“Dad you don’t have to carry me, I can walk just fine.” A brown cub protested softly.
A scraggly white lion ceased his movements, hesitating a moment before lowering the cub in his mouth to the ground. “Are you sure sweetie because I’ve still got some energy.” He hastily assured.
The brown cub frowned, “Dad, I’m not a little cub anymore. I can keep up with you.” She nuzzled against his white arm affectionately.
The male huffed defiantly, “Maybe not but you’re still a very young lioness.” He muttered.
Blue eyes carefully scanned the savanna around them for some sort of shelter. He was already famished, which meant his daughter was twice as hungry. Unfortunately, they were standing in a vast, open plain without any trees, nothing that would guarantee his daughter’s safety. He became sullen, his ears drooping. There weren’t even any rocks that he could hide her behind.
The tall grass would have to do.
Heinz knew it wasn’t the best but it was their only option. He needed to hunt, and while he’d rather keep her close by, it would only endanger her more if she accompanied him. Reluctantly, he moved some of the tall grass away with a paw and motioned for her to hop in.
His face suddenly grew serious. “I’m going to try and find something for us so I need you to stay here, got it? Don’t leave this spot, but If you’re in trouble what do you do?”
“Scream as loud as I can and run.” She answered proudly.
“That’s my girl.” He praised, licking her cheek before trotting off.
As he made for the herds he could smell in the distance, he tried not to dwell on the fact that Vanessa was all alone and unprotected. He attempted to deter the negative thoughts instead by focusing on how she’d be better off in the grass.
Meanwhile, Vanessa did as she was told and dutifully stayed alert, surveying her surroundings like a hawk. Anything could happen to her out in the open so she had to be vigilant, but boredom was a cub’s worst nightmare. Even older cubs grew bored and she was quickly becoming victim to it the longer her father was gone. She soon found herself passing the time by lazily chewing on the tall grass and pawing at it when the wind swayed it around. Her focus on her surroundings dwindled to the point where she just barely heard the low growl emanating from behind.
Vanessa froze, a tiny gasp leaving her mouth as she nervously checked behind her. Although she couldn’t see anything, she heard the same growl again and to her horror it was much closer than before. With a reflexive swipe of the paw and a loud scream she bolted, a high-pitched whine and various cackles not far behind as she fled for her life.
She panted heavily, the cackles and growling steadily growing closer and closer, fueling her legs with adrenaline to escape her stalkers. It was all Vanessa needed to keep running, screaming loudly every now and then like her father told her to. The only other thing she could hear besides the cackles were the pounding of paws behind her as whatever was hunting her gained on her tail. She needed to find somewhere to hide and fast.
Blue eyes frantically searched through the adrenaline haze for anything that would give her some sort of advantage when she tripped.
During her tumble she’d managed to get turned around and was now watching with terror filled eyes as a small pack of hyenas circled her, effectively trapping her. She screamed again until her voice grew hoarse with desperation. Tears spilled over as the severity of the situation dawned on her. There was no way out and her father was nowhere in sight.
She was going to die.
“Nowhere to run kitty.” One said, drawing close and licking its chops.
Vanessa screwed her eyes shut and trembled with fear as she awaited her imminent death when a deep, loud roar bellowed above the cackling.
“Shit it’s him!” another warned.
Vanessa peeked through her eyes to see the hyenas backing away as a large, teal colored lion landed right in front of her, growling dangerously. The pack seemed conflicted as to whether or not they should stay and fight or make a break for it.
“Pfft what are you guys pups? He’s not even fully grown! We can take him.” A much younger looking male hyena circled the lion, licking its chops at the thought of another easy meal. It was no doubtfully a rookie.
Another interrupted the rookie and snarled, “Of course you wouldn’t know, you’ve never fought him. We need to fall back, now!”
The lion in question roared again, taking a few steps forward while the hyenas instinctively moved back. The young hyena, who did not want to give up, suddenly rushed forward with its maw open and ready to bite only for the lion to deliver a swift, powerful swipe to its neck. The hyena was sent rolling on the ground with strength a lion such as himself shouldn’t possess yet. It lay motionless on the savanna floor, the message crystal clear.
The lion’s glare shifted towards the others who were already posed in a retreating stance and growled a final time, warning them to leave less they wanted to suffer the same fate.
“We can’t take him, fall back.” The hyena from before advised once again.
This time the others heeded the words and Vanessa watched as they made a hasty retreat, leaving their fallen pack-mate behind. With the hyenas gone, the male turned around and sauntered over to her with a slightly worried expression.
Now able to see her savior from a different angle, she was faced with an adolescent, teal lion with a brown mane that had already started sprouting. “Thank you for saving me.” She whispered, remaining cautious.
The male nodded and sat down with a puzzled look on his face.
When he didn’t speak, Vanessa decided to take the initiative instead. “You don’t talk?” she asked hesitantly, relieved when a small smile accompanied by a nod was her answer. “That’s okay.” she smiled. “My dad talks a lot so it’ll be nice to be the one talking for a change.” She assured, coming closer. “I’m Vanessa by the way.”
The male gave her a sweet smile before raising his paw with an inquisitive look on his face. Vanessa eyed the raised paw but gave him an apologetic look. “Sorry, I don’t understand.”
The male frowned, then lowered his paw to her head while motioning to her. He then repeated the movement in the air then pointed at himself, then in the air again but beside her this time.
“Are you asking about my dad?”
The male nodded, pleased when she caught on.
“My dad went hunting a little while ago. I was supposed to wait for him but then the hyenas came and chased me.” The male looked her over at the mention of hyenas and had Vanessa smiling. “It’s not like it’s the first time that’s happened, but usually my dad is quick to return. Then again that’s only when he doesn’t find something so maybe he was finally successful—”
“Hey!” a loud roar cut through the air and suddenly Vanessa’s view was of the familiar white limbs of her father. “You stay away from my baby girl you brute!” he growled protectively. The teal male backed away instantly, not wanting to further invoke the male’s wrath.
“Dad!” Vanessa yelled, crawling out from underneath her protective father. “Stop he’s not going to hurt me, he saved me!” she defended.
Heinz’s anger faded as worry trickled in. “Saved you? Vanessa, what happened?” his voice grew fearful and suddenly he was searching the cub for any injuries.
Vanessa’s ears drooped, “I was watching for predators but I got so bored and didn’t realize how close they were. I scratched one and started running when I heard growling but I tripped and fell.” Heinz regarded the teal lion with caution and disbelief. “If it weren’t for him… the hyenas would have eaten me.” She added softly, rubbing up against her father’s thin arm.
When the teal lion only backed away more Heinz sighed and uttered, “Thank you for saving my little girl.”
The teal male nodded not saying a word.
Vanessa took the moment to divert her father’s attention. “So, did you catch anything?”
The hope in his daughter’s voice made Heinz cringe.
He frowned with shame filled eyes, “I’m sorry sweetie, I wasn’t fast enough.” The amount of dejection in his voice was enough to make the teal lion frown and move towards them warily. Heinz made to stand over his cub again but Vanessa was having none of it and glared at him.
The teal male picked up the fallen hyena then motioned for them to follow.
“You have enough food for us too?” Vanessa smiled when he nodded and made to follow when a white paw stopped her. She looked up at her worried father and frowned, “Come on dad what do we have to lose?”
“You.” He whispered sincerely.
She pulled away gently. “But he doesn’t act like them.” She made to follow her savior again. “I think we can trust him dad.” she added over her shoulder before running up to the teal lion, all the while missing her father’s lingering discomfort.
Ten to one he could take on the mysterious male, he was only an adolescent after all, but what worried him more than anything was his daughter’s trusting nature. It would break her heart if he turned out to be just like the lions from their old pride, so for her sake he hoped that her judgement of this lion was spot on.
It took a while to reach wherever it was they were being led to, but eventually they made it to the male’s pride. Heinz gaped with shock as he observed a few of cubs playing together with a fiery red lioness. There were even a couple of cubs Vanessa’s age playing together under the watchful eye of a male lion.
As they ventured closer to the pride, they were soon discovered by one of its members.
“Uncle Perry!” an orange, female cub about Vanessa’s age came sprinting at them and launched herself at the teal lion’s front leg.
The teal lion, Perry, dropped the hyena carcass then leaned down to nuzzle the cub affectionately with a low rumble. Heinz stood close to Vanessa protectively when he noticed another pride member trotting over to them, an adult male at that.
“There you are Perry, we were starting to worry about you.” He said casually.
Perry simply rolled his eyes and smirked, drawing a laugh from the other.
“I know you can handle yourself but I’m still going to worry, it’s what big brothers are for.” He responded, nuzzling Perry in the same manner he’d done to the cub just a moment ago.
While they were briefly distracted Heinz took the time to inspect them closely.
While Perry was indeed an adolescent, he was rather lean and apparently strong for such a young lion. Unlike his teal fur and creamy underbelly along with his toes, his blossoming mane was brown, only a tad darker than his own. The mane itself was in the process of wrapping around the lion’s neck, meaning he wasn’t that young.
The older male nuzzling him though was quite the opposite. He had a full, brown mane with tan fur and creamy underside like Perry but appeared to be on the thin side. Despite this, the male seemed rather healthy. Heinz scowled at that. It was rather odd for him to see such a skinny lion in such a well-off condition. He himself was skinny and far from being in good condition, though his age didn’t help matters either.
When the two finally pulled away the older male cast his gaze at him and smiled, “I say what have we here? Friends of yours Perry?” he turned back to his brother who was shrugging.
Heinz decided to intervene, “Not exactly…” he looked down at his cub who was nodding at him before continuing. “he led us to believe there was food here?” he tried, not knowing how he’d react.
The older male came closer, taking in their states with a frown. “Oh dear, you two must be starving. Well you’ve come to the right place, plenty of food here and feel free to stay as long as you’d like. Just follow Perry, the rest of the pride should be returning from the hunt soon.” He informed before making his way over to the fiery lioness and cubs.
Heinz grimaced at the lion’s mention of ‘rest of the pride.’ Of course, there were more.
The cub that was attached to Perry’s leg was now staring at the newcomers with curiosity. Growing bold, she padded over to Heinz and Vanessa.
“Hi, I’m Candace, wanna play with me and Stacy?” she asked hopefully.
Heinz looked down at his cub and with great reluctance leaned in close to her brown ear. “You can go play if you want.”
“Really?” Vanessa beamed up at him, surprised with her father’s abnormal behavior. He was normally very wary and very protective. Therefore, a while back he’d pleaded with her against befriending strange cubs.
“Just promise me you’ll be careful and stay where I can see you.” He added hastily, obviously still apprehensive of anything happening to her.
She showed her gratitude by purring and rubbing against his white leg before running off with the orange cub and meeting up with a black one. They immediately started chasing each other which brought a rare smile to Heinz’s face.
Then he felt something nudge his side.
Startled, he whipped around teeth bared but stopped when he saw it was only Perry.
The teal lion said nothing and began walking towards a shady area under a large tree, hyena carcass in tow.
He timidly followed the lion, the only reason being Vanessa’s happiness and the fact he had food.
His tune changed quickly though when Heinz entered the shady area. He was relieved that he could rest without baking in the sun and keep an eye on his daughter all at once.
He laid down on his belly then looked over to Perry who was stretching out in the grass with a dazed look on his face. They had been able to gorge on the hyena without anyone else butting in or trying to steal it, other than hungry cubs, and he was feeling much better now that he wasn’t so famished.
They rested in silence, neither talking nor sleeping but simply relaxing while keeping a watchful eye on all the cubs. All too soon though, the silence became unbearable and Heinz found himself remedying it.
“I never did apologize for my earlier behavior, did I?” he started, noticing Perry’s ear swiveling in his direction but his eyes still trained on the cubs at play. “It’s nothing personal you know? It’s just that I can't’ be too careful, being a single parent and all.” A deep frown settled on his muzzle. “Especially with what I’ve been through with my previous pride.” He added somberly.
When he looked back at the lion beside him, Perry was staring at him with curiosity in those large brown eyes.
“It’s a really long story, but all you need to know is that my family was cruel to me and kind to my younger brother.” he seethed. “Despite that, I found my own family only for my mate to betray me, and I couldn’t take it anymore so I left.”
He paused, his features dulling as he thought back on his old pride. “I didn’t want my little girl to suffer like me or turn out like them, so I took her with me… We’ve been on the run for weeks and I’m not exactly a good hunter either, but whenever I did find something, I made sure Vanessa got more. She’s a growing cub and needs it more than I do.” He explained.
Perry remained silent but seemed deep in thought as he turned his attention back to the cubs.
Heinz did as well, making sure to watch Vanessa closely, tensing up whenever an adult got too close. Perry took notice and when the white male tensed up again, he placed his paw on top of his with the hopes of calming him down.
Heinz gazed down at the paw atop his and eased up. “Sorry about that. It’s just habit now.”
Perry nodded and patted his paw lightly. He understood, but now the male needed to understand that this pride was different and friendly to even strangers within reason.
Heinz ripped and tore at the chunk of meat in front of him. It had been so long since he had eaten properly and he could care less if he seemed greedy. He was still starving and would devour everything in his paws. His daughter ate with a bit more grace, but she was not nearly as famished as her poor father so she held her tongue and let him eat how he wished, for now.
The others adults in the pride paid no mind, knowing that the two had been through a rough time and had busied themselves with their routine chatter. The cubs on the other hand stared as though it was the most entertaining thing they’ve ever seen.
“Wow, I thought Buford was the only one who could eat that fast.” A small, orange cub commented.
“Guess there’s a first for everything.” A light purple cub replied, just as amazed.
A gray cub growled, “Yeah keep talking but I’ll get that title back.” he gorged on his meal, his mind set on training his speed.
Heinz stopped mid-bite and gave a sheepish grin then proceeded to devour the rest until nothing except the bone remained and even then, he began to gnaw on the thick bone. To him it was like dessert. The bone could last him a good couple of days before he needed to eat again and he wasn’t going to waste it.
One of the lionesses saw this and approached him. “Would you like more Heinz?”
He gazed up at the fiery lioness standing in front of him and squeaked, “N-No, it was enough.”
The lioness eyed him suspiciously before turning back to the large carcass. She then plopped another slab of meat in front of him while he gaped. “Don’t be shy there’s more than enough.” She reminded, taking her spot beside her mate and tearing at her own slab.
Heinz stared at the second helping of meat for a good bit when almost instantly his stomach made the decision for him by growling loudly. He dove back down and was devouring it in less than a second.
Dusk came quicker than normal for Vanessa and Heinz.
Since they were used to traveling without anyone else and sleeping under the stars, time progressed slowly but here within a den full of a pride that liked to talk and include them, time seemed to fly by.
Currently Heinz was sitting on a small rock just outside the den as he watched his daughter interact with the other lioness cubs. They were talking about some young lion named Jeremy and he was making sure this Jeremy didn’t attract the attention of his cub. Though from the sound of things one of the cubs was already smitten with him.
Good. One less thing he’d have to worry about.
That’s when he was approached by the thin male from earlier. “Your cub seems to have taken a liking to Candace and Stacy.” he stated warmly.
Heinz sighed with defeat, “I’m not surprised. Vanessa’s been very lonely since we left our previous pride. She’s had no one to play with or talk to besides me.”
The male sat next to Heinz. “Do you plan on returning?” he inquired.
Anger flared on Heinz’s face as he snarled, “No!... no, I won’t ever return to that hellhole, nor will I let Vanessa.” He added in a softer tone.
He hadn’t meant to lash out at the lion like that but just the thought of being in his pride again was a sore spot. He really needed work on controlling the hatred he felt for them.
The male looked taken aback and was unexpectedly apologizing, “Sorry. Perry tried to warn me about mentioning your pride but I didn’t think you’d react this badly.”
Guilt filled him, his ears drooping as he tried to rectify his outburst. “No, I’m the one that should be apologizing. There’s just a lot of bad memories there and I wasn’t going to stay and let Vanessa become a part of that.” He explained.
This lion was kind enough to let them live, even eat with his pride in their den and what had he done? He’d snapped at him for asking a reasonable question.
The male smiled kindly at the apology then proceeded to question him. “So where do you two plan on heading then?”
Heinz chuckled weakly, “I’m not sure... I don’t even know if leaving was exactly the smartest idea. At least they treated Vanessa better than me, and with a pride there was always something for her to eat. Now I can’t even guarantee her a daily meal.” he berated himself, ashamed that he couldn’t even provide for his own cub.
“Why not stay here then?” the male suggested.
Blue eyes widened, whipping around to face the smiling male. “What?... Really?” It was very unexpected and something that Heinz hadn’t thought would come up.
“Sure, she’s already grown attached to the cubs so why not?” he beamed, thrilled about the possibility of new additions to the large pride.
“I don’t know…” Heinz trailed off with uncertainty.
If he agreed then food was a sure thing, but would his daughter be in the safest paws? If they became a part of this pride it meant he could keep a better eye on her unless he was needed for something. Vanessa would have friends and the opportunity to grow into a skilled huntress. She’d be better equipped to take out a threat which would ease his own worries. But It all boiled down to one concern. Could he really trust this pride with his daughter’s life?
“If safety is your concern, fear not. A pride is the safest place for a cub.” The male reminded.
“Unless they're like my pride.” Heinz snapped solemnly. He really didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty about his pride’s behavior, but he absolutely needed to stress the importance of why they left in the first place.
The male seemed contemplative before speaking again. “I assure you, we’re not like them. Even though I haven’t witnessed what they’ve done to you firsthand, I give you my word that no harm will come to her, pride member or not. As guests, you are under our protection.”
Heinz regarded the lion’s words before answering with, “I’ll think about it.”
That seemed to satisfy the male who rose from his seated position. “That’s all I can hope for.” He then called for the cubs to come in for the night.
Night came quickly after everyone entered the den and found their spots to sleep.
Even though Heinz was temporarily part of the pride, he found himself sleeping all by his lonesome. At first Vanessa held settled down beside him but he noticed how sad she was to depart from her new friends and had insisted she go and sleep by them. Now he watched as his daughter lay curled up with the other lioness cubs, sleeping soundly and warm for the first time in days.
Sadly, he didn’t put off a lot of heat and was barely able to keep her warm no matter how much he shielded her. He was too scrawny to even keep himself warm which kept him up most nights. It was hard to sleep when he was constantly cold and tonight was no different. Sure, he could’ve slept near the others, hell they offered him a spot, but he still didn’t feel comfortable enough with them to do so and had politely declined.
He tried curling in on himself more and closed his eyes, willing himself to try and get some sort of sleep even if it was only a couple of hours. He was just beginning to drift off when he heard another body plop right beside him. He popped his head up and turned to see Perry lying beside him like it was nothing out of the ordinary.
“Uhhh, I think you’ve mistaken me for your brother or something.” Heinz stated uncomfortably.
Perry opened a single brown eye, shook his head, then closed it again.
“Wait, you meant to sleep here by me? How come?” he asked warily.
There was shuffling and suddenly Perry was much closer than before and was motioning to him.
Heinz thought for a moment and then mumbled, “Are you cold or something? Well I hate to tell you this, but I can’t even keep myself warm so you might as well just cuddle with your pride.”
Perry once again shook his head and motioned to him again. Heinz frowned still not understanding. Perry rolled his eyes then used a strong paw to pull Heinz closer. The paw never withdrew, instead remaining curled around Heinz as its owner rumbled and settled against him.
Heinz felt the warmth transferring from the larger body into him and it finally clicked. “You’re… trying to keep me warm?”.
Heat unrelated to the lion rose underneath his furry cheeks. This young male who he hardly knew wanted to help drive away the cold? He looked over at his cub who was smiling in her sleep, no doubt from how warm and safe she felt, and finally caved.
“Fine, have it your way.” He leaned further into the male’s warmth and sighed comfortably. It was cozy and making him suddenly drowsy. With a yawn he rested his head in between his paws and smiled.
Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to join this pride.
During his fall into slumber, he missed the soft smile adorning the male’s muzzle as he rested his head against Heinz’s, ready to drift off for the night. And if he happened to twine their tails well, it definitely wasn’t his doing.