kawuli (kawuli) wrote,
kawuli
kawuli

Proof that the spirit has not died: Chapter 3

Proof that the spirit has not died - Chapter 3: Every little beaten strike by kawuli
Chapters: 3/7
Fandom: Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games Series - All Media Types
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Characters: Original Female Character(s), Original Male Character(s)
Additional Tags: Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence, District 9 (Hunger Games), District 6, Normal people make the rebellion happen, Minor Character Death, Canon-Typical Violence
Series: Part 3 of These are truly the last days: Panem's rebellion from below

 

It's strange what can start to seem normal. Camping out in a cave. Sneaking out for supplies. Waiting for Alister and Sara and this time Virgil to set explosives under the railroad tracks. Zea has watch at six so she should be sleeping, but all the little noises that she usually ignores seem loud and threatening, and she keeps jerking awake in a panic without knowing which totally normal thing woke her up.

So of course the second she hears the truck’s engine she's wide awake, and may as well go see what's going on.

Lucerne’s come down from lookout duty, too, meets the others at the truck as they walk back toward the cave. Virgil looks tired, Alister she can't ever tell, and Sara… Sara looks happy. It's four o'clock in the damn morning and they've been out setting explosives where they'll get shot if they're seen, and Sara looks like she's having the time of her life.

Lucerne’s taking with Alister in low voices, until they reach the mouth of the cave and he ducks in. No fight this time, apparently, he just heads for his bedroll. Virgil follows, but Sara sees Zea off to one side and smiles, heads over and knocks their shoulders.

“What're you doing up?” Sara asks.

“Couldn't sleep. Worried about you, I guess.”

Sara laughs. “Aw, we’re fine,” she says. “No need to worry, it was all very boring.”

Zea gives her an incredulous look. “You and I have very different definitions of the word ‘boring,’ apparently.”

Sara shrugs. “Seriously, we're fine, stuff’s all set, nothing to worry about.”

“Well, now I gotta be up soon anyway, I'm on watch at six.” Zea looks around. “May as well find something to occupy myself.

Sara gives her a look that's all trouble. “That so?” Sara asks, and it's such a Nine way to say it Zea has to smile.

“I can't believe you,” Zea says. “You're not even tired?”

“I'll sleep later,” Sara shrugs that off. “C’mon, lets walk up the stream a ways, see what we see.”

Zea shakes her head and follows. It's not easy going, she doesn't know what Sara was expecting but right near the stream it's full of brush and there's not enough space between there and the hill to get clear. Sara shoves her way through for a few minutes, until she finds a gap, a rockfall half blocking the water and not enough soil for much to grow. She perches on one of the big boulders and watches Zea as she follows.

“This your idea of a romantic getaway?” Zea asks, half amused and half annoyed.

Sara looks away, across to the trees on the other side. “Nah,” she says, “I don't much go in for romance.” It's meant to be joking, but there’s something behind it that's shading the words darker than Zea’d expect.

Sara looks over at her, shrugs. “Just wanted a change of scenery.”

Zea sits next to her, and Sara leans into her shoulder. “It feels like we're dreaming,” Zea says suddenly. “This can't be real life.”

Sara hums, reaches an arm around Zea’s shoulders. “It's strange for sure,” she says, but she's hedging.

“What?” Zea asks.

Sara shakes her head. “I won't say I didn't dream about this,” Sara says. “But it's real. All of it.”

“You dreamed about this?” Zea asks.

Sara chuckles. “Well, not exactly this,” she allows. “I didn't know this place existed, didn't dream I'd be living in Nine, but the blowing shit up part, oh yeah.” The last part has bite.

“I just… I wanted things to be different,” Zea says. “I didn't realize it'd be a war, not like this.”

Sara squeezes her shoulder. “I know,” she says. “But it's the only way.”

She sounds so certain, but how would she know? They're close to the same age, Zea thinks. What's so different between the two of them?

But she doesn't know how to say any of that, and definitely not how to say it without offending Sara, and it's comfortable like this. So she stays quiet.

“I'd never seen stars like this before,” Sara says, a little later.

“Really?” Zea asks.

“No way, too many lights in Six, and anyway it's usually cloudy.”

Even in the City in Nine it's dark enough at night to see the stars, spilled out across the sky. “You don't know the constellations or anything?”

“The what?” Sara looks over.

Zea leans back on her hands and points. “See those four? And then there's four more that make an arc?”

Sara frowns in concentration. “Yeah,” she says finally. “Yeah I think so.”

“Okay, that's the Big Dipper.” Zea says.

Sara looks unimpressed. Zea continues. “If you follow those two on the end of the dipper, there's another star just up a little ways, see it?”

“Yeah,” Sara sounds skeptical.

“That's the North Star,” Zea says. “If you find that, you know which way’s north.”

Sara looks up at the sky, looks around like she's orienting herself. “Huh,” she says. “Well that's gotta come in handy out here.”

“Works everywhere,” Zea says.

Sara chuckles, low and warm. “Yeah, but in Six there's landmarks.”

“There's landmarks here, too, if you know what you're looking for,” Zea says, a little defensive.

“Oh yeah?” Sara sounds interested, rather than skeptical.

“Sure, Depots and hedgerows along the road, rivers, all that stuff. Any crew’s got a pretty good map in their head, all the driving we do.”

“Huh,” Sara says. “Didn't really think about it.”

“Nobody comes up here so none of us are much use till you get out of the hills,” Zea goes on, “but ask Durum sometime how to get from the City out to… well, anything, really. Doubt he needs a map anywhere in the district, it'll be all ‘turn left at the Enid elevator’ or ‘turn right where the old meetinghouse was, till they tore it down’ or ‘if you get to the Inman road you've gone too far.’” Zea smiles, remembering. “Used to make me crazy. ‘Durum, I wasn't alive when that meetinghouse got torn down, what's the name of the road’”

Sara laughs. “Oh sure, my buddy Matt’s the same way. Landmarks are a little different, though.”

Zea looks over, raises an eyebrow, and Sara sighs. “This is down in the shit parts of town, it's a lot of ‘left at the pawnshop, right where the meth lab burned down last month.’”

It's starting to get light, and Sara’s starting to sound tired. “You should get some sleep,” Zea says.

Sara sighs, sits up and stretches. “Guess so,” she says, climbing to her feet. “And you've got watch.”

“Yep,” Zea says, following her back through the weeds. “Send Virgil out if he wakes up.”

“I can come, if you want company,” Sara offers. “No fun to be up there by yourself.”

Zea shrugs. “It's fine,” she says. “Milo’ll hang out for a bit, probably. Get some sleep.”

Sara takes her hand, squeezes once, then ducks in to find her bed.

Zea heads up the hill.

 

When she comes down at the end of her shift, Alister has the hood of the transport open and is glaring at the engine block. She walks over, and he looks up.

“What's going on?” Zea asks, peering in.

Alister looks like someone just fed him a lemon. “Not sure,” he says. “Engine’s noisy, and its smoking a bit. We’ll have to take one of the pickups next time if this keeps up.”

Zea shrugs. “Could be the fuel injectors are messed up,” she says. “ Or the air filter’s clogged. We could pull ‘em and check, there's a toolbox in the truck.”

Alister looks at her. “You're a mechanic?”

Zea swallows. “My… girlfriend was,” she says. “Picked up a few things.” She squares her shoulders and lifts her chin. Everyone else is running around risking their lives, she’s not going to cry about using the stuff Emmer showed her to help them out.

Alister just keeps watching her, until he nods. “Alright,” he says, “let me know how I can help.”

“I got it, for now,” Zea says, “but I'll holler if I need you.”

Alister actually smiles a little at that, as he walks back toward the cave, and Zea goes to the big truck for the toolbox.

It's under the seat, as usual, a sturdy metal box Zea hauls over to where the transport’s parked in the sun. Sets it on a patch of grass and opens it up.

Emmer always checked these toolboxes before they headed out, made sure if they needed something it'd be there. Sockets, lined up snug, wrenches and screwdrivers and everything in its place. Zea helped Emmer pull the fuel injectors on one of the trucks, last year, she just hopes the transport works the same way.

She's got all eight of them laid out on the engine block when Sara wanders over. “What’s up?” she asks, stretching.

“G’morning,” Zea can't help but smile. Sara’s face is still sleep-soft, her body relaxed, none of the wild excited tension she had last night. “Alister said the transport was running rough, so I told him I'd check it out.

Sara raises an eyebrow, bends down to look. “These are pretty gunked up,” she says.

“Yeah,” Zea says. “We can’t very well order new ones, though.”

“They’re not the same as on the trucks?”

“Doubt it.”

Sara looks at the thing. “Well, I don’t know what the hell we’re gonna use for solvent, can’t just drive to the store for that, either.”

“Hmmm.” Zea looks around. Lucerne’s sitting with Durum at the cave entrance, so she heads over.

“Mornin’ Zea,” Durum says. “What’s up?”

“Lucerne, how likely d’you think it is our friends up at the Depot are cooking booze?” Zea asks.

Lucerne laughs. “You planning a party?” she asks.

“Trying to clean up some gunked up fuel injectors,” Zea responds.

Lucerne looks thoughtful. “Well, I don’t know,” she says, “But a couple’a guys out here on their own, I’d be surprised if they didn’t know how to get their hands on something.”

“You mind going up to check?” Zea asks. “I wanna check the air filter and a couple other things first, but then we can take one of the pickups.”

“Sure thing,” Lucerne says. “Alister oughta be back by then, we should let him know before we go.”

“Where’s he at?” Zea asks, looking around.

“Said he’s gonna try his luck with some snares,” Lucerne says.

“See who’s got the best luck,” Durum says, “I’d bet him I’ll catch more, but there’s nothing to bet with.”

Zea smiles, shakes her head and heads back.

Sara’s scratching at one of the injector heads with a fingernail. “Well, we’re gonna try and get something from the Depot up where we got fuel,” Zea says, hedging a little.

“They gonna have solvents?” Sara asks, a little skeptical. “That stuff’s pretty regulated.”

“Well,” Zea says, dragging out the word a little. “They’ll probably have alcohol.”

Sara laughs. “Sure,” she says, “Why didn’t I think of that.”

“We’ll go up in a bit, let’s see if we can’t clear out the air filter and the fuel filter first, while we’re checking stuff.”

Alister gets back as they’re finishing, talks to Lucerne and comes over, shaking his head. “I don’t like you going out there if it’s not necessary,” he says. “You sure that’ll work?”

Zea shrugs. “Best idea I’ve got. And we need more diesel anyway, we can pick that up while we’re at it.”

Alister’s mouth thins tight. “Fine,” he says, “but be careful, they’ll be watching out by now.”

 

It feels good to get out of their little hollow. Been too long in one place, hemmed in by the hills and no place to go. They take a different route this time, circling down south and west on a faint track of a road to come out on the highway well away from the camp. Means more time in the open, and Zea drives fast on the road and hopes if anyone’s watching they assume she’s supposed to be there.

One of the guys is out in the yard as soon as they pull in. Lucerne gets down as soon as Zea stops, before she even has time to kill the engine.

The guy waves Zea into the barn, and she pulls in, blinking till her eyes adjust to the dimness.

“There’ve been Peacekeepers coming around,” the guy’s saying, following Lucerne into the barn. “They been asking if folks’ve seen anything.” Lucerne’s watching him, carefully. “We didn’t say nothing,” he said. “But you can’t keep coming around.”

Lucerne nods. “We’ll be out of your way quick as we can,” she says. “We need one more thing though,” she adds. “You boys got any alcohol around?”

He looks startled, so Zea adds, “We got some injectors we’re trying to clean up.”

That gets a smile. “Well, I guess we have got something,” he says, walks past the hulking sprayers to a storage closet. There’s a mess of piping and glass bottles, and down at the bottom a 5-gallon bucket with the label worn off.

He pulls it out. “Prob’ly best to get rid of it anyway, with all them Peacekeepers coming around,” he says, hands it to Zea. “I been told it’s only good for stripping paint,” he adds, with a crooked smile. “First time I heard someone actually using it for something like that.”

“Thanks,” Zea says, hauling it towards the truck.

“Clarence,” Lucerne’s saying. “We could really use a little more diesel.”

He takes his cap off, runs a hand through his hair. “Alright,” he says. “C’mon.”

The barrels in the truck bed hold fifty gallons each, the truck’s tank about that much, and the other truck’s got a full tank back at camp. It’ll last them a little while, but Alister’s transport takes a lot, especially how he drives it, and they need more to mix with the fertilizer every time they blow the tracks. They’re not going to be able to keep coming here, they have to leave something for these guys. Zea wonders what’ll happen if a crew comes through to harvest their corn and can’t fill up.

Sara would say that’s not their problem, they’ve got a job to do. Zea wonders, though.

“You take care now,” Lucerne says, as they’re finishing.

“Likewise,” Clarence says, “you’re worrying them, they’re gonna start looking harder.”

Lucerne nods. “Thank you, Clarence,” she says.

“Give ‘em hell,” he replies.

Zea pulls out of the yard and heads for camp.

 


 

It was bound to happen eventually. Alister pulls the truck over heading up the rise before the road drops down toward the bridge, and Sara’s taking her turn sneaking up to the crest and checking. She’s scanning up and down the road with the binoculars when she stops at the first support column for the bridge.

It’s not shaped right.

Sara almost turns and runs right then, but if she says there’s people, Alister will want to know how many and what they’re doing and likely as not he’ll come up here himself if he doesn’t like her answers. So she stays very still, pressed against a tree trunk to steady herself. It’s one transport, like the one they’re using, behind the column. One man—she catches a glint of moonlight off his visor—standing with the transport. She scans back along the road, more carefully this time.

There. Just where the bridge starts, two Peacekeepers facing her. She can’t get a clear look at the near side of the road, but odds are if there’s two on the other side there’ll be two on this side, too.

The transports can take eight. That’s five, six if there’s a driver still at the wheel. Leaving two. Sara scans along the road, across the river and up into the hills and sees no one. But now she really has been here too long, it’s time to go.

She moves carefully, crouching behind the tree and hurrying bent over from one trunk to the next, until she’s far enough down there’s no way they could see her.

Then she runs.

“They’re there,” she says, scrambling in next to Alister. “A transport, one guy waiting outside, maybe a driver. Two on the far side of the road just before the bridge so I’m guessing two on the near side too. Oughta be two more for a full transport but I didn’t find ‘em.”

Alister’s expression doesn’t change, but he’s watching her carefully. “Snipers, probably, on the other side of the river,” he says. He sighs. “Alright, we have to go back. We’re not finding a new route on the fly, and it’d probably take too long anyway.”

He doesn’t start the car. Just shifts it into neutral and rolls, until the hill flattens out. Then he starts the engine, and Sara takes a minute to bless Zea and Lucerne and the guys who gave them the worst booze she’s ever tasted to clean the fuel injectors, because it starts quiet and smooth and invisible, and Alister drives off.

“Shit,” Milo says, leaning forward. “What’re we gonna do now?”

“Ford the river,” Alister says. “Just gotta figure out where.”

 

They get back early. Zea and Virgil are on watch, but Lucerne stands up to meet them, looking concerned.

Sara gets down first. “Peacekeepers on the bridge,” she says, by way of explanation. Excitement and fear have settled into anger and frustration by now.

“Fuckers,” Milo adds, getting down. He looks about as mad as Sara.

Alister is, as usual, unperturbed. “We’ll have to try something different next time,” he says. “Get some sleep, we’ll sort it out in the morning.”

He walks into the cave, heading for his bedroll. Milo sighs, then shakes his head and follows. Sara glowers toward them, then looks up when she hears Lucerne’s low chuckle. “Go say hi to Zea, she’ll be wondering what’s up,” she says. “You look fit to burst.”

Sara’s not sure what that means. But sure, why not.

 

Zea’s head whips around when Sara gets to the top of the hill. She’s sitting with her back to a tree, watching east, but gets to her feet and comes over.

“What happened? Why’re you back so early?” she asks, eyes checking Sara over.

Sara shrugs, walks over toward where Zea was sitting. “Fucking Peacekeepers on the bridge,” she says. “Couldn’t get past.”

She has to work to keep her jaw from clenching, teeth from grinding.

Zea sighs. “Guess they were bound to figure it out sooner or later,” she says.

Sara nods absently. Sure, it was bound to get trickier, but it doesn’t mean she likes it.

“You should get some sleep,” Zea says. “You’ve been running around an awful lot lately.”

Sara sighs, shrugs. “Guess so,” she says. “I just want to be doing something, y’know?”

Zea smiles. “You always wanna be doing something,” she says.

The tone’s warm, almost affectionate. Almost, and if this were an overnight stop someplace and a girl from another crew was giving her that look Sara’d come up with some things to do. Zea, though—it’d get complicated. Zea thinks about things. So Sara just smiles back. “Guess I do,” she says.

Zea catches a little of the innuendo Sara wasn’t sure she entirely meant, and in the half-moon light Sara can’t see if she’s blushing, but she can guess. Zea ducks her head a little, anyway, glances back out at the hills. “Go on then,” she says, and it’s teasing, if a little hesitant. “I got watch, and you’re distracting.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Sara shoots back, but she starts heading down and Zea shakes her head, goes back to her spot.

 

When Sara gets up the next morning, Alister hands her a bowl of tesserae mush and the map, starts walking toward the truck. “C’mon,” he says, waving Milo over. Virgil and Zea are still sleeping, but Lucerne and Durum come over to look as well. Alister spreads the map on the hood of the truck, pulls a pencil out of a pocket, and starts circling bridges.

“They’re gonna put people on all of them,” he says. “We need to find a place to cross that’s far enough from any one that they can’t see us.”

Durum gives a low whistle. “Well, good thing the river’s windy through here. Get around a bend and you’re out of sight.”

Alister nods, tracing the river with a finger. “There,” Milo says, pointing. “We crossed on the bridge just upstream from there and it was real shallow. Bet you could cross further down.” Alister marks it.

 

By the end of the morning, they’ve got a few spots. By afternoon, they get a call with the next night train. Two have got through in daylight, through Nine and to Six by what Joe’s guys pass over the radio. Peacekeepers and vehicles and supplies and fuel, and they need to get that line stopped now, or Six is going to be overrun and they’ll be in real trouble.

Milo’s coming again, since he knows the landscape better. Or at least that’s what he claims. Virgil argues briefly and then shrugs. “I’ll take the next one, then,” he says. “Don’t much matter to me.”

They get to the river without any trouble, and Alister stops, leaning forward to watch the river. Milo hops out, barefoot and with his pant legs rolled up. “Lemme make sure it’s not too deep,” he says. “Hard to tell, at night.”   

Alister nods. Milo wades out into the water. It’s a stretch to call it a river, really, nowhere is it wider than a couple lengths of the transport. Here it’s running over stones, and as Milo wades further out, it comes to his knees but not much further. He stops on the far bank and waits while Alister edges forward.

It feels strange, driving straight into the water, but Alister just keeps moving, slow and steady, until he’s got all four wheels back on dry land and stops to let Milo back in.

“See now, that wasn’t so bad,” Milo says. “Only got my pants a little wet.”

Sara smiles, and they still have to do their job, they still have to come back, but it seems like all of them are a little more relaxed now.

They know how to do the rest of it, after all.

 

The track stays down for four whole days, that time. “Hate to say it,” Sara says, when they’re heading out again, “but I’m impressed how fast those fuckers get the line back up.”

Virgil snorts. “Sure, but they got all the equipment,” he says. “I’m impressed a handful of us can cause this much trouble.”

One corner of Alister’s mouth twitches up just a little. “Admit it,” Sara says, looking over at him. “You’re impressed a bunch of outlier nobodies can keep this shit shut down, too.”

“We’ve been doing well,” Alister admits, but that’s as far as he’ll go.

 

They ford the river at a different spot this time, sandy rather than rocky, but only halfway up Sara’s shins when she wades across. “Who needs bridges?” she asks, when she hops in. “Bridges are for suckers.”

Alister takes his eyes off the road long enough to give her a look, then shakes his head. Sara waits for her feet to dry, pulls on her socks and shoes, and tries not to be impatient.

 

Alister stops the transport back in the woods, well away from the track. They're closer to the City than last time, on a gentler slope, less protected, but the corn’s high, green, the best hiding spot they can hope for. Sara hops down, collects the detonators, electronics, shovels, while Alister and Virgil take the sacks of fuel, and they move toward the track.

They stop halfway into the field, spread a few rows apart, and wait through two passes of the patrols. They're still passing every half hour. Sara glances over at Alister, waiting for a cue to move.

Alister just looks focused, as usual, watching the track like the hawks they sometimes see circling overhead. Once the patrol has passed a third time he signals them to move forward.

Virgil’s out to her left, a little ahead, when it happens: an explosion that knocks her to her knees, leaves her ears ringing. Something tears into her arm, her chest, hot metal slamming into her, and between the shock and the pain she doesn't realize what's happened until Alister runs up, shakes her shoulders.

“Come on,” he says, urgent, and he's probably yelling but she can barely hear. “Sara, we have to move.”

She swallows, nods, watches as he ducks through the shredded corn stalks to where Virgil was.

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

Sara gets up and follows Alister, stops when she sees what's there. Virgil’s legs are a mess of flesh, bone splintered and skin shredded. There’s blood everywhere. 

Alister’s gone to kneel next to him, but as Sara gets close Alister stands, reaches into the waistband of his pants and pulls out a pistol. Sara sees his lips move but she can't hear what he says, and then he fires. Right between Virgil’s eyes.

Alister turns to look at her, his eyes hard, brushes past her. “Get the detonators, let’s go,” he says, and right, they can't spare those, they take forever to make and they're low on supplies. Sara feels like she's in a dream as she scoops up her things from where she dropped them, follows Alister at a run, back toward the transport.

They fling everything in the back and Alister takes off. It's dark, and like always he's not using his lights, but he’s going so fast the truck jerks and bounces over the rough road.

It jerks her around enough to remind Sara there's bleeding gashes across her left arm, her chest, and it fucking hurts. Burns and stings and she can feel the skin on her arm trying to pull apart, so she brings her right hand up to hold it.

Alister doesn't look away from the road, but he says “Put pressure on it, we'll stop in a bit and I'll take a look but we need to get farther away.”

Sara nods, realizes he might not be able to see. “Okay,” she says, and it sounds quiet in her ears, small and hesitant.

She knows better than to ask questions, not while Alister’s driving like this. Doesn't know what she'd ask, anyway, her brain feels like it's still rattling around her skull, unmoored by the blast.

They stop, eventually, somewhere Sara doesn't recognize, a little stream bed tucked into the hills like the one the camp’s in, but without the cave. Or the people, for which Sara is very, very glad.

Alister turns the car off, just sits for the length of three deep breaths—Sara can see his shoulders moving with them—and then he looks at her. She almost flinches, because he looks…well, like a Peacekeeper, cold and calculating. He looks her up and down, nods. “Find a place to sit,” he says, “I'll get the med kit.”

Sara gets down, almost falls because she wasn't expecting her legs to feel like jelly. She takes a couple deep breaths, manages to walk a few yards away from the truck, and then gives up and sits heavily on the grass. When she pulls her hand away from her left arm it's covered in blood, the gash still oozing a little even after however long they've been driving.

Alister comes over, looks at her, looks around, and sighs. When he looks back some of the cold distance is gone. “I was thinking you might want to lean against one of those trees.”

“This is kinda as far as I got,” Sara says, trying to repress the completely inappropriate giggling that's trying to escape her chest.

He looks over her, sighs again. “Probably better anyway. Can you get your shirt off or should I cut it off?”

Sara shifts, trying to pull her arm into the sleeve, hisses because the fabric’s catching and sticking on everything and it fucking hurts. “Cut it,” she grits out, “not like it's good for much now anyway.”

Alister nods, kneels in front of her and starts cutting up from the hem, pulling fabric away where it's stuck on. He's being careful, she can tell, but there's a handful of thin lines cut across her stomach and chest, and they sting.

Everything comes off, eventually, and Alister starts checking her over more carefully. “I'm going to have to stitch up your arm,” he says. “The rest of this will just need to be kept clean. Good thing those rows are planted so dense, this could’ve been much worse.”

Sara just nods, keeps taking careful breaths and trying not to flinch. Of course it could've been worse. She could've been Virgil.

She's been trying not to think about it, but the images flood her mind and she blurts out, “Why did you shoot him?”

Alister stills. She looks up, meets his eyes. He's not a murderer, Sara’s sure of that, or she thought she was. But the cold, sharp look he still hasn't dropped completely gives her pause.

He waits long enough that Sara’s not sure he's going to answer at all, and then he blinks, looks away, looks back at her. “We couldn't get him back to camp,” he says, careful, measured. “And even if we did, we couldn't save him. If I left him, he might live long enough for the Peacekeepers to get to him, and they might be able to get him coherent enough to talk. And then they'd be coming for the rest of us. I was saving all of us—including him—a lot of pain.”

He holds Sara's eyes though the whole explanation. There's no flicker of doubt there.

Sara’s the one who looks away first, down at her crossed legs. Intact. Safe. Tries to think about what Alister said. He's pulled out a needle and thread. “I'm going to sew this up now,” he says, and starts.

Saving him, Sara thinks, as the needle sparks bright points of pain in the all-over ache. Saving him pain, and saving the rest of their little crew, and all he had to do was pull out a gun and put a bullet through the head of, well, maybe not exactly a friend, but something. An ally.

Laid out that way, it's pretty clear. Sara wonders if she could do it. What if Alister had been the one to step on the thing, if he'd been the one bleeding out into the dirt and she and Virgil had to get away?

“I think you need to teach me to shoot,” Sara says. Alister’s head whips around and he stares at her. “And drive, probably, but shooting seems less complicated.”

“What?” Alister asks, startled. Those ridiculous giggles want to come out again, because she's finally managed to shock the unshockable Peacekeeper.

She swallows, though, manages to look serious. “What if it'd been you?”

He sits back on his heels and shakes his head, the corners of his mouth twitching up. “Girl,” he says. “You are crazy.”

Sara tries to shrug, but even with only one shoulder it pulls at things and she grimaces. “I'm not wrong, though.”

He shakes his head again, goes back to her arm. It's silent until he finishes the stitches and wraps clean cloth around the whole thing. Then he looks back at her. “You don't tell the rest of them what happened, and I'll teach you to shoot,” he says.

Sara’s about to protest, but then she stops to think. Imagines Zea’s reaction, if she heard. “Yeah, okay,” Sara says. “Deal.”

He nods. She thinks he looks relieved. And then he’s wrapping clean bandages around her torso, stands up and pulls off his jacket. It's heavy, when he hands it to her. “Huh,” Sara says, as she pulls it on. “Guess this is why I'm not patching you up.”

Alister nods. “Sorry I've only got the one,” he says. Then he reaches down a hand and pulls her up.

She still feels a little shaky, but the world doesn't feel quite as faraway. She walks to the truck on her own power, climbs in. Alister slides behind the wheel, looks over at her, then nods, starts the truck, and they drive away.

 

The sun’s fully up by the time they get to camp. Sara’s exhausted, her head pounding and stomach churning, thoughts muddy and slow. Everyone’s there when they pull in, Zea coming down the path from the hilltop lookout at a run.

Alister stops the truck, turns it off and takes a deep breath. Looks over at Sara. He looks as tired as she feels for just a second, before he looks away, squares his shoulders, and opens his door. Sara swallows, opens the passenger door and slides down. When she closes the door Alister is walking over towards the group. Lucerne steps forward, worried. Alister stops just in front of her and she puts a hand to his arm.

“What happened?” Lucerne asks, soft, concerned.

“They’ve mined the fields near the tracks,” Alister says, calm and precise. “Virgil tripped one. He was killed. Sara got cut up a bit, but she’ll be okay.”

Lucerne glances over at Sara, then back to Alister. “And you?”

“I’m fine. No injuries.”

Lucerne’s mouth pinches. “That’s not entirely what I was asking,” she says. She studies him for a minute. “You better go lie down. Unless you want something to eat first?”

Sara can’t see Alister’s face from here, but he shakes his head. “I should check for reports,” he says. “We need to know what they’re saying.”

“Nothing,” Lucerne says, gentle but firm. “There’s been nothing on any of the Peacekeeper channels.”

“Then I’ll have to check the encrypted ones,” he says. “Lucerne, we need to know.”

She gives him a long, steady look. “Go sit,” she says, shifting. “I’ll bring you something to eat, at least.”

Alister nods, silent, moves past her, past Milo and Durum behind her, and sits in the mouth of the cave, leaning back against the wall. Lucerne goes to presumably find food, and it’s as though that breaks some spell and suddenly everyone else can move, too.

Zea rushes over to Sara, eyes wide and shocked. Sara pushes herself away from the truck and Zea hugs her. It hurts, but Sara doesn’t mind for now. Doesn’t pull away because she’s not entirely sure she can stay standing without something to ground her. Finally Zea pulls back a little. “Are you okay?” she asks, her eyes shining. “We didn’t hear anything, we thought you’d be back hours ago, we didn’t know…” she stops, shakes her head like she’s trying to clear it. “I can’t believe Virgil’s just—“ she stops again. “He just… just died?”

Sara swallows. “Yeah,” she says, “he was right on top of it so…” she lets that trail off.

Zea winces. “Shit, I’m sorry, c’mon,” she says, starting to walk toward the cave. She moves slowly, keeps an arm around Sara’s shoulders, and Sara’s grateful. “You should rest, you look terrible.”

Sara should protest, joke about it, something, but she can’t come up with the words. So she follows Zea back to her bedroll, sits down. She should change out of Alister’s jacket, her filthy pants, but by the time she’s managed to get her shoes off, she’s too tired to care about the rest. Too tired even to care that Zea’s worried about her, too tired to tell Zea she’s fine. She’ll be fine, sure, but now she just needs to sleep.

She curls up on the blankets, on her unhurt right side which means she’s facing away from Zea, toward the rough rock wall. Zea’s fingers pull at the elastic at the end of Sara’s braid, tease her hair out loose, scratching at Sara’s scalp and combing through the messy tangles, soft and soothing, and Sara sleeps.

 

When she wakes up, there’s warm late afternoon light filtering into the cave. Sara doesn't move. She stares at the wall and listens, and she can pick out Zea’s voice, and Durum’s, but she can't tell what they're saying.

She rolls onto her back and gasps, as her entire left side lights up, stinging and aching and burning. Dammit. She sits up, looks down. Alister’s jacket, clean white bandages and muddy, blood-spattered jeans. Not all her blood, probably. Not that she can tell.

She needs to wash up, change clothes, figure out what they're supposed to do next.

Which means she needs to stand up.

She does, or at least as much as she can without hitting her head on the low ceiling. That catches Zea’s attention, and she turns back to look. She's silhouetted against the light, so Sara can't really see her face, but when she speaks her voice is tight and worried.

“Sara? How're you feeling?”

Sara steps past her and out so she can stand straight without worrying about hitting her head. Then she shrugs her good shoulder. “Okay,” she says. “A little sore.” She looks back into the gloom. “Alister still sleeping?”

Zea nods. “He was up checking for transmissions for a couple hours after you went to bed,” she says, glancing over. “Lucerne said to let him sleep.”

Sara nods. “I need to get cleaned up,” she says. She heads for the transport, pulls open the back. Her duffel’s there with the others, ready to go if they have to leave in a hurry, and while there isn't much in there, there is at least a change of clothes. She pulls stuff out, finds soap and a towel and heads downstream.

Zea’s watching her pretty carefully. Waiting for something, looks like, but if she thinks Sara’s gonna come cry on her shoulder she's gonna be waiting for a while.

There's a spot just around a bend from the camp where the stream runs up against the rock and spreads a little, gets just more than knee deep. It's turned into the shower spot, out of sight of the others and easier to wash where it's deeper.

Sara’s never minded but today she feels exposed, glancing around as though someone’s going to burst out of the trees while she's stripping out of her jeans.

She pulls the cloth away from her chest, winds up the bandages to wash later because they’ll probably have to use them again. She looks at the one on her arm, decides to leave it. She can wash around it.

The water stings, and the soap is worse, but it's fine. She even manages to wash her hair, before the cold and everything else get to her enough she has to quit. When she dries off she leaves blood on the towel. Stupid to get it on the shirt, too. She sighs. Fine. She pulls on her pants, wraps the towel tight around her chest, picks up the rest and heads back to camp.

Zea frowns, confused, when she sees Sara.

“What?” Sara asks. “I don't want to ruin another shirt.”

Zea shakes her head. “Come sit, I'll find some bandages or something. That towel’s gonna stick, and that won't be any fun.”

She stands up, motions for Sara to take her place next to Durum.

“How’re you doing, kiddo?” Durum asks.

Sara sighs. “I'm fine,” she says. “Zea worries too much.”

Durum chuckles, low and grumbling. “She takes care of folks she likes,” he says. “You all don't let her real often.”

Sara shifts. The movement pulls at the towel, which is, yes fine, sticking to something as it dries. Zea comes over and crouches next to Sara.

“I can go, if you'd rather,” Durum says, shifting.

Sara snorts. “I been on train crews the last five years, I'm not touchy about privacy.”

Zea pulls the towel away, hisses. Sara looks down. It's been long enough the bruises are showing up, ugly splotches to go with the scrapes. It looks like someone dragged her down a gravel embankment.

Zea’s got the medkit from the truck. She digs through for some kind of ointment she slathers on, then wraps new clean cloth around. When she sits back, Sara looks down. “Thanks,” she says, reaching for her shirt.

Now what? “Where's Milo and Lucerne?” Sara asks.

“Up on watch,” Zea says. “I'll go take over in a couple hours.”

“Me and Alister can do it,” Sara says.

Durum snorts. “Lucy said you'd say that. She says you're not allowed to go anywhere till she's convinced you're actually okay and not just playing.” He pauses. “And till you've eaten something.”

Sara can't not smile at that. “But Zea shouldn't be on her own,” she says, for the principle of the thing.

“Durum’ll keep me company,” Zea says. “And we'll figure out a new schedule later.”

There doesn't seem to be much point in arguing, so Sara gives up. “Okay,” she says, “then is there something to eat?”

Durum’s just back with a bowlful of cold tesserae porridge when Sara hears Alister moving around. The sun’s getting low, it's too dim to see much inside, but pretty soon Alister comes out, scrubbing at his face and stretching.

“Hi,” Sara says. She's oddly relieved to see him.

He gives her a crooked half smile, then looks more carefully. “You washed up,” he says accusingly.

“I left my arm alone and Zea fixed up the rest of it,” Sara says. “I'm fine.”

“Okay,” he says, shaking his head. Durum comes back with another bowl of cold mush and hands it to Alister. Sara looks down at hers and sighs.

Alister takes his and heads toward the trucks, eats leaning against the hood of the transport. Which is where he is when Lucerne comes down from watch.

“Good, you're eating,” she says briskly, voice carrying in the quiet. “Come on.”

Alister follows her over to meet them, wearing the resigned expression Lucerne seems to always get from him.

“How're you doing, Sara?” Lucerne asks, when she gets close. She's watching carefully, an expression that says lying is not wise.

“I'll be fine,” Sara settles for. “A little sore.”

“Hmm.” Lucerne looks away, not so much satisfied as deciding not to push. “You two should rest,” she says, looking around. “We can cover watches tonight.”

Alister sighs. “Lucerne, I just woke up, there's no reason I should spend the night here staring at walls.”

She glares at him, but he doesn't budge. “Fine,” she says. “Milo should be fine for a bit yet though, no need to rush.”

Alister nods, solemn, and looks over at Sara, then pulls a flashlight out of his back pocket. “Zea, hold this, I want to check on Sara.”

She takes the flashlight, pushes the medkit over toward him. “Hadn't put it away yet,” she says, “sorry.”

Alister doesn't say anything, just sits on his heels and starts peeling away the cloth wrapped around Sara’s arm. Sara hisses as it comes away, looks down. She hadn't really looked last night, but it's an ugly gash, held together with four of Alister’s neat stitches. He washes away the dried blood, puts some ointment on it, and wraps her arm again. “You'll be fine,” he says, glancing up at her.

Sara nods. “Okay.”

She shifts a little, tired of being the center of attention and wanting to move. Alister notices, looks over at Lucerne. “Sara and I'll head up, and send Milo down. We'll wake somebody up in the morning.”

Lucerne’s mouth presses flat. “Early morning,” she says. “Zea and I can go.”

Alister nods. Sara gets up and follows him up the path.

Milo’s sitting against a tree, looking away north toward the tracks.

“Hey Milo,” Sara says, as they get close.

Milo jumps a little, and good thing they're relieving him if he's not paying enough attention to notice them coming. He’s on his feet when they get to him, and Sara notices tear tracks on his face and feels like an asshole. “Sorry,” she says, and he looks away. “You can head down if you want, we're taking our turn.”

Milo nods, clears his throat. “You're doing alright?” he asks, “You were kinda a mess when you came in.”

“All patched up,” Sara says, hoping that's reassuring.

He just nods. “Alright,” he says. “See you in the morning.”

 

Once he's away, Alister looks over at Sara. “You're really okay?” he asks. “No bullshit.”

Sara shrugs her good shoulder. “Good enough,” she says.

“Not just talking about—” he gestures toward her.

“I know,” she says, looks out over the hills. She takes a deep breath before she answers. “I'll be fine,” she says. “We've got a job to do.”

He watches her for a bit before nodding. “Okay,” he says. He looks around. “You better stay on the ground this time, I'll head up that old pine tree.”

Sara nods. “Holler if you need me,” she says.

He huffs a breath that might be a laugh. “You too,” he says, and walks away.

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