Tessa's breathing told Win that she was asleep. It was regular, deep like it had been every night since they were separated from the other Young. Tessa had been sad to leave the other cavern, but Win had been excited to share with just her sister. It was fun to share. Things had been so good until Tessa had changed. Tessa lost her sadness and started talking to Win less. Win had guessed that when a person doesn't need as much comforting, they need less talking in general. It made a certain amount of sense, even now.
But even if Tessa didn't need comforting anymore, Jal did. If anyone did, it was him. His hollow cheeks, his eyes that cried help me, his skin bruised and scraped. All of him needed words.
But when? How?
Eating, perhaps? But the mothers would hear. Would mother--er, the darkness--mind? If it was an offense, eating would be a time of shame, not joy. The question was whether the risk was worth taking.
The answer was yes.
Like always, Tessa woke, strapping her knee pads on and lacing her shoes tighter. Win was already ready by the time Tessa reminded her to hurry. The light of Mother's torch outside the exit gave permission to leave. Once it faded, the girls set out.
In a swamp of grey fabric, a sea of robes, the young stood silently, repeating the words again and again in their heads.
Monotonous sounds, syllables, memorized. Each tongue moved in the same pattern, each mind on the same track.
Under ceilings of stone, the silence snapped in and out of place, disturbed only by the most vital phrases.
The darkness without provides, that within guides. The darkness is all. The darkness rewards all.
Every hand clasped, every breath rehearsed, every eye trained forward. But not Win's.
Her mind wandered, her eyes moved, her fingers fidgeted with anticipation. Her lips moved, but silently.
To it, we owe all. The darkness we obey.
Eating began. Two strips each. Once heads began to turn, and thanks were muttered, Win started looking in earnest. Among the matching robes, it didn't take long to spot the Young. Jal was standing against the cavern's wall. Knowing what to expect, he didn't look as gaunt as he had last time. Still, his body seemed pieced together incorrectly, pieces of a skeleton assembled the wrong way.
Win waited for Tessa to utter thanks and headed across the room, meat in hand. Dodging between Mothers, her hand found the place between her clothing and her skin where she had hidden the two extra strips of venison she had saved from last time. Holding all four in one hand, she held them out towards him. He snapped to attention, registering the food and ignoring it. His hands stayed where they were, behind his back.
"Take it," Win whispered just loud enough for him to hear, "They're yours."
Leaning forward, he made a sound like clearing his throat, one hand snatching the offering from Win's hand. The brief moment gifted Win a glance at his hands, the mangled mess at the end of each finger shocking coherent thought from her mind.
"What happened?" Win hissed. "What happened to you?"
His posture shifted away from Win again. Refusal.
Jal glared up at her, and again, his eyes screamed pain.
"If you don't already know, you probably shouldn't find out." He moved to walk away, but Win intercepted him.
"No. Tell me."
"You'll find out sooner or later." His voice. His twisted voice.
Jal stepped away again, limping past Mother.
And Mother was looking at Win. One long moment stretched between them, snapping as Mother turned away, cowled form vanishing as the torchlight faded.
Eating was over.
Author Notes: What a mess. What a mess. This one might get some editing sometime soon