45 Decisions of the Will
Asuma sat there and argued with the Council.
"Go back," Calbain bellowed.
The prince lowered his head aggressively. I've thought too long about death- killing and then waiting to die- to find anything to live for.
"Tanga has every right to the throne," Asuma spat. "I'm not a leader. How many times do I have to say no? I'm dead. I want to stay dead."
They'd told Asuma that he was needed. Something was coming, something far worse than what the pride had already experienced, but so far, they'd refused to elaborate on the 'danger'. They told him to do it for his pride, to have faith, for everyone whose sun had set, and for everyone whose dawn had yet to come.
In Asuma's mind, he treated the Council lions like a collective whole, bent on testing him rather than helping him. His suspicions from earlier were confirmed when he recognized the face of the old rogue he'd chosen not to save from the hunter's trap. He didn't agonize, however, over whether or not the Council lion hated him for condemning him to death in the hole. In fact, that lion, who had called himself Otieno, seemed to be the calmest. But, Asuma already knew how the ordeal had made him feel. Disgust for the Council.
Why not intervene sooner?
Why put me through hell?
They could continue to argue, but it would only make his conviction stronger. He didn't see himself as the leader of Pride Rock. He didn't see himself with a mate and a family. He didn't see himself with his family again because he'd already caused them so much pain, and he didn't long for the burden of learning to forgive them for not being perfect.
"You must go back!" Calbain stood up and lashed his tail.
"Why do you refuse to be obedient?"
"Because I am tired. Imagine that I would be exhausted. You can't manipulate me like you did Natin... I actually feel sorry for him."
The others sat there with various levels of frustration on their faces while Calbain seethed. His chest heaved as he growled, "We do not manipulate. Natin acted on his own freewill, and he acted upon our request. Your sister wouldn't be alive if it weren't for us. I have never-"
"Calbain, hush," one of the lionesses interrupted.
Every eye went past Asuma and focused on someone behind him, and out of curiosity Asuma turned around.
His eyes widened when he saw his father.
No... Why is he here? Did they call him here?
Asuma quickly faced the Council once more.
"Kovu, please, sit down," the same lioness instructed.
Asuma kept his eyes forward as Kovu entered the stone clearing and sat down nearby. Out of the corner of his eyes, Asuma could see Kovu was keeping his head down. The dark-furred rogue only glanced up at the Council members once. Asuma heard another sound and looked over his shoulder quickly to see his aunt standing there in the shadows of the entrance. Vitani nodded to Asuma once, and he thought she had a small smirk on her face.
When Asuma turned back to the Council again, Calbain was addressing Kovu, as if he was demanding a proper punishment for some misdeed his cub had committed against him.
Calbain struggled to keep his voice calm. "Your son refuses to go back. I'm sure you have heard..."
Several Council members looked in Vitani's direction.
Asuma looked over his shoulder again. His aunt was gone.
"Why don't you want to go back?"
Kovu had spoken. Asuma turned his head slightly. He asked his father, "Did the lionesses kill you?" He hadn't really registered it when Mufasa had told him, but he didn't feel much about it now, either.
"Yes..." He then repeated calmly, "Why won't you go back?"
Asuma lifted his chin. "Because I don't want to."
Otieno spoke up, as if Asuma was unable to make his own decisions. "We can also offer your son the opportunity to change form in order to return to the land of the living," he told Kovu.
Asuma narrowed his eyes.
"'Change form'?" Kovu repeated, bemused.
Asuma rolled his eyes and asked, "Meaning...?"
One of the lionesses replied, "We offer you the opportunity to be reborn."
"Like a second life," Asuma replied bluntly.
"Yes. You could have the power you've always wanted. The strength you never had. You could start new, though others would keep for you the knowledge you have gained if you need it."
Furious, Asuma frowned.
So this life would just be one giant waste?
"Your father now ceases to exist. You'd have a new one-"
"That doesn't matter!" Through gritted teeth, Asuma hissed, "You can't tempt me. Just let me die. I've had enough. I've been through enough. All I've ever wanted is to be sure of myself... to not be lost. Let me have this!"
"You must see past your own selfishness and think of your pride!"
"I know myself, and I know I am not a leader." Asuma growled. "The most important thing I've done in my life is help Tanga escape... and refuse to let you resurrect me."
"Tanga is not prepared. Our guidance will be important, but she lacks a belief in us."
Asuma narrowed his eyes. "So what? Are you scared her lack of belief will lead others to not believe? That she'll make the wrong decisions- her decisions?"
They were silent.
Asuma wanted badly to laugh, but this was not a time to relax his restraint. "Will you stop communicating through the Pride Land shamans? No, you won't. And who is to say that one day she won't believe there is something beyond the stars? Won't she know what you did to Natin? That miracle?" He narrowed his eyes. "If you send me back against my will, I will tell everyone that you are callous, fearful, and superstitious. You hardly deserve my respect since you have none for me."
Calbain's jaw clenched and unclenched.
One of the lionesses kneaded the ground with her paws.
Another lioness's entire body shook slightly.
Asuma opened his mouth to continue, but his father beat him to it.
Kovu blurted, "Tanga's learning, and she can learn to respect and believe in you. Just be patient. Give her time."
Calbain ignored Kovu and glared at Asuma. "You do not know what you are doing by refusing to return."
"Well, it's just unfortunate that I don't know, right?" Asuma replied coldly.
The Council members looked at each other, disgruntled, their mouths pursed.
Asuma analyzed their faces. He cocked his head to the side. "What are you so afraid of... or who? Are you afraid of my sister? You can't seem to accept her."
"We don't fear Tanga," Otieno said before he turned his head. His companions glared at him, which only made him lift his chin and throw back his shoulders.
"Silence, Otieno," Calbain spat. His eyes flashed a couple times at Asuma, and he shifted his weight. "What-are-you-doing?"
"He should know." Otieno then dropped his voice to barely a whisper. Asuma craned his neck slightly and made out from the lion's lips, "Everything is in line."
"What's in line?" Asuma asked. His heartbeat quickened.
Ignoring Calbain, Otieno replied, "Your sister… she will have a cub. Worse than Scar. Worse than Zira."
Calbain and the others looked down and shook their heads in exasperation.
Kovu spoke up, "Worse than Fola? Or me?"
Otieno's eyes darkened and lost a little of their focus as if he were looking into the future. He nodded slowly. He said quietly, "Yes."
Nobody spoke. Asuma sat there, horrified. His chest felt heavy and he couldn't help it when his breath caught in his throat.
Why should Tanga to be tortured further? She doesn't deserve to carry on the destructive nature that lives in me and our father. She was supposed to live out the rest of her life in peace.
"Can't you just find a way to kill it before it-"
Calbain shook his head. "No. We cannot. We do not take life, even when faced with something like this." He looked down for once. "Believe me, we were tempted to break our code, but we just can't. It would alter everything that we have done or will do."
This has to be a trick. They have to be doing this to scare me into giving into their orders.
"Why don't you take a moment to discuss this 'trick' with your father, Asuma?" one of the lionesses suggested, her tone slightly bitter.
Asuma rolled his eyes and took a moment before turning his head to look at Kovu.
"Maybe... we should talk this over?" Kovu murmured.
Again, Asuma rolled his eyes, though he was relieved to have the chance to get away from the Council. "Fine," he relented.
Kovu nodded and led the way out of the meeting space. They were out of earshot when he began.
"Asuma... Maybe they're right, and-"
"No," Asuma cut his father off. "This has to be a trick. This is the worst thing that they could tell me, don't you agree?"
Kovu pursed his mouth.
"So you see it, too? Are you going to argue?" Asuma continued when Kovu did not speak. "Tanga is the true leader of the Pride Lands, not me. I can't play their game. What could I even do?"
"You might be able to do something that she wouldn't be able to do," Kovu said, his eyes growing sad and serious. "If her cub turns into us, I think this will devastate her..." He looked down and Asuma swore that tears were forming in the lion's eyes. "She was devastated by what I did to the family. By how you treated her, even if it was to save her life. I told her everything that I knew about you, including the dream that we shared."
"She understood," Kovu said. "But that doesn't take away the pain."
Asuma's eyes widened. The situation was sinking in a little more, digging and scratching at his resolve.
I can't abandon Tanga like this, can I? What if she still needs me, and instead of helping her, I let my pride get in the way?
"I was stupid to stick around for you, and I tried my best to help, but clearly you're beyond help... Waste your life like Natin, I don't care. It's your life, not mine. You'll never change."
She had wanted to share the burden of his problems- was this his chance to help her in turn?
"You're missing some pieces, Asuma," Kovu remarked quietly. "Be careful what you replace them with."
"I may be broken, but I'm more sure of myself than ever," he told his father, but then looked down at his paws.
"Asuma... Are you sure...? I know you must be suffering, and we couldn't have guessed what the Council has predicted. I understand that I'm the biggest reason why your sense of the world isn't what it should be. But... I don't think you can just shrug this off."
At any other moment in his life, Kovu's words would have insulted Asuma, running off his body and irritating him like a heavy rainstorm. But to his surprise, he heard the concern in Kovu's voice, and it made him think. When the thoughts started to roll, it felt to him as though he was back fighting off Fola and her lionesses.
Helping Tanga means obeying the creatures I have the least respect for... but what will be the cost if I stay here and refuse to take on the role they believe I am meant to fulfill, despite everything that they have seen from me? I am not strong... but maybe I can be strong enough for my sister...? Could I be? Could I be, even for her? What if I just make things worse, though?
"... You'll never change..." Again, Tanga's words echoed in his mind.
Kovu cleared his throat and Asuma looked up.
"Whatever your decision, Asuma..." Kovu told him calmly, "I will support you. I'm here for you, not them."
Asuma frowned. "Even if I don't help the pride?"
Kovu nodded. "Yes."
"Really. Because if I refuse... the pride will suffer."
Kovu closed his eyes and let out a breath. "Yes, Asuma." The rogue opened his eyes again. "I'll support you because you are my son."
Asuma narrowed his eyes. "What happened to you?" he asked. This wasn't the insane lion who'd tried to abandon him in the night, or the cowardly lion who'd run away after Natin's collapse. The pathetic little cub he'd wanted to crush in the dream they'd shared. For Asuma, the mention of support meant more than the apology he had been waiting to hear from Kovu. "You're... different," he said.
"I got my priorities straight," Kovu replied, "and I did what I could to make things right." He looked down at the ground. His eyebrows arched, and when he spoke, his voice shook. "I just wish the others had been able to get to you in time."
"It's better this way," Asuma said. "Trust me..." He looked down when he felt the words start to jump up his throat and onto his tongue. "I suppose... I suppose I should thank you... for warning me so I could help Tanga..." He sighed and muttered, "Though a whole lot of good that did her."
"Don't think that your sacrifice was worthless. Tanga is as strong as you think she is. She does have a chance, whether the Council believes she does or not."
Asuma looked back at his father. "I'm not worried about her being strong enough... I'm worried that, if I stay here, she'll have less of a chance..." He looked away. "Or if I do go... I could mess everything up again."
"I think you've learned-"
"I feel like I've learned nothing," Asuma interrupted. The muscles in his chest, neck and shoulders tightened.
"You have learned," Kovu insisted. "You are stronger than you think."
Asuma snorted, though he could feel the tears of frustration at the back of his eyes. He didn't want to look as weak as he felt. "I think... I would like a moment to think about this..."
Nodding, Kovu started to turn away. "Okay..." He paused, however, and turned back for a moment. "Asuma?"
"Yeah...?" He didn't look up.
"For what it's worth... You've never disappointed me. You're smart and brave."
Asuma looked up and met his father's eye. He recalled a conversation they'd had from the very back of his mind.
"My position in life doesn't make me who I am... You're calm and reasonable. You think things through. You can't compare yourself to Tanga and Natin, or you'll never learn to love yourself... as I do... It's better to forgive than to seek blood for blood. You get nowhere traveling in a circle of hate, Asuma. Hate blackens the soul and clouds your vision. The only way to move on is..."
"You need to forgive yourself, Asuma," Kovu finished. He then turned and walked back to where the Council was gathered.
Asuma sat there and sighed. He clenched his eyes shut tight. To really get close enough to his true feelings was difficult since it also meant knowing what everything he had done amounted to...The real question was whether or not he would be able to live with himself for eternity amid his fears and anger. Here he was, up against the very great difficulty of knowing how he exactly felt about helping Tanga versus obeying the Council. In the forefront of his mind, he was disturbed by what the Council had done so far- also by what they hadn't done- but deeper down he still suffered. His sister had tried to help him, and he had done nothing to let her in, to reveal what he was.
There's no cure for what I have... nothing on the outside that could reach in and pull the good back out. Is that the key? I really am the only one who can help myself...
"And I have to help Tanga, too," Asuma said to himself, almost breathless.
He opened his eyes and thought for a moment.
"I can't forgive myself if I don't help her..." He paused to think again.
And I think I have a plan.
Asuma returned to the clearing where the Council members sat with their heads lowered. Some of them looked up as Asuma sat down next to Kovu.
Asuma looked up at Calbain, who glared back at him.
Calbain's voice carried a hint of exhaustion. "Your decision, Asuma?"
Asuma glanced at the ground before he looked Calbain in the eye. "I... Yes, I will return."
Moving his ears as if he hadn't heard correctly, Calbain blinked. One of the lionesses let out a small sigh of relief.
Asuma continued, forcing the words out. "But, I won't return to my own body." He paused and swallowed a bit. "I request... I request to be born with the cub you say Tanga will have."
A murmur went through the Council.
"Maybe I'll be the sibling who doesn't fail or destroy."
Though he no longer looked angry, Calbain's expression was unreadable. He nodded. "Very well."
Asuma's paws itched, and he felt like he needed air. Without hesitation, he gave the lions a brief nod before he stood up, turned around, and walked towards the exit. Asuma felt everyone's eyes on his back, but he didn't care.
In the end, I only care that Tanga has a chance at keeping her sanity.
A tired frown tugged down the corners of Kovu's mouth. He lifted his muzzle and breathed in deeply the crisp, clean air. It was early morning in the land of the dead. Feeling somewhat relieved, but also guilty, he wandered out of the monstrosity the Council lions called their home and looked around. His nails clicked softly on the stone ground. Nobody was in sight. No Asuma. No Vitani. With only eternity ahead of him, Kovu sat down at the top of the steps. The Council had said that he would come back later to hear what they had planned for him. He wondered what punishment they would give him. He was a wildebeest getting ready to cross a crocodile-filled river, vulnerable but determined to reach the end of his journey. He just had to wonder if persuading Asuma to continue his journey had been for the best.
Did I do too good a job of convincing Asuma to go back?" he thought. Did I do it for him, or did I do it for the Council? Will he be able to do to help Tanga and stop the disaster hidden over the horizon?
Asuma wanted to become his sister's son... Kovu had no idea what to think about that... though he hoped that whoever Asuma's father was to be would treat Asuma better.
Whoever that will be...
Kovu looked up when he heard someone clear his throat. He expected to see Asuma but instead-
"S-Simba!" Kovu's eyes widened. He nearly fell over.
The golden-furred lion, the one he had condemned to death, gave him a very slight half-smile. "Vitani and my father said you would be here."
"And you came?" Kovu blinked in surprise.
Simba glanced up at the clear sky. "Well, we're both going to be here for a long time," he said before looking at Kovu again. "They thought I should come talk to you."
Guiltily, Kovu looked down. He hadn't expected Simba to talk to him. "I don't know how the Council will punish me yet, if that's what you want."
Simba sat down and sighed. "No... that's not why I came," Simba said. "I... I actually have no idea why I really came."
Kovu looked up again and raised an eyebrow at Simba for a moment. He then looked away and heaved a breath as well. An apology started to form on his tongue- the words just came automatically now that he had said he was sorry to Chaka, Kiara, Tanga, and Asuma.
I'm dead and the apologies will still have to keep coming.
"Simba... I..." At first, the words stuck to his tongue like hairs that had come loose during grooming. "I'm sorry, Simba, that I-I... I let my hatred for Zira get the best of me. I got so angry and I let my fear get in the way, and I wanted to show you that I wasn't her or Scar, but I didn't want to show you who I really was by killing her myself- I should have done more to reach out to you and Kiara instead of tricking you. Nothing was the same after that-"
"And I just kept lying and-"
"Kovu, stop for a mom-"
"And I'm sorry that I killed you, Simba. I hurt my family- You're family-"
"Simba, I-" Kovu looked at the father-like lion he'd betrayed, and blinked. "What?" He cringed a bit while he searched Simba's face. "You don't have to accept my apology, but please just listen to-"
"Kovu," Simba interrupted again. "Stop for a moment."
Swallowing, Kovu sat there. "Sorry."
"I know you're sorry."
Kovu felt his cheeks flush. He looked away and muttered, "I meant sorry for rambling... But, I'm sorry... in general, too."
To put it briefly...
There was a pause before Simba spoke again. "Why don't we take a walk?" he suggested. He gestured down the steps with a jerk of his head. "Hmm?"
"A walk?" Kovu watched as the bigger lion stood up.
Kovu's chest clenched as he slowly stood up. "You want to do that? After all those ill-fated walks we took?" He then inwardly kicked himself.
"Yes. All you have to do is listen." Simba started down the stone steps.
Kovu took a moment and watched Simba. When the Simba made it to the bottom, he turned and looked up at Kovu.
Despite what he could hear from Simba, he focused on the slight smile on Simba's face...
...And that was enough for Kovu.
A/N: What do I even say after spending all this time on this story? And for listening to feedback and learning so much?
I'm not sure, but I hope everyone who's gotten this far enjoyed reading what I had to write.
I had no idea this story would turn out this long, or like this, or mean this much to me. I considered tacking on an epilogue, but one idea didn't really add anything to this story, and the other version pretty much crapped on what the characters learned in this final chapter, and how they're hopeful...
Hint: If you read through Asuma's terms again, and the Council's prediction, and think of the worst thing that could happen when Tanga gives birth to "them"... then, yeah. Unless you guys want a soul-crushing ending...
As it was, I went back and forth so many times on whether Asuma should go back or not, but I couldn't make him stay dead when I gave him the one thing he couldn't refuse.
As for a sequel to this... I am realllllllly tempted to do one, but I can't guarantee one at all. I have a bunch of other projects I want to work on first- in other words, I will be working on original and cannon (TLK and Inception) pieces, just probably not a direct continuation of this.
So: THANK YOU FOR READING TLK: JUST BENEATH THE SURFACE. :)