"Simba! Are you joking?"
Simba cracked an eyelid and looked up. He was lying on his back with his feet dipped in the water.
Nala loomed over him with a scowl on her face.
Simba rolled over. "I needed some time for myself."
Nala's face crumpled in anger. "You have a responsibility, Simba, to our pride. Didn't I tell you that I was concerned about you dodging your responsibilities? Simba, I—" She stopped when she noticed that Timon and Pumbaa were gaping at her. She lowered her head and turned her face away. "Could you guys excuse us? Please."
Timon scoffed. "You always have something you can never say in front of us." He then sighed and shrugged. "C'mon, Pumbaa. We better go. Lover's quarrel, you know."
Simba cringed at the distaste that ignited in Nala's eyes at Timon's crack. "Guys, I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Bye, Pumbaa. Bye Timon." He'd been stupid to lie out in the open, but Nala had embarrassed him. She couldn't order him around like that! Simba turned to Nala. She had her back to him with her head lowered. Her shoulders were shaking with anger.
"Do you know how embarrassing it is to have you yell at me in front of my friends? At least have the decency to yell at me when no one's around." He lashed his tail. "Or why don't you stop yelling at me at all. I'm really tired of it."
She lowered her head further.
"You know… Do you enjoy yelling at me?"
She shook her head.
"Sometimes I think you do!" Now that he did have something to say, wasn't she going to look him in the face so they could see the anger and frustration in each other's eyes? He ground his teeth. He was done being bullied. He heaved a breath and was about to go on when he heard a sniffing noise. He raised an eyebrow and listened for a moment.
"Why does it have to be like this?" Nala sniffed again.
He'd expected fury and fire. Was she crying? He listened again, and all the rage within him died out like a flame in a rainstorm. He couldn't remember the last time she'd cried in front of him. Maybe never.
"I don't want to feel so angry when I see you… I don't want to yell at you…"
He cleared his throat, still standing behind her. Should he comfort her or stay back? "I just wanted some time for myself, and I feel like I'm doing a good job. I don't understand why you're so disappointed."
Nala let out a loud sob as if his words were claws.
Simba's face flushed. "Maybe if you didn't tell me what to do…" And? The words died on his tongue. He suddenly felt very sick and wretched. Justifying an afternoon of laziness felt wrong and stupid when there were tears on his mate's face! He still wasn't sure what was making her so upset all the time, but… but… He hardly wanted to admit it, but maybe this was his fault…
Maybe Pumbaa was right. Maybe I do need to ask her what's really wrong…
"I shouldn't have to tell you what to do…" Nala paused to compose herself. "I'm not your mother. And I'm not Zazu. It means so much that you're alive. This isn't what I imagined when I realized that you weren't dead." She wiped her face with her paw. "I guess I built something false up in my head. It's just… I feel so alone in this."
Simba blinked. So maybe this wasn't so much about him helping everyone… and more about him standing at her side. Finally, Simba closed the space between them and sat down next to her. He nuzzled her and rested a foreleg over her back. At first, she didn't move into his embrace, and sat there stoically. He waited for her to speak or move. When it was clear she was seemingly frozen, he said, "Nala, I didn't mean… I… I didn't know."
She sighed. "How could you?" Her words didn't sound spiteful. She was merely pointing out a fact. "All Scar did was order us around. He would strike out if we didn't meet his expectations. I think living under his example for so long rubbed off on me."
Simba balked. "No, of course not, Nala! You're nothing like Scar."
She turned to him sheepishly and looked at him through damp lashes. "You can't imagine what he put me through…"
No, he didn't think he could. Guilt brought tears to his eyes and a flush of heat to his face. Guilt because he'd ignored his mate. Guilt because he'd thought she was nagging him. He'd let Nala down. He never really cared to spend time with her, either… Did I even say a word to her yesterday? In the midst of their arguments, he realized then how distressed Nala had been. No wonder.
And he couldn't imagine what Scar had put his mate through. As far as he was concerned, he'd gotten off easy escaping into the desert and growing up in a jungle. And how stupid am I? I've never asked if she wanted to talk about it.
"You don't have to tell me now, but when you're ready…" he nuzzled her gently and placed a paw on hers. "I'm here for you. I'll listen. Really listen"
Slowly, she nodded. She sniffed softly. "I'm sorry I've yelled at you."
"Nah." He nuzzled her harder. "I'm sorry… I'll try to be around more."
Nala sighed. "It's just that Zira and her friends have been acting so strange… and we could use any bit of help with hunting."
Simba pursed his mouth. "I can try to talk to them." He hesitated before adding, "I… You're all so great at hunting… and I'm… not. At all. That's why I haven't… But I might be able to catch small things." Yes, even if he couldn't pull down a whole zebra or wildebeest, or even stand to look at the sight of a stampede, there were plenty of hares, mice, and birds to eat.
His offer to try harder made Nala crack a timid smile. He nosed her tears and licked them away. "No more tears now. Anything else?"
She then smiled, almost conspiratorially, though there was still sadness in her eyes. "There is something else..."
Simba tilted his head to the side. "What?"
"We're going to have a little prince or princess… I'm pregnant. Rafiki told me when I visited him today."
Simba's eyes widened. "Oh." An heir? He hadn't imagined starting a family so soon, but this news instantly lightened his heart. Some of his best memories were of him and his father spending time together. He hugged his queen. "That's great!"
She was stiff in his forelegs. "But what if there's not enough food? What if it takes longer for the herds to return? What if—"
He licked her cheek. "It doesn't matter. I'll make sure you and our cub get enough food. Don't worry. You're both my priority."
Nala smiled, relaxed, and nuzzled him.
Simba returned her nuzzle and lovingly licked the top of her head. He looked over her shoulder. Sure, the land was a ragged mess, but it was hobbling back to life slowly.
So were they.
"I love you, Simba."
A dove flew overhead and called.
Simba nuzzled Nala harder. "I love you, too."