It was the quiet of a holy place. Against the far wall, Ralph sat with his legs folded and his eyes closed, drifting. He let his breath take shape like the ocean, flowing forwards and backwards. The sound of roaring came to his ears. He was nowhere and nothing. Jack had kept his word and more. For two nights now, Ralph had seen no one. There was only rustling at the front of the cave occasionally, a crude attempt to knock, and the soft noise of running footsteps on the spongy ground, and by the time Ralph pushed the leaves aside there were only bowls of food to greet him. It must have been Jack's doing. Ralph gritted his teeth so tightly when he thought of him that his jaw ached. It was as if he was trying to keep him in isolation. I hate him, he told himself, all the more angry because he knew that he did not.
The sound of movement at the front of the cave annoyed him. Visitors were the last thing he wanted. He wanted to stay in his trance, ebbing and flowing, but he already felt himself returning, rudely forced back. He opened his eyes, already prickling with irritation.
The sight of the sullen-faced boy hunkering at the front of the cave did not do anything to improve his mood.
"Yes?" Ralph asked tensely. He began glancing around for the stray cloths he used as bandages and his bowl of water. He froze, his arm halfway outstretched. Fully alert now, Ralph could sense that there was something entirely wrong, entirely off-color in the air. The flesh of his back was crawling. He forced himself to continue to reach toward the bundle of cloth he kept handy. Kneeling, he placidly arranged the materials by his side, and then glanced up with what he hoped was a neutral expression.
Roger's eyes were glittering in the dark. There was something hideously alarming in his look. It was the gaze of someone entirely, darkly, frighteningly fascinated. The gaze of a voyeur.
"Well? Is something wrong?" Ralph heard himself saying coldly, while he fought his inner urge to attempt to flee around the boy. Roger smirked and held out his arm. There was a deep, ugly slash across the back of his hand up to the middle of his forearm. Ralph felt himself relax slightly. So he did come for bandages, he thought, although a nagging doubt danced across the back of his neck, chilling the flesh it found there. Ralph dampened a cloth and motioned for Roger to come closer. The boy strode across the floor swiftly and dropped down far closer than Ralph had intended. Ignoring this, Ralph wrapped the cloth firmly round the wound, careful to encase all of it. He was so focused on his task that Roger's grating voice startled him far more than it should have.
"What do you get out of it?" Ralph glanced at him sharply. Part of him already knew what Roger was referring to.
"What do you get out of it? I know what he gets out of it, but what do you?"
"I don't know what your talking about." Ralph focused on the bandage. It was dark and slightly coarse, probably the remnant of a jacket. He tightened the knots, forcing himself to work carefully, trying not to let on that he was nervous, ready to bolt. "There," Ralph began, securing the last bit, "that ought to -" he broke off into a startled cry. Roger's fingers were digging painfully into his thigh. Before Ralph had time to react further, he brought his other hand up and scratched his nails lightly down Ralph's cheek.
"Is that why he lets you live?" Revulsion took hold of Ralph, ripping violently through him. In the next moment, it seemed, he was standing over Roger, speechless with offended dignity. Roger brought a hand up to his newly bruised jaw, looking rather startled. He got to his feet quickly, pinning Ralph with an ugly look the entire time.
"Get out," Ralph said coldly. Roger made no move to do so.
"Took you some time to think of it, right? You were always so clever. Got him wrapped round your finger now? Or not your finger," Roger added with another leer. Ralph fought to keep his fury in check.
"You don't know what you're saying. You know very well that Jack doesn't listen to me." Roger laughed, a short, harsh noise.
"The whole tribe knows better than that. You told Jack not to hurt poor little Robert, and he didn't." Roger gave him a look that was disgust, and something else, something uglier, more elusive. "You! Ordering our Chief around." Ralph could only stare incredulously.
"You don't know how wrong you have it," Ralph muttered. "Jack wouldn't just...he didn't...for God's sake, what reason would he have to listen to me?"
"He didn't have any, before." Roger locked his gaze deliberately with Ralph's. His eyes were empty, glassy. "But now you've obviously given him one. He should have killed you years ago..." The tension ran out of Ralph. He sank to the floor with a deep, heavy sigh.
"You're right, he should have." Roger froze, caught completely off guard.
"I bandaged your hand. Now get out. Unless you want something for that bruise?" Ralph added savagely, pleased to see the angry flush that started over Roger's cheeks. There was no other movement in a long while. Ralph looked up again, his eyes gleaming strangely in the faltering light of the cave. "If you're so convinced that Jack does what I tell him to, why are you staying? He could be along any minute. Maybe he's just as annoyed as you are that the bloodbath was cancelled." At this, Roger regained some of his composure.
"That's it, is it? That's a threat." Ralph laughed at him, and he seemed to shrink in his eyes. Bratty, sulking child.
"Get out, Roger. Stop being a fool. Do you think I care about who's running this bloody island anymore? Look at me!" Roger looked. Whatever he saw made him uncertain. He backed away to leave, but stopped at the mouth of the cave, his eyes growing narrow, suspicious.
"You're doing it again. Clever. You don't fool me, though." Ralph turned from him with an exclamation of disgust. Roger rustled through the leaves once again. Ralph stood, his muscles painfully taut, for several minutes. He was seized by an alien desire to take some sort of decisive action, but he was quite surprised when his steps bent suddenly for the cave entrance. Thrusting the leaves aside, he walked into the harsh, heavy sunlight. Ralph faltered for a moment as he looked around himself, but he soon regained his vigor and strode purposefully off towards the fireside.
He was relieved to see, as he approached, that it was practically deserted by this time of day, except for the boys he was looking for. Eric was kneeling side by side with Robert in the distance, their legs pressed together so that they seemed vaguely like one mass. Closer to Ralph was a tall, sturdy tree with a tan leg and arm peeping out from its side. He was quite close before Eric realized that someone was approaching, and the boy stared at him with so much shock that the effect was rather comical.
"Ralph!" He managed. The limbs behind the tree twitched, and a head poked out, awkwardly twisting to see him.
"Don't, Maurice, you'll strain something," Ralph said, hurrying over to kneel beside the injured boy. He had been propped up against the rough tree, facing his caretakers. Ralph gave him a reassuring smile as he brushed Maurice's thick, tangled hair off of his pale forehead.
"Did you come here for me?" He asked, sounding rather awed.
"Yes, and I'm very glad you're finally awake to see it." Ralph replied quietly, taking in his appearance. Consciousness was one of the only improvements. There was a sickly pallor to the sun-darkened skin, his eyes were sunken and ringed heavily, and every so often his lips would pull involuntarily at a corner, like a weak twitch. "How do you feel?" Maurice took a deep breath that threw out his thin chest and seemed ready to lie bravely. However, the motion must have aggravated the fresh wound in his chest, and he winced forward, weakly clutching at the spot covered with motley cloth.
"I'm aw-wful!" The words came out in a wail. Ralph had been expecting it - he did not suppose that anyone had attended to Maurice in any way other to see that his literal wounds were not about to kill him. Comforting the child who had nearly died, Ralph thought with not little venom, seemed beyond the capabilities of anyone in the godforsaken little tribe. He moved closer, and Maurice dropped his head on his arm. "I feel sick, and I have to watch them all day," Ralph saw out of the corner of his eye that Eric gave an unhappy flinch at this, "and it h-hurts!" His voice dropped a bit at the end as his hand quivered over the cloth, as if divulging a shameful secret. "And they don't care! They don't do anything!"
"I do!" Robert yelped, afraid that he was about to be accused of carrying out his sentence improperly.
"You don't!" The venom in the boy's voice was terrible to hear, and Ralph lifted a hand to cradle the head against his elbow.
"All right, all right," he said soothingly. The last thing Maurice needed was a fit of hysterics. Ralph glanced backwards at the guilty-looking pair and wondered if he had make a mistake in asking Jack to assign Robert the responsibility of taking care of his victim. "I expected better from at least you, Eric." The boy lowered his head.
"B-but Ralph," he began unhappily before Ralph silenced him with a wave.
"Please get something for Maurice to eat, Eric. He looks starved." Eric got to his feet, but stood nervously without going off.
"He won't eat, Ralphie," Eric whispered, his eyes on the floor. Ralph jerked his gaze back to Maurice, alarmed.
"Is that true, Maurice? But why?"
"I can't. I'm sick." Maurice pressed his pale lips together. Ralph closed his eyes for a moment.
"Robert, do you know those trees that grow near the center of the island? With the very thick, wide leaves?" Robert nodded, still looking abashed. "Go gather as many as you can." The boy scampered off. "Eric," the blond boy sidled closer at being summoned. "Do you think you can manage to warm water in one of the wooden bowls? If you put it near the fire, but not too close?" Eric hesitated.
"I can try...I haven't done it before..."
"Well, put a piece of meat in the water and try to warm it as much as you can." Eric's eyes brightened, catching on to the idea, and he hurried off. Ralph was left quite alone with the younger boy. Maurice moved as if he intended to lift himself out of Ralph's arm, but his entire body tensed in apparent pain. "Try to be still," Ralph admonished quietly. Maurice sniffled and then coughed to hide the noise.
"I can sit on my own. You don't have to hold me," he insisted in a rather unconvincing tone. Ralph turned his face away to hide his smile.
"Of course not. But it's so shady under this tree - you don't mind if I stay sitting here, do you?"
"Oh, no," Maurice said graciously, "you can stay." Ralph could not resist ruffling his hair lightly. After a few minutes of companionable silence, Ralph asked quietly, "Is it difficult to be here with Robert?" Maurice scoffed theatrically.
"I'm not afraid of him."
"I know, but...maybe it would be easier on you if you had a friend taking care of you?" Ralph sighed internally. He should have considered this from Maurice's point of view before.
"Oh," Maurice paused uncertainly then scoffed again. "I don't need to be taken care of." Ralph fought the urge to groan. Behind him the sound of footsteps in the brush alerted him to the boys' return. Robert looked over his armful of leaves at Ralph questioningly.
"Put them on the ground here under the tree, like a bed," Ralph said, lifting Maurice carefully up despite his protests about being able to stand on his own. Robert spread the soft, springy leaves neatly across jungle floor. Ralph nodded at him in approval and helped Maurice lie down. The boy looked surprised for a minute.
"It's soft," Maurice said, curling up contentedly.
"Could you go to my cave and fetch some skins, too?" Ralph asked, smoothing Maurice's tangled hair. Robert hurried off again. With attention diverted elsewhere, Maurice's bravado had evaporated. His eyes had drifted shut and the raw agony on his young face as his tense muscles adjusted to the sudden comfort of the leaves sent a pang through Ralph. "You ought to be with me in the cave," Ralph sighed. "They aren't taking good care of you, are they?" Maurice's eyes opened only slightly to register that Ralph had spoken. What could be seen was glazed, unfocused, rather like an animal in pain. The fair-haired boy closed his eyes. It was an awful position - it seemed he could not do anything without jeopardizing the safety of both of the boys. To ask that Maurice be placed under his care was to admit that his plan for Robert's penance was not working. And then what? Ralph buried his face in trembling hands. It would be back to his plan. He would do it - he would hurt Robert just to spite me. He would.
"Ralph!" He jerked out of his reverie, startled. Robert was kneeling by him, a bundle of skins in his arms, looking anxious. "I'm sorry, Ralph!" He said earnestly. The boy blinked, belatedly realizing that his eyes were wet. "I'll do better, honest! Please don't..." Robert trailed off, nervously chafing his palms. Ralph smiled weakly.
"Yes!" As if to illustrate the point, Robert carefully draped the warm skins over Maurice's rigid body. Soft footfalls emerged from the darkening jungle, and Eric stepped forth, carefully carrying a dark bowl.
"Did it work?" Ralph asked. Eric set the bowl down carefully by Maurice's makeshift bed and nodded, allowing himself a small smile. The water had indeed colored slightly, becoming a weak broth under the coaxing of the fire. "Good." Ralph placed his hand gently on Maurice's forehead. "Do you think you can drink a little?" Maurice looked up wearily, hesitating.
"Maybe..." he propped himself up slowly on his forearms and leaned over to sip hesitantly at the contents of the bowl. Eric settled down beside the boy, patting his hair comfortingly. Ralph surveyed the scene. It was a far more hopeful picture than when he first arrived - the boys were hovering anxiously over their charge, who looked at least comfortable. Maybe they will do better after having a little push, Ralph thought, biting his bottom lip. Maurice was leaning back, burrowing under the skins and yawning.
"He drank it all," Eric whispered in a relieved tone. Maurice's eyes closed and within moments he had fallen into a peaceful sleep. Tension that he had not realized he had ran out of Ralph's limbs.
"Keep giving him that until he can eat properly again, all right?" Ralph stood up slowly, sighing. "Come get me if you need anything." With a final nod, Ralph turned and melted back into the forest. Instinctive steps brought him back to his cave while his mind was occupied with thoughts of the boys he had just left. Perhaps that was why he did not notice the figure leaning easily against the back of his cave until he was quite inside. A startled cry escaped his lips, and an amused look flashed out at him from a falling fringe of red hair.
"It's only me," Jack said, unsuccessfully fighting back a smirk. Ralph turned away briefly to collect himself, crossing his arms. He was completely unnerved. Jack had stayed away for so long, and now here he was, casually, as if nothing at all had passed between them. "Well? What are you doing out in the sun, Ralph?" He met his mocking gaze at this, surprised.
"What do you mean?" he asked quietly, tightening his arms.
"Aren't you afraid of melting?" Jack was greeted by another blank, bewildered stare. "You look like you're made of wax." Ralph looked away again.
"Being in the cave...you know." There was a heavy, dull silence.
"What's wrong with you now?" Jack asked in a resigned tone.
"Nothing's wrong," Ralph replied sharply, realizing as he said it that the answer was as ridiculous as the question. Jack stepped towards him, and Ralph moved back without thinking. Jack stopped, a strange smile hovering on his lips.
"I did what you told me to, you know," he said, scratching the back of his head carelessly. Ralph searched for a reply, fighting a desperate urge to simply flee. Hell, he thought, hell. It seemed like the correct word. "But it doesn't mean anything to you, eh?" Jack continued, "You don't make any sense -"
"I went to go see Maurice," Ralph said quickly, answering the question that had not quite been asked.
"Oh? How was he?"
"A bit better when I left..." Ralph hesitated. A sudden, ridiculous urge to confide in Jack about the stressful events of the day arose in him. Stupid, he chastised himself viciously, it's his doing in the first place. His fault. And yet the yearning refused to fade, and Ralph twisted his fingers together, unwittingly manifesting his turmoil. Hell.
"What's wrong, Ralph?" Jack's voice was closer than before, and Ralph flinched - towards him, as if on instinct.
"Just worried," Ralph said breathily, trying to control himself, "there's only so much we can do here, and it's a bad wound...I'm just worried." There was an unguardedly puzzled look in Jack's eyes when Ralph met them skittishly.
"He'll be all right. No need to get so worked up about it." Ralph let out an exasperated breath, and Jack chuckled. "Was that all?"
"'Was that all?' Only Maurice's life, Jack," Ralph snapped, aggravation returning some of the strength to his limbs. Jack waved a hand.
"Well, he made it this far." A serious look came over Jack's face. "Maurice is stronger than he looks, Ralph. He'll be right. You'll see." Ralph looked down, disarmed by the warmth of Jack's tone.
"What exactly happened to Roger's arm this morning?" Ralph said quickly before he thought the better of it.
"Roger's arm? I don't know, what happened to it?"
"You don't know? He came in here with a gash." Jack was frowning to himself.
"Roger skulks around. Disappears for days on end. Who knows how he managed it." Jack met his eyes with a darkly amused expression. "Be glad he wasn't busy cutting someone else."
"What do you mean?" A chill was creeping up Ralph's back as the events of that morning played in his mind.
"Roger doesn't play nice, aye?" Ralph could not suppress a violent shudder.
"Ralph, what's wrong with you? You don't have to be scared of Roger."
"Oh? Why not?"
"Because..." Jack frowned. "Because you don't. No one in their right mind would hurt you."
"What do you mean?" Ralph asked faintly, but Jack was apparently lost in his thoughts for a moment before his eyes snapped back to Ralph's.
"Is that why you're so jumpy? What happened?" Ralph said nothing, flustered. Jack closed the distance between them in a few steps. "Ralph, tell me." He gripped him lightly by the forearms.
"Nothing, Jack." Ralph said, fastening his eyes to his feet.
"It was really nothing, Jack! He was just..." Ralph trailed off as Jack stepped back a bit and began minutely scrutinizing his frame. "What are you - ah!" Jack had seized him unceremoniously by the shoulders and spun him around. Ralph felt himself flush crimson. "What do you think you're doing?"
"There isn't a scratch on you," Jack said, mostly to himself. Ralph whipped around. Jack chuckled at his expression and, no doubt, his blush. "Don't tell me that he said something that worked you up like this?"
"I told you, it was nothing." Ralph said firmly, folding his arms over himself.
"Tell me later, then," Jack said, withdrawing slightly with an amused air, "I'm only here to remind you of the hunt tonight." Ralph looked at him warily.
"Are you sure you're not coming?"
"Just asking," Jack chuckled, turning to go. Ralph sighed and rubbed his fingers over his forearm.
"Well, be careful." He intended it as a dismissal, but Jack turned back at this.
"Why?" Ralph stared in bemusement.
"Why? Why do you think?"
"I wouldn't know, Ralph," Jack said, walking towards him again, casually, "why should you want me to be careful? Wouldn't it be good for you if someone slipped with a spear?" Jack smirked at him faintly.
"What's the matter with you?"
"Come on, now, be reasonable. It's an honest question, don't you reckon?"
"I'm not the one who's unreasonable, Jack," Ralph murmured, trying to withdraw. Jack caught an arm lightly.
"At least answer me, Ralphie, what if a herd of wild pigs tramples me? Then I'll never know why you want me to be careful when..." Jack broke off suddenly, and then laughed. "Well, you know it. I don't remember giving you a reason to be concerned about my well-being, Ra -" Ralph jerked his arm away violently and turned, pressing his palms into his eyes, trying to cool the ache in his forehead. The day's strain was dragging him downwards. Jack's new little game was not improving the situation, and he wanted very badly to lie down. "All right, all right," Jack was saying behind him, "don't do that." Ralph was unable to stifle a faint groan.
"You're horrible," he said thickly, "to say all that. Go on, will you? My head aches." Ralph hated the low trembling note in his voice and did not feel overly fond of the arm that slipped round his waist instead of departing as requested. Some of his resentment evaporated as a hand snaked up to rub one of his temples in an undeniably welcome manner. Oh, hell, he thought achingly. Too tired to resist the impulse, he let his head roll back against Jack's hard shoulder and closed his eyes.
"You're right," Jack said quietly. About what? He could not seem to voice the question. Jack's fingers felt deliciously firm against the yielding tension in his temple. "You did have a hard day, aye?"
"Aye," Ralph sighed, smiling faintly, and Jack chuckled. Ralph tried to drift away on the haze produced by his weariness, Jack's fingers, and the warm skin underneath his cheek, but a small, insistent thought was forcing its way up through his consciousness. His eyes sprang open.
"Jack...they've agreed to hunt together?" There was a rueful laugh behind his ear.
"Sharp. I thought you had forgotten." Jack's fingers paused in their ministrations. "I don't know whether or not they'll hunt together. I suppose that's what I'll find out tonight." Ralph turned round in his arms.
"That's what you're worried about..." There was a long silence. Jack's eyes locked into Ralph's.
"So come with me." Ralph digested this sudden development. Here was the reason, or at least part of the reason, Jack had been pushing him to hunt.
"Jack...what could I do?" Ralph said, probing.
"Go on. You're smarter than that." Ralph lowered his gaze to Jack's neck, torn.
"Don't you..." his throat closed, and he coughed nervously, "don't you meet by the fireside? I could go there. I just can't...I couldn't..." Ralph felt his eyes sting and dropped his head further down with alarm.
"All right," Jack murmured, almost as if he was not listening. He traced Ralph's spine lightly. "Tell me something."
"Hm?" Ralph shivered under the faint touch, knowing intuitively where this was leading.
"Are you finished thinking?" Jack said the word with a good deal of disdain, but he followed the question with another ghosting of his fingers along Ralph's back. The boy was quiet for a long time. The thought that swelled through Ralph's mind at the moment, eclipsing all others, was of his irrepressible need to trust Jack with fears about Maurice, completely against his better judgement, and of how sweet Jack's subsequent reassurances were to him. He wanted to explain these things to Jack, but the words stopped in his throat. Instead he wordlessly seized his hand and brought it to his lips, kissing it slowly before guiding it back up to his forehead.
"Don't stop just yet." Jack resumed his attentions with a small, rare smile.