The battles started and ended, the lions battled and bowed out, laughing and congratulating one another and every time he saw one come to a close he found his stomach clenching. Betheku could not fault them for enjoying such a thing as a sport, for valuing strength and battle prowess, but he felt too much like he was waiting for a gavel to fall. It was no one's issue but his own, and he realized that, but it still made it too hard to laugh and cheer as his brothers and sisters swiped and clawed and tackled one another.

Today, he was no where near the fights. Instead, he was strolling alone along the border, doing the only thing he felt he could: keeping the pride safe from any unwanted intruders while they enjoyed the festival they waited all year for. As sun the drew closer to the horizon he knew that the battles for the day would draw to a close and he would be afforded the opportunity to mingle with the other members of the clans he had yet to know. He still had not quite managed to wrangle his awe at the sheer number of them; they would put the Bonelands to shame, he thought, and they did not even have any males dedicated solely to protecting them. Of course, everything here was different..

The outsider-born male let his mind wander as he mingled along the only 'border' he could discern in this part of the pride's territories. He was unfamiliar with this part of their lands, like he was so many things here still, but he was deteremined, none the less, to be of some use to this pride even if this ceremony was something he had yet to be able to put his entire heart into.

"Hiding again, are we?"

Betheku's paw paused mid-air as he whipped his head around, wide eyed and surprised. Luckily, it was only the older male that he spotted - Kalju, the voluntary black sheep. At least, that was how he had described himself before. The tenseness in his muscles slowly drained as he realized it was a friendly face and not a foe that had crept up upon him so easily but he was disappointed in hismelf regardless. What kind of guardian was he if he was letting himself get distracted with idle, wandering thoughts?

He sighed, but offered the dusty male a smile.

"I guess so. I'm not ready to see fights as a sport just yet," then, suddenly worried, he shook his head, "I don't mean to offend. It's just.. very different."

Kalju, as always, only laughed at him - it was not insulting, but gentle as a rolling river and once again Betheku found it calming. He was a gentle giant if he had ever seen one, unthreatening and sturdy as the mountains that loomed around this great pride. He drew himself closer to where the puffy male sat and lowered himself without invitation; Kalju's presence was always inviting even if he never spoke it aloud.

"That's quite alright," the dust-colored Ela native answered, "there are a lot of different cultures that have joined our pride over the years. Some of them are battle-hungry and enjoy the chance to show their skill and others shy from it. You shouldn't let your reservations let you feel like an outsider; all change takes time."

Betheku could only nod as he tried to digest such careful, understanding words. Those, too, were so dramatically different. His life in the Bonelands had been raised so black and white - traditions simply were and expectations always fell in line. Here it seemed so comforting, in ways, even if they were a pride that held strongly to old traditions and old ways - he supposed, in the end, it was only because their malleable nature was written cleanly into their bones. At least, judging by Kalju and those he had encountered like him, anyway.

"You should think about it less, you're too young to have your face screwed up like that all the time."

"What?" Betheku blinked, narrowing his eyebrows, "screwed up like what?"

Suddenly, a great, fuzzy paw raised and planted itself cleaning between his eyes against the bridge of his nose.

"Like, that."

Betheku's eyes narrowed and then turned inward, crossing to look at the paw. It made Kalju, this gentle friend, burst into laughter. He dropped his paw and held it to his great, shaking belly instead, letting his own eyes grow narrow with his mirth. Betheku found it too hard not to at least smile at such a sight and his face broke around a soft laugh, releasing all the tension and worry that Kalju had been chastising him for. The minutes ticked by and Kalju's laughter bubbled down to silence, even if the evidence of it remained plastered across his face in a wide, brilliant smile.

"That's better," he offered, at last, breaking their pleasant silence, "just focus on what you do best - patrol the borders, look for intruders, find a way to make what you know fit within our traditions. It's why our ceremonies are voluntary. I hunt, I'm good at it, and I'm good at not making trouble."

The large, fluffy male shrugged his shoulders as if that was simply the way it should be and, oddly, Betheku found peace in the answer even if a touch of apprehension remained in his bones.

"You make everything sound so easy, you know?"

Kalju smiled at him again and stood from where he had been sitting, stretching out his short, stocky limbs so that he might grow accustomed to the feel of standing.

"You don't live through all the turmoil and uncertainty that has rocked my family and make it to this age without finding out a bit about yourself and the world along the way." He took a few steps forward and paused long enough to pat Betheku gently upon the back. "You remind me a bit of myself when I was younger - uncertain and confused. Don't feel guilty if you need to find quiet for yourself, no one here will begrudge you the need to sink yourself into tasks that are concrete."

Betheku nodded, letting the words sink in.

"Thank you, Kalju. I know you don't have to extend your pleasantries to me and-"

"Tch," the older male scoffed, clicking his tongue against his teeth in disapproval, "don't act like that. If all I ever manage is to make one young soul fret a bit less than he needs to then I will have done something for this world, hm?" Betheku found it hard to argue and as Kalju's wide smile split his face, he echoed it without thinking.

"Now, I'm going to find my pretty lady friend - you get back to your patrol, okay?"

With a nod, the great, furry lion slipped off in the direction of the battles. They would nearly be over and the pride would disperse to their festivities for the night before they went to bed and rose to begin anew at dawn's break. Betheku pushed himself to his feet as Kalju dwindled into the distance and set off along the path of dulled scent markers, back to his patrol and what he knew best.

(1,213 words)