The arrest of Officer Kheri had meant that Saba-Wing was quieter than usual. Most of the girls seemed content to serve their sentences - of course some, like Farai, were forever causing trouble, and Luja and Chakaa were among the lionesses gobsmacked to see she had returned after her escape.
Things had changed lately. Inmate Kat was free, Officer Sayde had left, and Kheri was gone for good, or so they thought. And, although Luja despised Governor Jira for multiple reasons, the former Top Dog couldn't help but wish she hadn't left to carry out her stupid mission, or whatever it was she was doing - she seemed to be the only screw with enough guts to sort Farai out, and Luja had to admit to herself that she admired Jira's determination.
She and Chakaa had led everyone to believe Farai had poisoned Shupaa, after all. If the wicked inmate ever found out...well...Luja didn't want to think about what could happen to them...
However, Luja and Chakaa still went about business as usual. They were forever making plans to trick their fellow inmates and steal as much zebra as they could. It was all Luja could focus on.
A cry could be heard one afternoon as Luja temporarily left Chakaa in order to take a drink from the waterhole cave. She listened carefully, and decided to follow it - it sounded like a child in distress. She thought she was hearing things at first - how could there be a cub in prison? But when she reached the hole in the ground that led to the tunnel to the old killing cave, her question was answered.
A small, pale cub was lying curled up in a ball down the hole. He was wailing loudly.
'Of course,' Luja thought to herself as she stared at the ball of fluff. 'Lysha's boy.'
Luja had avoided the child at all costs ever since his birth. The rest of the inmates had fussed over him, and found him adorable, but something about the mere sight of him troubled Luja greatly. Children...cubs...she couldn't even bear to think about them, let alone be anywhere near them.
Still, Luja couldn't leave the poor little mite stuck down there. She gave a small sigh and climbed down into the hole without a word, and picked him up in her jaws. He stopped crying for a moment as she climbed back out and set him down on the ground. She wanted to walk away quickly, but the small boy clung desperately to Luja's paw and sobbed again.
"I-I fell down the hole!" He cried shakily. "I-I didn't think a-anyone would hear me! I-I thought I'd be l-left in the dark!"
Luja gazed down at him feeling extremely awkward. She wanted to shake him off and run away, but she couldn't bring herself to move. She felt sad all of a sudden...she told herself she didn't know why, but she did. She always did.
After that day, Luja constantly reminded Lysha that she had done a great thing by saving Haji and she was able to secure more pieces of zebra by getting the young mother to steal it. As far as Lysha was concerned, Luja was extremely selfish and probably only rescued Haji just so Lysha would owe her, but it wasn't completely true.
Luja couldn't admit out loud she had done a good deed because it felt like the right thing to do. Not where a child was concerned...she wasn't ready to face that truth yet...
And life on Saba-Wing became harder and harder. Luja and Chakaa were caught and punished for their zebra crimes many times, and her time in the punishment block always tormented Luja more than she would ever admit. There was too much time to think in there...and the last thing she wanted to do was think.
And with Farai becoming worse with every day, desperation was beginning to creep up on Luja. But the thing that bothered her most was seeing little Haji all over the place...Luja couldn't stand it...and when Luja discovered who the boy's father was, a master plan formed in her mind.
"I can't stand this place, Chakaa," Luja told her friend that very evening. "I'll be damned if we're REALLY serving life in this place..."
Chakaa stared at her. She hated seeing Luja in such a sad and desperate mood. It was so out of character.
"I mean look at what we've become!" Luja added suddenly as she paced their cell. "It takes ALL our time and energy just to get our paws on a bit of zebra every now and then, and the stuff in here doesn't even taste that good...I mean, what else do we have, really? Is really all our life is about?! We have nothing..."
"But we get by," Chakaa said firmly, desperate to calm her friend down. Luja choked back a sob and snarled.
"RUBBISH!" She bellowed. "If we STAY in here, we're going to DIE in here!"
Chakaa's ears drooped and a wave of sadness washed over her. Luja's words hit her hard...
Luja then walked up to Chakaa, frowning slightly, but full of determination.
"I'm checking out of this place tomorrow," she told her. "Are you coming with me?"
As loyal as ever, Chakaa went along with Luja's plan. Lysha was their ticket out...they used blackmail as a way for Lysha to help them escape, and that's exactly what she did.
And it worked.
But, as free as the old pair were, something still ached Luja's heart, no matter how well she hid it. She may have escaped prison...but she couldn't ever escape the dark.
Picture challenge piece.