Zoba kept his paw on the tree as he looked back at Kela. "We do."
"To think that we only met a few days ago. That we only started helping this land a few days ago. A lot has changed."
"It feels like it's been weeks." He said, sliding his paw off the tree trunk.
"Where did you plan to go after this?"
Zoba tilted his head over hers as he nuzzled him. "I don't know. Maybe I'll just pick a direction. I'd like to visit some place more lush than this. I know it is the dry season but I'm getting tired of the dust..." Zoba paused to think for a moment. "How about we find a river and follow it? We're bound to find some great places that way."
Soon after Kela fell asleep, Zoba himself drifted off to sleep. It was the first truly peaceful sleep he had had in days.
The next morning, Zoba awoke to a beautiful, cloudless day. The smallest whisper of a breeze drifted over he and Kela, who he now just noticed he had put his arm over at some point in the night. Zoba inhaled deeply and exhaled in a long, drawn out breath as he enjoyed the peaceful morning. Or was it norning. Zoba lifted his eyelids a bit wider to see the position of the sun.
It's nearly noon. We slept in a bit... Wait. Noon.
"Kela!" He whispered into her ear urgently as he shook her with his paw. "Kela, the celebration! We're going to be late if we don't go soon!"
"Yeah. Almost threw up afterwards." Zoba said as he rubbed his belly. Tuli giggled.
The celebration went on. Various fruits and branches full of leaves were brought and shared while the monkeys and birds sang celebratory songs in the baobab tree above. zebras, hippos, wildibeest and all sorts of other animals danced around the tree as the day went on. Various animals came to thank Zoba and Kela for their help in freeing them.
Zoba was enjoying the celebration laughing at jokes told by a group of zebras. The brevity was broken by three jackals. Among them, was Koto. With them, they dragged a dik dik. They brought him before Zoba and he looked up with fear in his eyes.
"This is the one that turned you in. He betrayed us." Koto said.
"No! Please! They were going to kill my family unless I-"
"Shut up!" Another jackal barked.
Koto cleared his throat and continued. "We will keep this traitor with us in our dens until you are ready to pass judgement." The dik dik's ears flattened as his expression of fear turned to one of sadness. By this time, all was quiet and the singing and other festivities had stopped while everyone looked on in anticipation of whatever happened next.
Kela narrows her eyes at the jackals. "Or you could release him. He obviously had very little choice in the matter."
The small animal looks up at her gratefully, only to cower at the harsh glare sent by a jackal. Then, the jackal looks to her. "Unfortunately, considering the circumstances, Zoba will make the decision since it was his life on the line."
After sending a glare to the jackal, Kela turns her pleading eyes towards Zoba. "Zoba. Please. Just tell them to leave him be. He's more of a victim than a co-conspirator." She begs on behalf of the dik dik.
"Kela is right." Zoba looked into Kotos eyes. The jackal was unmoving but his eyes showed surprise. "It was my choice to go against the hyenas. This one chose to protect his family. He had no alternative." At this time, a female dik dik and a younger one showed up behind the jackals, looks of concern on their faces. Zoba looked them over, determining that they must be his family. Zoba smiled ever so slightly.
Zoba approached the dik dik. "What is your name?"
"K-Kidogo." He stammered.
"Kidogo. While others might see your actions as betrayal, I see them as protection of your family." Kidogo's eyes lit up with hope and he glanced back at his family. "We are all family here. We protect each other now."
"I-I'm forgiven?" He said.
"There is nothing to forgive." Zoba's smile widened.
Kidogo let out a sigh of relief, a short laugh of joy escaping his lips as he turned and ran to his family.
"Kidogo, you and your family are welcome to join us." Zoba said. And with that, the family of dik diks were welcomed into the party.
Kela smiles warmly at the dik dik family, then continues to enjoy the festivities with the rest of the animals.
Hours later, as the sun was setting, she felt as though she wore herself out. Her paws were slightly sore from playing with the children and she somehow managed to get a necklace of bright pink flowers tossed around her neck during the celebration.
"Come on! Can we play again? Please!" Tuli begs, and the other small animals voice their agreements. Honestly, Kela was tired, but she didn't want to disappoint the little ones. Looking up and spotting Zoba, she came up with an idea.
"Why don't you go play with Zoba?" She nods in his direction.
Their eyes light up and they dash quickly towards the lion and Kela sighs with relief and collapses on the ground. At hearing an amused laugh above her, she looks up and sees Zuri, Tuli's mother.
"Tired from the children?" She asks.
"Yeah. I always forget how energetic kids could be."
Zuri smiles and sits with her. "I suggest getting used to it. After all, you and Zoba may have cubs of your own soon enough."
Kela blushes and looks away. "We haven't known each other that long, though. I doubt he's thinking anything like that about me."
"Yet, you're not denying what you might feel?" Zuri urges and Kela sighs.
"Honestly? I don't know. But, I am happy." She smiles and lays her head down, closing her eyes. "Tell that if he needs me, then to just wake me up." Kela says, falling asleep.
"And then I said, 'that's not my lunch, that's a rock shaped like a banana!'" A monkey finished his joke while sitting atop a cape buffalo. The circle of animals laughed in unison.
"That sounds like something my brother would say!" Zoba could barely talk, he was laughing so hard. When the groups laughter subsided, Zoba sighed and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes.
Suddenly, half a dozen small weights attached themselves to Zobas legs and a little nudge from a young rhino came from his side. It wasn't enough to knock him over but when he saw that he was now under attack by the children of the land, he smiled widely again. A baby zebra gave the tiniest nudge with his head and Zoba carefully fell over onto his side.
"Oh no! Not again!" Zoba put the back of his paw to his forehead dramatically. "Help! I'm being captured!" The children laughed and began trying to figure out where he was ticklish. It turns out, the answer is; everywhere. Zoba shrieked and laughed heartily as he wiggled about.
A female rhino, who had previously introduced herself as Zuri, Turi's mother, approached and Zoba. He lifted himself to a sitting position, a young mongoose flopped over his shoulder. "Kela is feeling tired. So she's going to take a nap. She said if you need her, you can wake her up."
"Tired? I can't imagine why..." he said as he ruffled the top of a little monkey's head.
Turi smiled. "Go to her when you're ready."
That's an interesting choice of words. Zoba thought for a moment but almost immediately dismissed the notion.
"Will do. Thanks, Zuri! Actually I'm feeling a little tired myself. It's getting late too." Zoba looked at the position of the sun, resting just above the horizon.
"Awww." The kids protested in unison as Zoba lifted the mongoose off his shoulder and set him on the ground in the same way he would a lion cub.
"Maybe we'll play some more tomorrow." He reassured them.
"Ok. See you tomorrow, Mr. Zoba!" Turi said, followed by other salutations from the rest of the kids.
Zoba made his way back toward Kela and laid down beside her. He wasn't quite tired enough to sleep so he laid here, head still raised as he watched the party subside. One by one, each family left, some coming by to whisper a 'thank you' as they departed.
When Kela woke up, she immediately notices the warm body beside her. Opening her eyes and looking up, she sees Zoba lying next to her. Looking around, she sees that the party has ended, leaving the pair alone.
"You could have woken me, you know." She says, loud enough for him to hear. "What are you thinking about?"
"You didn't miss much." Zoba replied, glancing down at her.
"What are you thinking about?"
Zoba smiled and scanned the orange horizon as dusk fell. "I haven't been this happy in a long time. I've learned to be 'content' with whatever situation I find myself in but right now..." Zoba trailed off. "This is real happiness. And I'm glad to be sharing it with you." He said as he looked into her green eyes.
Kela licks his cheek, then looks back in his fiery eyes. "So, how 'together' are we going to be? Traveling companions? Best friends? Something more?" She adds the last option a tad quieter. "Because, I dunno, I wouldn't be upset with that, if your aren't."
Zoba interrupted her just after her last sentence with a slightly harder nuzzle under her head, his muzzle rubbing just underneath her jaw. He licked her cheek and put his forehead against hers. "I wouldn't be upset with that at all." He said quietly.
"Good. Now I'm really happy." Kela sighs in content, and lays her head down on his large paws. "Go to sleep. You'll need it if we start traveling tomorrow." She says, closing her eyes and falling back to sleep.
Zoba laid his head down and closed his eyes, a new level of peace falling upon him.
He awoke early in the morning. Kela was still asleep. Zoba nuzzled her gently enough not to wake her and lifted himself to his paws. He then realized he hadn't had any water in a while as thirst overtook him. He sniffed around for any sign of water. There was a slight humidity in the air which he followed for a couple minutes until he cam upon a small waterhole. He recognized many of the animals that were at the party the previous night. The lion exchanged silent greetings in the form of head nods with a few of them. Zoba had barely finished quenching his thirst when he heard the joyful sound of children running toward him.
"Mr. Zoba! You said we could play some more today, right?"
"I did say that." He said, smiling.
"Yay!" They all cheered. Tuli then piped up. "We're playing lion hunt!"
"Lion hunt? How do you play that?"
The mongoose spoke up this time. "We pretend we're lions and we take turns being the prey!" Zoba blinked. Kids were certainly imaginative with their games. He remembered playing similar games with his brother when they were cubs.
"Alright, sounds fun! Who's going to be the prey first?"
Ten minutes later...
Zoba could barely contain his laughter at the irony of the situation. He smiled as he stood in the middle of a clearing, tall grass surrounding him. In an attempt to be as authentic as he could, Zoba leaned down and grabbed a clump of grass in his mouth. He only chewed it twice before spitting it out, blowing in an attempt to get the little bits off his tongue. A giggle could be heard off to his right. He knew where every single one of them was but he pretended not to notice.
"RAAAAWR!" Tuli yelled as she charged Zoba. Even with the few moments he gave before really reacting, she didn't quite get to him before he took off in a trot, pretending to run but not so fast that they couldn't catch him. The rest of the kids joined in the chase. Many of the adults in the area looked on in amusement at the sight of a half dozen kids, none of them lions, chasing the biggest lion most of them had ever seen.
Kela could hardly help her laughter. She was woken up at the realization that Zoba was no longer by her side. Curious, she wanders around, looking for him.
When she found him, he's being 'hunted' by the children. She arrived just on time to see him chew on some grass before spitting it out.
"Good morning, Zuri." She greets, walking up beside the rhino.
"Good morning, Kela." She greets back with a nod. "You do see this spectacle, do you not?"
"Seeing, though not quite comprehending." Kela responds, then shares a laugh with Zuri.
The pair looks at the chase with amused interest. "You know," Zuri begins. "Zoba seems to have the makings of an excellent father."
"Maybe he does." Kela shrugs. "There’s no way of truly knowing."
"Judging from the way you now smile at him, it seems you are closer to finding out than this time yesterday. Tell me, did you manage to share your feelings with him?" Zuri asks, though looks as though she already knew the answer.
Kela blushes and looks back at the playing lion. "I did. The outcome was... satisfying."
The rhino let's out a playful snort. "I could have predicted that."
Kela gives a mock glare. "Shut up." However, the smile on her face said she didn't mind in the slightest.
Zoba ran in circles and figure-eights until he saw Kela talking with Zuri. He then slowed down as he passed in front of her just close enough for her to hear his shouts for mercy as the kids tackled his legs.
"No! Please! Eat Kela! She tastes better!" At that point, they began tickling him again and he began laughing harder. "Ok, ok! Eat me! Just make the tickling stop!"
Laughing, Kela makes her way down to the group. “Okay, let him breathe. I still need him alive, you know.” She says, and the children whine a bit, before complying. When they dispersed, Kela smirks down at Zoba. “First I save you from being eaten by hyenas, now by tiny herbivores? You really do need me to save your pelt.” She teases.
Grog’s hearty laughter nearly startles her. “He does seem to fin’ more trouble when yew’re not aroun’.” He agrees. “I take yew plan to leave today.”
Kela nods. “That was the plan. Unless a certain lion has a different one.” She looks to Zoba.
By now, Zoba thought he'd be used to saying goodbye to new friends. But that wasn't the case. He turned to Grog, remembering the first time they met and their conversation. "Well then. Grog. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for all you've done." With that, Zoba glanced at Kela and then back at Grog and gave him a wink and a grin. Grog gave a knowing smile and a chuckle.
"No, Zoba. Thank you. And you too Kela. Yew've both given us somethin' we 'aven't had in a long time. Freedom." The rhino gave a contented sigh. "And if You're ever around, Give us a visit." Grog turned and walked towards his herd. "I expect to see some young'ns next time!" He shouted over his shoulder as he began humming a tune. "Can you feel the loooove toniiight..." His voice was muffled as he walked away.
Zoba smiled and blushed a bit, then turned to Kela. "I mean, it's not AS awkward as it used to be, but still..."
"I think so. We'll pass the elephants and the jackals on our way out."
Saying goodbye to the elephants was brief but pleasant. Everything they did seemed to have a ceremonial air to it, especially goodbyes. It wasn't long and drawn out since Hekima urged them to be on their way since dusk was coming soon. Visiting the jackals was short as well but more so because they seemed to want to be left alone.
With the termite mounds behind them and the sun to their backs, they began their trek into the unknown. Zoba had done this so many times before, and he was sure Kela probably had as well. But this time, it felt more exciting. This time, he was doing it with Kela by his side. They only had three or four more hours of sunlight but it would be enough to travel some distance. Zoba smiled at Kela and rubbed his shoulder against hers as they walked.
"Well, I don't normally travel with large, handsome lions either. Guess we're both lucky, huh?" Kela smirks back.
After a while longer of walking, Kela slows to a stop. "Zoba? I'm hungry and the sun is setting. Let's rest for tonight." She asks, failing to keep the whine out her voice. She does feel quite tired after traveling such a distance. Some rest and food would do her good.