Oh, sweet. Underline function works now. Nice.

Yeah, anyway, I was inspired to finish this up tonight, mostly because the chapter I posted earlier today has already gotten me more total story hits today than on any other single day since I've joined the site. Which is, y'know, kind of insane. So here's your reward for making me feel important. Yay.


Chapter 5: Small Talk

Bored. I am bored. Bored bored bored bored. I am bored. Bored am I. Am I bored?

Yes. I am bored. I am bored out of my freaking mind.

For the hundred-thousandth time, Simba shifted his head enough to look outside. His hind legs splayed behind him, his forelegs laid flat along his sides, and his chin resting lazily on the ground, he made a fairly respectable image of a lump of elephant fat. A lump of elephant fat that was cold. And hungry. And bored.

With a sigh that he'd nearly worn out after the dozens of times he'd used it, Simba let his eyes drop back to the ground again. He'd spent a lot of time staring at this ground today, hadn't he? This particular spot of ground. Not a lot going on around this particular spot of ground, though. A leaf here, a tiny blue bug there…yep, pretty much plain old ground. And he'd been staring at it, all right. All morning long. Because he couldn't look at the ground ten feet in front of him, because that ground was outside. And he couldn't go outside, because…

Shoot. Because…

Well, the point was, he couldn't go outside. Nala had told him so. But he couldn't do anything in here either. And that was just it, wasn't it? It wasn't really the fact that he was stuck in here that bothered him; he'd spent enough time running around from dawn to dusk to dawn again taking care of all the daily little screwups that came with being king to appreciate the few moments he got to just lie around and do nothing. But there was usually someone else there to do nothing with. Like Nala. Or Timon and Pumbaa. Even one of the other lionesses. They were fun to talk to sometimes. Especially because they were better than staring at the sunlit ground ten feet away and being bored bored bored bored bored.

screw it.

Simba got to his feet slowly, but surely. After stretching a bit and shaking the grit off his underbelly, he started padding forward, until he was right at the edge of the rim of sunlight that created an imaginary boundary between "stay here" and "don't go out there, where someone might see you". Let's be honest with ourselves here, he told himself. The place is deserted. Nala's off taking care of business with Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa are out eating something, Nafasi and Changa are probably miles away and just as bored as I am, and the rest of the pride's probably hunting somewhere. There's no reason for me to stay cooped up in here.

He leaned forward, and his nose flashed in the sun. If I'm careful, he added as an afterthought. I'll be careful.

He stared cross-eyed at his nose for a little longer, then backed up again. Why did he feel guilty about leaving? He didn't use to. As a cub, he almost never did. And he was one now. Kind of.

Because of Nala, he thought. Because I don't want to stress her out anymore than I already have. And that was almost enough to turn him around and send him back to the rear of the cave, to stay there and stare at the ground for the rest of the day and all the ones following. But not quite. Not when his head was aching and his paws were tingling and it was just about the most beautiful day outside you could possibly imagine. Not a cloud in the sky, not a speck of dust in the air, and the wind was doing that thing where it was blowing just hard enough to cool you off if you needed it. Beautiful, perfect day. And here he was, wasting it.

Okay, so he was a cub. One whose existence, technically, no one else knew about. Well…no one had to know about him going outside, did they? Technically?

No, they didn't. He'd be careful, and he'd hide if anyone or anything got too close. And he'd come back in fifteen minutes. Just a quick walk out in the grasslands, and then right back inside. Yeah. That would be perfect.

Simba stuck his nose out one more time and inhaled. Nothing but the crisp, clean breeze and perhaps a distant scent of wildflowers wafted through his nose. "Good enough," he muttered under his breath. He glanced to the left, glanced to the right, and paused for a moment to give his conscience one last chance to object. It didn't.

Well, all right, then. Fifteen minutes.

His first step was tentative, as if the rock beneath his paws was laced with hidden traps and spikes. He let his mind drift off for a bit imagining how awesome it would be if they were hidden traps and spikes all around Pride Rock, and then got back to the business of making sure no one else was around. The wildflowers smelled a bit stronger now, but they were bound to now that he was actually outside the den and the wind had picked up. And other than that wind picking up, there wasn't a sound to be heard.

This is gonna be…

He stopped himself just in time. Don't say it, he thought, making his voice as loud as possible inside his head. You know what'll happen. You'll say, this is gonna…well, yeah. And then somebody'll show up and it won't be easy anymore. This is how the world works. Because…I don't know. Just don't say it.

So he didn't. He padded out silently into the grasslands and took a leisurely stroll around the perimeter of Pride Rock, never speaking a word aloud and jumping into the foliage every time he even thought he heard something. He tried to focus on enjoying his fleeting visit with the world at large like he usually would, but the more he walked, the harder it was to ignore how high the peak of the grassline craned above his head, how the pebbles he used to not even notice was big enough to stub a toe on now. The past day or so had been full of moments like this, where for just a second or two he forgot what had happened to him. Forgot that he was officially fun-sized now. And it sucked.

Well, it did. There wasn't really any other way to say it. He'd even thought it when he was supposed to be this size, when it was part of nature's design. Being small sucked, and anyone who said otherwise was exactly like he had been: putting out a protective aura of overconfidence so that his desire to be bigger wouldn't burn brighter than the sun.

Simba was ten minutes into that particular train of thought when he realized that he was twenty minutes into his now admittedly somewhat irresponsible jaunt. His cheeks bulged out with the curse that jumped to the tip of his tongue, but to his credit he held it in and kept his silence. He did ratchet his pace up to a slightly noisy jog on his way back to Pride Rock, though.

And maybe that was what did it. Maybe he was making too much noise as he climbed back up the path leading around to the sick cave that his adult self was supposed to be passed out in. Maybe a small yellow outline against a monstrous sun-bleached brown one was more notable than a larger one would've been. Maybe he was just unlucky. But there was one thing he knew, and it was this: at no point, from the moment the first blades of grass tickled the pads of his paws to the second he reached the small flat clearing right outside the entrance to the cave, did he even think the words, "That was easy." So all those gods sitting up above waiting for him to tempt fate could go suck on a pair of ostrich eggs.

"Hey! What're you doing up here, little guy?"

Of course, that fact didn't make him any less screwed. But at least he wasn't giving some higher power the satisfaction of ensuring that he was screwed. Nope, this was completely, one hundred percent his fault. Great. That made it all much better.

Simba figured that turning around slowly like his instincts were instructing him to would only make the lioness who had caught him even more suspicious, so after a moment's pause to make sure his face was as innocent and stoic as possible, he craned his head back as if it were just a good friend with a quick question that was standing behind him. He imagined it was Nala behind him, actually, and that made a lot easier to fake being aloof. And as it turned out, this lioness even looked like her a little bit around the muzzle, so that helped too. Maybe if he could remember her name…

"You looking for your momma, little guy?" she said before he got a chance to think much beyond that. "She's probably still out on the hunt…can you tell me her name, sweetie?"

Simba had to remind himself of what he looked like to keep from laughing. He could only imagine how differently this lioness would be acting if she knew who he really was. Whoever she was. Come on, this couldn't be that hard to remember…well, at least that was one positive of being a runt. No one expected him to know everyone in the pride by name, as he most likely should have by now.

"Aw…little bit shy today, sweetie?"

Simba blinked. He hadn't ever answered her, had he? Well, disaster averted there, he supposed.

"Come on," the lioness continued, starting to pad towards him again. "Let's get you back to the nursery."

It occurred to Simba what was about to happen roughly a half second after it was too late to do anything about it. By the time he opened his mouth to protest, the lioness's teeth were closing around his neck and his legs were dangling uselessly beneath him. And the next thing he knew, he was being carried away by the nape of his neck, presumably to the nursery to be placed amongst the other cubs. Imagine, the king of Pride Rock completely at the mercy of one of his constituents. He would've commented on how ironic the whole situation was, if he hadn't been possessed by an increasingly strong desire to claw the throat out of whoever was stupid enough to be the first one to mention it.

Without any better idea of what to do, Simba relented and allowed this lioness to continue walking, with him still clamped in her jaws. He did his best not to squirm, partially because he was still trying to keep his focus on not giving away his true identity but mostly because he was rediscovering how it stung like all get out whenever he did. He'd always thought it was just his mother and father who kept so firm a grip when they picked them up…nope, it was everyone. Chalk up another point for the "being little blows" side of this affair.

Thankfully, the trip around Pride Rock to the nursery was a short one. Simba tried to get his legs under himself in time to make a smooth landing when the lioness set him down, but his forelegs were just slow enough to stand by and watch as he fell flat on his face. The lioness cooed and someone out of sight snickered, and Simba's face burned under his fur. But he wasn't quite ready to give this round up to karmic rebalance from the little middle-toe to the gods he'd just displayed a minute before, though. So he pushed himself back up quickly and calmly, a distinct air of "I totally meant to do that" dripping from his jowls.

"You okay there, honey?" the lioness said, her bottom lip quivering with a barely repressed giggle. Simba blew out a sigh and plastered on a tight-lipped grin, so she'd hopefully get the hint and stop talking.

"Aww, you're a tough little guy, aren't you?" she gushed with a shake of her head. "All right, you run along and play now. I'll be right over here if you need me, okay, sweetie?"

Simba debated whether or not to bother with a sarcastic response, but he decided against it on the grounds that she probably wouldn't pick up on that any more than she had his subtlety. There was also the added fact—as in, the one he had just remembered—that he was supposed to be a mute. Two very good reasons to shut up and play nice, he told himself.

Or at least, with her. The three young cubs staring at him were probably fair game. After all, it wasn't like they would know or care what Nala had told Nafasi. And if they did tell someone…well, no one would believe them. Probably. There was only one thing Simba knew for sure right now, and that was that he wasn't going to spend the rest of his day lying around in the nursery and not speaking to anyone. He'd already gone crazy enough from wasting his morning in the sick cave.

"Hi," he said casually. Coolly, said the little narrator in his mind.

"Hello," the cub closest to him replied stiffly. He was the largest and most likely the oldest, with golden-brown fur and a cocoa-colored tuft beginning to poke out over his sharp grey eyes. Behind him were another two cubs, a boy and a girl. Both looked a couple months younger than the first cub and had nearly identical blue eyes and tan fur. The only way Simba could even tell them apart was that the boy had a slightly larger tuft that hung over his brow a bit.

"Why are you here?" the older cub asked. He sounded suspicious, and the two cubs behind him matched his furrowed brow and curled lip almost perfectly.

"Well…" Simba began to reply before it occurred to him that he didn't have a clue what to say. What would a cub have been doing wandering out of the nursery? "Y'know, I was just…walking around, and I got caught." He put on a rebellious smirk and rolled his eyes for effect. "Ugh…grownups, right?"

"I meant, why are you here at Pride Rock?"

Okay. Totally wasn't prepared for that. Crap. "Uh…"

"Because you've never been around here before," the other cub continued. "And King Simba hasn't declared any new members of the pride or adjusted the hunting party, so you didn't come here with a rogue. So who are you?"

. "I was too here!" he argued back. "I just don't come over here much, that's all."

"Because?"

"Because…I get to stay in the den."

"All day?"

"Yeah."

"Because?"

"Because I'm…special. I don't know."

"You don't know if you're special?"

Gods, this cub was annoying. "Look, I asked my mom if I could just stay in the den while she was gone, and she said yes. And she didn't tell…whoever that was back there…"

"Kali."

"Yeah, whatever." Add that to the list of names I should've remembered. "My mom didn't tell Kali, so now I'm here."

The other cub's stare was still impressively blank. "Wow."

"Yep," Simba finished with what he thought was an equally impressive glare.

The other cub didn't move for another second or two, and then he gave a noncommittal shrug, as if asking Simba who he was and where he came from and what he had for breakfast the forty-second day of last year was simply not worth his time anymore. "All right," he said. Simba waited for him to introduce himself, and ten seconds later he clued in on the fact that the cub wasn't going to.

"All right," Simba repeated, taking the initiative for lack of any other ideas. "What's your name?"

"Akili," the cub said. "And they're Haraka and Baraka," he continued, as the pair behind him nodded in tandem. Simba couldn't help but notice that Akili didn't ask what his name was in return, which he found himself not minding as much as he might have normally. It saved him the trouble of having to make something up, at least.

But now came the difficult part: how the hell was he going to get out of here? Or barring that, how the hell could he stand another six hours in the company of Misanthrope Boy and the Siamese Twins here?

Just act like a cub. Do what a cub would do. Goof off.

With the fresh idea in his head still screaming to be acted upon, Simba crouched down low to the ground and put on a wild grin. "So, Akili," he drawled. "How fast are you?"

The only part of Akili's face that moved were his eyelids, the lashes flickering shut slowly and deliberately. "Fast in what way?" he said.

"You think you can outrun me?"

"I doubt I'll be inspired to try."

Simba's tail, unconsciously stuck high up in the air behind him, stopped in mid-twitch, but only for a moment. "Well, you don't have to be inspired…" he continued, shuffling around to Akili's left side and watching the cub's head swivel around to follow his progress. "All you have to do…is do it!"

Simba jumped forward, paws outstretched through Akili's flank. Tag, he thought, a spark of childlike glee weaving in between his ribs. You're i-

The space once occupied by Akili was now suddenly and inexplicably empty. Simba adjusted soon enough to avoid a second faceplant, but it wasn't until he got himself turned around again and his playful growl ended its brief life in the back of his throat that he realized what had happened. Namely, that Akili had casually stepped out of the way just as Simba had jumped at him.

Simba's eyes narrowed, and he pounced again. Once again, Akili stepped to the side, saying nothing but looking at him with a mildly curious but mostly lethargic expression, as if there was a particularly large bug crawling up the side of Simba's face and he was content to just see how long it took him to notice.

"What are you doing?" Simba asked, deciding to be confused for the time being rather than annoyed.

"Declining inclusion in your vacuous display."

To his credit, Simba only let his jaw hang open for a moment or two. Assuming a moment could last for about five seconds. "The…what?"

"I don't wish to be 'it'."

"So…you don't want to play tag?"

"That's what I just said."

Damn. There went his jaw again. "Well…what do you want to play?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"What do you mean, what do I mean by that? How do you guys play around here?"

Akili gave him a look, but like all his looks, it only had the slightest tinge of an emotion to it. This one looked a bit like sympathy. "By 'play', I assume you're referring to some sort of competition involving a lot of running around for the purpose of pursuing a series of arbitrary achievements?" he replied, with a condescending air to his tone that unlocked a primal sort of bloodlust in Simba's mind.

"Sure, what the hell," Simba answered back curtly.

Akili smiled, and Simba was suddenly struck by a mental image of the cub being slapped across the face by a goldish-brown paw that very much resembled his own. "In that case, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you again," he intoned. "You see, we don't exactly, as you say, play."

I'm sorry, I must have missed the meet-and-greet earlier, Simba wanted desperately to say. What planet is this, again?

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means we prefer to occupy our time with more refined activities," the cub, who was only a couple inches taller than Simba, explained. "I mean, cavorting about in mindless indulgence of hedonistic ideals…well, it's all rather childish, isn't it?"

"But…you are a child," Simba replied in an incredulous deadpan.

"Now, that's all quite relative, isn't it?" Akili countered. "Did Habari the Fourth's age keep him from leading the Highgrass Pride to victory at Mashamba Ya Siri?"

"Who did what now?"

"Oh, let's not waste our time with him, Akili," a new voice interjected. It was the twin on the left, the boy, Baraka. Or maybe Haraka. "He must be nine months old, and he doesn't even have the most rudimentary knowledge of provincial history."

"Oh, come on…it's not like it's really that important to know…" Simba muttered, unconsciously denying the fact that he probably should've known whatever it was they were talking about, judging by all the crash courses in diplomacy he'd been rushed through after Scar's fall.

"On the contrary, my friend," Akili chuckled. "Why, without the past we have no present, and without a through comprehension of previous-"

"Yeah, all right, I'm just gonna...stop you right there," Simba said loudly, having officially had it with this little prodigy. "You don't play. Got it. So what do you do for fun?"

Akili took the interruption in stride. "Well," he said, "this morning we were discussing classical religious doctrine in contrast with the larger metaphysical concepts of personal culpability and karmic rebalance."

Simba's jaw was more or less in a perpetual state of slackness by now. I'm dreaming, he thought. Or insane. Or both. Good gods above, I would really love to be both right now.

"We were going to move on to discussing the local sociopolitical state in light of King Uongo's collaboration with the Eastlands dingo packs, but someone wouldn't admit that polytheism is a pedantic and parochial pratice better suited to rogues and cattle than a cultivated and cultured pride such as this," Haraka (or Baraka) said bitingly. It was the same cub who had spoken before, in any case. The male one. Probably.

"And as I explained to you before, the gods existing as an concept is what ensures their persistence in our society," Akili argued back patiently, turning away from Simba entirely. "At the very least, faith in a collection of altruistic deities inspires the masses to act in accordance with those ideals the gods epitomize."

"But you're missing the greater picture of spiritual advancement! A prescribed set of ancient morals limits and conditions the leonine conscience to be a follower, not the leading force this territory requires it to be."

"Are you insinuating that our pride doesn't have a leader?"

"I'm saying that the one we have now doesn't seem to have the fortitude to make the necessary choices once they become apparent."

Later, when he had regained the ability to be honest with himself, Simba would admit that he didn't have even the faintest idea what the two cubs were talking about. But he could certainly remember the point where he started trying to figure it out; it was right around the time when they started talking about him.

"Oh, come now," Akili said, surprisingly taking on a defensive air. "It's highly impractical to judge King Simba on what you think he would do in a situation he hasn't encountered yet."

"Well, who else is going to think about it?" the twin argued back. Simba had by now completely given up on trying to piece together which one it was. "It's not like His Highness has spent any time considering the formation of a competent government or a decision on social policy. And don't even get me started on wartime strategy…"

"What about wartime strategy? With whom would we go to war?"

"I'm not talking about us going to war. I'm talking about war coming to us. The first year of a new king's reign is the most volatile scenario imaginable. If we aren't attacked by winter's end, he'll be the luckiest king in history."

"I don't think you're giving King Simba credit where it's due."

"For overthrowing Scar? A drunk monkey could've outmaneuvered that buffoon, and quite frankly I don't know why the one we have didn't bother to try. Simba isn't any worse than Scar, but he hasn't proven yet that he's any better either."

Suddenly, Simba's burning tongue couldn't be restrained anymore. "I'm not…" he began to say before he caught himself. "He's not as stupid as you think. And he's sure as hell better than Scar."

"And what can you say that can prove that?" the twin snarled back, his patience obviously taxed with the newcomer to the nursery.

"He let you stay here," Simba replied in a low tone. "He didn't leave you and your family out in the grasslands to starve. And he didn't have to murder someone to take the throne."

"Oh, so Scar's just roaming around the Pridelands right now, happy as a humbug?"

"You know it's not that simple. It was self-defense."

"Says who?"

"Says…"

Gods above, what was he doing? This was the second time he'd almost let his true identity slip…and in an argument with a nine-month-old cub. Granted, a nine-month-old cub with a mind like a cheetah, but still. He was supposed to be more mature than this. What was he doing besides proving this cub right about him? He might not know who he was talking to, but Simba did. And he knew better.

Can I just hit him once, though? No. Because that wouldn't be diplomatic. Damnit.

"That's right. Says Simba," the twin concluded with a derisive hiss.

The hell with diplomacy. Do you have any idea who you're talking to, you little jerkoff? Simba screamed inside his head, the words straining against the back of his throat. And as he glared at Baraka and tried to resist the urge to growl, he very nearly let them out, so it was probably lucky for all of them that the lioness who had forced Simba over here in the first place interrupted them at that exact moment.

"Boys! Play nice!" she called out, but without showing any indication of getting up and enforcing her order. Even if she had, by now Simba would've cut off his tail before being the first to back off, and by the looks of things his newfound rival was feeling much the same way. The searing chill in the twin's eyes only lessened, and even then only slightly, once Akili took charge.

"Let it go, Baraka," Akili said. Somehow, Simba was able to find a perverted sense of satisfaction in mistakenly having given the twin his sister's name in his mind. "You're grasping at reeds. Remember, the more you understand what you're talking about, the less you have to prove it to others."

Baraka only grumbled in reply, then stalked off. After a strangely prolonged glance in Simba's direction, his sister followed suit. Now it was just Akili and Simba alone in the nursery, with their lioness chaperone probably watching from afar. Meanwhile, he was still seething at a cub who'd probably just made several excellent points about his incompetency as king, and now he was alone with that cub's twice as smart and ten times as aggravating mentor and friend. Just the way he'd envisioned his day going.

"You'll have to forgive him," Akili said matter-of-factly, as if simply stating the patently asshole-ish nature of his friend made it all irrelevant. "He's got a bit too much confidence for his own good. As do we all, I suppose." He then turned to face Simba. "So, you were saying something about Scar?"

And that was that. Simba was officially done with interpersonal relations for the day. Quite possibly, the year. "Where are you going?" asked Akili as his king began to pad away.

"Just gonna go for a walk," Simba answered quickly, never turning around and never breaking his stride. "Far, far away from you," he muttered to himself soon after. Akili didn't pursue him; probably too busy contemplating the wonders of existential philosophy or some other incomprehensible intellispeak, thought Simba. Well, now his head was throbbing with all kinds of fun things like rage and confusion and an intense feeling of stupidity, and Akili would probably pick up on some subtle twitch in his left eye or something and figure out his name, age, and medical history within the hour. A walk out in the grasslands was sounding pretty damn heavenly right now.

Simba could feel the eyes of the lioness in charge zeroing in on his back the closer he got to the grassline. He was already plotting out a zigzagging path of escape through the foliage when he ran smack into a fuzzy, lion-shaped lump about his size.

Oh, gods in heaven, I'm going to have to beat this child…

"Ow…sorry…" the lump said. Simba blinked. That wasn't Baraka. That was…who the hell was that? It was another cub, that was for sure, a male with bright brown eyes and a yellowish-gold complexion that surprisingly looked a good deal like Simba's. Akili had been a little bigger than Simba and the twins had been a little smaller, but this cub was almost exactly his size. And he was staring at him.

"Wait, who are you?" the cub said somewhat bluntly. "Are you from another pride?"

"I'm nobody," Simba replied. "I'm just gonna go walk around now…"

"Nobody?" the cub interrupted as he stepped in front of Simba, his brow furrowed and his head cocked. "That's a weird name. Why do they call you that?"

Once again, Simba blinked. So not all of the cubs in his pride were geniuses. That was, somehow, a relief. "That's not my real…" Simba said. "That's not my name."

"Then what is it?"

"Sim…" Shit. "…ko. Pah. Kopa. Yeah, my name's Kopa."

"Simkopa…" the cub commented with a smirk. "That's not much better than 'nobody'."

"Oh, come on…"

"All right, all right, I'll call you Kopa…sheesh. I'm Chaka, by the way."

"Okay…hi, Chaka."

Chaka giggled. "Hi, Kopa," he said. "So where are you from, anyway?"

Simba eyed the golden-furred cub in front of him. He'd been on the defensive for pretty much his entire experience—he couldn't honestly call it a conversation—with Akili, so the barrage of questions from this new cub was raising more than a few alarm bells in his head. But Chaka's eyes were shining with nothing more dangerous than curiosity, and what seemed very much like just a naturally innocent friendliness. He reminded him so much of someone he was sure he'd met before, but he couldn't for the life of him remember who. It certainly wasn't any of the other cubs he'd encountered that day, though.

"We just got here a few days ago," Simba said. He figured that Chaka wasn't the type to be skeptical of his story, so he felt safe changing it up a bit from what he'd told Akili. "King Simba said we could stay, and my mom said I should make some friends, so I came over here."

"Wow…so you're from another pride?" Chaka asked with wide eyes. "That's so cool! Did you guys really eat your cubs if they weren't strong enough? Because that's what Nuka used to say other prides did before he went to the Outlands. I guess you weren't eaten, so you're probably pretty strong, right? 'Cause I'm pretty strong too. This one time, I pushed this giant rock into the watering hole and it made a humungous splash and everybody on the shore got soaked. It was awesome! Except my mom grounded me for a week and she had to eat a bunch of plants from Rafiki to make her stomach feel better, so I didn't do it again. That's my mom over there."

The cub turned away and pointed an oversized forepaw towards the lioness who had taken Simba over to the nursery. Once she noticed, she smiled and waved back at them. And for some reason, that was the point where Simba couldn't help but laugh.

"What's so funny?" Chaka asked, sounding more like he was disappointed that he wasn't in on the joke than bothered by the fact that he was more or less the punch line.

"It's just…" Simba said, trying to think of how to explain. "You're just so different from the other cubs, that's all."

Chaka's ears dropped, and he rolled his eyes. "Oh, you mean Akili?" he said. "Yeah, you looked like you were kinda dizzy when you ran into me. Akili's okay sometimes, but he always talks to you like you're not supposed to understand what he's saying. And Haraka's okay too, but she doesn't really ever talk to me. But Baraka's the one you gotta stay away from. He's so full of himself, I don't know how he's not fat as a…really fat elephant."

"Yeah, I kinda noticed that…" Simba added with a smirk. He was beginning to really like this cub, and not just because he could actually follow where their conversation was going.

"And it's not even like he's all that smart. He just uses a bunch of big words that Akili teaches him and acts like it makes him so awesome and, like, a genius and stuff. It wouldn't be so bad, except there's no one else to play with since Nuka left…"

There was that name again…and suddenly, Simba remembered what else Chaka had said about him. He went to the Outlands. Just the thought of the history behind that departure that Chaka didn't know about made Simba's paws clench and his stomach squish down away from his ribs. A whole third of what remained of his father's pride exiled because of their unyielding devotion to Scar…now that was an embarrassment Simba was quite content to avoid thinking about entirely. Especially since he was now being reminded of the fact that he'd sent their cubs off to the barren wastes of the Outlands with them. Of course, it was perfectly rational to disapprove of their loyalty to the lion who had murdered his father and very nearly him too, but the hatred he'd felt for them had kept him up during more than a few nights since. But Chaka didn't know that, and there was no reason he should have. The Outlanders could be agonized over another day. Right now, he had an identity to maintain.

"Well, I could play with you…" Simba suggested. He was honestly a bit surprised when he realized that he was kind of hoping Chaka would like the idea. Which he did.

"Really?" the cub nearly shouted, his cheeks splitting into a toothy grin that seemed to lift his entire face up an inch or two. "Wow, this is so cool! We can do all kinds of stuff, like go swimming and play tag and…hey, can I show you my hiding place over here? It's where I go when Baraka gets really annoying."

Once again, Chaka's happiness was contagious. "Yeah, sure," Simba said. "That'd be great." Now he was finally realizing something else that had been tugging at a few dangling strands of his conscience for the last little bit: of course he knew who Chaka reminded him of. Take away the difference in legitimate age, and the little guy was just about a perfect clone of himself. It was like talking to his younger self while occupying his younger self's body; it was a somewhat surreal feeling, but a fairly exhilarating one. Like he had a complete personality now, as opposed to the split halves he'd had to make do with before. And…well, he was kind of looking forward to playing tag again. The kind of tag he and Nala played nowadays usually ended a little bit differently than the version they'd followed as cubs…not that he minded that change, of course. Not one bit. But if Chaka was willing to unknowingly indulge him in a brief trip back through his childhood, then he wasn't going to stop him. Because hey, in his position he had to take whatever carefree moments he could get in stride. So if that involved hanging out with Chaka and goofing off for a few days…well, if there was anyone on Earth better at goofing off than Simba, he needed to get in on this too.

"All right!" Chaka beamed. "But first…" Thanks to the cub's complete and utter transparency, Simba had a second or two of warning for what Chaka was going to do, but it wasn't enough to dodge away from Chaka's swinging paw. "Tag! You're it!" Chaka shouted as he sprinted off, a giddy laugh echoing all around him the whole time. Simba found a playful growl rising in his own throat, and soon enough he was chasing right after him, without even a single corner of his mind thinking about the steadily growing list of ways his life had gone to heck on a rhino's back in the couple days. It was easy, just running with Chaka in the vast freedom of the open Pridelands; it was like being with Nala, except as they had been when they were just inseparable best friends. Back when everything was innocent. Back when nothing could ever go wrong. Back when they were cubs.

So for a few blissful hours in one blissful afternoon, Simba was able to act like a cub again. And for that same blissful period of time, he was able to forget the fact that he wasn't one.

• • •

The evening was already well underway by the time Simba and Chaka finally returned to Pride Rock, and the screeching songs of the crickets hidden away in the quickly extending shadows were no match for the lively, rambling conversation still going strong between the two like-sized lions. Simba hadn't felt this clearheaded since he had left the jungle, and while the perks of kingship quite often trumped those of Hakuna Matata—the latter of the two was, after all, the only one that required bachelorhood—spending the day with a cub young enough to still have a few fading spots lining the insides of his legs was proving to be much more relaxing than he ever would've expected.

Their day had certainly been a full one: Chaka had dragged Simba all across the Pridelands and back again, showing him weird rock after secret cave after ornery three-toed sloth that didn't like having his tree shaken by two manically laughing lion cubs. And after all of that activity, both of them were almost too exhausted to make it back home before moonrise, a fact that just gave Simba an inexplicable feeling of warmth and comfort inside his chest. He supposed it could just be all the accumulated stresses of the past six months and two days seeping out through his fur and dissipating into the midnight air, but he found himself preferring much more to think of it as just the knowledge that he'd found at least one other lion besides Nala who would make this thing he was going through bearable.

The journey home, however, brought forth a whole mess of conflicting emotions in Simba's mind, most of which were simple enough to have to do with reentering his old world of responsibility. The rest of them split time between the kind of bureaucratic nightmare far worse than the ones that only involved you giving a speech to a thousand listeners with all the fur on your back legs gone, and a different breed of excitement that centered around a cream-furred lioness with a wonderful smile and soft green eyes that practically glowed in the dark. That was what he tried to focus on now, and as it always did, thinking about Nala did wonders for his nerves. At the very least, he always told himself, he had her behind him. And now, he supposed he had Chaka too, in a matter of speaking. But Nala still took precedence. Nala was still his anchor in any storm he'd ever stumbled into and every future one he ever would.

He parted from Chaka once they reached the entrance to the den, after confirming that he'd be ready to go exploring again tomorrow at sunrise sharp. Once that was done, he started making his way up the winding path leading up to Pride Rock's summit, knowing that Nala was almost certainly up there waiting for him. His instincts didn't fail him; she was there all right, her fur bathed in the light in the luminescent crescent moon she faced and her ears curiously flattened just enough for it to be noticeable even in the dark. A touch of apprehension fluttered in Simba's stomach, and evolved into a swarm of concern once he lay down beside her and saw how red her eyes were around the edges. For a moment, he was paralyzed. Usually, whenever she was upset about something he would just pull her into a gentle embrace and hold her until the feelings had passed. But that sort of thing generally required the embracing partner to be at least in the same neighborhood in the matter of size. That was going to be a pretty big problem here.

"Hey, Nal," he whispered. Nala glanced over at him for a moment, but either couldn't keep his eyes in hers or just didn't want to. Regardless, he was officially terrified now.

"Nala, what's wrong?" he continued, keeping his hesitation out of his voice as much as he could. As the silence lengthened once more, he took her closest paw in both of his and squeezed. Her throat twinged horribly when she squeezed back with what felt like all her strength.

"Thought I told you to stay inside today," she murmured, still not looking at him. Simba could tell she was just stalling, but he answered her honestly anyway.

"I didn't mean to leave," he said. "I poked my head out and someone saw me. No one knows who I really am, if that…means anything."

Nala nodded vacantly, and this time gifted him with a strangely wide-eyed glance in his direction. Now she didn't look upset as much as she just looked scared.

After the longest pause of all, Nala cleared her throat, and that seemed to steady her somewhat. "I went to see Rafiki today," she said in a clear voice.

"Is he working on the antidote?" Simba couldn't help but ask.

"He's trying, but he hasn't had any breakthroughs yet."

"Okay…" Another gap in the conversation. "So was it for a checkup, or…"

"Yeah, he…wanted to see me about that anyway."

"How'd it go?"

"How'd it…yeah, fine. It went fine. Just, uh…there was one thing that he…"

Finally, she met his eyes. And Simba wasn't quite sure how, but the reason behind her distress was now all too clear.

"You're pregnant," he said.

"I'm pregnant," she confirmed with what looked and sounded like a wince.

Both lions blew out a long, heavy sigh, and with good reason: Simba felt as though he'd just been flattened under a thousand-pound boulder. And the funny thing was, there was a part of him that wanted to just scream with happiness. He was going to be a father!

Yeah. But he'd also be the size of a nine-month-old cub. And the cub might be his child, but he could never be their father. Not like this. And Nala knew that.

"I thought I'd be happy," Nala whispered suddenly. The tears Simba hadn't witnessed before were returning again.

"Maybe we still can be," Simba countered, though even he thought it was a weak attempt. "I mean, Rafiki'll fix…this, and then we can just live out a normal life together…"

Nala tried to smile. She really did, and Simba could tell just from how forceful the tremble in her lips was. But soon enough, her face fell and she looked away again. And with that, another horrible truth sunk deep into Simba's throat: without physical contact, he didn't even know how to talk to her about it. He didn't know how to talk to his own mate.

Well, what did that mean? If he were normal-sized, if none of this had ever happened, there would be no need to do without it. Whispering to one another in the privacy of each other's forelegs was natural. It was what lovers were supposed to do. But with that out of the picture, what was there left? Had they ever had just a simple conversation? Had they ever relived that deep, binding friendship they'd had as cubs, something that was based on affection and not just passion? He knew they craved one another…but was that the same as being in love? Was it different?

No, he loved her. There was no question about that. He couldn't imagine spending another day of the rest of his life and anything beyond that without her. But he had always showed it with actions, not words. There was no action possible now. So he'd either have to learn, or watch her grow more and more distant until she was raising her children—their children—in the company of another pride. In the company of another lion. Gods above, he was almost sick just thinking about it.

"Hey," Simba murmured said. "I…"

And there was nothing. He'd had some idea about how he would reassure her that he was still happy that they could have this new adventure together, how we would promise to stay by her side in whatever form he so happened to be in. But he was empty. He didn't know what to say, or perhaps simply couldn't say it. And if there was any part of this whole ordeal that he knew he couldn't possibly bear, it was the look that flashed into his mate's eyes when he trailed off and fell silent before he hardly even began to speak. The look of despair, of hopelessness. Of someone who had already given up on being happy again.

They stayed on the summit for a few minutes longer, and then Nala got to her feet, mumbled something that sounded like "good night", and slipped away into the night. And a half-hour later, when Simba finally rose as well, he had only one singular thought trapped between his ears:

Please fix this, Rafiki. Please, please, please find a way to make us happy again.


Yeah, the ending. Sucked, I know, but you know how every comedy has one serious component to it? Well, this is that. The main focus is and will continue to be humor, but there will also be a significant amount of relational and personal development for Simba along the way as well. On a somewhat similar note, I'm somewhat embarrassed at how many of you guessed this "twist" before I put it in. Then again, I wasn't really meaning for it to be a tremendous surprise, so...whatever.

Two quick answers to anticipated FAQ's (read as: I'm going to tell you this regardless of whether you care or not): I took quite a bit of inspiration from other authors in the fandom for these last two chapters. Simba's body position at the beginning of this chapter is taken directly from Azdgari's avvie, which I've always loved for some reason, and those of you who've read Nielae's fantastic story Playing Favorites (seriously, read all of her stuff; she's awesome) probably recognized the name Lia from there. The character herself is completely original, but in a moment of laziness, I borrowed the name from that story. Thanks in advance for not hurting me, Nielae. :D

Secondly, the names Kopa and Chaka are just nods to the various names that Simba's retconned son(s) have taken on over the years. They don't mean anything special with regard to that particular bit of canon; they're just a bit of self-referential humor. That's all for now.