The day escaped under Kion’s nose, fading just as the burning orange and golden rays sank beneath the horizon and quickly cast the valley where the Tree Of Life sat in darkness. Apace, the young lion made his way back down the mountainous path that hugged the cliffs, leaving Askari with a respectful bow and pledge to return to seek further wisdom in the days ahead. A yawn had erupted from the prince's throat abruptly, only making the spirit chuckle and send him away with praise for his work on starting to tap into the Roar’s true potential and history across the generations.
It was a start .
Whether or not that was to be taken in stride didn't matter to Kion as he made his way back through the cavernous walls of Cikha Escarpment. The high stone structures that raised far into the skies filled him with reverence for the sacredness of such a place, and how his heritage sprung from it. Retracing his steps, he soon found himself back within the low-levelled plains that made up the majority of the valley. The cold touch of the grass against his legs sent pleasant sensations through him, finally able to settle himself into admiring the valley and surrounding biomes.
A content sigh fell from his lips, “Beautiful.”
“Yes, it is.”
Startled, Kion darted around but kept his instincts contained at the voice, turning around to find Rani making her way through the grass. A smile greeted him, his shoulders relaxed in an instant, relieved that they had grown to see each other as friends, rather than what their original meeting entailed. “Rani!” He greeted with a similar expression, before bowing his head, glancing upwards at the young Queen sheepishly. “I-I mean… Queen Rani.”
“There's no need!” She chuckled, earning the same from the other lion. “Rani is fine, besides… I don't think titles are necessary.”
Kion snorted, ducking his head into his shoulders. “Right.”
“Would...” Rani smiled softly at him, causing Kion to stiffen at the odd sensation that seemed to spring in his chest at the flutter of her eyes. He arched a brow at the hesitancy of the usually frank Queen. “Would like to take a walk… back to the rest to your Guard, I mean! I do need to patrol that area and I would be beneficial for both of us to-”
Kion nodded, swallowing down the warmth that surged in his chest at her relief. “Of course, Your Majesty .”
Rani scoffed as she turned on her paw, her tail swaying happily behind her as he stepped to her side, letting her set the pace, “Oh shut up!” She laughed, “I am never going to get used to being called that.”
“My dad said he still feels weird sometimes having animals he grew up with calling him by his title, but that all he could do was settle into the role and trust his own judgement.” Kion exhaled, glancing up the night skies as they strolled through the plains, reeds brushing off them and the cold chill of night settling in across the lands. “But he always had those who cared about him to help him whenever he had doubts… we're all here for you too, Rani. You won’t be expected to do this on your own.”
Rani hummed in reply, casting her eyes down to her paws, sweeping them across the dirt.
She didn't speak for a few moments, casting a send of worry over the other for possibly insulting her or her abilities. He had simply spoken from the heart… but she was a Queen . Shifting his shoulders to attention, Kion opened his mouth to apologise, only for the lioness to gaze up at him. Both paused, watching as Rani smiled up at him, ducking her head coyly to the side.
While he would never had told anyone, Kion would've sworn in those moments she drew closer to him, that he caught her looking at him--if even for just a split second--with something that made his chest pound. That the way the light caught her in its silvery rays, reflecting off the grass around them, made her seem completely new and foreign and beautiful .
And that he didn't want to look away.
He couldn't pry his eyes away.
Luckily, he didn't have to.
”Come on!” Rani suddenly called out, leaping ahead with a wide grin, her tail swaying behind her.
Picking up his muddled thoughts, Kion quickened his pace as he raced after the dark-pelted lioness, laughter escaping them both as they bounded through the fields of grass, keeping an uneven pace in order to leap over and dodge the other. “Isn't the Tree Of Life that way?” Kion heaved, nudging across the Savannah with his shoulder. He arched a brow as Rani came to a halt, ambling towards him coyly as her grin sank into a sharp line that curled around her muzzle.
“This way goes through the jungle.” She said matter-of-factly, sauntering towards him only to abruptly turn on her paw as she near enough pressed her side against his chest, the breath in his throat catching itself at the flutter of her gaze, pushing away the thoughts that riddled his mind.
Rani let out a laugh at his expression, ducking her head sheepishly into her shoulders before nudging towards the darker depths of the jungle canopy. “Sometimes invaders and those who would like to do harm like to hide in the shadows of the trees where even Ullu can’t see and try to crawl down and use the jungle as cover at night.” She explained, “So, we need to check it out every once and awhile, especially the deeper parts. But, if you want I can just get the others to-”
“No!” Kion blurted, immediately recoiling at the sharp snap of his voice, tucking his ears against his head in apology. “I-I mean… the others are busy enough, and I did miss out on patrol earlier with the Guard so I really should make up my part of the work.” He pouted innocently, earning a giggle from the Queen who gave him an unconvinced look. “Plus, I'm not tired yet and it would be a waste to let you do all the work…"
Kion could only grin at the dark-pelted lioness, watching her phlegmatic face crack before turning with a flick of her tail, narrowly swiping below his chin and just grazing his chest. He swallowed as she glanced back of him, gesturing ahead before letting herself smile once more with mischief before dashing ahead. Scoffed with a curled lip, he raced after her as the jungle became to envelope the two. Darkness shaded them as the jungle grew around them with high, thick trees tangled with large, moist leaves and vines.
Ignoring the damp moss ground beneath them, both lions raced forward with Rani leading them through the labyrinthine jungle, leaping over curved roots that broke through the ground, only for one such root to catch her careless paw and sending her tumbling forward. Kion made a sound, but found himself unable to stop as he crashed into the Queen, his larger body pushing her forwards and down a slope of moss towards a larger opening in the tree below. Apace, he tucked her into his chest just before they crashed into the ground, his shoulders and back taking the brunt of the fall and knocking the wind from him.
Rolling to a halt, he released Rani from his grip who immediately leapt to her feet upon regaining her footing, her body lifting from the safety of his chest. “Are you okay?” She gasped, panic filled her system at the thought of causing him serious injury.
“Y-Yeah…” He groaned, resting his head back against the moss that caught their fall, gritted his teeth when her paw slipped onion shoulder, muttered apologizes following. “-I've had worse.”
Her eyes darted over him, searching for any sign of exterior injury, frowning once she met his grimace once more. “Kion…” Her voice cut into a worried scolding, only to pause as he chuckled from beneath her, his paws slipping up onto her shoulders innocently.
“Kinda unfair… you always pinning me…”
Before she could question him, Rani let out a yelp as his paws suddenly, but not painfully, gripped her shoulders as his hips shifted, using his body weight to pull her off him and onto the moss, his body hanging over her a moment later. A scoffing laugh escaped her as he smirked, raising a brow teasingly as he positioned himself so that little to none of his actual body weight was pressing into her.
“Pinned ya’!” He gleamed, grinning as she erupted into laughter after a moment.
Her paws slapped down on his chest, causing his laugh to catch in his throat slightly.
Glaring now with a masqueraded anger, Rani watched the golden lion above her. Setting into the warmth his body provided, her tail smacked off against the moss underneath her, shifting her hips. “We'll see about that !”
Playfully, she used a little force to push against his chest, catching him by surprise and wringing her paws around his neck and shoulders. Spreading her legs out around his lower stomach and used her body weight to once more shove his back once more against the moss.
“H-hey…!” Kion cried with a peeved moue, any annoyance slipped as she rested into his chest, their heaved breathing combining as they laid together. Feeling his chest pounding beneath her paws, Rani arched a brow down at him despite her smirk never ceasing. “No… n-no fair …” His voice dropped to a murmur, feeling her content gaze heavy on him as the surge of heat in his face seemed to grow from the bubble in his stomach.
He gulped as her paw rose from his chest, brushing away the rebellious hairs that fell into his eyes as his mane grew. She smirked as he wiggled himself against the moss, his amber eyes widening at how close her face leaned into his to perform the gesture.
“Pinned ya’...” She whispered.
The barest of light that managed to escape through the tangled canopy above broke through at their resting place, shining off them both until Rani ducked her head towards him, casting them in shadows as she brushed her tongue off his cheek gently, the gesture causing Kion to stiffen, his breath hitching. Rising back up to her previous position, she snorted at the widened shape of his eyes, his irises enlarged as he stammered to reply.
A nervous chuckle fell from his lips as he twisted away from, his eyes sinking away towards their side. Rani could only laugh at the tempered heat of his cheeks, the skin under his fur surely the colour of his mane.
Without warning, Rani pried herself from his chest and rose to her feet, a similar blush threatened her features as she leapt off him, letting him sit up a moment later. “R-Rani…?”
“This way.” She replied softly, her tail swaying behind her. She stopped a moment later however, catching Kion’s attention as he regained his footing, staring at her as she spoke again, her head barely grazing her shoulder to look back at him. “We'd better hurry… you need to get some sleep.”
Kion watched her continue onwards, her eyes scanning the canopy above as she lead the in a circle back onto the main path the animals used to navigate the jungle. Her smile sank at her cheeks, settling into a determined and focus expression once more.
Unable to find anything to say, Kion simply frowned as she continued forwards on her way, leading him meekly on her trail as he shoved the impromptu surge of feelings tumbling around inside him aside, quickening his pace to regain his footing by her side.
Time passed by swiftly, their attention stolen by several animals in need of help, leaving them to cautious silence as they journeyed through the jungle before finally meeting the edge. Stealing a glance at Rani, Kion swallowed as she continued without a word of what had happened between them in the shade of the trees and vines, of the speckles of moss that clung to their fur and his mane.
The grass shorted as they neared the centre of the valley, where the massive Tree Of Life sprouted out thick branches that bared rich green leaves, casting them in shadow as they neared it. Both young lions came to a halt, wide eyes cast around the plains for any sign of distress, listening to the quiet as the crickets chipped away.
“Everything seems clear.”
Kion snapped back around to watch Rani, pausing at the curve of her jaw and the pleasant shape of her nose, as if sculpted and smoothed with a stone like he had seen Rafiki and Makini use for their herbs. His mind focused onto every detail of her, from the smallest shift of fur to the barest scratch or scrap on her person. Her fur was a deep, rich chestnut, with a darker stripe traveling down from the nape of her neck down to the tip of her tail. Her eyes glistened in the moonlight that burnt with purpose and a fire that seemed to erupt in his chest, her mouth pressed into a line as his eyes trickled down to it and her chest.
He wondered what it would be like to brush against her.
“You'd better rest, we have no idea when Makucha and his allies could attack next.”
Blinking, Kion nodded with far more vigour that necessary, making his face burn as she arched a brow at him but said nothing. “Y-yeah… yeah .” He coughed, earning an endearing smirk from her as she snorted at his sudden nerves.
His stomach only seemed to unknot at her laugh, at the blissful, carefree wrinkle of her nose that he couldn't help but smile back at.
Rani brushed a paw against her mouth, her eyes wrinkled as he forced himself to gaze away, trying to hide the sudden heat that seemed to flood into his cheeks. “Kion, about back at the jungle-” She spoke softly, almost suggesting something beyond whatever she planned to say, only for another voice to call out and cause her to once more flinch away from him.
“Rani? The Sand Tundras is secure and Surak had gone to assist Baliyo with… Kion? What are you doing still awake?”
Both watched as Nirmala trotted from her sprint, slowing to a halt as she cast her eyes between them. The dark lionesses caught Rani’s gaze, arching a brow. From his position, and with how Rani stood to regal attention, Kion was unable to catch the Queen’s expression and only managed to sneak a glance at Nirmala before she turned to face him.
“I-uh… I was heading back a-and…”
Rani, as he quickly found, already seemed ready to excuse him. “The rest of the Guard had told me that Kion had asked for some alone time earlier as a part of his personal healing. I-I… found him returning during my patrol and walked him back.”
He nodded in agreement , the sudden heat that sank across his skin pickled in the cold night air, rolling his shoulders to regain his posture. A weak grin greeted Nirmala, whose lips curled as she raised a brow archly between the two teenage lions, but rolled her eyes instead of voicing anything. “ Alright .” She smirked, “I'll leave you to it… goodnight, Kion.”
Muttering a reply, Kion watched as the older lioness turned around and headed back out towards the plains. He paused as he listened to her, certain she had muttered something like “Young l….” but failed to catch the second word. The older lionesses picked up her pace, quickening her ample to an energetic sprint and soaring ahead before quickly fading from view.
“Nirmala was the one who suggested I focus on the inner borders of the land… that if they need me one of them will come for me or something.” Kion stole a step back towards Rani, the sharp cut of her tone sinking into him, gland back at her in alarm. She frowned, guilt rising in her gut. “I… I know as Queen it is my duty to be here like my grandmotger did, but-”
Kion ducked his head to the side, catching her attention. “Rani. You aren't your grandmother, you aren't Queen Janna.” Her expression widened in fury before softening as she raised her head up to look at him, seeing the genuine care in his eyes rather than belittlement. “When my father became King, he tried to be just like my grandfather Mufasa. But he couldn't, and it didn't work. He only became the King he was meant to be, the King our home needed after all the evil of Scar, when he let go of his need to be just like Mufasa and became King Simba . You have to find your own way, not how your grandmother would've done things.”
“So…” Her gaze dropped, her ears drooping down against the curve of her head in such a way that he made his chest ache. “-it's all up to me?”
Kion let out a gentle chuckle, weakening her sadness as she watched him. “Well, you are the Queen now… and I stand by what I said before too.” His brows lifted at the smile that captured her lips, feeling the persistence warmth that had seemed to grow larger and larger the more time he spent with her cushion itself in his stomach. “You are a lot like your grandmother… but you're also you ."
"It's funny, I spent so much of my life planning to be Queen, learning everything I could and thinking that protecting the Tree of Life was all that mattered…" Rani paused as she lifted her gaze from the ground and met him face on. "-until you came."
"Yeah," She chuckled, rolling her eyes at the memory. "I thought you could only mean us harm, that you shouldn't have been allowed to heal… but then you asked for Ono alone to go, you gave up your healing for your friend."
Kion nodded in understanding, "Well, how could I not let Ono get his sight back? He lost it saving Bunga, he sacrificed himself for others." A sigh slipped past his lips, "I didn't even think about not asking for his permission… and then you let me in after all!"
Both laughed at the memory of how her original fury melted away, how loss and comfort let them open up to one another more than they ever imagined.
"Yeah… well, I guess once you see someone for who they really are, you can change your mind." She paused for a moment, lung his gaze back to her and away from the night skies, "I'm glad I did."
Neither spoke for a few moments, letting one another relax at the foot of the Tree as they watched the stars above, their flickering light and marvellous patterns filling them both with a sense of wonder. Dropping her gaze back to her companion, Rani couldn't hold back the smile that curled across her lips as cross she watched his expression stare like a wonder-filled cub, rather than the powerful warrior and leader she had learnt to see him as.
The dark shadow of night failed to dampen the brilliant shine of his coat, the golden fur collided with his peach underbelly, muzzle as paws to create a sense of warmth. Vibrant red mane was combed back from the crown of his head to the top of his back, just meeting his shoulders. The healed, but torn flesh over his eye did nothing to hide the warmth of his eyes, the rich brown that sent a sense of security through her.
"The sky here is so beautiful." He said, loosening his shoulders as he sank on his hindquarters, sitting without holding himself like one would assume a prince. "Back home was great, but being in a whole new place just makes it seem so new, even though it still makes me think of-"
Shifting herself to sit beside him, Rani allowed her stance to relax. "It's nice to have someone to watch the stars with… I haven't done this since I was a cub." Hesitating for a moment, Rani sighed contently as she let her head fall on his shoulder, feeling the lion beside her stiffen for a moment before settling his position to give her more support.
"I used to watch the stars with my sister a lot… until she decided one day that it was too childish for the 'future Queen'." Rani smiled as she caught the roll of his eyes in exasperation. "We used to do everything together when I was little, we played games all day, tried to see if we could distract Zazu or Timon and Pumba who our dad insisted on watching us since we both had a tendency to wander off… but then one day she just stopped ."
"I used to play with Baliyo when we were cubs, but then my grandmother started training me to be Queen and Surak taught Baliyo to patrol and fight… so we didn't have any time for one another anymore."
Kion hummed in reply.
"Maybe when you go back to the Pride Lands, you could talk to her? I know that Baliyo was upset when I became too busy and explained things to me, so I made sure to spend more time with him?"
Kion nodded, resting the side of his head on the top of her head, letting the tension it brought over his muscles release after a few moments without complaint from her. "Maybe."
"If your sister is anything like you then I think you two will work things out… eventually ."
A snort followed, making her laugh before letting the silence grow around them, filling their conversation with the sound of crickets.
Resting her weight into him, Rani allowed her eyes to shut as she welcomed the warmth of his chest, a soft purr falling from their throats as they accepted one another. The vibration of his chest was a pleasant sensation, luring her closer and closer into him until her head slipped without notice beneath his chin.
"Kion…" She sighed, feeling his larger form brace against her, his paw stretching out between them, luring her to do the same-
A dull, stretching yawn called out from behind them, causing both teen lions to leap away from one another instantly as they met the sight of drowsy Bunga emerging from the grass.
Smacking his lips, the honey badger stretched leisurely, his joints letting out a crackling sound, before blinking as he glanced up to meet the sight of the two.
"H...hey Kion!" He yawned, before looking at Rani. "Oh, hey Rani. Ain't time for our patrol yet, isn't it? ‘Cause I was gonna get a snack."
Kion frowned at his friend, immediately missing the warmth of Rani's body against his. “No, Bunga.” He answered, forcing his disappointment at the interruption to not show through, instead pursing his lips into a line. “It's night time. Rani was helping me find my way back after I finished my healing for the day.”
“Oh. What kinda healing?”
Kion shrugged, “Doesn't matter, it's helping anyway.” While he knew it was wrong to hold it against the honey badger, Kion couldn't help but feel just in denying him every piece of information about his life. Bunga was his best friend… but he did get on his nerves as they get older, and he had been the one who convinced he was the ‘evil’ months before before they reached the Tree Of Life.
“Well,” Rani exclaimed, interrupting Bunga just as he was about to question his friend. “It's been a long day, Kion. You should get some rest. Myself and the Night Pride will be back around sunrise to wake you all.”
Kion nodded, keeping his smile simple and merely friendly. “Thank you, Rani.”
“You’re welcome, Kion.
Another yawn from Bunga caused the two to step away, giving one another looks as both turned to go their respective ways while Bunga lingered, groaning at his tired muscles. Glancing back, Kion could only smile as the young Queen let her tail sway behind her, ambling across the valley and into the night. The warmth in his chest grew, like a Savannah fire in the dry season, taking ahold of him as he made his in the direction Bunga had come from, soon reaching the rest of the slumbering Guard.
Grinning, he laid down on his stomach, his paws placed before him to rest his chin. A content sigh broke his lips, his exhausted body soon succumbing to the lure of sleep. Although he assumed as much. he would wake up the next morning with only memories of pleasant dreams; of a powerful roar, of allies by his side that could triumph any evil, and of a certain dark-pelted Queen who watched over the night while he secured the day.