(A/N: Never intended to delay the last chapter so long! My day job took its toll on my creativity for a while when several coworkers left around the same time the business changed owners. I wasn't very happy and it caused a lot of anxiety, but I'm feeling a lot better now. I've also been drawing more to bring in funds. I didn't realize how much time went by.

This is the last chapter for this story. I do have ideas that would continue from this storyline, but I also have other projects in the works that may come first. So... without further delay...)


Zira was dead.

Dead?

Was she?

After all the pain she'd inflicted, all the minds and hearts she'd unsettled, and all the hate—cud-like hate so thick Simba could've chewed on it for hours—she was gone… and her own daughter had done her in. The lioness who had glorified his uncle like he was heaven and earth, and who had believed Scar was as omnipotent as the oldest ancestor, even after he was no more solid than the air we breathe, had taken her own last breath.

Now they're together.

Wherever that was. The ancestors saved no seats amongst their ranks for murderers. Surely, both Scar and Zira were lost souls destined to wander until time ceased. The entirety of and any significance of their lives and everything they'd done was reduced down to the fact that they were murderers.

In his mindless run to Rafiki's, Simba's lead had been taken by Nala. Now, they were nearly to the tree, under which a makeshift shelter of branches, leaves, and grass had been propped over Vitani to protect her from the sun and heat. The queen and king crept up on the cave and peered inside.

Simba's mind continued to struggle with everything that had happened, but when he saw Vitani in her wounded state, he began to feel grounded in reality once more. He blinked. Vitani looked lifeless until her ribs rose for one, shuddery gulp of air. Motes of dirt floated about and speck-like flies flitted and skittered over her seeping injuries. The buzzing of the flies set Simba's teeth on edge.

Kovu's dark fur hid the blood and gore. Vitani's light fur showed all, despite the medicine Rafiki had slathered on. Simba had never seen anything like this on another lion.

Those are wounds Zira gave her…

There was no doubt in Simba's mind, when he continued to look down at Vitani, that him and his queen had in front of them a lioness more dangerous than Zira. Vitani had killed Zira. The matricide had nearly cost Vitani her life, and perhaps the true cost was her afterlife. But she'd done it.

"She'll never lose those scars…" Nala whispered, sympathy lacing her voice so thickly that the Outsider could be their daughter.

Simba's stomach ached with a swelling lump. He'd seen starving lionesses. He'd caught a glimpse when rabid, gaunt hyenas had torn apart Scar. And sometimes the animals his pride brought down struggled hard and died a tedious, sloppy death. Pink stripes of flesh rippled jaggedly across Vitani's cheeks and jaw. A hunk of meat had been carved out of the bridge of her nose.

Her face contorted. Vitani opened her eyes. She looked frustrated and sad, before she let out a low hiss and growl. She glared at the queen and king, her eyes wide with fear, as they took a step back to give her space.

"You're all right," Nala assured her.

"Vitani, we're not here to hurt you," Simba added. He cleared his throat. "Relax."

Vitani took several deep breaths. Her ears flicked under the tiny feet of the flies. She still scowled at them, but her muscles softened. She started to speak, but her voice wouldn't come. Finally, she rasped, her words more scratch than her own voice, "I'm sure you're pleased with what I've done."

A weight had lifted from Simba's being, but could he go as far as feel pleasure about Zira's murder? "It's a shame," he said, "it had to come to this."

"I don't think it is."

Simba shifted his paws and glanced at Nala as Vitani continued.

"I did the worst thing a daughter could do to her mother." She swallowed and it took the snarl out of her voice. "I have no regret. We're free now because she's gone. Without her delusional plans, we can do what we want."

What are you free to do?

Vitani snorted and rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, King of the Pride Lands. If I'd wanted Pride Rock, we'd already have it."

"Don't doubt that," Nala said mildly.

Again, Vitani snorted in derision. She gave them a slight smirk.

At least a dozen days of healing, proper healing, stared Vitani in the face. Deep wounds needed to seal up. Rafiki worried most about infection. The shaman cautioned that both Vitani, as well as Kovu, were in delicate places with the kind of horrific violence they'd been run through. When it came to their connection with Zira, nothing about their lives, especially Vitani's, had ever been gentle to say the least.

Maybe that's Vitani's advantage… She's gotta have a hard heart. Zira would've killed her long ago if she hadn't hardened herself…

Simba guessed that Zira had left behind a lot of hardened hearts.

Everything is so precarious.

"Your pridesisters nor Nuka are here." Nala asked. "Do they know about Zira?"

"I acted without consent, but I didn't need it. They're clueless," Vitani admitted. "And Nuka is dead. Zira's last crime was letting him die while I was away talking to Simba."

Simba hadn't imagined that Nuka's injuries had been so serious after Kovu had stuck him with his claws. Vitani fell silent. There was no reason for her to elaborate further. Pain hardened her glassy eyes. She'd loved her brother, even if he'd died while antagonizing their other sibling.

Vitani blinked hard and pushed her emotions aside. "They think Simba's dead."

Simba tensed and growled. "Why would they?"

"I lied to lure Zira away. She wanted to see you," Vitani rasped as lightly as if she were discussing hunting plans. "Now I need someone to go home and liberate them. I have no way to let them know where I am before they come looking."

"We'll let Rafiki know," Nala said. "It'll be safer for him to tell them."

A stab of shame pricked Simba. Wasn't it cowardly for them, above all him, to send Rafiki as the errand boy? He glanced at his paws. Perhaps it was, but going to confront the lionesses himself would be as stupid as walking right into the Elephant Graveyard just to prove that he was one of those brave-hearted lions. If there was a time when he was allowed to step back, sit, and wait, without judgment it was now. He knew he looked apprehensive, but he spoke no objection.

"And I don't want Nuka buried in the Outlands. And after today, don't call us Outsiders." Vitani's blue eyes flashed. "Things will change. We're no longer outsiders to your pride."

They'd never be welcomed into Simba's pride with open paws. "I… I can't honestly promise a place in my pri—"

"I want no place in your pride, Simba. There's no room for us. Never will be. You'd have more luck getting hyenas to love us all. You don't have to do the decent thing. No. We will become our own pride and we'll part ways in peace."

Simba nodded. "Well, until you can build up your strength, you're all welcome to take a corner of the Pride Lands." Simba saw the irritation in Vitani's eyes, as she rejected what she probably thought of as a pity offer, but it was the least decent thing he could do. They needed a chance to start over and start over strong.

"We'll hunt here until I'm on my feet again."

Even though she was blunter than an old lion's tooth, Simba didn't forget how young Vitani still was. He imagined she wanted to know how she and her pridesisters fit into the world. Ambition shined in her tired eyes. She wanted to know that there was more to life than training to murder a king—same as Kovu. Simba wondered if he should ask others in the nearby prides if they knew of any vacant territories. But, as irksome as it was, he was confident that the lionesses could take over any land from anybody if they pleased. Their strongest collective quality was their strength. Nobody could argue otherwise.

"We'll pass this on to your family." Nala bowed her head. "Thank you for your efforts."

Uncertainly, Simba bowed his head, too.

"Just so you've heard it, Vitani," Nala continued, "I think you have the potential to be a find leader."

Annoyance tugged at a corner of Vitani's mouth before she relaxed and shrugged. "I take care of my family."

Saying 'thank you' must be too much for her. Hesitant, Simba then asked, "What do you want to do with Zira's body?"

Vitani's eyelids drooped over her dulling eyes. "Let the buzzards have her. The least she could do for someone is to fill a belly." She closed her eyes and gave a pained sigh.

A chill went through the king as he nodded. "Rest then. Rafiki will come back soon." He and Nala turned and walked away. Vitani's interest had turned towards sleep. Out of earshot, Simba muttered, shaking his head, "Wow…"

"She's been dealt more than any one lioness should ever have to take," Nala whispered back. They began to jog to Pride Rock. "Her kind of spirit is rare."

Of course Nala would recognize this. Vitani certainly was something different. She wasn't her mother—Vitani was who Zira could've been if she hadn't been so delusional or short-fused. Vitani was a lioness to fear… and yet Simba didn't think he had to.

"Things are going to change," Simba agreed. "But I think for once the change will be for the better."


One Year Later…

The breeze ruffled the surface of the watering hole while Kovu paced its edge with a rapid, clipped gait that betrayed his nerves. Mud that had crusted and clumped between his toes glazed the tips of his paws. Darkness that was losing its grip covered him and the land, the sun ready to rise is the east. Crisp air had settled on his dark fur. Kovu had slept little in the last few days, but this had been by choice and not out of fear or anxiousness.

Well, maybe out of some anxiousness…

He stopped pacing to drink from the watering hole that reflected a vague picture of the fading stars and crescent moon. His new daughter and son had yet to see a full moon, and Kovu wondered if their eyes would open before the next one appeared. The night before, he'd woken and instead of leaving the den to wander the savannah, he'd laid next to Kiara and had watched the tiny cubs sleep carelessly, their small bodies twitching as they dreamed. He had never said it out loud, but he was glad his light-furred cubs had taken after their mother's side of the family in their looks. Tanga was a shade of grey-brown that reminded him of Sarabi's fur. Asuma's pale orange fur was a color somewhere in between his mother's and his maternal grandmother's. They were beautiful like their mother. They were precious, and the whole pride loved the cubs.

Sitting up, Kovu looked down at his reflection. He tilted his face to size it up from different angles. The scarring over his eye was disappearing, but it would still be obvious to the curious eye of a cub. One day, his cubs would ask why their daddy had a scar over his eye and why other lions didn't. One day, they'd see their aunt and the thought would occur to them that something horrible had happened to her…

Kovu had gone to visit Vitani the day before she and her pride were going to set out to find a new home. Vitani had given herself one whole moon to recover. The visit was the first time he'd visited his family since Rafiki had liberated them from the Outlands. The liberation itself had taken place over a few days. Some of the lionesses had left the Outlands immediately, while others had been more wary or too stubborn. Eventually, they'd set up camp beneath Rafiki's towering tree. They'd hunted and fattened up. Previously gaunt and thin lionesses were now almost unrecognizable.

"…I still see her eyes in my dreams, Kovu. I'm never getting away from that."

Thick scabs the color of earth worms covered Vitani's face. Kovu had been too leery and afraid to go see his sister at first, but Kiara and his parents had encouraged him to visit. "I'm sorry you had to be the one to kill her."

"The one to kill her had to be me."

"I'm sorry it came to that."

"You sound like your father," Vitani snorted, but she had a smirk in her eyes. "What were you gonna do? Kill her yourself?"

"I…"

"No you weren't."

"I was angry enough." He'd wanted to. There was no way he would've had the skill however, and he knew it. "I wish there had been something else I could've done."

Vitani had tensed up and turned her face away. He'd noticed that she wasn't as direct with her eye contact as she'd been before, as if not seeing someone look at her meant that they didn't see her at all. When she didn't reply, Kovu tensed up, too. They couldn't go back. They wouldn't untwist the knots their mother had placed between them for seasons, and he wondered if they ever really would…

Then Vitani had said, almost grudgingly, "You did what you could, Kovu. Nothing that happened or didn't happen was your fault… I know you tried to convince me that Mother was wrong." She looked to where some of the lionesses were play-fighting. "Now everything that happens to our family depends on me."

Vitani's pride had lived in the far southern corner of the Pride Lands for about a moon before news arrived that they'd turned out a small pride, driving them off their homeland with the same brute force they might have once used to drive out Simba and his pride. But now they were in a time of peace. It was a peace Kovu realized then that he'd never ever known. He certainly felt more at peace within his own head. He could watch his cubs grow up in a way their parents and grandparents had never known. He was too naïve to believe that nothing bad would ever happen again, but—

"Kovu!"

Vitani's reflection hovered behind him in less focus than his own. He was reminded of the night she'd summoned him back to the Outsiders.

Kovu smiled. "Hey. You sound a little wayworn."

"Walking since sunset just to meet your little spawns… How're they?"

He turned. His anxiety didn't spike at the sight of Vitani now, even with the rest of the family standing behind her, looking even more well-fed and groomed. A few lionesses had rounded middles despite their pride being exclusively female. His sister's scars looked less miserable. He had heard that she'd refused continued treatments from Rafiki to decrease their harshness.

"They're great." The cubs' presentation ceremony was a few days away, but Rafiki had blessed the cubs on the day they were born.

"Fatherhood'll treat you well," Vitani remarked. "You'll do better than me. I was horrible at raising Nuka and myself." Morbid humor rang clear in her voice. "Reminds me. I'll go visit his grave later."

Nuka had been buried inside of the Pride Lands by the river. On patrol, Kovu would glance at the grave. Some said that scavengers had taken off with Zira's bones, while he'd heard rumors that out of respect for the flesh of every creature, Rafiki had buried her somewhere. Where that was Kovu had no idea, nor did he want to find out.

"There's nothing else like having cubs." He asked her carefully, "Don't you want cubs at all, Vitani?"

Vitani glanced away. "Probably not in the plans for me."

He heard the fear in Vitani's voice. He wasn't without fear himself, but he knew he had his pride. They wanted nothing but the best for their prince and princess. Nala and Simba's faces alone put him at ease. "You never know, Vitani," he told her.

"I'll settle for a nephew and a niece and all the other cubs we're expecting."

Kovu led his birth pride to Pride Rock. Vitani's visit was planned and it was the first time, except for one brief hunt, that everybody had been together. Simba and Nala had gone out for a morning patrol and would be back soon.

"Vitani!" Kiara greeted her sister-in-marriage and the other lionesses from her spot in the middle of the den. Asuma and Tanga nursed at her belly. Kiara smiled widely. "I'm so glad you came. How are you?"

"Good. We couldn't ask for better." Vitani had started to come forward with the rest of her pride, but Kovu noticed that her sister faltered and stayed back while the lionesses cooed over the infants.

"So healthy."

"That tiny face! Oh look at that yawn! Ain't it so precious?"

"Right? Adorable…"

"I hope my cubs are just as cute. You should have seen their dad…"

"Asuma looks like his mommy, but you know he'll grow up like Daddy."

"I see lots of Daddy in Tanga."

Vitani finally came forward and Kovu had to do a double-take. He'd never seen a tenderer look on his sister's face. Maybe she would never have her cubs of her own, but he didn't think he could ask for a better aunt for his children.

Glad that she isn't my enemy, that's for sure.

"They would've melted Nuka's heart. He would've loved them. He'd tell me how much he wanted a family."

"Really?" Kiara adjusted her position so the cubs were cuddled in her paws.

Vitani nodded, now entirely lost in the little ones.

Just as Kiara had never known Vitani before her scars, Kovu would never know the Nuka Vitani had known. They'd had a bond. Kovu hardly looked back to fondly remember the brother who'd shunned him and held him down during Sarabi's murder.

But I need to let that go now… This is my time. And maybe in a different life we would've been closer.

Kiara was trying hard to work with her mate, and he no longer wanted to hide from her. She was aware of his past, his feelings, his fears. She wasn't scared of him—never had been. She welcomed his flaws like the sunshine on a cold morning, and always said she knew there was hope for him. Everything would be okay, she'd tell him. They had each other, and there was no disgrace in giving yourself a break to make going another day possible. It didn't mean you were letting yourself down if you were working to build yourself back up.

Simba and Nala returned and joined the pride in their fussing and affectionate gazing. The sun was rising now. Pleasant light filled the cave where a once divided tribe had come together to celebrate new life.

Kovu went to Kiara and smiled down at his cubs embraced in their mother's forelegs. He licked her golden cheek and the small tops of his children's heads.

You are my life now. And I'll protect you until my last breath.


(Thank you everybody who has read, followed, and reviewed since I started posting this in early 2014. Your feedback has been invaluable in my overall writing process, and I've learned a lot with this project in particular, and the traffic this story has seen is incredible! Also, thanks again to readsmanyfavs few (wherever you are) for being a patron of this story.)