"If they're half as nice as you, then I think it's a step up."
It felt so odd to him, walking for longer than a few hours. Any location within Uchoyo's pride was within an hour's walking distance. It made the world feel so much bigger to him. For a minute, he wondered how many other prides there were out there.
It was certainly an opinion Maji trusted. Over the next couple hours, he found himself more and more comforted.
"There's my pride. Ready?"
Suddenly, the previous hours of assuage were for naught. Meeting a new pride was something Maji had just now realized he had never done. What if they don't like him? No. He wasn't ready. But he would have to be. There was no turning back. Maji's heart beat faster as he focussed on his own breathing to try to hide his elevated breath.
"Y-Yeah..." He said, nervously. "Let's uh, let's do this then."
Maji heard the voices. It reminded him somewhat of the lionesses in Uchoyo's pride but the judgemental tone wasn't there. Each of the voices became locked into his memory. It wasn't something he could control. It just happened, just like everything new to him. Everything was instantaneously set in stone in Maji's memory.
He wasn't used to this attention. Normally, he would've been ignored in his old pride. It wasn't making him feel any more comfortable. Maji lowered his head and glanced at Vita.
"They're all looking at me. Did- did I do something wrong?"
"No. You're just new. Also, they're a bit worried. You don't exactly look healthy."
"Oh. Right." Maji noticed the difference between the rest of the lioness's physical forms and his own. A feeling of inadequacy came over him as he realized how weak he was in comparison. Not even the members of his old pride looked quite as strong. The setting was so calm and peaceful, it made Maji feel out of place. In spite of having been brought here by Vita, he couldn't help feel unwelcome.
"My brother should be here. Are you ready? I can do all the talking, if you want."
He took a deep breath and replied shakily. "Y-yeah. Sure." All his attempts at appearing calm fell flat.
Kazu raises an eyebrow at Vita and she smiles sheepishly and explains the situation.
By the time she finishes the whole story, there's a deep frown set on her brother's face.
"While I understand your reasoning, I'd prefer that you don't put our whole pride at risk for the sake of one lion." She was about to protest until he raised his paw, effectively silencing her. "However, he is your friend, so I'll do what I can to help."
Vita turns and smiles at Maji. "See? You're almost free!"
Maji was normally somewhat hungry all the time but at the mention of food, he now noticed the pangs of hunger. The hungry lion looked back at the cave entrance, then at Vita, his ears raised expectantly. He half stepped away before remembering his manners.
"Oh, uh, thank you. Y-your majesty." He said, bowing his head, his ears flattened back down. Such hesitation would've gotten him a paw to the throat from King Uchoyo. Maji squinted and braced himself, head still lowered, unsure of whether or not some physical show of force would hit him. When nothing happened, Maji lifted his wide eyes up and backed away towards Vita.
At that moment, Maji's world flipped upside down. Finally, he was beginning to realize that the patch of solace he experienced here was not and island among a vast hell that he knew. Rather, the hell he grew to accept was the isolated wrongness. It was like a weight had been lifted off his back. Maji didn't say anything. He merely smiled and nodded as he followed Vita.
Maji never really had a choice when it came to food. Just the scraps from whatever was left. At this point, anything sounded good. But there was one thing he never got to try.
"What are our chances of finding a warthog?" He asked. Warthogs weren't extremely rare but they were small enough that when his pride caught one, there weren't ever any leftovers. On those days, he just went hungry. But from what he gathered, they had a different taste from most other kinds of meat. It was something that always intrigued him.