2238-02-03 - How To Be A Hero

Gage and Ines scout a local abandoned town during their move to the ranch, and run into some locals -- both of the two and four-legged variety. Ines chooses to make a big-damn-hero sacrifice, and Gage is not happy. Some things are said and not taken back.

Date: 2238-02-03

Location: Picon

Related Scenes: 2238-02-02 - Scouting For Hope

Plot: Operation: Bullhorn

Scene Number: 1641

Jump to End

It's only a handful of miles from the warehouse to the ranch, and the ranch itself sits on the outskirts of a destroyed town. Parting ways with the temporary safehouse before the sun is fully up means they'll be within sight of it by the time the first watery rays of the sun make their appearance, if not before -- Ines has been cautious with her leg, and the difference in her endurance is night and day. Her arm is improving by the day, too, and Gage would know: ever since that brief but tense confrontation on the day they arrived she's been practically dutiful in casually letting him know her status, either by making mention of it or checking her injuries over when he's around, probably needlessly, just to give him the opportunity to see for himself. She's not even a third of the way through the course of antibiotics, but the wounds are swiftly closing. At this point the bandages seem more like a formality than a need.

She was in a good mood when they set out, mostly because they were setting out. After a week with the denizens of the warehouse she's less on-edge about them than she was, but she still prefers to keep her distance. For better or worse, this means Tomak's role as her primary -- if not sole -- partner in the ongoing efforts to reach civilization again has remained unchallenged, even after the discovery that Hunter King had the misfortune of winding up at the warehouse, too.

"It just feels premature to me," she's saying, words couched in a quiet murmur, her thumbs slid beneath the straps of her backpack. She's talking about breaking the prisoners free of the mine.

-

Gage, for his part, has been volunteering -- sometimes solo, sometimes involving Ines without checking first -- for duties that largely take them away from the warehouse. For the most part, it's been hunting -- he's been getting better with the bow and arrow -- or watch, or patrol. The latter probably got him a few bemused looks given the pilot as his partner, but it doesn't seem to have bothered him. His anger has cooled, since that confrontation when they first arrived, tied, perhaps not coincidentally -- to the state of her healing wounds.

By the time they set out, he, too, seems in a good mood, and possibly even for the same reasons. While her endurance is better, he approaches the ranch with utter caution, as if it were known to be full of cylons. They're set up at the edge of the woods leading to the town, the marine scanning the interior for any movement, when Ines speaks. He grunts.

It's a full minute later before he elaborates: "Aint a great idea to be taking on more, especially in the state they're in. But Rhodes, and some of the others, seem determined, and there aint anyone stepping up to say otherwise. If they're going to do it anyway, better we help make it a chance at success, than a miserable failure."

-

Shadows sit thick in the warren of what used to be a town. Debris was never cleared, walls are crumbling, vehicles overturned. Greenery is breaking up through cracked and buckled pavements at this point, lending the whole area an air of recovery that isn't founded in any objective reality at all. It looks like a nightmare to attempt to secure, but it's also thoroughly dangerous to leave unconsidered, insofar as it could conceal and harbor virtually anything.

That full minute ticks by uninterrupted. Long silences are comfortable. "It's not just that. We don't have an exit strategy. What if they cast a wide net once the prisoners get loose? Combing the woods, trying to recover them?" Her eyes tighten as she lifts a hand to wave an insect away. "What if they find the warehouse? They have no plan."

What he sees in those shadows clearly darkens the marine's gaze, jaw tightening under that beard. That disapproval lingers in the Tauran's gaze when he looks at her, perhaps unintentionally. "Maybe they will. Maybe they'll find it easier to descend on another town somewhere and co-opt a new group into service." It's futile, in it's way, what they do -- he recognizes and acknowledges that. He's silent for some time at her latter words, and instead of directly answering her question, he answers, perhaps, an unasked one, "If we got separated, do you remember the way back to the cabin? North, north-west. Two days at most, but if you've hit the river you've gone too far."

-

The light in her eyes is distant. Rueful, even. The prospects for everyone are already bad; throwing volatile variables at it anything but ideal. They could pull at threads and unravel the sense of the plan all afternoon, but what's the point, really? All of that line of thinking occupies her silence, studying the displeasure in his expression. At least she doesn't seem to think it's aimed in her direction -- for once. The corners of her eyes tighten, weighing his last question carefully.

"I could probably find it," she decides, eventually. "Maybe not on the way there, but once I found the river."

Pause.

She lets her eyes slip off of him, toward the town. Her voice loses most of its tone. "It probably stinks, anyway." Pause. "Are we going to try to clear the town?"

-

Apparently the marine takes her at her word, giving a nod and a gruff, "Good." He shifts his shoulder, bringing his rifle around, making sure the bow and arrow remains secure over his fur coat after he's done so. With a gesture of his chin, he takes a step -- not before she indicates she's ready, however.

He's cautious, but it's a familiar caution to her, now. He moves from rubble to building, listening carefully. Each building is entered -- pausing to listen, to crack the door and listen again, before entering and clearing the insides, trusting her to watch his back. There's a routine to the thorough method, and a focus that draws utter silence and concentration from the Tauran.

<FS3> Gage rolls Alertness: Success (8 5 5 4 4 3 2)

<FS3> Ines rolls Alertness: Success (8 7 5 5 3 2 2 1)

Without crushing discomfort to distract her, what Ines has in the quiet of this pursuit is the opportunity to learn something. She can't watch him all the time -- she needs to have her eyes up, and out -- but she does when she can, trailing him at just enough remove that she won't be underfoot if he needs to suddenly reverse gears.

Most of the buildings have long since been looted -- probably by the people in the warehouse they're occupying now, though if so it was long enough ago that there aren't any evident traces of disturbance. Dead animal carcasses suggest that wildlife shelters here from time to time.

It's as they're sliding around the corner of one half-demolished building to advance on the next that there's a flash of movement at Tomak's end of the little gap between structures. Fast. Fast and low to the ground. Not moments afterward, Ines' whisper from behind him, but the acoustics of her voice make it clear she's looking the other way. "Something moved."

-

With the tension of an unknown location, it's hard to tell from Gage's posture whether there's relief or not every time they clear a building only to find a dead animal. With regularity, the marine glances over his shoulder, to check both that Ines is with him and that she's well.

When his eyes catch sight of that flash of moment he drops to a knee, resting a shoulder against the corner of the wall. "Get your back to mine," Gage barely murmurs. "Probably just animals." Still, he has his gun aimed in the direction of movement to watch for longer -- either to zero in on a target or confirm his guess.

-

Dirt and gravel grit beneath Ines' boots as she shifts to settle behind him, facing the other way. The lack of any heavy, thudding footsteps or whirring machine sounds means she's less tightly-wound than she would be otherwise -- until the first growl, anyway.

It's easy when you've lived in the civilized world long enough to forget how dangerous dogs can be.

The first one to gain enough nerve to put its face up to the end of the little domestic alleyway does so on Tomak's side of the equation, a scruffy, matted muzzle, some long-haired breed never meant to live in the wilderness, long since nettled over with burrs. A second head appears low behind its flanks not afterward. All of them look hungry, but not as hungry as they could. He'll know the moment one becomes visible to Ines, facing the other way; it's in the short intake of breath she makes and the almost inaudible sound of her head turning slightly.

Clearly, Tomak takes their presence seriously, if his low, "Shiiit," is anything to go by. He does a quick mental inventory -- they have some dried fruits and rations, but nothing that might interest a hungry dog -- dogs, to judge by Ines' intake of breath. "You got any meat hidden in those pockets?" he asks the pilot, tersely.

Slowly, he rises to his feet. No sudden movements, but he wants to make himself bigger. He growls in turn, long and low. Dogs undertake pack mentality; he is the alpha, here. Meanwhile, he flicks the safety on his weapon and reverses it, preparing to use it as a club if any of them get close. "You good?" he asks, briefly, not taking his eyes off the one approaching him.

-

The pause is longer than it needs to be for a certain answer. "I...have a little bit of the jerky in my backpack." Her dread is palpable -- not a fear of the dogs, but of having to give them her rations. She feels him stand behind her and does the same, but it doesn't occur to her to turn her weapon around, and she doesn't dare look behind her while that four-legged shadow is standing in the brightly-lit space at the end of that narrow seam of shadow.

Under other circumstances she wound find Gage Tomak growling at dogs hilarious.

It's not especially funny now, with more and more of them appearing all the time. There's a pecking order established: there are probably ten dogs altogether, but obviously some of them aren't brave enough to advance on people yet, or else they're being held at bay by some pack dynamic sorted out in the months of living feral. Most of them look as though they've been in fights. Most of them also look healed up: these are the tough-as-nails individuals that managed to survive.

The one on Ines' side of things doesn't find her anywhere near as intimidating as Gage is, and takes a step closer. The points of its shoulders are high, head low. The body language is ominous. Her backpack jostles the Tauran. "Uh...Tomak..."

-

In her backpack. Which is pressed up against him and thus... yeah. Plan B. Plan A is swung into action shortly after that 'Uh', leaves her throat, Gage stepping around her towards the nearest mutt. That one, surely, is the leader, and he presses forward a step, taking a swing with the butt of his rifle, like a club.

Whether he intends to actually hit the thing, just scare it is debatable -- and probably depends on how aggressively the dog reacts to his approach. He has a certain fondness for dogs, but these ones are clearly feral.

<FS3> Gage rolls Melee: Good Success (8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1)

<FS3> Gage rolls Alertness: Good Success (8 6 6 5 4 3 1)

Curly-haired and probably the descendent of some sort of terrier, the bravest of the feral animals lacks nothing for smarts: the moment Gage steps forward it retreats, but only equidistantly, until the swing with the rifle -- which would have connected otherwise -- sends it dancing just out of range with a twist of the body that means it receives no more than a bump to the hindquarters.

Behind him, Ines has turned herself the other way to avoid the risk of being tackled for her backpack, swinging it off of her shoulder and around to the front the way she did all of that time ago before their desperate run for the fenceline. It means one of her hands is tied up in unzipping the bag and she's got to manage the rifle with the other one, but Tomak's left the dogs looking wary and uncertain.

"I'm going to throw it. We can get some distance." They might assume she has more, but if they can already smell it she clearly figures the distraction has merit. Seconds later the last of the hunter's venison jerky chips are hurled free and clear of the small alley. Ears prick, tails lift. The moment the first one discovers what was thrown, the inevitable fight breaks out. Dogs race out into the far street. The one Tomak's squared off against lopes around the corner more sedately, and disappears.

The barking and snarling is vicious, and Ines has her hand on his arm, already starting the other way, when there's a sound from inside the building they have yet to check. A person's voice. Muffled, higher-pitched, and tired-sounding. "Hello?!"

Ines doesn't seem to hear it. "C'mon. Let's go, let's go."

-

There might be a certain amount of relief in Gage's demeanor that the dog retreats. He casts his gaze, back and forward, looking for the next that might dare to venture towards them. When Ines throws the jerky, his gaze is already going in the other direction, scouting their escape route.

There's a notable moment of tension. A weighing of using the distraction to get free, versus the humanitarian spirit, weighted against their last encounter with a stranger. He heard it, no doubt. But it's be easy to pretend, even in his own head, that he didn't. A split second decision.

"I heard something. Someone," he breathes out. It's reluctant, but maybe that tone is only in his head. "Over there," he nods towards the building they haven't checked; glances quickly for the dogs, and with a last look at Ines, begins to lope in that direction.

-

Probably predictably, the words 'I heard someone' produce a taut look in the young woman beside him, eyes bright and hard, intense as they turn up to him. She says nothing -- what is there to say? He knows.

He goes anyway.

Whether she follows him because splitting up makes no sense, or because she can't linger behind when there are feral dogs only temporarily distracted, or because she suspects he must have his reasons, or for some combination of these or none of them at all, she does follow after a briefly look over her shoulder, brows already starting to slide together in anticipation of things going wrong.

The building itself is more intact than most of the others. It still has a door, though the windows have been broken out of it and almost all of the interior furnishings are alternately gone or destroyed -- the upholstery stripped off, chairs dismantled, probably into firewood or for some other opaque purpose. Everything seems quiet, but the traces of Something Wrong are evident before they so much as set foot inside. The doorknob is greased with dark stains. The floorboards just inside are stained and smudged brown. The stairs leading up are, too. All of it looks dry, and yet: there's another sound from upstairs. Afraid, and warning:

"I have a gun! Whoever you are!"

It's a young voice. Young enough to make gender difficult to discern.

-

Despite his vote for humanitarian choice, Gage's approach is wholly tempered by a caution not unwarranted, given their previous encounters. He has his rifle up, safety off, pointing ahead. The room -- the contents, earn a dark, narrow-eyed look. The Tauran glances at Ines, sharing her sentiment. This is a bad idea, but we're going to do it anyway, because we have to.

He'll make sure the door is shut -- sparing them surprise dogs -- before he settles in at the base of the stairs, looking upwards. That he has his rifle pointed in that direction too is habit as much as it is learned caution. The youth of the voice makes him tense, but the gun doesn't waver despite that.

"We have guns, too. But we use them to kill cylons," the Tauran's voice is matter of fact.

-

Without so much as a word, Ines takes up a position at the opposite side of the base of the stairs, though she keeps her rifle angled down, and she's standing out of the direct line of fire should someone appear at the top.

No one does. The silence is heavy. A listening silence. An anxious one.

She draws her gaze from the top of the stairs down to rest on Tomak's face in profile when he raises his voice to be heard, then bounces her attention upward again. "We're soldiers," she adds, as much to offer a distinct and different accent as for any other reason. "We were living on the base nearby. Are you hurt? Can we help? ...We won't come up without you telling us it's alright. I promise."

"No! I'm not hurt, I'm-"

Pause.

The next time the voice follows, it's strained with emotion. It quavers. This is a kid. A scared kid, or a brilliant mimic. "Yeah. I got bit. But I do have a gun! So don't, don't think you can, just...come take my stuff."

-

Gage's face is taught with expression, and his 'frak' is fairly clearly expressed when the -- boy? girl? says they've been bit. His foot is already heading towards the bottom step of the stairs when Ines says they won't come up without the voice's owner allowing it, and he eases back with a visible scowl -- though whether at her or the situation in general isn't obvious. "Aint after your stuff, kid," the marine calls up, tersely. "The dogs chased us in here. We've got some medical supplies. And we have a medic coming to join us, soon, if you want us to take a look at the bite."

He pauses, glances over his shoulder. "Otherwise, we'll leave you to it." It's a bait, of course. He looks pretty well settled, waiting.

-

If Ines even notices the scowl -- her eyes are turned up toward the top of the stairs -- it's not apparent. His terse tone and does draw her gaze back, but she doesn't seem to disapprove, precisely. She's still looking at Gage when she speaks next, her expression inscrutable. "They were making all of that noise because I had jerky with me. I had to throw it."

Otherwise, we'll leave you to it, the Tauran says, very obviously not preparing to go anywhere, and for the first time since they came in, something in Ines' expression leavens. The smile is mostly in her eyes, and quick to fade, because after a long, heavy pause...

The kid's voice is wet and miserable. Sniffing. "Do you still have food too?"

"Yes. And water."

Long pause.

"Okay. You can come up."

"And you're not going to get scared and shoot us?"

"I'm not scared!"

Ines presses her lips together tightly to suppress the gallows smile that wants to form over that strident, indignant protest. "Okay. We're coming up, then."

Barring some sort of protest from Tomak, she angles a brow up and takes the first step, then glances at him: she's the one with the vest.

-

The Tauran is silent during the exchange, only a brief grimace evidenced. When she moves to head up first, he tenses, instantly. It's clear Gage's first instinct is to go first, no matter what the logical option is. But something in her expression maybe -- combined with the acknowledgement she's far less intimidating than him -- makes him flicker fingers towards her as if to say, go ahead.

Regardless, he's close on her heels, looking intimidating. Hovering. He does, at least, keep his rifle pointed to one side, mostly because Ines is in his way even if he wanted to shoot a kid. Which he obviously doesn't.

-

The house is old, humid from the loss of power and thus air conditioning, so the stairs are vocal as they ascend with groans and creaks announcing their approach no matter how carefully they move. Measured steps carry her up to the top, her gaze directed down as she reaches the landing: more dark shadows, swirled over the boards in some languageless alphabet of violence. She doesn't turn her head to look behind her but there's something in the way she moves that broadcasts awareness of his proximity, leery of moving too far out ahead of it, vest or not.

At the top she stops, letting the rifle hang from her shoulder on its strap, and extends her hands ahead of her into the open gap of the doorway, splayed. The corners of her eyes are tight. "Okay? You can see my hands?"

Her careful step forward splashes daylight over her, early morning sun cutting in a wedge of pale illumination across her silhouette. Pale eyes lift and angle up into the room, and she smiles. It's a small smile, and seems warm...but all of the muscle and sinew of her throat becomes visible in the play of light and shadow, signs of a hidden tension that Gage has had plenty of opportunity to learn: a clear and obvious tell. She'd never make it as a triad player. "I'm coming in, okay? My friend is coming in after me."

She glances behind her just once, eyes grave, and then steps into the room.

There's a smell to infection that isn't easy to forget. It hangs like a shroud on the kid seated beneath the window against the far wall, one jean-clad leg brown and stiff with dried blood. Sandy blonde hair and a hollow expression, pale save where cheeks are flush with fever.

-

All Gage has to judge the moment on is what he can see from behind the pilot -- not much -- and her visible, tense reaction. It makes him stretch out a hand to grasp at the back of her vest, as if preparing -- something. Maybe to push her to the side, or yank her back out of danger. Whatever he was expecting is definitely not what washes over them, his fingers still gripping his rifle in his other hand in anticipation of violence.

The change comes over him, visibly and audibly. He scents that smell -- all too familiar, given his recent experience in the production facility -- and it makes him suck in a breath, inadvertently. There's a sound, muffled or maybe stifled, like a low growl that wants to spill from his throat.

His eyes are glued to the kid. His finger tightens for a moment on his weapon, as if contemplating a thought that skitters away, fast -- and then he exhales, deliberately.

"Correa, give him some of our dried fruits." They don't have much left. Not enough to be giving them away, certainly; the severity of his expression and the timbre of his voice acknowledges and dismisses that at the same time. "What's your name, kid?"

-

Ten years old, maybe. It's tough to tell. Things like this tend to make people seem older than they are.

There's no gun.

Ines is still slow as she slides one shoulder free of her backpack's strap, swinging it around in front of her and sinking into a kneeling position that she never would've been able to execute even so much as a week ago.

"Nathan. Nate." There isn't much in the way of moisture under his eyes, red-rimmed and tired.

"I'm Ines, Nate." She unzips the top of her backpack, sliding one hand down into it and gesturing with the other over her shoulder. "This is Gage."

"I thought you said you're a soldier."

She blinks once, looks up. "I am a soldier."

"You don't really look like a soldier." Ines doesn't seem to know what to do with that: they stare at one another a moment. Nate asks, "Where's your uniform?"

"...Oh. Well. I was-" Pause. "I am a pilot. Flight suits are very uncomfortable, so I took it off."

"...Oh." Even sick -- very sick -- the kid manages to look disappointed. Not the badass soldier he was hoping for, clearly; his interest shifts, rests more wholly on the marine even after Ines finds the bag of fruit. Probably for this reason she hands the bag up to Gage. "How long have you been here, Nate?"

"I dunno. Like maybe five days or something."

-

Gage's expression could be best described as stony; likely not so much deliberately as in an effort to keep whatever he's thinking -- or feeling -- from showing when Nate looks his way. He doesn't exactly look the part of soldier in his fur coat and wild beard.

"Don't need to look like a solider to be like one. We've been evading the cylons for two weeks. She," he nods a head towards Ines, seeking to draw the boy's attention back towards the pilot, "Took two rockets to the chest and lived to tell the tale. Pretty fucking solider-y, if you ask me."

The marine looks, well -- kind of vexed that she hands him the bag. There's a deliberate pause, and maybe Ines knows him well enough to see the tension in his shoulder as he steps closer to the boy, crouching down next to him, offering the bag. "One of the dogs got at your leg?" He grimaces, in sympathy -- not faked either, given their own encounter. "They tried at us, too. Mind if we see?"

-

Ines can't help but wing one brow high on the telling of that particular story: that he chooses to tell it, or the way he tells it, or the creative license involved in describing her as having taken the rockets directly to the chest. The shape of her mouth changes, threatening a smile she pushes back against lest it make the marine look like a liar; she ducks her head, rezipping her backpack, expression concealed by the angle.

Glancing up some moments later to find Nate looking at her with the purest skepticism nearly undoes all of that composure. She manages to swallow down the laugh that wants to follow -- the sheer absurdity of being professionally doubted in these circumstances is surreal enough to knock her completely off balance -- and then lifts her hand and draws her fingertips over the damaged center of the vest. "I had this on." Dark lashes flutter in a quick wink. Nate doesn't look convinced, but he lets it go.

"A couple dogs." Grubby fingers take the bag and immediately begin to plunder it. There are empty tins close to the boy and a backpack that looks for the most part raided of what it contained; a plastic, wide-mouth sports bottle next to him still contains a very small amount of water. "I used to live a couple towns over. I thought there might be some food."

He looks down at the leg of his jeans. "It hurts," he says. Not a yes or a no. He doesn't pull his leg away, though, and won't even if it's reached for.

The bites are, at first glance, not so bad: no rips and tears, nothing torn, no grisly display of gore. Puncture wounds that bled, deeper than they are wide. There are no tell-tale red streaks to indicate sepsis. Nevertheless: they're very obviously infected. The leg is hot to the touch. It's unpleasant.

After a stretch of silence the sound of cloth whispering fills the room as Ines rises, swinging her backpack over her shoulder. Her tone is level, but forced in its optimism. "Nate, Gage and I are going to go search the rest of the house, okay? We won't be gone long."

-

Gage doesn't look over at Ines, but he does nod towards the boy, as if to emphasis that the story is definitely true. There's a brief tick of a frown at the boy's story, but he doesn't ask about his parents -- the lack of offering suggests the story pretty clearly. The fact that the Tauran marine waits until both the boy's occupied with the food and doesn't object might well suggest he's familiar in dealing with kids. He gives a grunt of acknowledgement, reaching down to roll up the leg of the boy's jeans. His gaze flickers over the wound, roughened fingers briefly touching alongside -- not on -- the wound, the heat of his skin tightening both the marine's expression and posture.

It's a good thing Ines intervenes, since his mouth is a tight line. He gives a sharp nod, rises, and moves into the lead. It's obviously an excuse to talk, but it's also a good idea -- he intends to do exactly what she suggests, and clear the rest of the house. She'll have to break the silence, though -- he's a tense, stalking reluctance about him.

-

The kid just nods as they announce their intention to go sweep the house, happy to sit and eat. He says nothing as they leave.

Ines may have little to no experience with kids, but she has plenty of experience with Gage Tomak. She holds her silence as they step out onto the landing, hangs back so that he can pass by her and lead them in opening and clearing the rest of the house: an upstairs master bedroom with en suite bathroom, a study brimming with moldy books and mildewed carpet smell. The downstairs contains a galley kitchen, a guest bedroom, a hall half-bath. There are hardly any supplies worth salvaging, most of what the little town contained packed off by the refugees and guerrilla fighters long since.

She waits until they're downstairs to open her mouth.

"I still have most of mine left."

-

The fact that the house is empty doesn't ease the marine's visible tension, so clearly it's not the state of their temporary location that's the cause of his mood. When she speaks, her words have a visible effect on him; his jaw clenches over the brief growl that surfaces, fingers tensing on his weapon.

"No," is all he says, sharply, like there's no room for argument. Except that he knows her, and knows how unlikely that is, too. "You don't finish the course, it'll be wasted on you. Wasted on him, too, if he doesn't get a full dose, and I aint no medic, but it looks bad."

He glances at her, albeit briefly. "The others'll come in over the day. Rhodes can look at him. Maybe she has more." He doesn't think so -- it's clear that he doesn't. But it's war, and in war there are bad choices, and worse choices.

-

That single word, sharp and quiet, tolls like a bell in the silence of the ruined house. Ines, standing by the kitchen counter and plucking her fingers over water-rippled pieces of paper, turns her eyes up toward the ceiling over them as though she might be able to sense some difference in the quality of silence. Listening for Nate's listening. Of course, there's nothing; she sinks one hip into the side of the counter and drops her eyes back down to the stack of miscellany she's fidgeting with.

"She doesn't," she says finally, soft words. Not strident. Not pushing.

Not yet.

"Maybe that's true. About the wasting. Maybe not. We can't know what would happen." A delicate silence unspools, broken only by the sound of paper whispering under her fingertips as she leafs through the remnants of someone else's life. "I think we know what will happen if he doesn't get any."

-

Gage's posture remains stiff, gaze averted from her, although his tense posture echoes his mood all the same. When she confirms his suspicion -- that there are no saving grace coming today, and therefore maybe ever, it's like the wind goes out of him. His stiff posture slumps for a moment.

And then he moves, abruptly, his left fist slamming against the wall. It must hurt -- there's a brief slick of blood -- but his expression is clearly pained not solely from the physical reaction -- mouth twisting.

"Ines," he begins, barely a breath. How many times is that that he's ever used her name now? Twice?

Whatever the thought, it isn't voiced; there's something hard and almost angry in his voice when he continues, "Go on. Give it to him, I'll scout around outside and make sure the dogs have moved on." What he doesn't say -- that he doesn't want to be there, for many more reasons than he'd ever express. Already, he's turning away, towards the door.

-

If Ines were literally struck by lightning it couldn't have made her startle more severely than she does when that fist goes into the wall. It makes the house tremble. Gestures dressed up as casual falter in the face of it, her paper-traveling fingertips lifted to press into the soft shape of her mouth as her shoulders tighten in: enough pressure to chase the blood out of them and leave them momentarily white. Her eyes close. The place she covered her mouth flushes rose as she pulls her fingers away, quarter-turning, the fine bones of her wrist in front of her mouth briefly, but the moment to say something is a finite window and it's gone too fast for her to find the words.

She doesn't try to stop him. Maybe she's not sure that she could, or not sure how she would try; maybe it's because of that little scarlet smudge on the wall. That he's a thunderstorm in bottle and it's safer to let him go. For him, or for her, or-

It leaves her standing alone in the galley kitchen, a set on a stage left over from the final scenes on what might've been the worst day of someone's life, looking down at the counter and wrestling with the hot-cheeked feeling that she's just betrayed the man who saved her life.

It's ten minutes of muffled upstairs murmuring before she comes back out again, opening the downstairs door slowly with her rifle in her hands. Checking the street, one way and then the other.

-

The marine is either not able, or not willing to come back into the building. Undoubtedly, he does just what he says -- scouting their immediate surroundings to make sure everything's secure, but his footsteps don't darken the door of that building again.

When she looks out the door, she'll spot him almost immediately across the way, stalking up and down the length of the building opposite. Given they're in enemy territory in a place that -- although cleared -- is still a danger -- it goes against every fiber of training. His hand though, is still on his rifle, so there's that.

It's a small relief, maybe, that there's no sign of the dogs.

-

The sound of the door closing behind Ines will announce her presence if he didn't see her already in his peripheral vision, but she's not quick to cross the street. Of all of the distance they've traveled in the last two weeks and for all of the distances they've erased between them in whatever tacit understanding takes root in situations like these, between people equally damaged, there's still so much she doesn't know.

He's pacing like an animal in a cage. Like the tigers at the zoo in Montseny, gone half-mad for lack of a wide enough territory to stake out.

She takes a long, deep breath before she peels away from the building behind her, crossing the open space of the main road uneasily. She's watching his boots by the time she's on the other side, then reaching without any real plan for what she's going to do when she catches the tiger by the tail.

-

He acknowledges her presence, in the momentary stall of his pacing tread. And then he moves again -- this time to the edge of the building, and stops again, with a stiffness that suggests it's a conscious inhibition to do so. His gaze roves over the street, other buildings -- keeping an eye out for movement. Looking everywhere and at everything.

Except at her.

Standing behind him is a stark reminder of just how much bigger than her he is. From the breadth of his back to the amount of weight in his backpack to the fact that she actually has to tilt her head a little to look at the back of his, for just a moment Gage Tomak seems like an unassailable fortress of a human being -- which is, in fairness, more or less what he was groomed to become. In theory, anyway.

Nothing is ever really unassailable.

Sage-green eyes hang on the back of him, the light in them helpless. Looking for a way in, a foothold, a fix.

In silence and with the same lightness of touch she applied to the scattered leaves of memos and post-it notes in someone else's kitchen, slender fingertips try to steal into the palm of his hand.

-

Instantly, he tenses. It's a moment that teeters on the edge of a decision for longer than it feels possible -- even if in reality it's only a second or two before the Tauran marine's fingers curl around hers, squeezing.

Even if he still doesn't look at her.

"Get the boy, and let's get on to the ranch," Gage says, gruffly. His voice is full of a tone she hasn't heard from him before. Not angry, not accepting -- something else. Something indefinably melancholy. "Rhodes'll be here soon. We'll get her to look over both of you."

-

What does it even mean? If she were asked she wouldn't be able to say -- only that it isn't until he chooses not to pull his hand away that her lungs are willing to unbind from around the breath padlocked into them. Air bleeds quietly out of her.

And it all still feels so fragile.

As though Gage Tomak were made of blown glass and not one of the most durable people she'd ever met -- or maybe as though he were volatile, as explosive as one of the charges it's his job to set, back in the real world -- she adjusts the hold she has on his hand and reaches with her opposite to cap the back of it. The note of worry that creeps into her expression follows on his tone, so alien to what she's accustomed to from him. "We'll have her check everything. But, I feel good. I feel good, Tomak."

Now she sounds as though she's trying to convince him, all of the persuasive tone she lacked inside of the house spilling out of her, however quietly.

-

He shifts his weight, and the fingers against hers twitch for a moment, like an incomplete, unconscious action being stilled. The lines of his body -- what she can see under the fur, through his neck and the side of his face -- remain tense despite the gesture, and despite her words. If anything, they do little to assuage whatever dark thoughts are in his head.

Finally, eventually, he glances at her. There's something tight, and cautious -- guarded, even -- in his expression. It, perhaps, conveys more readily than he'd like what he doesn't dare to say aloud: For now.

"Correa..." But he doesn't want to have this conversation. Doesn't want to voice it aloud. Doesn't want her to voice it aloud. "...we need to get moving."

-

For floating, uncertain moments everything seems to balance on a knife's edge. That's true even after he chances a look at her; even when it becomes apparent that Ines isn't overlooking the thing nobody wants to say through some sort of blind optimism. Her feelings about making that call are every bit as complicated, worn openly on expressive features. More, possibly: jumbled in with all of those torn sentiments is a raw thread of guilt.

And when the flipping coin comes down on a side, finally, and the moment slips off of that knife's edge?

Her brows dagger down in a look he's seen plenty of times before, drawn together in a way that instantly changes everything about her countenance. Her eyes tighten. Her jaw sets in that way that says she's about to be very Ines. She even lets go of his hand, but it's only so she can push at his arm to try to open his posture to her, jabbing one index finger lightly but with emphasis at his chest. She barely does anything more than whisper, but it's fierce.

"I wasn't going to correct you in front of the kid, but it was three rockets. Remember? Three."

-

Gage's whole posture stiffens in response to her expression. He's ready for a fight -- not so much ready to talk about what he doesn't want to admit, and it all together tenses his posture into the same expression that he wears moments before a battle: a mixture of dread, anticipation, fear and an inarticulate kind of vibrancy to an impending near-death situation.

And when she speaks, he's actually speechless, in a, 'what the fuck?' kind of way more than a 'grunt serves for an answer' kind of way he normally is. He just kind of stares at her incredulously for a moment.

And then he grunts. "Didn't think the kid would buy three."

-

"Of course he wouldn't. Who would? Three rockets. You don't just survive three rockets. One of them in a frakking Viper moving at speeds that frankly, Tomak, would blister your balls straight the frak off." The dip of her brows eases, replaced by a faint rise of both. "And not just that, was it?" She starts ticking things off on her fingers. "The crash, the shrapnel, I got shot in the arm, I caught two bloody trees to the chest, I was almost set on fire, half-frozen in woods that-" She throws her arms wide for a moment, a gesture of absolute incredulity, "-apparently contain spiders as large as my frakking head. I faced off against some kind of cylon sleeper agent dressed like a frontiersman or a bear or -- like some kind of low-budget horror film. I survived your cooking."

The bonfire built in her by all of these recollections banks just enough to stay at a simmer, but it doesn't die out. "I am not going anywhere. Frak dying. I'm obviously not cut out for it."

Something self-conscious steals in, apropos of nothing. She folds her arms, turns her head to the side, leaving him with a fantastic view of the delicate line of her jaw, set stubborn and hard even now. "I told you on the Dauntless. I don't break. One of these days you're not going to have a choice anymore but to believe me."

-

About halfway through her list -- yes, it takes him that long -- the marine seems to realize what she's doing, as evidenced by the sudden scowl that transforms his expression. He doesn't want to talk about it. He doesn't...

It spills out of him before he can catch the words, voice rough: "I never doubted your determination, Correa. But the micro-bug-whatevers in your bloodstream don't give a shit about determination. They'll just quietly and inevitably kill you. You'll rot from the inside, and there aint a damn frakking thing I can do about it."

Well, frak. So much for not talking about it. His fist clenches; now he's angry at her for bringing it up, at himself for voicing it.

-

Shit.

Ines bows her head, looks down at the toes of her boots and is silent until he hits that emphatic conclusion.

You know, I didn't want to give them away." The words are quiet but lightly said, almost conversational. "I still don't. Selfishly. I've been getting used to the idea of making it out of here. I know how good that feels. When you get out, finally. Washing up on the shores of civilization again. And you're sort of, you know." Squint. Half-shrug. "Growing on me." She bites at the inside of her cheek, lost in some thought or other, and then with a sharp inhale sets that aside and lifts her head, tilted back just enough to be able to meet his eyes with her lidded own. "But he'll die. You know he'll die. I'm not-" Sigh.

Frak it.

She's going to come at this from the long way around. She squints down the street, turns her back -- or at least her backpack -- to the wall.

"You know, I always cringe a little when they talk about how all soldiers are heroes? Some soldiers are heroes. Some soldiers are like me though, non? They fight because they have nothing else left and they're really, really pissed off about it. It's not a bad reason to fight, but it doesn't make me a hero. Not like some..." One hand comes up and waves something off impatiently. "Marine who spent a week in a blackout zone and then stayed to try to rescue a pilot he didn't even know he knew, who could've already been half-dead coming out of that canopy. Choosing to stay behind anyway. How can I...gods. How could I just leave him to that, now?"

It takes her a moment to chance a sidelong look at him, but it turns into a a lingering study of all of that rising anger. Underneath the heat of it her humor is weak, but she makes the attempt. "Maybe you shouldn't have been such a good role-model."

-

He's still fighting with his own reaction to it all -- the anger, that undercurrent of something so melancholy as to be an echo of something else. You're sort of, you know. Growing on me, she says, and it makes his jaw clench again.

He goes still. May even stop breathing -- or it's so faint that his chest doesn't move. A noise exhales from his throat. It could be a stifled laugh, or a choked sob -- something in that vein that is so bursting with emotion as to be inarticulate. In that moment, that same moment, he steps towards her, lacing an arm around her shoulder to try and pull her towards him. It's a one-armed hug, because whatever else, his other hand still stays on his rifle.

Some things never change. And some things... do.

-

Astonishment ignites like a flare in her, bright and total -- her arms lift almost mindlessly, on reflex in the moment before she finds herself pulled in close -- and then catalyzes into something else entirely. The emotion that twists through her expression may not have a name, for all that its poignance leaves her shutting her eyes against the prickle of it. Aimlessly lifted arms find their purpose, threaded not just beneath his but also beneath the weight of his backpack, seeking some more secure hold. Impatient fingers curl into fur, bunching material between them, and she's never loathed that god damn vest more than she does now, all of its unyielding bulk an impassable obstacle to the rarest kind of intimate contact.

It's almost too bittersweet. Of the many things that might have caused her resolve to buckle, moved her to change her mind about giving those pills to a boy who needs them, this pushes her the furthest: it's almost enough. Almost enough to make her recant. She squeezes her closed lids tightly against the unfairness of that, and with breathless care sets those thoughts aside to press her face into his chest like a person starved for everything this is. It's not far from the truth. And it is, like everything any longer capable of reminding her she's still alive, terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure.

Her knuckles creak as one of her hands uncurls, eventually to rest at a shoulder, helping her lever herself back. She doesn't look up. It's rare to catch her looking that way, so it may be a moment before it's clear exactly what that look is: Ines is feeling shy. "I'll get him."

-

His grip tightens as she returns the hug, exhaling a breath as he drops his face into the top of her head. It's not an overtly intimate gesture, and it could easily be read as one of comfort, and yet for a moment in time, while they're locked in that pose, he is held still not by some emotion or want, but the abeyance of it. Just her, and him, and moment. A moment of calm, a breath, two, three -- where he takes in the scent of her hair, the pressure of her trying to press into his fur coat.

When she begins to extricate herself, he straightens, something cluttering his throat, the protest not fully voiced as his arm slides away from her. He, too, doesn't look at her -- there's something too raw and vulnerable in that moment that Gage doesn't want her to see -- and maybe doesn't want to see in her, either. And so it's very likely he misses that moment, of her being shy -- so focused as he is on clamping down his own reaction in the wake of that moment, building up those familiar, taciturn walls.

For her words, he makes a noise that somewhere between a grunt of acknowledgement and a clearing of his throat.

Routine helps. It takes a moment to kick in, jump-started by a lift of hand to the cigarette that hasn't been behind his ear for weeks. He moves to the corner, checking up and down, methodically checking all the approaches, a keen ear kept out for dogs. This -- this is easy. This is what the Tauran marine was trained for. He can do it without thinking.

Which also means it doesn't serve as a particularly great distraction, a fact that has him scowling fiercely by the time Ines returns with the boy.

-

There are a thousand difficult things Ines does every day that she somehow manages to make look easy, and still the force of will involved in turning her back on that moment and that marine is almost beyond her. In the end she forces her about-face and stalk toward the front door of the house across the way with the same sharp determination with which he two weeks ago yanked a shredded splinter of her demolished fighter out of her thigh, and moments later finds herself standing inside the damp, musty house with her backpack pressed to the inside of the now-closed front door, a hand pressed lightly over her eyes. Listening to a kid she doesn't know say her name first, then Tomak's, increasingly anxious as she remains silent; this kid her antibiotics might not even save, for whom she might be condemning herself to an uncomfortable, septic death and she doesn't want to die, didn't before, and now on top of that there's not only knowing what it would do to the man across the street if she does but also the first uneasy acknowledgement that they, or at least that she, might-

It takes her five minutes for the anger to seep out of her again. It's not Nate's fault he was bitten by dogs. It's not his fault they found him. It's not his fault.

When she's sure there isn't any of that in her face anymore she finally ascends the stairs, helps him to pack up his things, and then swings her backpack around to the front of her body so that she can pick him up and piggy-back him out.

"Nate says they have a tank of petrol at the ranch. A large one, for farm equipment."

"It's buried," says the kid.

-

The scowl painted on the marine's face lessens marginally with that news. And, maybe too, he's making an effort to curtail a reaction that is equally unfair to the boy as it is to the pilot. "It's something. Might be something," he mutters. There's something still rough and raw in his voice, easy to miss.

His gaze flickers to her, to the boy, guarded and stilted of motion for a moment for what flashes through it. "You'll let me know as soon as you want me to take a turn with him?" That's for Ines, though Gage's nod is towards the boy. The fact that he trusts her to know her own strength, her own limitation, is definitely a step forward.

He lifts his rifle, pointing with it, then begins moving in that direction, taking point. The movement helps, though there's still something of a stalking anger lining his movements as they begin the process of moving from building to building, cover to cover.

-

All she can do is nod. Nod and smile a small smile that doesn't seem like it has anything to do with carrying the kid, whose weight she's supporting with hands underneath the hinges of his knees. She's smothered in things to carry, but she won't be of any use with that rifle unless she puts the boy down -- whole precious seconds to factor into any possible emergency.

It's more important now for her to mind her footing, so her attention is necessarily split between the shadow of the Tauran and the ground immediately in front of her. It's easier -- not safer, but easier -- to look at the ground. Every glance at him fans the embers of that earlier ire and risks reigniting all of it: she's got her own walls to raise and armor plates to reaffix, but those calcified layers are made of different stuff than his. It takes time. Silence. Solitude, more than anything.

None of which things are especially well-facilitated by children.

"How come you're down here if you're a pilot?"

"Well...we were flying a search and rescue sweep for marines who were cut off after a mission. Gage was one of them. We were picking them up when a cylon shot a rocket at my fighter."

"So you crashed?"

"Yes."

"Why..." Pause. "Why is it just you guys?"

"It's not. We're just scouting ahead. There are some other marines nearby. They're going to be coming to the ranch, too. A lot of other people. Civilians." Pause. More brightly, as though she's offering him something she thinks he might want: "There are some kids. Maybe your age."

"Oh." Strike two for Ines: he sounds disappointed, then drops into silence. She takes that as a silver lining and quiets, too, but inevitably the questions continue.

"So you were, like, just looking for stuff?"

"Scouting ahead. To find out what's here."

"Like the antibiotics."

Ines is a good liar, as it turns out. "Mmhm."

-

The Tauran moves slowly -- it could be attributed to his normal scouting routine, except it's slower even than that, like an extra caution on top of his usual behavior. Nate's constant questions make Gage glance in their direction probably more than he otherwise would -- his expression at first stiff, reluctant, but easing somewhat at the nature of the questions.

Until the last one. The tension rivets visibly through his body, and he ceases looking back at them.

Finally, after what might feel like an eternity, Gage keeps moving in that slow, methodical way. There's a moment where his hand lifts, in a gesture she might be familiar with now -- stop and wait. It's a tense moment, the marine listening intently as the sound of barking dogs growing louder for a moment. His grip on his rifle shifts, as if preparing to reverse it, hoping the boy knows to stay quiet but unable to control that moment, instead fixed on potential danger ahead...

-

She'd usually see it more quickly. Stop sooner. But Ines is looking at the ground, minding the placement of her feet, and it arrives as a shock to see his boots enter her field of vision, stopping her abruptly. And the first thing Nate does, of course, is ask a question: "What's going-"

"Shh!" Whispering, now, as she turns to angle the boy's back to the wall, and slowly bend her knees, easing him down to the ground. "Stay right behind me." Her hands and elbows are beginning to ache, weary from the weight of carrying him, but it's a relief to put those hands on the rifle instead. The boy may very well be every bit as dangerous as the rifle, but she only understands one of the two.

"It's the dogs?"

"Nate be quiet."

-

The dogs are lounging around what probably used to be the town square. It also has the best sight lines across the town -- with wide streets running in all four directions -- requiring them to cross at least one. Gage watches the group of dogs in silence for a time, but they seem set on staying where they are, earning a tightening of jaw.

Easing back a step to put him out of sight of the animals, he glances at Ines -- just a quick, assessive look she's probably used to -- and then Nate, with a slight twitch around the eyes she might take as a frown. "Won't be able to outrun them, if they see us," he murmurs. "I'll lead them south, you and the boy head north. I ought to catch you before you make the ranch."

-

All of the expression drains out of Ines' face.

Her eyes don't widen, but a sharp light hardens them, lending them an artificial intensity. The shake of her head is tight.

"No."

Two heartbeats, and then she shakes her head again. "No you didn't, we didn't clear everything." Her street-ward glance is mulish, stubborn in the usual way, but underpinned by a mounting anxiety that implies she senses this argument isn't one she can win. "You could get shot, there could be someone hiding out somewhere, the dogs -- the dogs could get ahold of you and then what? Tomak? If you don't have somebody there to back you up? You're going to fight off ten dogs? No way. No." In her tension she's pushing back against the smaller body behind her but Nate, for all of his endless questions, has enough sense of the moment that he doesn't complain.

-

He goes on like her protest didn't even register: "It won't be more than half an hour. You won't get far, and since the town's clear, we're more than likely good." Gage's words both acknowledge that it's a bit of a gamble, and simultaneously dismiss it, his eyes finally coming to rest on hers. Whatever he sees there makes him blink, quickly, then look away; his own is shadowed, pained.

The exhale he gives is slow, but it makes his voice certain when he finally adds, "Aint any point to any of this, if we don't save the boy, after everything--" he breaks off, eyes hardening.

-

Incredulity and dread in escalating amounts answer the way he just pushes forward with the details of his plan, ignoring everything she said. In those moments her struggle is twofold: casting about for a way to dissuade him, and trying to accept that it may actually happen anyway. The pressure from those opposing impulses builds until he provides her with a reason to vent it, all at once.

"No point? No frakking point?" The words are hissed, still quiet, but there's nothing quiet about the way she's looking at him. There's more to that sentiment -- whole worlds of More -- but she's a bottleneck for thoughts and feelings too enormous for her to understand how to articulate them. "And you're going to make, make me-"

Wait around to find out if you die?

She seems to recognize the hypocrisy of faulting him for that all at once, drawing up short with an intake of breath and her lips parted, but it does nothing to douse the fire in her eyes. She half-turns away from him and lifts her hands to press her fingertips to her temples, furious. The twitch of one of her brows as Nate says her name, and the way her eyes close, speak to dangerous amounts of resentment: this god damn kid.

Something does douse it, though -- all of that incendiary wrath. After a moment of staring across the street the tension in her shoulders lets go. She straightens. Adjusts the hang of the rifle on her shoulder, both hands on it. The click of the safety turning off is loud in the silence. So is the footstep she takes away from the wall, ready to step past Tomak completely.

"They're just dogs," she says tightly. She might be trying to convince herself, maybe. Either way, she seems absolutely ready to kill every single dog in the street.

-

To his credit, Gage weathers her fury with a rock-solidness that is reminiscent of their first few days together. That he recognizes that there's more, more she's not saying, more he's not articulating either, is obvious in the tightening of his jaw. When her tension releases, he misreads the situation -- he takes it not as a resolve, but capitulation, already shifting his shoulders to resettle the weight of his backpack in preparation to move.

It takes him a moment -- several seconds -- to recognize what she's doing. She's already moving past him when it registers, and he lunges towards her to stretch out a hand to grip at her arm, seeking to haul her back -- maybe with more force than he means to, in part thanks to the sudden spike of fear that lances through him in that moment.

He's breathing hard, eyes wide, unable to articulate that moment clearly. His hand tightens on her arm, as if she might struggle free regardless of his intent. "I can't-- we-- we need the bullets," words come, finally, and logic. A marine's practically, embraced wholeheartedly in place of any other plea that surfaced and was nearly spoken aloud.

But she is not a marine, and he tries something other: "I mean to keep my promise, Correa." His promise that he won't die.

-

Grabbed and dragged, she's actually compliant at first. Irritated, but without any sharp increase to the tension of her mood.

...Until he says the words we need the bullets. It's as much as she can stand. She fights him with an insistence she hasn't since the day he forced her to keep the vest and cross the field to the fence, bright spots of color flushing over high cheekbones. He says something else but it is, for all its well-meaning attempt to reach her from another direction, just tissue paper in a backdraft.

"And I need you!" And being forced to admit to needing anything at all, actually, much less another person, is enough to whip that white-hot fury into a maelstrom in her chest. "More than bullets! You unbelievable frakking asshole!" For just a few breathless moments she stares at him with eyes like nails, until the silence provokes her all over again and she tries to pivot away, unintentionally rough as she grasps Nate's wrist. "Just go. Just- frakking go. If we're doing this."

The kid looks scared. Scared and upset, and he's not so young that he doesn't understand that all of this is in some way about him, which leaves him looking miserable. Trying not to cry in front of strangers.

-

And I need you!

And just like that, Gage releases her as quickly as if the words had some physical force behind them. Something startled and bright and hot flashes across his expression, too fast to decipher, and far too difficult to articulate in any way. It chokes in his throat for a moment, coming out as a brief noise as, for a moment, he's frozen there.

And then he does just what she says. He goes -- before she changes her mind, before he does, before things he wants or doesn't want to say spill out of him. He turns on a heel, moving past the boy with the barest of glances and a muttered, "Look after her," spoken with the heat of someone who's going to hold the boy personally responsible if he doesn't.

And then he's gone.

A short time later, there's a sudden noise from the dogs around the corner -- a growling, and then barking. Within minutes, they're moving in a back, back south, attracted by something she can't see, even if she knows it's him.

-

She doesn't turn around to look again: she needs to be angry and it's easier to be angry if she doesn't look. Instead she crouches and hauls the boy up onto her back, and it breaks her heart a little bit to hear his small apology, couched in tones that suggest he's not even sure what he did wrong, only that it was something. But if she acknowledges that, if she tells him it's not his fault, that it's probably her fault or worse, nobody's fault, that life is just like this and sometimes there's nothing you can do about that, sometimes you just find yourself lost in a dead city and trying not to die and there's no reason and maybe no point after all, she's going to lose her hold on her anger. She might actually lose her mind.

So she says nothing in response at all, a small cruelty among numberless similar, all executed in the name of preventing something that might very well be worse. His face his hot against the back of her neck as she hoists him into place and stands, staring resolutely in the opposite direction and nursing that cauldron of boiling-over anger. Embarrassment helps.

The sound of barking dogs has her breaking from cover to cross the street. The boy turns his head to look in the direction the dogs have gone -- she can feel it when he does -- but she bulls forward and pours all of her bottomless anger with the injustice of everything into her momentum. Between the barking dogs, the knowledge of what it is they're barking at, and the wet sniffles directed almost into her ear, there's little wonder she moves like someone being pursued by something terrible. In a very real way, she is.

The only thing worse than hearing them is eventually not hearing them at all, and having no way to tell if she's out of range of hearing them, or they've gotten what it was they were after.

-

What might end up being worse than not hearing the dogs is the wait. The interminable period of time that stretches and seems to last forever. Ten minutes pass. Twenty. Thirty. When he should've appeared, but there's no sign of him on their trail.

Forty minutes. And then an hour. A gods-damned hour.

And then something. Movement on the horizon behind them -- Gage, approaching at an easy jog despite the large pack on his back -- like he was out for an afternoon run around the base. It's been long enough that whatever was in his expression has cooled into familiar, taciturn expression. He slows when he sees them, relief briefly painting his features before fading away. There's blood on his left hand, but nothing so bad that seems to favor it in anyway. He may not even be aware of it -- his gaze intent on seeking Ines' instead.

An unspoken question -- is she okay? -- and maybe even a mute apology -- rests in that look.

-

In spite of everything, Ines never stopped moving. She kept pushing forward even when the time stretched out into uncertainty, and once the endless silence continued through uncertainty to the terrible suspicions on the far side there wouldn't have been any way for her to stop moving. By the time he does finally catch up with them she's no longer looking and not paying as much attention as she should be.

It's Nate who notices.

"Hey..."

"Not now, Nate."

"But-"

"Not now."

"It's Gage!"

She mistimes a footstep, stumbles, and twists at the waist to look.

Something about the way he looks as he catches up -- like this was nothing, it was fine, no big deal after all, practically a jaunt -- makes her angry all over again.

And then relieved, visibly relieved, looking him over even as Nate's struggling to have her put him down -- understandably he seems less enthusiastic about her than he was earlier today. She ignores his feeble attempts to get her to put him down, too busy being six different kinds of things at once. They march across her face openly, relief rounded on the edges by something suspiciously like an echo of the apology in him. Uncertainty. The memory of the fit she threw. The awkwardness of that, the resentment, and then she decides that being angry is easier than all of those things, and she's not quite ready to be finished with being angry. It floods up in her expression like something molten percolating up out of the earth.

"Took you long enough." A branch snaps under her boot as she turns to keep moving.

-

Gage takes it all in -- the torrent of emotions in her expression, and the settling on anger -- with an equanimity borne of practice. Her observation receives a grunt -- an acknowledgement -- as he adjusts his pace to match hers as is habit now. "Had to climb up a tree for a bit, wait for them to get bored. Might've fallen asleep," he admits, scratching casually at his beard.

He's totally frakking with her. There's too much ease in his posture, born of relief that this odd little temporary family is back together again, for it to be anything otherwise.

But then again, it's something he'd totally do, too, so...

-

It's a long walk still to the ranch itself, at least as one accounts for carrying all of that weight -- some two miles -- though not nearly long enough by Ines' accounting, who finds them stepping out of the unlandscaped fringe of trees bordering the little ghost town onto the overgrown lawn of the ranch itself at about the time the sun hits its zenith. She hasn't said a word, marching on the power of her own ire as though afraid all of it will escape if she opens her mouth but she slows to a stop when they hit open air. Lets Gage take point again, finding a spot for the boy in the field they have to cross to reach the ranch house, sheltered in the lee of a trough.

It's a sprawling property with grasses gone to seed and at knee height, almost convincingly pastoral. Everything is quiet. They move with the usual care anyway, Ines taking all of her cues from Gage. At that pace it takes at least an hour before they've combed through every last outbuilding, but the news is good: ample numbers of rooms, a basement that seems dry and unflooded, an enormous attic, wood stoves, cordwood still in stacks along the outside of a garage that contains a large number of tools -- not resources that they have any immediate need of, beyond the ability to heat the place, but better to have than not. The most critical finding by far is the actual, honest-to-god well. Whether or not the water is safe is impossible to say, but the promise of being even marginally cleaner is enough to offset even Ines' black mood.

The beds are as musty as everything else closed up within an airless space for however long, but they're still functional, which becomes immediately relevant the moment they return to pick up Nate. The antibiotics are working on him and he's moved more today than in the last week: he barely opens his eyes when Ines reaches to gently shake his shoulder, dead asleep.

She reaches for him as though she intends to pick him up and all of the weariness in her seems to steal in at once, most of her anger leeched out of her while they searched and made an early inventory. It's possible to mark the exact moment that the wind goes out of her, shoulders falling. She glances up at Tomak. "Can you?"

-

Gage is, at least, in home in silence, even if it's a silence weighted with all the events of the day, and of things still looming over them, spoken and unspoken. He finds a purpose in their arrival at the ranch, leading the way with his exceeding caution, carefully and methodically checking corners and doors and relying -- as is habit now -- on Ines to watch his back -- occasionally glancing over to maintain contact and make sure she's close by.

The size of the place surprises him, as does the fact that there's actual beds. Beds, an alien thing after three weeks of sleeping on the ground. It's only once everything is scouted out to his satisfaction does the marine nod, settling in next to Ines as they head back towards the boy. That's the moment. The moment he should speak, say something to disperse the tension, make everything normal again. But he's never been one for words, and the moment passes with just a frustrated, barely audible noise as they reach the sleeping boy.

Even as she's glancing at him, before the words are fully out of her mouth, Gage is reaching down to pick up the boy, one hand sliding behind his back, the other under his legs. It doesn't even seem to stir Nate, perhaps mercifully, as he turns to carry him back inside and towards the nearest bed.

-

At one point there were kids at the ranch. Toys, none of them clean, on kitschy throw rugs in gaudy primary colors gone dingy with weather and waiting. The room screams 'kid-friendly.' Really, it screams 'kids-friendly,' because there are two twin beds, one against either wall flanking a large window.

Ines follows them as far as the house, but her footsteps don't track behind his once he steps inside. He has silence and privacy as he puts Nate somewhere safe to sleep, and then he has a choice. He can look for the pilot, or he could not do that.

-

With a care not often seen in the Tauran, the marine carefully settles Nate in the bed, pulling up blankets and tucking them around him. He stands there for a moment, frowning down at the boy, battling with his own kind of unjustified anger at his presence, for many more reasons that his need for Ines' last antibiotics. Finally, with a deliberate breath, as if letting go, he eases out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

His weight creaks the floorboards as he passes through the hallway. Back in what passes for the living space, he rests his rifle against the wall and eases his backpack off his shoulders, and then, after a moment's consideration, that heavy fur coat, before he picks up his rifle again.

Only then does he go looking for her, in that methodical way of his, quartering the ranch in his mind and searching the quarters, albeit with less scrutiny than his first pass through.

-

She isn't in any of the buildings, but he won't have any real difficulty finding her. There's a fence that skirts the property out on the edge of the place the weedy lawns roll downward, close to a dirt track lane that'll be overgrown soon enough, too -- a long drive leading into the property from some access road or other, out in this area that's pretending to be countryside and really only the apron of the suburbs. It's a well-made post fence and still in good enough shape for her to sit on it, backpack hung over the post to the left of her, rifle slung behind her back, a slant of dully reflective metal against the shape of that vest. She's facing outward, looking down the ghostly grey stripe of road, hands to either side of her hips on the fence railing she's sitting on, boots on the slat below. In full sunlight and with the treeline providing a windbreak the area feels almost -- almost -- temperate, the worst of the winter shut out.

-

Gage shifts his shoulders to ease the tension there as he crosses the open space, the CF-issued khaki camouflage shirt perhaps looking odd on him after so long with the fur coat. Easing the rifle to his side, one hand steadying it against his leg for a moment, he moves to lean both arms against the fencepost she's seated on, looking where she's looking -- but also not.

He's clearly not here for the view, but also doesn't seem that keen on breaking the silence for a while.

"Watching for them?" he finally asks. The others.

-

She hears him before he gets there, the turn of her head a signal of that, but she doesn't stir in any kind of uneasy objection to his presence. Maybe that's something. It's enough, anyway.

His question sends one of her brows up in mild, unfeigned surprise, and she answers it with a short exhale through her nose, pushed with enough force that it stands in for humor of some kind or another. "No." Thinking about that -- about the massive group of people moving in clots and clumps toward them even now -- tightens her eyes and threatens to press bony fingers of exhaustion into her. The noise. The activity.

She lifts one hand and cups it around the nape of her neck, rubbing. "We lived out in the country like this," she says eventually, taking the hand from the nape of her neck to gesture out at the arguably agrarian landscape that unrolls to either side of that thin dirt lane. "Sort-of country. Like...pastures that exist because your property is gigantic, and not because you're farming it." Pause. "Rich-people country. I guess. Estates. It's very expensive, to create just the right amount of rustic shabbiness without actually having shabby things." Her tone veers into dryness for that last bit, eyes narrowed, sun catching the lighter highlights in the tips of her dark lashes.

-

After a moment, it becomes obvious that Gage isn't staring at the road, but watching her, kind of sidelong. She's never really talked about her background, in the same way he hasn't, either. It serves to highlight both the similarities and the very big differences between them.

His, "So... never milked a cow, then?" is a casual attempt at keeping the conversation going, but it's halfhearted, this thoughts distant, on another moment.

I'd probably find an empty patch of beach. Build a place in the shade. Go swimming when I want. Sleep when I want.

It prompts the words that follow shortly after: "Aint got a beach, but wouldn't be such a bad life, working a place like this." Minus the cylons, presumably.

-

For the most part Ines doesn't want to think about her history, let alone talk about it, but extraordinary circumstances breed extraordinary moments. The day has been one long freefall through layers of never-dos, so what's one more, really? And even this is easier to talk about than everything she said in the height of her fury.

So it surprises even Ines when his question produces, instead of the bitter pang it might otherwise, a faint upward quirk at the corner of her mouth. "No." Her eyes are glazed over with sunlight, difficult to read, but they're distant. She might be looking at it, but she's not really seeing the road, either. "My neighbors had a few, but..." She huffs another not-laugh, this one at herself, one of her brows slant, dryly unimpressed. "It always felt a little indecent to me."

She hadn't planned to look at him, but he surprises her with that. Not just that he offers it -- he sometimes does, intentionally or otherwise, leaving little pieces of a broken history like crumbs -- but what he says. "What, you?" Incredulous eyes angle his way. "On a-"

Farm, she was going to say, only to pause. The way she blinks, walks her eyes up and down over his face, and never finishes that sentence, finally remembering to close her mouth, says she's dealing with the arrival of unexpected thoughts. There's realization in her tone, too: "Huh." She leans forward a little and looks down at the toes of her boots, braced on the slat below. "I was going to say I can't picture you on a farm, but I guess I can, actually." Pause. "Anyway, it's Picon. There are loads of beaches."

Somewhere, anyway.

-

"Indecent?" he echoes her word, and it makes him, unaccountably, laugh -- both for being oddly true, but as much for something he hadn't anticipated of her, specifically. "Never thought of you as that fancy," Gage admits, though the curve of lips suggests he's probably teasing her.

When she looks at him, she catches him watching her. It earns a brief grimace, too, though that doesn't last -- transforming into something thoughtful. "Built stuff with my hands all my life. There's something honest about it. It's hard work, but you see the outcome, you know? It aint like war, where you're not sure if you're winning or losing."

He grunts a concession to her point about Picon and beaches. "If there were one here, I'd stay." It's a fanciful thought. He doesn't really seem given to those, but... it really has been one of those days, and now the words are coming, they come with relatively little filter.

-

His laugh replenishes the slight upward turn at the corner of her mouth, but she seems to be in agreement with his amusement, and with the admission. He's teasing, but Ines answers it with a single word that contains more vehemence than teasing merits: "Good."

Small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these fragments of everything laid out in front of her -- them -- to be examined and the edges considered. Things she thought she knew have to be shifted slightly to accommodate the new, but probably not much. He wears the trappings of hard labor to this day, and the way he speaks makes it pretty clear he was never sitting in a board room for a nine-to-five.

"I'm tired enough that I would think about it." She says that agreeably, but it's not without caveat, clearly. "But eventually I'd be sitting around thinking about how there are bloody robots trying to take over the universe and I'd get angry again. I'm really-" She hesitates, then shakes her head, trying not to laugh. Her brows knit, almost worried about the raw honesty of what she's about to say. "I'm a very angry person, Tomak. I'm sure you find that difficult to believe." The last words are as dry the sands of Sagittaron.

-

After a moment, his mouth twitches with a grimace of agreement. "It's a dream. You aint gonna give it up anymore than I would. Even after all this, even if, especially if you--" his words stumble to a halt. Just one more word, but he can't say it aloud.

Even if you die. It freezes his thoughts and motions into stillness for a time. Finally, then, a breath, but he doesn't continue that thought.

Her honesty merits honesty in turn, though it doesn't reflect the dryness of her words, coming slowly: "Aint gonna judge. You aint no worse than me." Scratching at his beard, he adds, "We both have a lot to be angry about, and things..." there's a pause, searching for the right words, "Aint been normal for a while," he finally says.

-

if you

Even after everything -- or maybe because she's on the tail end of being forced to feel more things than she's accustomed to -- she doesn't immediately take his meaning. Dark brows slide together slightly, drawn in toward a faint lick of shadow that won't find a permanent residence in her complexion for years to come, if she's lucky. It sinks in only slowly when the silence extends and leaves her with her head bowed and troubled eyes digging holes in the dirt below the fence. It isn't a look alleviated by anything he says after that, either.

It's difficult to say what the thing building in her is -- just that it's visibly there, some mounting tension or groundswell of feeling, still bottled behind the bars of her ribcage. It changes the way she breathes. "I don't think I remember what normal is. I'm not sure I ever had it. Not even..." Her gesture tries to frame the whole of her history in one sweep of the hand. "Before." That gesticulating hand lifts to rub at one side of her face, a contained expression of the agitation in her. Working her way up to something, obviously. This almost always goes well.

-

By habit, the marine's glance roves over his shoulder, checking behind them. For all that this might be deemed a safe place, some habits are hard to break, and the openness of their location has a reflexive twitchiness that he tries hard to suppress. It's fine. You checked everywhere. There's no threats. But instinct still overrides rational thought.

Her words finally draw his gaze back to her. It's not so much sympathy in his gaze as it is interest, maybe concern as he recognizes that latter tone. His fingers flex against the fencepost for a moment. "I figure, you make normal of what you can. The Dauntless was normal for a while. The routine of it, running with you," it makes his lips curve up, briefly, before he snorts, and adds, "Interspersed with murdering robots. The dream."

"I had normal once. A long time ago." It's a simple phrase, but it's weighted with so much meaning, and a tone that she's heard only briefly before -- a kind of melancholy reminiscence. "Aint sure, maybe it's worse, to know what it was and never be able to get back to that moment, that place, that time." Those people.

-

He puts two perforations in the building engine of whatever thought is goading her: first when he mentions the running, something personal and unexpected, and then when his tone turns haunted by the ghost of some old grief. The question of it, too: better to have had and lost, or never to have had at all?

It slides a dagger so neatly between her ribs that for a moment she isn't sure she's going to be able to take that next breath.

"I used to think that," she manages, when she trusts her voice again. It's still threadbare in a way that frightens her. "Better not to know what it's like, so I can't miss it now that there's no hope of that for me." She swallows at the knot in her throat, one tied around the second half of that thought. She'd intended to say all of it, but she turns her head, looks the other way, balks. It leaves her with the thing she'd been trying to work her way toward, instead. "What I said today, I'm- I shouldn't have said that. I shouldn't have...put that...on you. It's not fair. It's not fair to you. There's already this war to fight, it's difficult already without -- without making someone responsible for something more than just, coming back alive. Every time they go out. It's not fair. I'm sorry."

She believes what she's saying. There's conviction in it. But the words also have a kind of rehearsed quality -- not as though she'd rehearsed them for this occasion, but as though they're part of some inner architecture of her own devise. Strictures, maybe. Logical. Well-meaning. Even-handed. Selfish, in a way, and sheer martyrdom in another.

-

He's watching her when she turns away, when she apologizes. It takes him by surprise, if the brief stiffening of his posture is anything to go by -- whatever he might have been anticipating she was building towards, that was definitely not it. He's silence, but still present, processing his own reaction to the words, the context of them. "Aint something to apologize for."

And he means that, too, even if the words stick in his throat, not for the lack of truth, but for the difficulty of him voicing it. And for knowing what follows. "Plenty of things get said... in a moment." He's offering her an out in a way that, on balance, could be said to be just as selfish.

-

Try as she might to buck the stereotypes she used to be -- preoccupied with all of the wrong things by her present reckoning, frivolous in so many ways as a person, insulated, privileged -- there are some things Ines can't change about herself, and one of those is that she is such a goddamn girl about some things. It's in her absurd collection of luxury toiletries, lingering evidence of a once legendary vanity; it's in the way she squeaked and covered her face the night of that first bar fight in Caprica when one of the people the Wolves trounced in the street threw up all over the sidewalk. It's her delight over the thought of having a -- she didn't pick the name, okay -- Sparkle Pony Party in a place called Overly Cross. They're things she can't shake, no matter how hard she tries.

The way she looks at him is just part of that: overthinking it, looking for something in his expression as he tells her she doesn't have to apologize, as though he were a complex cipher she could read if she invested enough effort, in spite of knowing full well what kind of person he is and how stupid that would be. She probably pored over letters from boys in school, over-analyzed text messages, over-thought little sidelong remarks that meant nothing, that they probably forgot the moment they said them, conferencing with girls her age and trying to divine the truth of it all. It's stupid. It's so stupid. She knows it's stupid, and she can't help it.

Just, it's not as stupid as what he says after that, and her expression darkens enough to make that clear. She can feel her collarbone and throat and cheeks going hot as she realizes what she's going to do, but the thought of letting him believe anything to the contrary is appalling; untenable. Not because she's not embarrassed by the truth -- she is -- but because, if she's going to share a truth that embarrassing with someone, she's damn well going to have it acknowledged for the significant thing that it is. "I meant what I said. I didn't say I didn't mean it. Just that I shouldn't have said it."

-

When she reiterates her words, it's Gage, this time, who looks away. And not to reflexively check their surroundings, though he turns it into that, turns to the routine, the distraction, by habit. It settles him enough that there's a brief attempt to articulate a response, but finally he just gives into the silence. It's peaceful, in its way -- it's true countryside, only the sounds of the native fauna and the wind rustling through the trees.

The silence is finally broken by his low, vehement sentiment: "You aint allowed to die on me neither, Ines Correa." He's decided, and resolute in this decision, to judge by the set of his jaw.

He doesn't wait for a response -- instead straightening and pushing away from the fence, heading not for the house, but to do a circuit of the outlying space.

-

In the silence that follows her emphatic refusal to participate in that polite and easy fiction, Ines stares out at the rolling emptiness of a war-torn countryside and puzzles over the fact that this is the most peaceful she's felt all day. Mortified, exhausted, but emptied out of all of that clawing, teeth-clenched anxiety. He doesn't say anything, but in those moments it doesn't matter, anyway. Being unburdened of certain truths is fraught with perils, and also no small relief.

He does eventually say something, long past the point at which she expected him to, so it gets a blink and a sidelong glance. As much for the tone as the sentiment, really: it's not a sweeping revelation, what he says. He doesn't want her to die. She knows. It's in the phrasing, though, and the insistence, and it's in the fact that he bails as soon as it's out, too.

Whatever 'it' is. Never having had normal before, she's sure she wouldn't know.

Just that it's enough.


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