Day Ten

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THE ONLY THING WORSE than the pity Raina saw in the eyes of her crew was the resentment that began to brew as they set out the next day, the damp morning stewing into a swollen, humid heat. It melded with her fear, a deep paranoia that continued to grow since she had awoken to flies crawling over her ankle, insects buzzing around their heads in a constant reminder ever since. She pulled herself along with Kieran, but her stomach churned, and she dropped to the ground, throwing up their meagre breakfast. When she was done, she waved off his help and propped herself up with a branch, and she and Kieran set off again, trailing behind the others. Only a few had stopped to wait. 

Kieran looked around, gauging the distance of the others. "So, when were you going to tell us your leg got worse?" he asked. 

Raina blinked and whipped her head to him. "Never."

"Why?"

"You know the answer to that."

He cast a glance her way. "You're our captain."

"And I'm slow. It's not malicious; it's logical." 

He said nothing. She knew they had already debated it, likely more than once, the idea of leaving her behind. But she watched Kieran as his eyes roved the ground where they walked, rolling a thought back and forth on his tongue. 

"You don't have to hold back for me," she said. "You were never fond of me in the sky, and the feeling was mutual. You don't owe me anything."

He shrugged. "That was a different time."

"And yet you were right. You thought I was too young. They assigned you to me to prove it, and I did."

"Again, a different time." 

"What do you mean?" she asked. "I've condemned us all to death--"

"I thought you were arrogant, and under tested," he said. "You were good, more than good, but it takes a lot more than skill to be a captain, and I didn't think you were ready. But..." He paused, searching for the right words. "Us coming here is what changed my mind." 

Raina was too startled for words. 

"I always thought you would make a serious mistake," he continued. "But then you did. And instead of proving me right, you ended up proving me wrong." He looked ahead. "They need you to be strong, Raina. They might resent you, or curse you, or mistrust you, but you are still our best hope. Even when you can barely walk."

"It's rotting," she blurted, spurred on by his faith. Maybe in the sky he would have sold her out, but not here. Not now.

This time he stopped walking. He looked at her, first at her face, then at her ankle, his brow furrowed. "Rotting?"

She had expected him to recoil. Instead, she found him listening. "It turned black yesterday. And this morning there were... there were flies. All over it." She looked ahead, at the crew that had not yet noticed they had stopped, so absorbed in fending off the wildlife that strangled them. "If they find out, they'll panic and leave."

"So you don't tell them," he said. "Only Calen."

"He'd be one of the first to leave."

Kieran bit his lip, staring at the flies buzzing around her bandaging. 

"My own skin," she whispered. "My own body is rotting. What if it spreads? How am I going to be strong for them if I'm rotting from the outside in?"

"We'll find a way," Kieran said. "We'll find a way to heal it. Or stop the spreading."

She looked around them. "There could have been something beneath our feet right now, if it wasn't all dead. A treatment. A cure. Maybe in another time, I could have helped myself--if only I knew how." But even alive, the forest did not owe them its secrets. Her eyes found their way back to Kieran's, his dark skin glistening with a sheen of sweat. "You need to be prepared."

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