Ever since meat livestock #97144 could remember, he'd known that his purpose in life was to be eaten. His dam had been taken off to the slaughterhouse soon after he was weaned. He'd never really known her or his stud. Being slaughtered? It was just a fact of life. It was just the way things went. You were born, you grew, you were fattened up, you reached maturity, and then it was off to the slaughterhouse you went. To the ghouls, he was worth nothing more than the sum total of his flesh. None of them were. It drained, yeah, it was unfair, but it was just the way life was, and all you could do was make the most of it.
One of the few truly good things the ghouls had ever done for him was to assign him to the stall right next to 83618 after they'd killed his dam. He still didn't quite know why she'd decided to take him under her wing, but he couldn't be more grateful she'd done so. Yes, he was free to wander where he wanted (within the borders of the inner fence, of course) during the day, but at night, when they were locked in their stalls, she was right there, next to him, always. She was there for him, his protector, his closest friend.
One night, when he'd been around 4 and still silly enough to be scared of the dark instead of the things that lurked in it, he'd been talking with Nihachi, too on edge to sleep.
The darkness felt like it was closing in around him, a heavy weight on his chest. He should be used to this, he knew, had never had a night without the suffocating blackness. Why wasn't he used to it? He was holding hands with Nihachi through the bars as he lay, trying to focus just on her voice, letting it wash over him as she told him a story from when she was younger. Of course, most everyone in that story was dead now, except for her, but he tried to ignore that part and just focus on the part where she'd somehow managed to get hold of an actual frog and had roped one of the teenagers into helping her hide it and figure out how to take care of it.
"-and 78392 grumbled about it, of course, but I could tell it was just putting on a show. Really, deep down, it was about as excited as I was. Under that grumpy exterior, it was honestly just a big puffball. So then, Sankuni was all like 'I think I remember a few drawn books about frogs on the shelves of the indoor paddock. I guess we can see if we can find anything there. Make sure to keep that thing under your jacket, yeah? Don't let any of the ghouls see it.' And I swear, in complete contrast to the detachment of its words, it was practically bouncing on its toes before it spun on its heel and walked off, beckoning me to follow it-"
All of a sudden, a new wave of dread washed over him and the question was out of his mouth before he could stop it.
He didn't know why, but something about those words felt different in some undefinable way. It was like hooks in his chest except it didn't hurt. Just felt weird. And tingly.
He hadn't noticed Nihachi had somehow managed to wedge her arms through the bars until they were around him, pulling him close. He nuzzled into her desperately, and slowly, as he calmed, he was able to make the weird feeling in his chest go away.
Nihachi's arms froze around him for a moment before she let go all of a sudden, leaving a pang in his gut at the loss of contact. She wiggled her arms back through the bars with no small amount of effort, keeping hold of his wrist all the while.
She was quiet for a few minutes, breathing in and out, and just when 44 was getting nervous again, she started speaking in a low voice.
"Shishi, listen to me, okay? Listen to me carefully." Her eyes started glowing, dimly illuminating their stalls and making the shadows pop out in stark relief, stretching and twisting. Using her bioluminescence, even for the few minutes that she could, drained her, so 44 knew then that whatever she was about to say was important, that she needed him to see her face while she said it. He nodded as seriously as he could, holding his hand out for her. She started talking in the tactile code of the humans, the way all the humans did when they wanted to make sure they wouldn't be overheard by any ghouls. Just because the ghoul was out of your earshot didn't mean you were out of theirs, after all.
Don't show anyone else you can do that. No one. One day, you're going to get a chance to get out of here, and you're going to take it, and when that day happens, you need to be able to take them by surprise. Understand?
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
You're coming too, right?
"Sure. I'll do my best, okay? But if the day comes and I'm not there, don't worry about me. I'm strong, alright?"
"What, you're sayin' I'm not strong, Shishi?" 83618 tweaked his nose and tried to flex her pudgy arm, getting a giggle out of him.
"If I wasn't strong, could I do this?"
And, trying to stifle his laughter from the tickling, 44 put the niggling worry out of his mind. Nihachi always knew everything. She'd have a way out, surely.