And what makes you think that would stop him?  Look what I was left with!”  She motioned toward what Weusi had taken to be two little piles of grass.  “He left me with cubs!  I never forget!  And I—oh, be quiet, dear,” said Juveda, walking over to one of the little piles.  They were indeed grass, but they had been fashioned into cub shapes.  Juveda began to rub one gently, as if rocking it slowly.  She turned to Weusi and said “Shh.”

            Weusi didn’t know what to make of it.  “Um, Juveda . . . they’re not real,” she said gently.

            “Shh!  She needs to go back to sleep . . . back to sleep . . .”

            “Juveda, it’s just grass—”

            “No!  No, she just wants to sleep . . . just sleep . . . GODS DAMN IT!” Juveda yelled.  Weusi jumped back at the sudden outburst.  To Weusi’s horror, Juveda began to beat apart the little cub she had been rocking.  “You left me!  You left me!  You left me!”  Weusi began to back out of the den.  Juveda suddenly stopped beating the cub and stared at it, tears forming in her eyes as she realized what she had done.

            “No . . . no . . .”  Juveda began to arrange the grass again, putting it back into a cub. “Don’t worry, Mommy’s here . . . Mommy’s sorry she hurt you . . . yes, Mommy loves you.”  Weusi left quietly.  Juveda heard her nevertheless.  “Yes, we’ll help that poor little lioness, won’t we?  We’ll make sure she gets her cubs raised up right, just like you . . . oh, you darling little angel . . .”

 

            Ketisha rested her head on her paws, eyes shut.  She could pretend that she was asleep, but she couldn’t allow herself to actually enter dreamland.  She was waiting for Jabari to come home.  She was not willing to tell Jabari everything that was on her mind, but this one she knew she should.

            Jabari entered as soon as the sun had completely set and night had entered the lands.  He smiled as Ketisha raised her eyelids slightly to get a good look at him.

            “Hi Ketisha,” he said softly.

            “Want to be with me again?” she smiled.  “And I’m glad you do.  Jabari, I have something you might want to know.”

            “What’s that?” he asked.

            “I’m pregnant.”

            “I thought you would be,” was all he said in response.

            “You aren’t worried, are you?”

            “About what?”

            “Well I know you probably don’t care about what Weusi thinks right now, but what about the rest of the pride?  They’re not going to approve of this.”

            “Trust me Keta, there is nothing to worry about.  I’ve taken care of all of it.”

            “Well—if you’re convinced…” Jabari lay down next to her.  It had not been the first night that they had spent together.  Jabari had tried to convince Weusi that since he hadn’t known the cubs too long, that he’d better not spend all night with her while they were around; they wouldn’t trust him enough.  Really, though, this is all he actually wanted.  To have peaceful nights with the one that he really loved: Keta.  And nothing, as far as he was concerned, was better than this.

 

            “See?  I told you.”

            “No . . . no, that can’t be . . .”

            “Him, and her.  There is nothing worse than marriage.  Look what it’s done.  You want to stay, he wants to escape.  And he does.  And what can you do about it?  Not a thing.  You are bound to him, and all his immoral acts, in happy, holy matrimony.  All you can do is watch.  Just watch as he gets farther and farther away from you with every—”

            “Oh, shut up!  Shut up, you sick, twisted, demented old—old coot! . . . Gods, why?  Why Jabari?  Why?”

 

            Weusi lied awake under the stars.  No matter how hard she tried to close her eyes and sleep, nothing would work.  She looked over at Jabari by her side and felt her eyes become wet.  She didn’t bother to stop the tears.  She looked over at him, seeing his still, sleeping form when her eyes were open, and when they closed, she saw his act of unfaithfulness.

            It couldn’t be real.  It just couldn’t be.  I can’t have seen it right.  Jabari . . .

            Weusi stared at him, then finally nudged him gently.  “Jabari?” she said quietly.  “Jabari?”  She nudged him again.  Jabari groaned.  “Jabari?”

            “What?” he grunted, obviously not pleased at having been woken up.

            “Jabari, you love me, don’t you?”

            “What?” he asked, completely awake now, startled by the question.

            “You love me, right?”

            “Have I ever given you any reason to doubt that?” he asked, looking up at her.

            Weusi hesitated.

            “Well?”

            “No, Jabari,” she said quietly.

            Jabari rolled over, turning away from her.  “I’ll always be your mate, Weusi.  And nothing’s going to change that.”

            “You mean it?”

            “Yes.  We’re married, through good or bad.  You know it’s for life.”

            “That—that wasn’t what I meant, Jabari.”

            Jabari sighed irritably.  “Couldn’t you pick a better time to discuss this?  Like in the morning?”

            “But Jabari, I’m . . .”  She hesitated to say “worried.”

            “Just leave it till morning,” he said.

            “Alright,” she said quietly.  She saw Jabari shift slightly, getting comfortable again.  She snuggled closer to him, putting her head on his shoulder and her foreleg across his chest in the way he always had liked.  She felt him squirm away from her.  She stared at him a moment, then sadly laid her head down, slowly drifting off to sleep.

            When morning came, Jabari wasn’t there.

 

            Silence ran throughout the cave.  Not a sound could be made if he was going to make it right, the first time.  Only a few yards separated the king from Jabari, and now the attack had to be made.

            He prepared himself to strike him dead right here, but Jabari had sensed his presence.  Soon, the certainty that Rajua had of succeeding in his mission had faded, and the two lions were fighting to the death inside the cave.  It was now becoming even more obvious that Rajua was in trouble, because Jabari was almost twice as strong and was easily gaining the advantage.  In a matter of seconds he had Rajua pinned down on the floor.

            Jabari looked around; there was no one else there, not even Ketisha.

            “Where is she?” Jabari asked, turning his gaze back to Rajua.

            “Who?” he asked feebly.

            “You know who!  Ketisha!  What have you done with her?”

            “Nothing!  I haven’t even seen her!”

            Jabari heard a gasp from behind him and whipped around to see that Pinduli had arrived at the entrance.

            “What about you?  Have you seen her?”  Pinduli remained silent, not willing to say or do anything that would place her mate in any more harm.

            “Why is she here?” Jabari asked, turning back to Rajua.

            “She was here for . . .” was all Rajua managed to get out.  He didn’t want to go any further, and Jabari was sure he knew why.

            “Right, listen to me, okay.  Both of you,” Jabari glanced back at Pinduli, “I’m going to get off of you now, but you are in return going to tell me everything you know about what the hell is going on here.  And don’t lie to me because if you do you’re both going to end up dead—and your son,” he looked back up at Pinduli to see what she was making of all this, but her expression remained the same as it had before.  “Do I make myself clear?” he added, glaring back at Rajua.

            “Yes, Jabari.” They both looked back up at Pinduli who gave a noticeable nod of the head.  Jabari took a step back of Rajua.

            “Please, Jabari, don’t kill our son, he has nothing to do with this,” Pinduli said, rushing in towards her mate as soon as Jabari got off of him.

            “Why are you here?” Jabari asked her sternly.  “And don’t lie to me, I already know that the king, here, was trying to kill me.”

            “I—I was here for Ketisha,” she said, taking a slow step back from him.

            “And what did you do with her?” he asked angrily.

            “Nothing.  I swear, Jabari, Ketisha was not here when we arrived so only Rajua came in, we have not seen her.”

            Don’t lie to me,” Jabari was starting to approach her now, and Pinduli was taking faster steps backwards.  Rajua started to run at him as he realized the danger that his mate was in.  But as soon as he was at the zenith of leaping through the air to attack him, he was knocked back onto the ground by none other than Ketisha.  Pinduli was able to take advantage of the situation while Jabari was caught off guard by the action behind him, and soon the two were wrestling each other on the ground.  Jabari was soon able to pin Pinduli to the ground, but Ketisha and Rajua’s battle was a close fought one.  In the end however, Rajua eventually managed to come out on top.

            Both lions now faced towards each other snarling, knowing that they both had the life of their opponent’s lover resting in their paws.

            A shadow suddenly cast over them though, as the moonlight was blocked from the entrance of the cave by another figure.  All of them turned to face the lion that stood there: Bagra.

            “Why the hell are you here?” asked Jabari.

            “Well Jabari, after seeing you come back for your mate, I figured that I should come back to mine.”

            “Who . . . you mean you used to live here?”

            “I remember you, Bagra,” the comment had come from Rajua. “You were Juveda’s mate.”

            “And I still am.”

            “So you left your mate too?” Jabari remarked.  “And then you think you could just take Weusi for yourself.”

            “I never touched Weusi, Jabari.  I came back for Juveda and you should go back to Weusi, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that you would rather be mates with Ketisha.  But let me ask you this Jabari, where do you think Ketisha was earlier?”

            Jabari hadn’t thought about that yet.  He had believed that Rajua and Pinduli had got rid of her, but here she was, right back with him in their den.

            “I needed to go, that’s all,” said Ketisha.

            “Go?  What, all the way outside of the lands?” Bagra asked in response.  “I left Juveda’s cave and you were walking right on by.  Believe me Ketisha, I know where you were.”

            Jabari looked down at Ketisha.  If what Bagra was saying was true, then she had been lying to him.  But why would she have wanted to do that?

            “Rajua,” Jabari started, “get off of Ketisha.”

            “Get off of my mate first.”

            Jabari looked back down at Pinduli and then took a step backwards off of her.  Rajua, in return, got off of Ketisha too.

            “Ketisha?”

            “I swear, Jabari, he is lying, I just went outside to do business.”

            “No, that’s a lie,” said Bagra.  “You see, Jabari, once I left Juveda I found a friend just outside of the lands called Lengo.  Well, I stayed with him for a few years until we finally decided that it was best that we went our separate ways.  That was when I was wandering around for a home that I found Weusi.  She told me to stay; I only met her on accident.  Anyways, after seeing you come back for your mate, I realized what I must have put Juveda into.  She’s been crazy I tell you, she even tied some grass together into little figures of cubs to keep her company.  Well when I came back, I decided to see if Lengo had gotten anywhere.  I found him just next to your borders here, but he told me that he still lived where we used to live together, about a day’s walk away from here.  He said he was there because he was waiting for someone he was in love with, but didn’t think he could live with because she was a member of a pride.  When I walked out of Juveda’s cave after hearing all of the commotion down here, I saw Ketisha walking away from where I had last seen Lengo, and that’s where I put it all together.”

            “Jabari, don’t listen to him, I don’t even know who Lengo is, I swear!” Ketisha was desperate now.  Jabari didn’t want to believe Bagra.  Maybe this was all false, and Bagra had once again made up a false story to prevent himself from getting killed.  But then why did he even bother showing himself?  Jabari looked back up at Bagra.

            “Take me to Lengo,” he commanded.

            Bagra straightened up, “Very well.”

            “Jabari, do you want me to come?” Ketisha asked.

            “I think it’s best if she stays Jabari.”

            “She asked me, Bagra, not you,” said Jabari angrily.  “Keta . . .”

            “It’s all lies, Jabari.  He’ll try and ambush you or something.”

            “Hey, I can bring this sucker down in a matter of seconds if something goes wrong.  You stay here, okay?”

            Ketisha hesitated, “Okay,” she finally said.

            Jabari turned around and left behind Bagra.  Once they were clear, Rajua and Pinduli started to leave.

            “Why were you trying to kill him?” asked Ketisha.  Rajua and Pinduli stopped.  “He wasn’t harming you.”

            “He said that he would kill our son if we didn’t leave him alone,” Rajua replied.

            “Well then you should’ve just left him alone then!” Anger was starting to build up inside her.

            “Keta, it’s something you wouldn’t understand.  Our son has nothing to do with it; if Jabari’s willing to take out innocent victims just because something isn’t going his way, we can’t let him stay around.”

            “Then we’ll leave, okay?  Don’t go killing us!”

            “Ketisha,” Pinduli came back down to her, “I don’t think you should be thinking of yourself and Jabari as together now,” she smiled.  “Just wait until he hears what Lengo says; I never saw any trace of you when I was out there, and I was out there a long time.”

            “You bitch!” Ketisha swiped at her, but she was able to get out of the way in time.  Now with Rajua nearer to her, Ketisha knew she had no option but to let it be.

            Pinduli laughed, “I never liked you that much either, Ketisha.” She walked out with Rajua, leaving Ketisha in the den on her own.

 

            “Weusi,” the lioness came over to her, obviously irritated with something, “you should take more control over your cubs.”  She whirled around, letting Weusi see the damage that Aushi had caused to her tail.

            “Oh, sorry Endela, come here Aushi,” Weusi managed to get her off with out a fight, but Endela still glared down at the giggling cub.  “Yes, I’m so sorry about that, I was trying to get some sleep.”

            “Yes, well, where’s your mate then? Shouldn’t he be looking over them?”

            Weusi looked down sadly but simply replied, “I don’t know where he might be.”

            “Not very good at this, are you?  Where’s your other cub, Ruya?”

            “Um . . . I’m not really sure . . . Aushi, do you know where your brother is?”

            “He went outside, Mommy.”

            “Oh . . . darn it.  Er . . . Endela, would you mind looking after Aushi for a minute while I go and find him?”

            Endela frowned at her, “Alright—but this is the final time.”

            “Yes, yes, I understand,” Weusi quickly got up and ran out, yelling “thank you!” as she went.

 

            “Ruya!  Ruya!!”  Weusi could’ve sworn that she had been searching for half an hour, yet it had probably only been ten minutes.  She was getting more and more distressed as every one of them passed.  She had never been fond of the idea of taking her cubs too far away from the den.  She had asked Endela to look after them the previous night when she had slept with Jabari.

            She was now approaching the den that she had seen him in with Ketisha the other night.  She stopped.  Ruya would probably not be in there, but she knew that the only other lion who probably knew where he was could be in that cave.  But did she really want to find out if he was?  Not that she had much choice.  Weusi left her reluctance behind her as she walked on, but step by step she thought of worse and worse things that she might see.  She tried to convince herself that Jabari would do no such thing as to be disloyal to her, but she had heard Ketisha say that she was pregnant.  Weusi tried to tell herself that Jabari was not the potential father; there could be a male lion around that she didn’t know about.

            Weusi sighed out of relief when she realized that Ketisha was the only one in there.  She could see the entire inside of the den from where she stood, yet Ketisha had not seen her.  She was franticly pacing herself throughout the den, obviously bothered by something.

            “Ketisha,” the troubled lioness stopped pacing and looked up at her, “hi.”

            “What do you want?” she replied rudely.

            “I—I just wanted to know where Jabari was and I figured that he’d be in here.”

“What makes you think that?” Ketisha asked curiously.

            “I—” Weusi then thought it was best not to answer that question, then hopelessly tried to change the subject, “Well, do you know where he is?”

            “Can you answer mine first?”

            “Listen, it’s really important that I find him as soon as possible, I’ve lost Ruya—”

            “So really you’re looking for Ruya, aren’t you?  Well I don’t know where he is . . .”

            “But Jabari might.”

            “He doesn’t, I’ll tell you that now.”

            “How do you know?  He hasn’t been here again, has he?”

            “Again?  How do you—I mean, what makes you think that he’s been sleeping with me?”

            Ketisha’s attempt at hiding the truth had gone as successful as Weusi’s had: not very.  “Wait . . . how long has he slept with you?” Weusi said every word with increasing reluctance, and with an increasing desire of how much she wanted to take her question back.

            “Long enough.”

            “You mean—more than one night?”

            “A lot more than one night.”

            “But . . . he loves me.”

            “Weusi . . .” Ketisha hesitated on her decision to tell Weusi the truth.  If it all changed she needn’t know anyways, “go and look for Ruya.”

            Weusi paused for a second, she had forgotten about Ruya.  But right now she was insistent to know what was really going on, even if it scarred her for life.  “Ketisha—is Jabari the father?”

            Ketisha glared back up at her, but her anger fell as her hopes lifted, “No,” she said, “Another lion is.  Weusi . . . you like Jabari, don’t you?”

            “Of course I do,” she responded smiling, overwhelmed with relief that Jabari wasn’t the father.

            “Look, I must admit that I like him too, a lot, and—maybe we have done things that we shouldn’t have done, but Jabari is not the father.  The problem is that he thinks he is.  The real father is a lion called Lengo, he’s who I really love.”  Ketisha knew that she had a better chance of convincing Weusi if she pushed the truth a little.  “If you come with me, I will tell Jabari the truth, you can be with Jabari, I’ll be with Lengo, and he can join the pride with Bagra when . . .”

            “Bagra?  He’s here?”

            “Yes, Bagra’s here, but we need to—”

            “No, wait.  Bagra’s here?  But . . . he spent all those nights with me . . .”

            “He’s Juveda’s mate…”

            “. . . and . . . and he never betrayed her.  He came back for her.  Oh, he is ever such a nice lion.”  She paused in memory of all the things he done for her, it was then that she had to know the answer.  “Ketisha, did Jabari ever, you know . . . say that he . . .

            Ketisha looked at her, the same annoyed look in her eyes that Jabari had so often. “Yes. More than I’ve bothered to count.”

            “But—but he loves me . . . he loves me . . .” she said to herself quietly.

            “Come on, Weusi, I need you to come with me.”

            “No, I . . . want to stay here, Ketisha,” said Weusi not seeming to realize everything that was going on.

            “But—but I need you!  We’ve all got to be there to sort this out.  Look, you can get back Jabari, and I can have Lengo, and . . . look if you don’t come, this whole thing will all fall to pieces.” Weusi continued to look down at the floor.  “You need to find Ruya!” she added as a persuasion.

            Weusi lifted her head a little, “I’ll leave once you’ve gone.”

            “Er . . . this is my den,” she said still slightly irritated.

            “Yes, I’m aware of that.”

            “Look, Jabari needs you,” said Ketisha, her tone becoming plainly unwelcoming.

            “I know,” said Weusi quietly, staring at the ground.

            Ketisha groaned in frustration and marched out of the den. Weusi looked up in alarm. “Ketisha—Ketisha, where are you going?”

            “I’m going to save one of my mates from an early death. You can stay or you can leave.” Ketisha didn’t even look back.

            Weusi stared at Ketisha’s retreating form, rooted to the spot. She didn’t know how long she stayed there, until finally, she headed out into the savannah. “Ruya! Ruya!”

 

            “Stay here,” said Bagra.

            “Why?” asked Jabari, a hint of a snarl in his voice.

            Bagra looked at Jabari seriously.  “You want to get hurt?”

            “Do I look like a masochist?”

            “Then stay here.”  Bagra walked down out into the clearing, Jabari staying well hidden in the grass.  Bagra called out into the night, “Hey! Lengo!”

            A lion walked into the clearing.  He was larger than normal, and even from where he was, Jabari could see his muscles ripple underneath his pelt.  “Bagra, it’s the middle of the night.”

            “Just looking for you.  Where were you earlier?”

            “What?  You mean you came back?”

            “Yeah.  I was looking for you.  Where were you?”

            “I—I was with that girl.  You know, the one I told you about?”

            “The pride lioness?”

            “Yeah, Ketisha.”  Jabari felt himself stiffen at the sound of her name.  Lengo lied down in the clearing.  “I love her, Bagra, but she is driving me crazy!  I mean, I can’t sleep.  I nearly got myself killed yesterday hunting.”

            “My father said that love made animals do stupid things.”

            “Yeah, well he was right.”

            “And that lust does that even more.”

            Lengo looked up at Bagra.  “This is love, Bagra.  She’s coming out here.  We can leave this place.  She’s told me she’s tired of that loser she has back at the pride.  We’re gonna leave together, and make a pride of our own.  We’ve already even got cubs.  She’s pregnant, did you know that?  I’m gonna have to be a father.”  Lengo chuckled.  “Poor little guys.  Me, a father.  Can you believe that, Bag?”

            “It’ll be different,” admitted Bagra.  “But you should do okay.”

            “Yeah. I got her pregnant, though, right?  Never thought that would happen, at least not this soon.  Heat hasn’t even rolled around yet.  But I’ll raise ’em right, Bag, I know I will—”

            Lengo was suddenly tackled and found himself rolling.  He pinned the attacker underneath him easily.  Jabari glared up at him murderously.  “Those are my cubs, you son of a bitch!”

            “Bag?” asked Lengo.

            “This—this is Ketisha’s lover.  Her other one.”

            “Well, I never thought I’d actually see you.  I had pictured someone—you know—a little more—impressive?”

            Jabari lunged up at Lengo, only to have one of Lengo’s paws swat him down.  “I wouldn’t try anything,” said Lengo.

            “She loves me, you son of a bitch, not you!  Me!”

            “What do you have against hyenas?  They’re good animals.”

            “This isn’t a game!” yelled Jabari.

            “Isn’t it?  You’re not going anywhere.”

            “Keta is my lover, not yours!”

            “Jabari,” said Bagra quietly, “I told you this was true.”

            “You invited him?” asked Lengo.  “Are you trying to kill me, Bagra?”  He looked down at the lion pinned underneath him.  “Jabari, right?  Look, Keta is my mate.  Maybe not married, but she’s mine.  She wants me, not you.  Why do you think she’s been sneaking out here?  She’s tired of you!  She just wants it to end.”

            Lengo sat back, Jabari staring up at him in disbelief.  “That can’t be true,” Jabari said quietly.

            “Every word.”

            “No!”  Jabari suddenly leapt up at Lengo, having a clear shot at his throat.

            “Jabari, stop!”

            Jabari suddenly froze, recognizing the feminine voice.  Both Lengo and Jabari turned to her.  “Keta?” said Jabari in disbelief.

            “Jabari, don’t hurt him,” said Ketisha.

            “Do you have any idea what lies he’s spreading?”

            “Jabari, you—you don’t need to hurt anyone.  I’ve told you that.”

            Jabari pushed Lengo off from over him and walked over to Ketisha and nuzzled her.  “Keta, the things he said about you.”

            “Lengo didn’t mean it.  Not that way.”

            Jabari stopped nuzzling suddenly.  He pulled his head back in disbelief.  “You said you didn’t know a Lengo.”

            “I—I lied, okay?  I lied to you, Jabari, and I’m sorry, but I just didn’t want this to happen!  I didn’t want you to know that—that I wanted it all to end, and go with him, and . . . and . . .”

            Jabari took a step back, staring at her.  “I thought you loved me,” he finally whispered.

            “I—I never said that, did I?  I know I never said that.  I had to actually work not to.”

            “But—all of those times we . . .”

            “Jabari, I . . . wanted you.  That was all there ever was.  I like you, really.  But—but I just like Lengo more.  And—and I thought it could all end nicely.  I could be with Lengo, and you and Weusi could . . . could be together again . . .”

            Jabari shook his head slowly, staring at the ground.  “I can’t believe you.  After all those times I told you how much I—I hated all of that whining, and pleading . . . Keta, how could you have possibly thought I would have wanted that?  Over you?”

            “I—I just . . . didn’t want you anymore, Jabari.”

            Jabari stared at her for a long time.  He felt a tear slide down the side of his face, but took no notice of it.  “So this is what it’s been like?  For Weusi?”  He shook his head.  “How could I have been so cruel?”

            “Jabari, I didn’t want to hurt you!” protested Ketisha.

            “I don’t want any more of your lies,” he said, storming past her.  He felt her place a paw on his shoulder as he went by.  He shrugged it off and kept going.

            “Jabari!  Jabari, I didn’t want—Jabari!”

            Jabari kept walking.

            Ketisha rounded on Bagra.  “You! You had to tell him, didn’t you!”

            “It was for the best,” said Bagra.  He silently left.  Juveda would be missing him.

 

            Jabari stopped, seeing Weusi in the clearing.  It looked as if she was giving one of the cubs a bath; Jabari could at least see a tail that looked like the end had been dipped in mud.  Ruya’s tail.  His son’s tail.  A fresh wave of remorse came upon him.  He had been so caustic.  So cruel.  He had even forgotten why he’d loved her, and married her in the first place.

            She made him laugh.

            And those lovely, lovely, crystalline eyes.

            And how she had comforted him, and left with him, even after the scandal of his father’s death.

            Why had he cared about giving her what she wanted?  She had asked so many times, and he had rejected her almost as many.  The dens they’d looked through, the food she caught for him, the streams she found for them to drink from.  And she had just wanted to please him, all the way through it.  Was it really that bad to want a little bit for herself?

            She deserved a better mate than him, there was no doubt about that.  She had loved him; he had beaten her.  Jabari smiled slightly.  If she hadn’t been so loving, would he have had any hope of her taking him back now?

            He got up and walked toward her.  It would hurt, he knew it.  But it would come through. He loved her.  “Weusi,” he said.

            Weusi stopped licking Ruya, and after a pause, turned to look at Jabari.  “Yes, Jabari?”

            Those beautiful eyes.  “I—I need to tell you something.  Something I’m very ashamed of.”  He lied down.  “Weusi, I’ve been lying to you,” he said slowly, feeling as though he had to tear each word away for the sentence.  “I—I’ve been unfaithful.  I’ve been sleeping with someone else.  Ketisha.  And—I said some very, very bad things when I was with her.  About us. And I am deeply, deeply sorry about everything that I’ve done.  I’ve seen my mistake, I know that I’ve been stupid.  But I want your forgiveness, Weusi.  I want to be your mate again, and I want to love you like you’ve always loved me.”

            Weusi looked back down at the cub and started grooming Ruya again.  She finally stopped.  “I—know,” she said.

            “You—you know?”

            “Yes.  I’ve known for weeks,” she said.  She looked up at Jabari, her eyes brimming with tears.  Her voice was steady as she said, “They didn’t want to tell me.  But I saw you two.  Together.  In her cave.  And you were on top of her.  And—purring.  And you—you were making love to her, Jabari.  And I knew you were very, very happy.”

            “Weusi, I—”

            “You’ve already explained, Jabari.  I know why you wanted Ketisha.  She’s everything I’ve never been.  Lustful, and happy, and she never asked you for anything, did she?  Nothing that you didn’t want.  No begging or pleading or beating with her.  Maybe it was even exhilarating for you, sneaking out to make love.  I don’t know.

            But it wouldn’t have mattered if you had dragged her in front of me and did it right there.  I thought that maybe it was for the best, all of this.  You would be happy.  That’s all I ever wanted, Jabari, to make you happy.  I thought I was being a good mate; I only wanted the best for you.  And you wanted Ketisha.  I could never give you what she does.  So I wouldn’t make a scene.  And you would still love me, and cherish me.  And I’d still be your little angel.  Remember how you used to call me that?  After we were married?

            “And it just got so—so wrong.  That’s the only way I could describe it.  You spent more and more nights with her.  I’d go to sleep with you, and wake up in the middle of the night, and you’d be gone.  And I knew where you went.  And in the morning, you’d be back again, as if you were never gone.  I thought that was a good thing.  You were ashamed of what you were doing; you wanted to hide what you were doing from me because you loved me.  And I’d just take care of the cubs, and would accept your excuses not to be with me, knowing exactly what you were doing with her, while I cleaned and fed and cared for your own legacy!

            Weusi’s voice had begun to shake, but she took a deep breath, it was steady again.  “And I’ve always been a bit stupid, haven’t I?  I’ve never been the brightest one, I knew that, but I certainly didn’t consider myself to be as stupid as this.  You didn’t want me, Jabari, I knew that; you wanted her, but I thought you would still love me, even if I wasn’t your choice for sex any longer.  Rajua, kind, old Rajua, he’s even offered to help me out with that, and Pinduli encouraged him to do that.  Just to make me happy.  I’ve been abstinent for months, because I didn’t want to be with someone else when I had you.

            “But I never did, did I?  I never had you.  As soon as you wanted to leave me, I should have known that I’d never see my Jabari.  You would be her Jabari.  But I wanted to believe it was okay.  That everything was alright.  I wanted to believe that so badly, Jabari.  I managed to convince myself that you loved me, even when I knew what you were doing, and I never saw that I was deluding myself because of how much I loved you.

            “I wanted you to be happy so much, Jabari.  I didn’t care if I was, because if you liked it, I loved that you liked it.  I was happy for you with Ketisha.  How sick am I?  I was wanting you to go out and make love to her.  If that’s what made you happy.

            “But I can’t convince myself of that anymore.  That this is right.  It’s wrong.  So you can go back to Ketisha, Jabari.  It takes three to break a marriage vow, Jabari, and Rajua has agreed to be the third.  I don’t want you to feel any remorse.  I want you to be able to give yourself to her fully.”

            “Weusi, I don’t want that.  I don’t want to do that anymore.  I want to be with you.”

            “Well then, there’s a small problem.”

            Jabari was shocked.  She must love him.  Now, at least, when he loved her and wanted her back so much.  But his shock ebbed away with her next words.  “Jabari, you’re a very special lion to me.  You always will be.  So if you want to keep me as your mate, then you can do it.  I’ll let you.  I’ll forgive you—the good gods know that I’ve been doing that for weeks.  One more night of forgiveness won’t hurt me.”

            “Weusi, I don’t know what to say . . . thank you.  I know you have every right to leave, but if you’re willing to stay with me—thank you so much, Weusi.”

            “I’m perfectly willing, Jabari.”

            “You won’t regret this, Weusi.  I promise.  I’ll make things better.  Starting now.”

            “That’s . . . ambitious, Jabari.  But I’ll support you.”  She began to groom Ruya again.

            Jabari smiled.  “Thank you.  And I’ll try to be a better father.  Is that alright, Ruya?”

            Ruya was silent, something Jabari expected.  He lied still in Weusi’s legs as she groomed him.  “A very good cub, Ruya,” said Weusi.  “Always still while taking a bath.  Here.”  She picked up Ruya, and laid him down in front of Jabari.

            At least his back half.

            Jabari stood up in shock and stared at the tail and hind legs in front of him.  He stared as blood dripped onto the grass.  Ruya’s front half was missing entirely.  “Wha—how—Weusi, what—”

            “Oh, he ran into some hyenas, I’m guessing.  I’m not quite sure what they were; by the time I found him, they were running into the grass.  He was filthy, of course.  He hadn’t had his bath yet.”

            “Weusi, how can you say that?”

            “Say what?”

            “All of it!  Just—just so caustically—and all this time you were bathing this . . .”

            “Yes.”

            “Weusi—what’s gotten into you?”

            “Nothing, as far as I know.  I’m perfectly fine.  But this would make me seem wrong, wouldn’t it?”

            “Weusi . . .”

            “I don’t know, Jabari.  Maybe I am becoming a bit—unhinged.  Crazy.  Stark, raving mad.”

            “Oh, gods, Weusi . . . what have I done to you?”

            “Oh, nothing, Jabari.  I’m fine.  Really.  I don’t think this is really what you’d call insanity.  This is more along the lines of desperation.  Because I want him to be alive.  And I just deny it, don’t I?  And he’s not dead, at least not to me.  And he’s so happy, because Daddy’s going to spend more time with him.  And teach him how to hunt, and be a big, strong lion. And he’ll be a good little cub, and he’ll always do what Daddy and Mommy ask, and we’ll love him so much. And he’ll grow up, and he’ll be so strong, and so brave, and he’ll make his parents so proud.  And he’ll find a nice lioness in the pride, and he’ll settle down with her.  And he’ll have cubs with her.  And he’ll be so happy, and he’ll just squeal with delight.  And that’s all he can do.  Squeal.  He never could talk.  He couldn’t even scream.  Not when he wanted to go to the bathroom, not when he was hungry.  Not even when they were killing him.”

            “Weusi, please, stop.”

            “Oh, I’m sorry, Jabari,” said Weusi.  “I know how you don’t like me to talk on and on, but I’ll try to stop that, I really will.  But it all just seems a little much now.  I don’t know which shocks me more really; finding him or you staying.”  Her tone wasn’t rude and brutal, it was honest, the sincerity ringing in Jabari’s head, horrifying him.

            “Weusi . . . Weusi, please, let’s just take Ruya back to the den . . .”

            “You don’t get it, do you, Jabari?  You don’t understand at all . . .”

            “Weusi, please, I don’t want to leave you out here like this.  You said you were willing, right?  So help me with Ruya.  Please.”

            “But I don’t want to.”

            “What?”

            “You never did get it, did you, Jabari?  I’m perfectly willing.  But I don’t want to. I  don’t want to live a lie, I don’t want to have to hold my head in shame, I don’t want to be a fraud.  I’ll be your mate, I’ll follow you to the end of the earth, and I’ll even jump off if you tell me to.  But you’re never going to hear those four words again.”

            “But—but Weusi, please—I love you, Weusi.”

            Weusi was silent.

            “Weusi . . .”

            “Jabari, I’m your mate.”  She walked over him, standing over her dead son’s body.  She pressed herself against him as she licked him across the face, a kiss that had no love, only lust, and very little of that.  “And you’re a big, strong lion,” she said, a slight note of wildness in her voice.

            “Weusi . . .”

            “Maybe I am a little crazy.  I never asked Juveda how long it takes.”

            “Weusi, please, stop.”

            “Of course.”  She drew her head back from his.

            Those beautiful eyes.  And now it seemed as if their crystalline beauty was shattered, fractured by something.

            “Weusi . . . I love you.”

            “Then that should make all of this easier for you.”

            “Please . . . just say it.”

            “No, Jabari.  I don’t lie.”

            “Weusi . . . don’t torture yourself like this.  Please.  Not for me.  Not like this.  I never wanted you like this.”

            “Alright.”  She stepped back, stepping on Ruya.  “I’m going to the den to pick up Aushi.  And Rajua can get your breaking vow in the morning.  He already has mine.  I told him to forget it if you didn’t say anything tomorrow, though.”  She began to walk through the grass toward the den.

            “Weusi, please, don’t do this.  Not this way.”

            “What do you want?”

            “I—I want you.”

            “But not like this.”

            “No.  Not like this.”

            “And I can’t give you anything else.”

            Weusi continued to walk toward the den.  Jabari watched her go, then watched her suddenly stop.  Weusi turned around to him, looking him in the eye.

            She said slowly, remorse deep in her voice, “I don’t love you like I loved you yesterday.”

            She continued on her way to the den.  Jabari sank to the ground, and laid his head on the ground.  Slowly, he began to cry.