Chapter 5: A Gift from the Stars
The hours passed really quickly out in the savannah; they always do when one's having a lot of fun. The sun, unbeknownst to everyone but me, had melted beyond the rim of the horizon. Only fuzzy, red streaks painted the darkening sky now. Soon, they would also fade into the rapidly spreading gloom. The field practically glowed orange under the soft shower of decaying afternoon light, and so did all the animals lumbering along it.
I'd never seen such beautiful sunsets as the ones this land had to offer, not even during the Snowlands' sunniest summers. Still, nothing could match the pleasantly cold feel of the snow under my paws, or the lulling whooshes of the icy mountain breeze. I would've given up a thousand of these sunsets just to breathe the cold air of my family's cave again, if only for less than a second. No matter how comfortable the Pridelanders made me feel, this wasn't home, and it never would be; the sultry weather constantly reminded me of that.
Just when Chumvi had pounced on the elusive Eshe, the lionesses' cries interrupted the game, demanding that the group return immediately to Pride Rock. Their laughter having been replaced with long, dismal sighs, the younglings set off for their rocky den at a sad pace.
Nala had spent the whole day by the Prince's side. Although they did partake of the many entertaining activities the group had come up with after finishing with 'Tag in the Snowlands', they didn't show as much interest in them as the rest. They each seemed lost to anything that wasn't the other. I wasn't the only one to pick up on it, though; repeatedly, the others remarked on the lovebirds' unusual intimacy with such jeers as they thought more appropriate to force bashful grins from their muzzles. Of course, whenever confronted by them, they'd both deny the existence of any relationship between them beyond that of friendship. But the uneasy manner in which they would declare it suggested something completely different.
Even if Nala hadn't confided her little secret to me, I would probably have found out about her feelings eventually; there was some sort of inexplicable chemistry between the two: a mutual correspondence only a fool could fail to notice. Their eyes burned as bright as the sun when they were together, and their silly beams looked just like Mom's did whenever Dad whispered that he loved her into her ear. Long ago, she'd described to me the bittersweet nature of love. Its fragrant flowers. Its hurtful thorns. How it could steal your heart and yet leave a smile on your face. How it led to everlasting happiness if righteous, or to a silent self-destruction if unrequited.
I didn't understand how any sane living being could truly enjoy experiencing such conflicting emotions. But then again, love and madness, according to Mom, stemmed from the same place in all hearts. And, up to now, she hadn't got anything wrong.
Maybe falling in love entailed losing your mind or something…
"Hey, what's with you?" asked Nala, her brows wrinkled in confusion.
Her sapphire orbs shimmered like melting ice under the dimming twilight as they met mine, straining to decipher the meaning of my distracted expression. Without my noticing, we had walked for almost fifteen minutes; the monolithic fortress where the adults awaited our arrival stood just a couple of feet away. I tried to restrain the crooked frown my lips desired to show so strongly, although to no avail.
Her saggy countenance revealed her honest concern. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing, really. I was just thinking…of home."
The tan cub fixed her glum gaze upon her front paws, which advanced coordinately along the earth's soft, green coating. "Do you miss it?"
My languid nod, judging from the strange look she shot at me, must've surprised her very much.
"But I thought you liked it here!" she insisted shrilly. "Aren't you happy with us?"
The young lions heard the girl's fervid inquiry quite well, but did not swing around or glimpse back as they would surely have done under other circumstances; instead, they padded on determinedly. Showing up after nightfall could cost them an entire day of fun.
"It's not that. It's…"
"Hey, what's going on?" interjected the golden cub striding ahead of us, before falling back and comfortably placing his pudgy form in the gap that lay between the tan cub's body and mine. The instant his cheerful voice swept into her ears and compelled her light-blue irises to sparkle excitedly, I heaved a quiet sigh of relief. At least for the moment, I could rest assured she wouldn't bring up the issue about my homesickness; her Prince would occupy her mind with far different thoughts.
Seeing as the she-cub remained mute, he spoke again. "Are you listening?"
A refreshing gust of wind hushed his feeble voice. Upon receiving no reply, his ears dropped hopelessly, as though from guilt. His honey eyes swerved in my direction and, with the assistance of his raised eyebrows, implicitly demanded to know what he'd done wrong.
I shrugged my shoulders, but Nala recovered before Simba caught my gesture. "Yeah… I'm fine," she giggled heartily.
His fears dispelled, he veered his head toward the girl and smiled warmly. "So what were you talking about?"
"Oh," gasped Nala, a mischievous smirk spreading across her muzzle. "Just about the thirty nine times I pinned you today."
"I let you win!" he stated boisterously, then gazed haughtily at the blackening sky. "My dad always says I have to be polite to girls."
A snort of derision fled our mouths as his excuse tickled our lungs. Putting up no further arguments, the indignant golden cub quickened his pace to catch up with his best friend. He had stretched his paw to tap him on the shoulder when, unexpectedly, a tremendous force shoved him aside and pushed his body to the ground. A squeak of surprise on his part drew all attention toward him. Low laughs struck the keening winds of dusk silent.
A glower of mingled fury and mortification crossed the Prince's face. "Nala, what are you doing?" he grumbled almost inaudibly, his teeth clamped together tightly.
In turn, the girl smirked with half-closed eyes. "You're such a sore loser!"
"Okay, you won," he said under his breath, wary of the spectators' snickers pealing about him. "That's what you wanted to hear, right? Now, let me go!"
On discerning a spark of anger in the Prince's tone, she thought it best to comply. "Alright, alright!" she grunted wearily. "There's no need to get so upset."
Hadn't she obeyed, he would most likely have snapped at her; he looked that desperate to have her off of him. As the tan cub set her left leg back, the air regained its peace and the cubs prepared to resume their walk.
Simba would have jumped to his paws and joined Chumvi as he had intended to do in the first place. Nala would have lagged behind, moping and perhaps wishing she could go back in time to undo her actions. The two would have entered the dark cave along with their pals and, after hearing out whatever chidings their parents had in store for them, lain on the smooth, stone floor, in remote spots, without addressing each other for the rest of the night. By sunrise, the whole conflict would have lost its grip on their consciences and drowned in the shadowy ocean of unimportant memories flowing in the back of their minds; they would inevitably have lived down this unpleasant episode.
But, as I'd come to learn, destiny constantly slings rocks at you, and it selects the biggest and coarsest of all the available ones for when you're drifting off. This time, it had chosen to surprise Nala with the sharpest.
Nala withdrew her paws from the boy's chest, feeling for solid ground with her right hind limb. Much to her misfortune, it stumbled on a thin, twitching strip of fur instead. Simba's eyes puffed out like a frog's gullet, as though they were just seconds away from popping out of their sockets. Tears gathered under his lids, ready to pour forth as soon as the pressure exerted by her paw on his tail intensified.
Two had already travelled down his cheeks when he finally resorted to the most heart-wrenching yelp he could discharge. Nevertheless, his cry was interrupted just when I thought my ears would gush with blood. His pained expression had hit Nala with the strength of a hurtling asteroid, and the resulting shock wave rippled all the way down to her limbs at an inestimable speed, causing them to tremble out of control. In the blink of an eye, they succumbed to the constant pressure of gravity and spilled her on top of the golden cub. Her muzzle collided harshly against his, throttling what was left of his doleful howl within his throat.
A long, awkward silence flogged the witnessing crowd. All kinds of faces could be observed among the young group. While the girls bore gapes of disbelief and underlying envy, the boys' lips quivered in a not entirely honest effort to withhold the ferocious guffaws bouncing within the confines of their mouths.
The Prince pushed Sarafina's daughter off and hopped to his paws at the speed of light. As he gazed about nervously, his chest rose and fell in frantic gasps of what struck me as embarrassment, but could easily have been befuddlement. After all, it wasn't every day that someone his age kissed a girl, either voluntarily or unintentionally.
At length, he broke into a fit of high-pitched croaks, his cheeks taking on a vermillion color underneath the yellowish-brown fur which shielded them.
"I didn't mean to… She… I… It was an accident!"
His clarification didn't prove the least bit helpful. The young lions shattered the tense stillness that had hitherto prevailed with wild peals of laughter. Nala lifted herself up and, amidst the aggressive waves of taunting shouts, padded up to Simba's side. Her devastated grimace disclosed the emotions afflicting her heart; they didn't differ much from the ones the future king had displayed a moment ago.
"I'm sorry," she murmured timorously, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes.
The male swung round suddenly and greeted the she-cub guilty for the overwhelming humiliation that was now eating him up with the gloomiest scowl; she even flinched in fright. His lips parted to give utterance to a cubbish growl that nevertheless sounded scary (maybe because it was so full of scorn).
"It was all your fault!" he burst out ruthlessly, crystal trickles of anguish adorning his cheeks. "Why did you have to pin me in front of everybody? What were you trying to prove?"
"I didn't mean for it to end like this!" She matched his volume, but her tone was one of regret rather than rage.
He faced away for about five seconds, letting her explanation spread through his worked-up brain. "You know what?" he scoffed, pulling a fatal smile that somehow pulverized all hopes of reconciliation. "Sauda was right! You are a freak!"
Saying no more, the frustrated cub wiped the tears off his face with a single motion of his right paw, jostled his way out of the furry circle the curious bunch had imprisoned him in, and headed for Pride Rock on his own. Chumvi hurled a glance of sympathy at Sarafina's daughter, but then went after his best friend without the slightest hint of indecision in his expression.
The crowd watched as the night shadows consumed the two drifting boys. Afterwards, they jerked their eyes back toward Nala, probably expecting to encounter an even more broken, tearstained face. Surprisingly enough, the salty rivulets had dried up completely; her absent stare conveyed not one painful emotion, merely the coldness of a deceased heart.
Thus, in the brooding silence that descended, the Pridelanders proceeded to their destination, guided by the dim light provided by the few stars which had shown up. The grass rustled unrelentingly and stray branches cracked like fragile bones under our paws. The sky had shed its last traces of color and was now death-black, decorated with grayish clouds of monstrous shapes. Some slid across it very slowly, like spreading tentacles, probing for good spots from where to unload their liquid content. Others, rounder and heavier, seemed to glower down vengefully at all the animals that had the gallantry to roam the dark fields.
By the time we got to the den, the sick atmosphere had roared thrice. Fortunately, no downpour delayed our already tardy return. The adults, as I'd suspected, had been worried about us. The scolding, however, turned out to be worse than I'd predicted. The lionesses' angry voices thundered in all listening ears, constraining them to drop severely. Some even proved harsh enough to elicit bitter sobs from the weaker cubs, among which I—and I'm not proud to say it—stood out pretty much like a white chrysanthemum in an endless sea of droopy sunflowers.
Only once had anyone rebuked me like Sarafina did tonight. And it had been Dad, after saving Lauri and me from a horrible death. I'd challenged my brother to step into a creepy, abandoned passage we'd stumbled upon while playing 'Tag'. That craggy, narrow corridor led to the home of what was perhaps the biggest, scariest Amur leopard. I remembered how he'd cornered us, pressed his ferocious paws against the cold stone, and leapt forward with its jaws split wide apart. His sharp teeth could probably grind frozen quartz into gazillions of shiny pieces. But if anything had really scared me at that precise moment, it was his eyes: those cold, dead yellow spheres that so much resembled glass, shimmering with bloodlust.
Luckily, Dad jumped in right on time, pushing the vicious predator away from us. The two engaged in a brutal duel of slashes and roars of mixed rage and agony, a gory scene I would never forget no matter how hard I tried. Although my father succeeded in killing the fearsome beast, the fight left him exhausted and severely wounded. He strained to drive us back, but collapsed halfway from our hill.
His face blanched as more and more blood oozed from the gashes on his legs and chest and deluged the snow around him with a sick red; his body grew ice-cold, and there was a point when both Lauri and I lost control over our tears. The expression of disappointment which Dad had borne since we exited the Amur leopard's den was replaced by one of sadness and, lastly, by one of mild happiness.
"Don't be scared," he whispered tranquilly, a flame of love illuminating his sleepy blue orbs before he closed them. Despite our insistent nudges and loud weeping, he never reopened them.
Maybe it was the combined effect of Sarafina's verbal punishment and the recollection of that fateful day that made my bawls much more noticeable than the rest's.
The lionesses stopped lecturing their children. Likewise, the little ones ceased their spurious crying. The whole pride rendered speechless, Nala's mother stepped closer to me. Her screen of vision stayed hitched to my teary eyes for a minute or so. Subsequently, it slid down toward the side of my body where Sauda's scratch lines had by now fully coagulated. The clot's unwholesome yellow color seemed to disquiet the tan lioness.
"Tarja!" she gasped upsettingly. "How did this happen?"
Before I could spit out the truth, those threatening green eyes with which the spiteful she-cub had so resentfully glared at me haunted my mind. By telling on her, I reasoned, I'd accomplish nothing convenient; I would simply get her into more trouble than she'd been in last night. And, sooner or later, she would obviously seek revenge.
Since not the feeblest sound dared escape my mouth, the tan lioness turned impatiently to her daughter. Knowing she had no other choice, Nala commenced a shy narrative regarding this day's events (naturally, she omitted the overly embarrassing parts). Sauda, who was being bathed by her mother in a close corner, listened intently. Her concentrated stare tightened into a murderous yet desperate glare as the girl she despised touched the subject about my wound.
"We were just playing a bit roughly!" My yelp cut her short right when she was going to reveal my attacker's identity. Hopefully, I spared her from what would have been a lifetime of inexorable suffering in the paws of a foe hungry for vengeance.
The bully breathed out the air locked in her lungs. Her features relaxed; a wicked smirk much like the one she'd exposed after she had struck me stamped out her angst.
"Sarafina," chimed in Sarabi, sitting down next to her and examining the wound painstakingly. "I still have some of Rafiki's pain relievers in the back of the cave. She can have one now, and I'll send for Rafiki first thing in the morning."
"But it doesn't hurt that much!" I complained, looking up at both of them.
"It will when you lie down, sweetie," rejoined the Queen with that calm, sturdy voice which characterized her. "But don't worry! It doesn't taste all that bad."
A balmy chuckle spewed through her lips as she strode away to fetch the medicine. All that bad... I'd heard that on about a thousand other occasions, and, frankly, they were never right. Because it always tasted bad. Gross and… superbad.
The future king's mother reappeared seconds later with a bunch of sallow reeds between her teeth. She dropped it before Sarafina and instructed her to have me eat not more than one. Smiling down at Nala and me, she then hurried to her slightly elevated sleeping spot and snuggled up to her snoring mate. The youngest member of the royal family, however, was missing.
"Where's Simba?" asked the tan cub to her mother, as if she'd somehow read my mind.
Sarafina's brows contracted in thought. "Well," she argued, rummaging through her head for a suitably indirect term to employ. "Sarabi usually makes him…go…before bedtime."
"And you know what?" added the lioness, her face lighting up at an idea. "You should go too."
"But Mom!" cried Nala complainingly. "I'm not a little cub anymore."
The adult flung a knowing grin at her daughter, who headlong broke eye contact with her and flushed. "Oh, you're not?" she teased, wary of her reaction. "If I'm not mistaken, the last time-"
"Okay! Okay! Okay! We'll go!" she cut her off precipitately, on the verge of shouting. Prior to carrying out the request, she padded closer to her mother and spoke to her in almost incomprehensible whispers. "You didn't have to embarrass me in front of her," I thought she'd mumbled. By the huffy scowl she displayed when she whirled about, my guess might've been correct.
"Let's go," she muttered sulkily. "And, by the way, you heard nothing."
Having nibbled one of Rafiki's sour reeds—when Sarabi had mentioned him, I'd wondered who he was; now, I didn't really care—and swallowed the pieces, I trailed behind the tan cub toward the mouth of the cave.
The ogling moon poised solemnly on the zenith, bigger and brighter than ever. It appeared the clouds had been scared away by its rays of pale silver, for I could detect none gliding across the miles of diamond sky.
During my first day in the Pridelands, the savannah's winds had felt dry and utterly suffocating; tonight, they were surreally mellow and cool. The grasses swayed in the quiet flatlands below, coated in the ghostly gleam the stars had bestowed upon them. Not a single soul ambled around at this late hour, nor did any lie awake. One which looked awfully unsettled, though, sat on the edge of Pride Rock, where the King would normally stand to welcome the warm kiss of dawn, staring out into the stippled ceiling.
"What's wrong with Simba?"
Nala's ears pressed down against her skull, evading my doubt, and her eyes flicked toward a narrow path that led to the lower part of the rock structure we were heading to. "Let's get it over with," she suggested at a gloomy, low pitch, "and go back to sleep."
"But he looks so down!" I objected, a statement the tan cub deliberately ignored. "Maybe one of us should talk to him."
"He already made it clear that he hates me," countered Nala, turning a stern glare on me. Evidently, she had understood my implication and did not like it at all. "Why do you want me to go so much, anyway? He's only gonna yell at me like he did before!"
She panted exasperatedly, hoping to blow away the fog of vexation asphyxiating her. Once she regained her composure, she continued. "Besides, I already told him I was sorry, and it did no good."
"Perhaps you should expand a bit more on your apology."
Nala expelled a sigh of hopelessness and trudged past me, signaling me to follow with a shy motion of her right paw. Refusing to obey, I planted myself on my haunches with a dull thud. She glanced back over her shoulder and heaved yet another sigh, although this time it sounded like one of impotence.
"You're not going to move until I talk to him, huh?"
I shook my head swiftly. "Nope."
She speared a fatigued look up at the shiny smears speckling the atmosphere's blue-black shroud, as if begging for mercy, then treaded forth reluctantly until she stood almost beside the golden cub. Unaware of the girl's presence, the Prince remained as still as a corpse, entranced by the outstanding view.
A mild breeze brushed past Nala and crashed into his back; the air waves scattered about him like a vanishing specter. Recognizing the aroma that wafted into his nostrils, Mufasa's son stole a quick glimpse backwards. Astounded, the she-cub cringed back slightly and exhaled a hollow gasp. Moonlight shone on the tears that ran down his glinting honey eyes, conferring upon the boy's visage an aspect sadder than death.
"S-Simba," exclaimed Nala despondently. "Are… are you crying?"
"I'm not crying!" he sobbed as he swung his head back violently toward the landscape, teardrops splattering on the cold stone. "It's just that… S-something got in my eye."
The wind's acute hooting soon stifled his waning sniffles. A long period of silence ensued, only to be succeeded by the dreary singing of lonely crickets. For what felt like a lifetime, nothing other than their awful chirping rang in my ears.
I realized now why the Queen had advised Sarafina to administer the sedative in very low quantities. My legs' strength declined fast, causing my numb body to flop onto the smooth ground. I couldn't move a muscle, and a funny dizziness struck against my skull like lightning upon the peak of a high mountain. But I still distinguished their shadowed frames contrasting with the sky's dim-lit backdrop, which cleaved into the distant, blurry horizon.
And Nala looked more than ready to act.
Mustering all the courage stored inside her soul, Nala inhaled hard and stepped forward, positioning herself next to the disconsolate boy. "Listen, Simba," she spoke up, although quivering from fear of failing, "I-I'm…. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to humiliate you in front of everybody. I… I was just playing! All I wanted was to be your friend! You have to believe that!"
Her voice had cracked in the middle of her speech. She didn't notice it, but tears were hewing their way through the short fur on her cheeks, glistening under the night lights as Simba's did. Deeming her apology pointless, the girl sighed mournfully and started walking away.
"Nala, no," blurted out the future king, fixing his gaze on her ebbing silhouette. "I'm sorry."
As she veered toward him, she noticed that a rather desperate light beamed from his brown irises. "Please, don't leave," he concluded with a rough snuffle, as if his nose were terribly congested.
Once again, the tan cub approached Simba very slowly, a tiny gleam of hope burning within her. "You're not angry?"
"I was," he confessed, never averting his eyes from hers. "But I shouldn't have been, and I shouldn't have flipped out like that. I don't want us to fight. I… I really like you."
His voice had reduced to a timid whisper when he expressed this last. Nala had not anticipated the announcement and, consequently, froze in shock and incredulity. Interpreting her disbelieving features as rejection, the Prince clamped his honey orbs shut. More tears streamed down his face as he returned to his former spot in a morose silence.
It took Nala a while to recover completely and process what she'd been told. That part of her which chose not to embrace happiness when it stood right before her still could not accept the sugar-sweet meaning behind each word that had passed his lips. Maybe she feared that, when she revealed her feelings, she would suddenly wake up and realize it had all been nothing but a blissful dream. Nonetheless, she opted to take that chance and shyly sidled up to the boy's side.
"I like you too," said the tan cub, and proceeded to rub her head gently against his neck. In response, a soft purr rumbled in the young prince's throat. A weak smile drowned his sorrow. Deeming it necessary to reciprocate the gesture of affection, Simba bestowed a light lick upon her cheek.
"W-what was that for?" asked Nala, in a giggly fashion which denoted glee tinged with surprise.
"I'm just saying 'thank you'," replied Simba jauntily. "You know, Tarja's way."
"Thank you? Why?"
"For being such a great friend, even when I…"
At this point, Rafiki's drug had so much tampered with my senses that whatever Simba had uttered disintegrated like vapor into the dark; its echo was destined to linger exclusively in Nala's memory and his own. However, when I vaguely made out the gape of astonishment upon him, I deduced that something had cut him short. Upon gazing up, I thought that something was perhaps the most beautiful show of nature I'd ever witness.
Both cubs admired the unworldly phenomenon, sharing a funny stare of amazement. The atmosphere had brusquely lit up with bazillions of shooting stars. Their blazing tails seared its black belly with intense white flames, leaving fine, linear scars upon it, before winking out aloft the horizon. It was truly a breathtaking spectacle.
Nala wrenched her sight away from the enthralling meteor shower for barely more than a second to check on Simba. Finding his eyes riveted on the storm of lovely dancing lights, she felt a huge fatigue overtake her muscles and determined upon resting her head on his shoulder, probably guessing he wouldn't even pick up on it. And although he did notice (I caught him eying her with a smile), he didn't mind. It appeared the silent pandemonium of glowing contrails would never cease, and that Simba and Nala would not move for the rest of the night.
Like the stars, my mind flurried toward sleep in smoldering fragments. During my last moments of consciousness, ideas burned out fast in my brain, one after another. Most were wildly imaginative and disorganized, but one stood out from the misty jumble, perfectly clear and, in a childish way, rational. It occurred to me that perhaps tonight the stars had fallen for Simba and Nala, overjoyed to see they had reconciled.
That fantastical conception, though, sunk into obscurity as the shadows of the night hazed my vision.
What did you think? PLEASE REVIEW! It's been quite a long time since my last update on this story, but it's getting harder and harder to write. From Mondays to Saturdays, I return home exhausted after more than 12 hours of class, then I have to review the lessons and prepare for the next day, and by the time I'm done I just want to drop dead in bed... Summarizing, don't expect ch. 6 to come out right away.
By the way, I you haven't done so, you can check out the oneshot I posted last week. It's called "Love The Hardest Way". It's the spookiest SNL fic you'll ever come across! ;D (Just kidding, I'm sure I'm not the only Pet Sematary/TLK fan out there)
On a completely unrelated note, I think I'm addicted to Black Veil Brides! Anyway, hope you enjoyed this chapter... and, once again, PLEASE REVIEW! :DD