• Ntoka: Jacob.
  • Everyone else: Si.

Massi walked through the closely-huddled tents of the tribe, looking for one tribemate in particular. Shima had volunteered to take over the cub-sitting duty Massi had been given so that she could go tend to a friend of hers she'd been meaning to talk to for a while. The rest of the tribe was only now done waking up and was going about its day, and spotting her friend, Massi walked over and set a hand on his shoulder behind him. "Hello, Ntoka," she said in her slightly gravelly voice.

Ntoka's ears swiveled, catching the approaching heavy footsteps behind him. He tensed a bit at first, but after he recognized the voice and the gentle touch of Massi's hand, he relaxed...then fell into a short coughing fit. "Hey, Boulder..." he answered after the coughing ended, "I'm coming out of yet another cold. Almost got it fully beat; the cough is just hanging on."

"I know," she said. "But do you feel well enough to go out today? I've been needing to talk to you...but with how much I have to do and you being sick much of the time, I've only now gotten the chance."

Ntoka pondered for a moment, and then answered, "I'm glad you made the time to visit. I think I'm ready to head out." He accented this with a slight cough, but at least his color was good and he seemed to be fairly well like he said.

She smiled and nodded. "Good. Then let's go grab some water and get going." She moved her hand to put its arm around his shoulders as she led him to her tent to fetch a skin of water, which she handed to him. After slinging a large pack on her back, she led outside of the perimeter of the tents.

Ntoka let Massi lead him out of the camp's grounds, smiling at how he loved her strong, comforting grip around his shoulders. She had been such a good friend to him ever since joining the tribe at the Crosspath. Ntoka's sickliness and weak state tended to keep most of the warriors away, but she embraced him with powerful open arms. He was also attracted to her from the start, but didn't ask anything more than friendship so far.

Once they were several hundred paces from the tribe, Massi stopped and asked, "I've been meaning to ask have you been doing in trying to find your place? I'm worried about you. We're both coming up on 21 years old but it seems like you're still just...drifting and not finding what you love to do." While many Ye'en were happy tending the day-to-day workings of the tribe, Massi had long been certain that Ntoka's frailty kept him from finding something he really wanted to do.

His ears drooped with his expression and he sighed, "I don't have the mind for a healer...there's too much to remember too quickly. I have tried some of the other indoor jobs but I go stir crazy and find them so unfulfilling...I haven't been well enough to try anything else."

The woman nodded sympathetically. "That's what I thought...I'm starting to worry about you, you know. I know it's not your fault you're sick so often, but we really have to find something you can do. You don't have to do it better than everyone else, you have any ideas? Because if you don't, I have one."

"By this point, I will take any suggestion and try as best as I can at it," the sickly Ye'en answered. He looked up into Massi's eyes as he did, and only then did he realize he was about as tall as she was. But his tall frame was covered in only the slightest bit of flesh between bone and skin. He felt especially weak standing opposite the well-built Massi, but strangely felt encouraged instead of downtrodden because he knew she was on his side.

"All right, then...from my experience, staying in shape does great to get over sickness. Sure, you'll get sick, but you'll fight it off quicker. So...I wanna help train you, help you get in shape." She flexed one of her arms and smiled at him. "I know what I'm talking about, hm?"

"Mraw...uhhm...yah," Ntoka answered, blushing almost noticeably through his fur at Massi's flex, "I mean, I'd love for you to help me get stronger. I just hope it will work...."

"Oh, I know I can help you...but if we're gonna start now, we gotta get some energy in you." She slung the sack off her back and let it "thud" on the ground. Reaching in, she took out a small leather pouch out and opened it to offer him a fist-sized piece of meat. "Shima made this for you. She said it'll pack enough punch to last you most of the day."

He took the chunk of meat and ate it piece by piece. "Strange flavor..." he commented after his second swallow. "Give my thanks to Shima, though. I'm glad all of you are so willing and ready to help."

"You can thank her when we get back. She'll appreciate it," Massi said with a smile. "Now, whenever you're ready, let's stretch out and get to it." She motioned for him to sit on the ground.

He swallowed the rest and washed it down with a swig or two from his waterskin. Then he capped the skin, set it aside, and sat down with a slight grunt. "I'm not sure where to start..." he admitted, "I have watched you warriors stretch a couple times, but never gotten down what you do."

"That's why I'm here to help. Now, spread your legs as wide as you can, and reach to one foot as far as you can," she said, kneeling behind him and resting her hands on his shoulders. "I'll push you a little bit; just tell me if it hurts at all."

"Okay..." Ntoka said as he spread his legs wide and straight. He did his best to spread them a little wider than 90 degrees, which was not much. He first leaned over to his right leg and reached for his foot. His back popped once or twice as his fingertips made it halfway down his calf and stopped.

Massi helped him go a little further. "Now count to fifteen, and then we'll do the same with the other leg."

"Mrff..." he managed with a little groan, having not ever really stretched like this. He counted slowly to fifteen to himself, and then did likewise with his left leg. The stretching was uncomfortable, but strangely, at the same time, it felt good. He really needed this, he thought.

"Good. Now, reach straight I hurting you?" she asked, rubbing one of his shoulder blades.

"Not've not pushed me too far," he answered as he sat up. Then he reached forward as far as he could. Massi continued to help him stretch. It then occurred to him that she was...well...closer to him than when they just greeted each other or hugged. It was a good thing he wasn't facing her, so she couldn't see him blush.

After that was done, she stood up and brought him up as well. "That should be good for your lower half. Now, just stretch out each arm like this," she pulled one arm so that its elbow was behind her head and its hand was reaching down the opposite shoulder blade, "and again, count to fifteen." When they had both done so, she smiled and nodded. "There. Feel more loosened up?"

"Yeah...I didn't realize how stiff I was," Ntoka answered, rolling his shoulders, "though I guess it's natural considering my position. What's next? More stretches or what?"

"Nope. Now, we get started with the workout," she replied with a smirk.

"Workout" was an apt term for it. Through the rest of the morning and into the early evening, Massi put him through his paces, from jogging interspersed with walking to lifting weights she had brought to sit-ups and push-ups. By the time the sun was setting, Ntoka was sweaty, tired and more than a little sore, yet unlike the fatigue that had plagued him most of his life, it was a good kind of tired. Now Massi had him doing cooldown stretches in the shade of a tree they had moved under when the sun was high. " do you feel?" she asked as she helped him stretch again.

"Exhausted..." he half-muttered as he stretched with a groan. "You worked me awful hard for first time. Plus with all that food and water you made me take in I think I'd be ready for a very long night's sleep."

"Yeah, I guess I did go a little too far...but now you have the idea of what you can do when we can't meet. Just stretching out and taking a walk every morning or evening'll be great." She patted his back as she eased off. "In a year or so, maybe we can even wrestle," she said with a chuckle.

"I somehow doubt I can match you in a year's time," Ntoka replied, standing up as best as his legs would allow. They felt as limp as uncured leather and half as tough. He leaned on Massi, partly hugging her, partly using her as support. "You know...the only people I think I have spent a whole day with before have been maybe a couple friends, my parents, and some healers. The fact you invested a day like this in me means a lot."

After putting her pack back on, she let him lean on her as they started their walk (well, half-stumble) back, nodding. "That's my job...keeping everyone safe. Especially if I can help them keep themselves safe." She blinked as she heard her stomach rumble...she had let him help himself to all the food she had brought. "Uh...but now, how about we go get some food? I think you've earned a victory meal," she said with a big smile.

"I kinda wonder if I can eat anymore, but I'll eat what I can. I'm sure you need more food than I do," he responded. As the two walked back and he leaned on her, he could hardly help feeling up her arm and shoulder a bit. The muscle under her fur felt as hard as stone and yet warm and comforting at the same time.

Massi had noticed his prodding her muscle, but didn't think anything of it, just that he was still comparing himself to her. As they reached the tents, her eyes were drawn to a figure that might well have been more intimidating than she was: one of the White Ones was sitting against a tree and napping at a stone to make a crude axe head. He was only a little less muscular as she was but was several inches taller, and that combined with his white fur marked with black stripes instead of the usual Ye'en coloring made his presence even more difficult to ignore.

He looked up as they passed by, scowling at them. "Taking pity on the weakling, Massi?" he asked.

Ntoka's ears folded back and he kept his gaze away as the White One called him and Massi out. He didn't want any trouble, but knew the White One would readily push him around when given the chance.

Massi growled at him as they kept walking. "Don't waste my time, Mzenga. I've had a long day."

The White One snorted. "Of doing what?"

"Of helping a friend find his place in the tribe," the woman called over her shoulder.

"Ah, so the deadweight is dragging his heels a little less?" he replied, standing up.

"A little less...yes," Ntoka answered, "and this deadweight has a name."

"That's right," Massi said, "and you need to show some respect to your tribemate."

"But I do. You're worthy of my respect," Mzenga started to walk towards them, "among other things. He isn't."

Ntoka closed his eyes and said nothing more for now. The insults were stinging, more than usual now considering his long day of work and already low confidence. He held back the tears, knowing that if Mzenga saw him begin to cry, the insults would only worsen.

Massi glared at Mzenga over her shoulder. "You shouldn't talk to him like that when I'm around," she rumbled, baring her teeth.

Mzenga matched her glare and tensed up, both in excitement and aggression, but held his ground. "Hmph...shield the weakling all you want; it won't change anything," he grumbled, going back to his work.

"Thank you again, Massi..." Ntoka whispered as they walked further away. "He and the other White Ones have done some very cruel things to me...."

She sighed. "I don't get why they're so cruel...but you'll show them yet." She patted his back. "Right?" she asked with a hopeful smile.

"I don't think they would give me a chance...that's why I'm glad you and Shima are," he said. "You'll help me show them."

She smiled at him and nodded. "Why don't we go keep Shima company while we wait for food? She'll be glad to see the meat she prepared worked...and I kinda owe her for taking over my duty."

"Certainly," he answered with a weak smile and let Massi lead him to the tribe's daycare.

"And don't worry: we'll make the kids leave you alone," she added.

The daycare tent was noticeably larger than most of the tents families slept in: while most of the tribe did not specialize in a job that would make carrying their cubs around dangerous, enough did that a few dedicated caretakers as well as a rotating schedule of a few more volunteers were needed to keep an eye on some of the younger cubs when their parents were doing their jobs. Inside, the tent had an area for beds separated from the outside by a simple curtain to keep the light from the entrance out, and the rest was given to the several older Ye'en tending to the cubs. The tent was a mild ruckus as many of the cubs were playing, but it was late afternoon and several of the cubs had already been picked up by parents. Shima was never hard to pick out: Ye'en who grew their hair out were uncommon, but she was also rather small, only coming up to about Massi's shoulders and she had next to no muscle on her bones, though she looked more delicate than simply weak. She was sitting by one wall, cradling a cub in one arm and walking the fingers of her other hand across his stomach, smiling as he giggled and tried to grab them.

Ntoka waved at Shima when she looked up. "Ntoka, Massi, hello," she said with a smile, waving them down to her.

Massi led Ntoka to them and eased him down before setting her pack against the wall, leaning to give Shima a mutual kiss on the cheek and then sit next to her, resting her arm around the woman's shoulders. "Hi, Shima...we just came to cool off from our workout."

Shima looked at Ntoka hopefully. "Oh, did you try out that meat I prepared? I tried that energy ritual I just learned...did it work?" she asked.

"You prepared a ritual in that meat? No wonder Massi mentioned it was a special recipe," Ntoka chuckled. "I think it worked well. Just a few fueled me all day."

"Really? Well, I'm glad then, you already look tougher," Shima remarked, "though a little worn out...Massi didn't let you off easy, did she?" She looked over at Massi with mock exasperation. "Maybe tomorrow I can do something for that too...."

"I think just a little rest will do me good...and maybe more stretching," Ntoka said, "and I hardly think I can be tougher in one day. Anyway, how was cubsitting?"

"Oh, the stories I could tell...but I will say Chamada here is starting to enjoy his new teeth a little too much," she replied, looking back down at the cub, who was looking up at the newcomers curiously. "Almost got me again."

Massi shook her head. "For someone who loves this so much, your head is still always somewhere else," she said, ruffling Shima's hair. "But, let's hear how your day went; had to have been easier than his was."

Ntoka sighed and relaxed, watching cubs play and enjoying listening to Massi and Shima chitchat. Especially Massi. Occasionally one of the cubs crawled or stumbled over and tried to get him to play or use him as something to climb on when he refused, but Shima was quick to either shoo them to a better playmate or indulge them, talking Massi into holding a particularly insistent one. Shima listened as intently as she could as she was told of all they did that day, though her posture noticeably drooped when their encounter with Mzenga came up. Ntoka sighed and grimaced at the mention of Mzenga. "I wish I knew why they're so mean...they have no reason nor right," he commented. "By the way, I don't mind the cubs so much. You needn't shoo them away...I don't think."

"You look tired...I don't want to stress you out more," Shima said, "and you're right about them. It's as if something else is making them this way...or they were born for it." The small woman shook her head, staring off worriedly for a moment. "They're almost as bad to me...they always say, 'If you weren't a ritualist, you would be nothing but another weakling.'"

Massi protectively held Shima a little closer. "And they know that if they did, they'd have to answer to me too."

"I can imagine..." Ntoka grumbled, leaning back. "So when's dinner?"

"Can't be much longer now," Massi replied, shifting a little. "Yeah...Shima, we're gonna get going, we'll see you at dinner, all right?"

Shima nodded. "Okay, just leave your stuff here, you can get it later...and here, give 'im to me," she said, letting Massi lay her cub in Shima's arm. "Love you," she added with another cheek kiss as Massi stood up.

"Little help?" Ntoka said, trying and failing to stand up.

Reaching down and pulling him to his feet, Massi gave him a look that said she did not know whether to be amused or worried. "Huh...I really did work you over..." she remarked as she led him outside.

Shima smiled at him. "Take care, now," she said as she returned her attention to the cubs.

"Just a little," Ntoka answered with a tone of sarcastic understatement and a smirk as he and Massi left the cub tent. Now and then, he would still cough, but he did his best to cough away from Massi.

As soon as they were back outside, they could tell the hunters were returning for the day, and had had a good hunt: people were filing to the clearing in the center of the tents excitedly, where the fire pit and a fresh dinner waited. Massi perked up and all but dragged Ntoka behind her. "C'mon, let's get some grub!" Ntoka smiled as Massi pulled him along, savoring the smell of fresh meat. Apparently they were a bit late: the kills of the day were already being carved up and roasted, and the gatherings of plants were being passed out. "Here, I'll go get you a good piece, you go...find a place to sit," Massi said, though she looked as if she could barely wait herself.

"Uhm...all right," he replied, letting go briefly and hobbling to a nearby open spot. A White One passed by him and "accidentally" elbowed him in the side, knocking him to the ground. The other few White Ones chuckled to themselves as they moved to their spot.

Another Ye'en scowled at them as he leaned down to help Ntoka up. "You all right?" he asked.

"Yeah...yeah, I'm all right," Ntoka answered, shaking his head. "Thanks...though I was kind of thinking the spot I fell was as good as any to sit for dinner."

"Heh, guess that's a nice way to think of it," he said, dusting Ntoka off before going on his way.

Massi soon came to him with a leg that had hefty chunk of meat still on the bone, taking a seat next to him. "Here ya go. You earned it," she said happily, handing the meat over.

Ntoka smiled and took the leg meat, tearing into it as best as he could. "Fankff, Maffi," he said with a half-full mouth, and then he swallowed and clarified, "thanks, Massi."