Lion King: The Freak

Epilogue: Fathers and Mothers

Rain.

That single word was enough to describe the weather conditions for that day, and the several days that had preceded it. It was wet, and that was all—yes, there was some wind, and yes, sometimes the temperature fluctuated, but these were just minutiae. The only significant thing that could be said about the environment over the past week was that it was phenomenally wet.

No native Pride Landers had seen that much rain in their lives—ever. Not even the oldest among them could recall conditions even remotely similar to the ones they were now experiencing.

But, in the Pride Lands, there existed one who had not lived in the Land of the Spirits for her whole life. There existed one who had spent the first year or so of her existence in a land so distant that it was, for all practical purposes, unreachable. She was their Queen and she was known and loved throughout the Land of the Spirits—and she was worried, but not because of the weather.

The Falme was gone. Finally, that dark blot on the Land of the Spirits had been erased through various means some time before—but the price of freedom and righteousness was eternal vigilance, and it seemed that once again, the very existence of the Land of the Spirits as they were was threatened.

No one really knew who or what their adversary was. There was no doubt, however—he, or she, or it, or they, were not nearly as powerful as the Master of darkness, thank the Spirits. And yet, the Pride Landers' numbers were not where they had once been. They simply didn't have the manpower to fight a direct engagement against their enemy.

And it seemed like their enemy did not have the strength to risk a direct engagement against them. But something pushed him to attack, albeit in an unorthodox guerilla fashion—a strategy that forced the Pride Landers to exercise extreme caution, even in their own lands.

Patrols were doubled and the border to the southeast and east were carefully watched, but hostiles slipped in regardless. Attacks came from all directions without warning, at night or day or dusk or dawn—and there had been losses. The Pride Landers had lost two young lionesses, and after that, the Queen had decided that something had to change.

And so she had left her home, going south to seek advice at least and direct assistance at best.

The wisdom of the veteran elderly and the strength of young bodies would keep her home safe while she was gone, she hoped, or she wanted to—but she had no alternatives. She had left with a tear and a dark premonition—but she had not hesitated. Heading out with a rapid jog that she had maintained, for hours, until exhaustion and a sudden thunderstorm forced her to seek cover.

She had hoped to get much farther, but luck was not on her side. With a vague yet unshakeable sense of déjà vu, she wandered through the Jungle—the trees protected her from the worst of the rain, although large torrents of water still occasionally doused her. She was tired, and hungry, and cold, and wet—and if she didn't find shelter soon, she might pass out.

When she was approaching the final reserves of her strength, however, she saw something—something to the east, to her left, some crevice in the Eastern Volcanoes. It was a cave, it seemed, and in it she would find safety.

And so she entered it, too tired to take note of anything that might have been there already.

As fate would have it, however, the Queen of the Pride Lands was not killed upon entry, nor in the several seconds that followed. She collapsed once she was out of the rain, and managed to maintain consciousness just long enough to recognize that at least for the moment, she was safe. What the future held, however—she had no idea.

Light returned, and with it came consciousness.

The Queen of the Pride Lands got to her feet and blinked, several times, before stretching and shaking some of the dampness out of her fair, sleek fur. She was tired, still, but she didn't dare go back to sleep before she knew where she was and, more importantly, how safe she was.

The Hell of it was that she had no way to know where she was. She was in a cave, of course, in the Jungle, but her memory leading up to the moment that she'd entered the cave was blurry at best… she didn't know where in the Jungle she was to any degree of accuracy. She had no idea how long she'd slept and she had no idea what time of day it had been when she'd dragged herself into the cave, nor what time it was then. Clouds blotted out the sky entirely, as thunder crashed in the distance and rain continued to pour down—it could have been noon, or midnight, or any time in between.

Was she safe?

For a moment, she believed that the answer to that question was yes—and then she looked down and saw them.

Skeletons—two of them—one large and one small, both feline in nature.

Of course, her first reaction was to jump backward and hiss, loudly, to warn any hostile creatures or other entities that she wouldn't go down so easily—but then she realized that the cave didn't end shortly—rather, it expanded backward after a brief border of smashed rock into a chamber too large to immediately rationalize. To the Queen's rear there was a vast pool of water, one that emanated a positively malevolent feel—and so she faced it, her greatest potential threat, and began to move backward, snarling, to leave the cave entirely.

She got out unscathed. It was still raining, then, but not as much as it had been when she'd entered the Jungle—it was drizzling, heavily, but moderate wind kept the forest canopy from offering her much cover. Instantly the outer layer of her coat was soaked, but she paid it little heed. She had to get going, soon, curiosity be damned—there was no way the one she was looking for was hiding underwater in a place like that.

And so she turned around.

And she froze.

How he had come so close to her without her notice she didn't know. She thought she had improved a lot, over the years, in terms of both the power of her senses and her intuition—her reflexes usually bordered on premonitory—but he was there, right in front of her, not ten feet away.

She knew better than to try to make him think that she had noticed him before then at that stage.

His shoulders were hunched up, and she could see that his claws were halfway unsheathed. The expression on his face was fierce—but she didn't believe that it was out of any malicious intent. It somehow seemed that he always looked like that: dangerous, observant, brooding, and on a constant hairpin trigger.

Her response to the blatant threat display was a smile—a sincere, loving, relieved smile.

She went beyond that, a moment later, when he did not relax in any visible manner, and lowered her head a non-negligible amount before sitting down, completely, in a display of submission and passivity.

"It's been a very long time, big brother," she said. "I hope you've been well, yes?"

It had been a long time indeed. But that hadn't affected the amount of respect, of adoration, of awe audible in her voice. It was clear that she still admired and loved the li-tigon—and it was also clear that years of living in the Pride Lands had only softened her pronounced accent.

After a moment, however, the expression on her face shook, just the slightest bit. He continued to stare at her with all the intensity of a laser beam, for several long seconds—before recognition sparked in his eyes and he nodded.

"Kochai…" That was more of a question than anything else. He seemed to have trouble saying her name—was he choked up with emotion? She didn't think so. There was no embrace imminent, nor any other display of real feeling.

So, in response, the Queen of the Pride Lands simply tilted her head and nodded, as if she was confirming her own identity—but why would she need to do that? He hadn't seen her for years, it was true… but couldn't he recognize her? Couldn't he tell that it was her, the same "me, too!" little sister that had followed him all the way to the Land of the Spirits?

"I'm not who you're looking for."

"What?"

The image of them greeting one another, perhaps with formality if not happiness, was immediately smashed to pieces. The Queen stood up, immediately, and that sudden movement made the male in front of her bare his teeth halfway. She ignored it, however, made eye contact with him—and held it. Her eyes, as blazing green as ever, bore into those familiar, dark metal orbs—before she started to circle him.

"So, you're an imposter?... who are you? Who sent you? Answer me," she said, allowing the bite of a threat to enter the final command, even as the male held his position and simply turned, when he had to, so that he was facing the tigress at all times.

Time lagged, somewhat, as the slim form of the golden tigress moved in a tight arc, centered on her foe. She had no immediate intentions to attack—she was just trying to psych him out, and she was ready to defend or dodge more than anything else. The stance she'd assumed had a high center of gravity, so that if need be, she could take advantage of her natural prowess and dive or block or roll or escape as the situation demanded.

Rain continued to fall. Thusly, if the two nearly-combating felines were viewed from a position some distance above them, but still below the forest canopy still farther above, the large drops of water could be watched glancing and bursting off their sleek, toned sides. Both of them were built for fighting, and this showed in their every slight muscular contraction—the tension between them was high, but there was no need to come to blows just yet.

"You're looking for my brother."

That sentence froze Kochai in her tracks. She stopped where she was—and looked into the li-tigon's eyes hard before nodding. Again her guard was lowered, but she displayed no submission now. Now, she simply tilted her head and spoke in what she hoped was a neutral tone.

"You still look the same?... or has only he changed?"

The li-tigon nodded—that was an ambiguous answer, but he offered no clarification, and so, after a moment, Kochai simply moved on.

"Where is your brother?" This time, she spoke in a hopeful tone. He knew where Freak was—he had to know where Freak was. She had felt the energy, the connection between the two brothers as they had left the Pride Lands together. They would never leave one another—they were a team more indivisible than any that had ever existed ain history, and so where Freak's brother went Freak would go and vice versa.

Unless…

"Dead. Got bitten by a blackfang python two days ago…"

That knowledge didn't register with Kochai, not for a long moment. Freak, dead?... For some reason, that didn't make sense. To refer to Freak in the past tense was something so strange that it was almost surreal—and yet there his brother was, right in front of her, telling her what had happened, just two days before—and he wouldn't lie. She knew he wouldn't lie.

The Queen shut her eyes. When she opened them, a minute later, she was crying slightly, noiselessly, simply because she didn't know what else to do. Freak, dead… she still couldn't believe it.

She looked around, uselessly—she smelled something else, then, but she wasn't sure what. No matter—nothing appeared, and with Freak's brother so close, she was untouchable regardless.

Although her head was spinning, she tried to speak in a purposeful tone. She looked at Freak's brother, hoping that her eyes weren't too hollow and bloodshot and lost.

"All right. All right. I'm… sorry that I disturbed you. I wanted…" Her voice trailed off and she looked away, shaking her head slowly. What had she wanted? She'd never really thought that out—she'd just believed that somehow, when she found Freak, everything would make sense and in the end everything would turn out right. But now, with Freak gone, who knew what would happen?

"I'm sorry," the Queen whispered again in a dry, defeated tone. "I'll… leave you alone now."

The li-tigon's response was nothing more than a slow nod. That made her think, for the briefest moment—was there sadness in that response? No, it couldn't be. This was a being that had just told her without a trace of emotion that his brother had died, just two days ago. He ought to have been in mourning, even then… it looked like all the time Freak had spent with his brother had failed to make him anything more than a wild animal.

Kochai turned, then, and began to wander away to the north. What would she do now? She would go home, of course, but then what? Every strategy that had been attempted to turn the tide in the war of attrition had failed, utterly, because the Pride Landers were locked to one position but their enemies were not. Unless the rules of the engagement could be somehow changed, there was nothing she could do except for try to weather the storm, no matter how long it lasted. More cubs would have to be had, and the young ones would have to be prepared to live in fear of attack 24/7…

It wouldn't work. It definitely wouldn't work. Not for more than a year or two, anyway. The Pride Lands would have to be ceded, or everyone would die—and yet the Pride Lands could not be ceded at any costs.

It looked like death and defeat were both imminent.

But for the moment, Kochai could still walk with her head high, and so she did, for all of five minutes, before it all came crashing down on her.

She shut her eyes and walked with her head hung. The rain had stopped but the dampness under her eyes would not dry. Freak was gone, and with him, any chance of defeating the new evil that had emerged to threaten the Pride Lands.

"Kochai."

The voice was distant—no, no it wasn't. She was used to the wide open plains of the Pride Lands; the behavior of sound in the Jungle was something completely unfamiliar to her. She was being called, by someone perhaps a hundred yards behind her and getting closer every moment.

Supposing it was a hostile? She couldn't bring herself to care very much. Lethargically, as if the weight on her soul was attached to her body, as well, she turned around and watched as Freak's brother approached. His voice made him unmistakable, and so did his appearance—and yet he was moving with some sense of urgency, dampened significantly by some sort of injury on his right hind leg.

That confused her—and so her ears perked up, somewhat, as she waited for him to arrive.

He got to within twenty feet of her and then he stopped. He seemed confused, then, but she had no idea why—and then a moment later, he nodded.

"My brother doesn't speak very well. I'm here, Kochai… hurt. But I'm here—and I'm alive."

She looked at him very hard, for a moment. He wasn't smiling—but there was a warm recognition on his face that couldn't be faked, and there was an eloquence and affection in his voice that she had missed for years, yes, but never, ever forgotten. This was Freak—she was sure of it.

And so the Queen of the Pride Lands smiled, formally, and bowed her head briefly in courteous greeting of an equal or superior—not a subject.

"Big brother… it's been a long time."

She maintained formality for a moment longer before moving forward, crossing the distance between them in two rapid bounds and releasing on him all of the affection of the years. She hugged him, repeatedly, and although her affections were rarely reciprocated, when they were, she was grateful—she expected nothing in return.

In the end, Freak reached forward and messed up Kochai's neat, sleek headfur. She didn't appreciate that, and nipped at his paw in a playful manner—it was then, it seemed, that the li-tigon noticed that she was no longer a small kitten that he could bat around with one appendage.

"You've grown," he said. "And by now—are you Queen?"

"Yes," the tigress said, quite proudly, "but do not worry, big brother. Uncle Simba is still very much alive."

"Is he." Freak noted that Nala was not included in Kochai's reassurance. He smiled, however, and continued to admire her. For a moment, he was really taken aback—Kochai had really grown, and changed, and blossomed over the years. Could the same be said for himself?... for a moment, he was unsure.

"So," Freak said briskly, "why are you here?" Before he finished speaking, he knew that it was nothing good. And so Kochai spoke honestly and without any sort of preface.

She explained what had been going on, over the past months. The attacks, the violence, and the loss of two of their youngest lionesses—and what struck her about it all was how calm and collected Freak was. It almost seemed like he was unsurprised by this news—like he was expecting it.

When Kochai had told her story, she simply fell silent and waited. Freak looked at her, for a moment, then nodded and turned away, apparently pondering something. It was a moment before he spoke.

"So… you want my brother and I to come back to the Pride Lands, to… find out what's going on."

"No, no," the tigress said quickly. "First, I want you to find out who's doing this—and then I want you to come home, big brother." She paused. "It's been a very long time, big brother. We need you—and you want to come back. You should never have left in the first place… you know that, big brother."

He did not deny her. At least, not at first.

"I already know who's responsible," the li-tigon said. "We made contact with him a year ago, in the Unexplored Regions… since then, we've been tracking him all over. Not just in the Land of the Spirits. You wouldn't believe—" He cut himself off, and simply smiled. Stories could wait until later—for now, there were important things that had to be done.

"So… you're coming home?" Kochai said that cautiously. She held back her happiness until Freak looked at her, looked away—and the nodded.

A great burden was lifted from her shoulders, at least partially. Justice and safety would come, soon—once Freak got back to the Pride Lands, it was only a matter of time before evil again met its end. After all, he was the sword of the Spirits—and he couldn't be defeated by anything, ever. That was just the nature of things, Kochai had come to believe.

"Can we leave immediately?" the tigress asked. "You and your brother and me, I mean. I don't know what's been going on at home…" She said that, and immediately fell into brooding, concerned silence. Looking down and to the side, she winced—and then shook her head. She was doing nothing by sitting there and worrying. She had to return—as soon as possible.

But Freak shook his head.

"You should go back immediately, Kochai. You never should have left—you're the Queen of the Pride Lands; your place is at Pride Rock. Wasn't there anyone else who could have been sent…?"

In response to that, the tigress simply shook her head. "I would have sent our youngest… but they were killed. We never found the bodies," she said quietly, "so do not ask me about them, big brother. It's a new custom… we do not discuss the missing dead. Why won't you come now?"

There was a sparkle in Freak's eye at that—or so Kochai thought. She blinked and a second later it was gone, and Freak was nodding his head respectfully.

"I understand. And there are… still some things I need to do here, to prepare to go." He thought, briefly—he looked up and saw that it was raining, again, and so he moved forward and nudged Kochai until they both found cover near a particularly thick group of trees some yards to the west.

There was peace, then, in that quiet sanctuary. Fat drops of water slid down the leaves all around the two felines, but they were not touched—Freak circled the perimeter, for a moment, and Kochai couldn't help but watch him. He was older, yes, but it didn't show—he was strong and fast and tough as nails and although it was clear that he was the veteran of a thousand battles, it was less clear that he was reaching the end of the prime of his life, if he wasn't beyond that already.

But then again, Kochai realized, Freak was no a lion, and he was not a tiger. Who knew how long Freak's prime would last—who knew how long he would live? After all, he didn't look a day older than he did when Kochai had met him, so, so long ago.

"Are you… single, Kochai?" Freak asked that without really facing the tigress—he spoke over his shoulder as an afterthought, although it was clear that he was quite interested in her answer.

"No," she said, blushing somewhat. "Why do you ask in such a way? I'm not a cub anymore, big brother. I don't need your approval to date."

"I know."

He turned to her fully, this time, and smiled—for some reason, however, he continued to pace at the edge of the dry area they'd found—was he waiting for his brother? It seemed like that, although Kochai had no idea how the other li-tigon knew to come, or even where Freak was. She tried not to think about it too much—everything about Freak was mysterious; that much was true and would always be true.

"Are you a mother?"

This time, Kochai did not blush. She nodded and smiled, and answered proudly.

"Yes, big brother. I had two sons and one daughter… I cannot wait for you to meet them. Big brother… I can't wait for you to train them. They're beautiful, and powerful, big brother. They're also already very big… by the time they're grown, they'll be… much bigger than me, big brother. Much bigger than you."

Freak continued to pace, but only after facing Kochai for a full ten seconds, freezing—and smiling broadly at her. He shook his mane out, then, and looked into the distance… but no one was there. Not yet.

"Tell me about them. And their father—who is their father?"

"Swafi… you may not remember him, big brother. He's—"

"—the youngest Nomad," Freak said. "I remember. He's not that big—where do the kids get it from?"

"I'm not sure," Kochai admitted. "But you must meet them, big brother. Taj, Kahn, and Kiara… they're all looking forward to meeting you, big brother."

"They sound beautiful," the li-tigon said. Now, he stopped pacing—and jerked his head. A moment later, Kochai joined him just inches from where rain would soak them both, and sat, and looked into the distance. She saw nothing, not even when she traced Freak's gaze toward some point to the southeast.

"Beautiful."

Freak's brother appeared, then, walking out of the forest and its shadows. His presence, like Freak's, was almost overwhelming—but it was only a second before Kochai saw that he wasn't alone.

"Samarra? Nasari? You, here? Alive?"

By the time Kochai's shock had worn off, the two young lionesses were close enough that she didn't get too too wet by racing out of the dry area to greet them. She laughed, then, and cried a little as well. These two young ones—they had been her protégés, her younger sisters. When they had vanished… she'd mourned for a week. But they were alive, it seemed—and well. How it had happened, Kochai didn't know, but for now, she didn't have the presence of mind to ask.

Soon, however, she was starting to get soaked again—and so she ushered the two younger females back into the dry area, still nuzzling them and examining them, closely, seeing how they had changed and grown in the months that had passed. Once she was back with Freak again, she nuzzled him too—he and his brother must have rescued them, or at least taken them in after their enemies had dragged them out of the Pride Lands.

"Why didn't you come back?" Kochai asked, turning to the young Pride Landers again. "Why didn't you…"

She fell silent, then. There was no verbal answer, but Nasari was standing next to Freak—and she was standing next to him just so. Their shoulders touched, and the way she moved… it was like she was the Moon and Freak was the Earth. There was a force between then, it seemed, that brought her to him and centered her motions around him, and, indeed, Freak was reciprocally affected.

"Big brother… you're… with Nasari?"

Freak nodded. His expression was not grim, but it was serious. In the same moment, Nasari leaned up and rubbed the smooth bluntness of her snout under the li-tigon's muzzle—and in that moment, Kochai saw the nameless but deep, powerful bonds that connected them. Did they love one another? This question couldn't be answered, not yet—but they did require one another in a manner that Kochai understood very well, because she and her mate had the same connection.

She turned around, then, and saw Freak's brother and Samarra—they were walking back, together—yes, exactly that—together. Kochai looked between them, and Freak and Nasari—and then she just smiled.

"I never imagined this, big brother. You and Nasari; your brother and Samarra… I'm so happy for you all. Congratulations. I—"

Kochai stopped midword, then, and looked carefully into the distance. She swore she saw something, then—but now, it must have just been a trick of the light, off in the distance. She wasn't used to being in the Jungle, after all, and what she thought she'd seen was hundreds of yards away. It was just a trick of the light.

The tigress shook her head, then, and turned back to Freak. Still, her ears were focused on that distant point, where she'd—where she hadn't seen anything at all. She tried to calm herself by smiling, and then spoke again.

"Now can we leave?"

This time, Freak nodded—but he looked to Nasari and spoke in a tone so gentle that Kochai wondered if she was really hearing it.

"You'll have to stay here," the li-tigon said. "With Samarra. You won't be alone for long… once we get back to the Pride Lands, you will be reinforced. I'll send some strong lionesses back—and all of the cubs. Soon, things at home will get violent… it won't be a good place for young ones or new mothers."

There was an implication, there, that Kochai didn't pick up on for a moment. When she did, though, she gasped, and stared—she didn't speak, however, and just tried to imagine—Freak, and Nasari…? How…? Was that even possible?

Nasari didn't protest what she'd been told. She simply said goodbye to Freak, then, by touching her cheek against his for a moment—and sadly standing back as he began to move away. Some yards away, a similar farewell was executed between Freak's brother and Samarra—and then, the two li-tigons moved to the north.

Kochai hurried to catch up, then, and for a moment, she just looked at Freak as they walked along. But Freak's eyes were locked forward, toward the Pride Lands—and so she said nothing, nothing at all. He and his brother had said their goodbyes—just two goodbyes, no more.

"Have things changed in the Pride Lands?" Freak asked. He seemed very interested, but there was an almost purposeful manner in which he was walking forward, like there was something he knew or that he was preparing to do that he hadn't told Kochai about.

In response, of course, she looked at him, and then all around—but there was nothing there. Nothing and no one apart from the forest and the rain, constantly flowing, trickling, pouring down onto the treetops and themselves below. The moistness in the air was almost palatable—she didn't like the feeling at all, as it would doubtlessly ruin all the careful effort she'd put into straightening her fur.

"They're much better, big brother," she finally answered. "It took a long time… but we planted some grasslands. And there are trees, big brother—you should see them. They're much bigger than they used to be. The herds have returned, big brother… they're probably staying in the northeast even now, to avoid these terrible rains. Big brother—what are you doing? Is there something wrong?"

Freak had dropped into a low, defensive posture, even as he continued to move forward. It was like he was stalking something—something powerful and dangerous and twice his size, although there was no chance—no chance at all—that such a thing existed, much less in their immediate vicinity. And yet, what could Kochai do but prepare to fight herself? She bared her teeth, halfway, and checked the vicinity, repeatedly, but there was nothing.

A heartbeat later, Freak started to run—and so did his brother. At first, Kochai did as well—but she checked behind them and saw nothing. So, she stopped, after peeling off to the side and standing up, erect, a pale sentinel in the dark forest—and watched as the two li-tigons struck not one, nor two, nor three, but four distinct figures.

Their faces and bodies were shadowed from Kochai, but she felt something hold her back from a violent reaction, even as the two large males were forced to the ground. She watched, then, as mocked combat quickly broke into nothing more than the affection she received regularly in the Pride Lands, the same affection that she had regularly given to Freak the last time they'd been together.

Freak was laughing by then. So was his brother. Kochai was still standing back in shocked silence, even as the intensity of the rainfall increased to the point that she'd be soaked thoroughly, through her fur, if she didn't get to cover soon. She just watched the scene, highlighted among the deep green of the plantlife and the dark brown of the earth and the slate gray of the rock that Freak had been born and raised in.

The Queen of the Pride Lands had seen and experienced a lot in her life—almost as much as Freak himself had in some ways, and a good deal more in other ways. Nothing could have prepared her for this, though. And so when her lips moved, then, she didn't speak in a tone of any certainty at all.

Kochai's muzzle parted. The dappled orange rust that dusted her ruff shifted over her muscles as she breathed in, tentatively, then tilted her head to murmur a single word almost as unbelievable as what she was seeing itself.

"Li-li-tigons…"

Tanga and Roderik were both alive. Tanga's age, by then, was fairly impressive—and it wasn't like he was immobile or weak, not at all. He ignored well-intended and probably wise advice to rest and went on patrols on a daily basis, often by himself. He liked the solitude, liked the ability to go around in the Pride Lands without worrying about pleasing some master a thousand miles away with interests apart from his own—he only worked for himself and his family, and he had plenty of time to think about it.

Roderik, of course, was always there to challenge any conclusions, any ideas that Tanga came to. They debated every few days, when they had the time. At first, Simba had been the only one to regularly listen to the clash of ideas, but soon, Akane and Aoi had joined him. Then their cubs had—and then the former Nomads and Desert Warriors had. And, in time, everyone who could did listen to the two old lions battle it out.

Recently, Tanga had adopted a skeptical viewpoint on things. Kochai had jokingly compared him to her own late, devoutly atheistic father, although Tanga claimed to still be a believer—at least, mostly. He rarely questioned the power, divinity, and motives of the Spirits—even since the war had long passed from present to past, that line of thought was taboo.

But he had thrown out almost all leaps of faith regarding the laws of nature, metaphysics, and any number of other things. He hadn't spoken to Freak after the li-tigon's stunning defeat of the Master of darkness—like everyone, he didn't know anything about that final showdown, so he didn't have a number of counter-phenomena to back up his central claim that, really, there were no constants in the universe—none at all… well, except for one.

That's what had him up early, the morning after Kochai had left. He was alone, at the peak of Pride Rock, peering out over the lands at the Sun itself, as, slowly, it began to creep over the horizon. Inch by inch, degree by degree, its rays pierced space and atmosphere before bringing heat, light, and life to the land.

It was an inspiring view, and a curious one, too—because every single day it was repeated without fail and without delay.

"Yes, it's there, all right."

Tanga turned not to see that it was Roderik, but to acknowledge the other lion's presence. He smiled as his friend walked forward, tired, a little shaky, but with strength and confidence—old age and all of its pitfalls couldn't be held at bay forever, but that was no reason for Roderik to fail to enjoy what life he had left in him.

"Roderik, it's nice to see you," Tanga replied. "But I was just watching a beautiful sunrise. Sometimes, my friend, a cigar is just a cigar."

"Indeed," the old lion parried, "but a skeptic is a skeptic is always a skeptic." He would have said more, then, but he was now at Tanga's side—now, he too was able to see the same view that the former assassin was as well, and that made him fall silent very quickly.

They were left alone, then, for quite some time. Simba wasn't a morning feline—never had been, never would be. Kochai and those in her generation similarly preferred their beauty sleep to seeing admittedly awesome sights that could be seen again, any day, at will.

The two old lions were motionless for several long moments. In the end, it was Roderik that had to get up and pace, just a little, to warm up his cold joints. "Arthritis," he said, grimacing once when Tanga looked over to him in concern. "Getting old isn't all fun and games, Tanga. There is a price to pay for all good things…"

Tanga chuckled at that, idly, but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. By then, the Sun was getting too bright to directly look at—but while he could, the old lion stood his ground and kept watching.

"The Spirits exist," he said, after finally turning away and facing his friend. "They exist. It's difficult to fit that fact into my worldview, but they exist—I admit it. But take your victories while you can, old man—because I'm not willing to concede anything more than that."

"So you still won't tell me what gives the Spirits power, then? Or what the cause of the universe itself is?"

"I'm working on that."

The two lions grinned, then—and in his mind, Tanga had to accept that, indeed, he was skeptical to the core—almost to a fault. But after another moment, Tanga turned away again. This time, he looked to the lands themselves, not the source of their energy. Overlaid across the sprawling plains and forests of the Pride Lands was the Pride Lands years ago, at the dark time immediately following the war when only death and darkness had existed. Things had changed, rapidly, and if he hadn't been around to observe those changes, every step of the way—well, then, he would have been skeptical of them as well.

"I won't question the Spirits anymore," Tanga finally said. "But… I can't accept that they are the highest truths, that they are the highest Gods… can't do that anymore. I think that the highest Gods are those that are self-evident."

He looked at Roderik—and Roderik seemed confused, so Tanga continued, after facing the land below them again.

"When we stop focusing so much on the Gods in the sky, perhaps we can focus more on the God within each of us. God… is within us. God is within nature. And nature will always grow… that's the force of all life… its purpose is to grow."

At first, what Tanga was saying didn't make sense. But as Roderik looked on, he saw a vision similar to what Tanga did.

The Pride Lands had gone from death and decay to life and prosperity in less than a generation. Kochai herself had gone from being a confused foreigner to the Queen of the Pride Lands… and then, there was Freak himself.

Born into misery and darkness, he had spent life in an eternal struggle either against himself or against more blatant foes. He had been exiled and thousands of different actors had made attempts on his life, and he had never, ever found true love or companionship, except for in a being whose lot was even worse off than his.

And yet, he had not only lived but he had thrived. He had done his duties, as a son of the Spirits and the Lion King and he had almost never forgotten about morality in his life. His existence as it was was a testament to what Tanga was saying… and Roderik couldn't evade that even after a full ten seconds of consideration.

The two old ones looked to the south, then—someone was approaching, or a group of someones. At first, they felt concerned and prepared to rally up a defense—but then, they looked carefully and saw the unmistakable blend of white and orange of Kochai's fur. She was to one side of a group of three, and the others…

"Maybe you're right, Tanga," Roderik mouthed. He held his gaze on the approaching felines, for a moment, before glancing at the sky for a moment. The Spirits were there, he felt them—but then he tried and indeed felt Spirits everywhere, all around him—within him, too.

Life was hardship. But life was also victory, satisfaction, pleasure, and love. All who lived—even Freak—had experienced not just bits and pieces of life, but the whole range of emotions, both positive and negative, that entailed living. At times, it was hard for him and many others to see what the purpose of it all was, to see why they had to keep fighting—but he had never given up, and his last lesson had been to tell everyone else to live in the same way—to live.

"The purpose of all life, the nature of things," Roderik said, "is to grow. It's just to grow…"

Kochai and Freak and his brother were a ways off, then, despite how quickly their approach was. Both Roderik and Tanga were looking directly at them—and so they saw the two brothers and their own Queen move just a heartbeat before a roar as defiant as it was magnificent pierced the air.

In seconds, the old lions were not alone. The Pride Landers—all of them—formed up at the edge of Pride Rock, knowing, by instinct, precisely who had come and where they were coming from. And so the reciprocal roar, then, was nearly as impressive as the original.

All of them stood rigidly straight as Kochai, Freak, and his brother continued to approach Pride Rock. It might take time for them to arrive, and it might take longer still for them to accomplish the goals that had been set out for them. But there was no urgency, then—there was just a strange sense of certainty. It wasn't that the fate of the Pride Lands had been set, not by a long shot—but the nature of those that lived there always had been.

Freak. Freak's brother. Kochai.

Simba. Tanga. Roderik. Akane. Aoi. Msaka. Shindani. Adhabu. Usiku. Swafi—and behind him, three young faces happy to see their mother returning with the uncles they'd heard about their whole lives but never seen. There were others, too, less memorable but every bit as alive and proud as their fellows—they stood there, tall and strong, hopeful, thoughtful, determined, and ever ready to fight to protect what was theirs. The heat and light of the early Sun struck their bodies and made them glow, as if in glory, as the world began to wake up around them.

They had all grown, over the years, and so had Freak. By then, he and his brother were close enough that eye contact could be made… and when it did, it did not break.

Time changed things, and people too. But the nature of life dictated that it always went on. Even the end of Freak was simply another beginning…