She woke the next morning with her head spinning, her heart racing when she heard that alarm. She took a deep breath, her eyes filling with tears, her hands already shaking, but not as much as the day before. She nodded, gritting her teeth and sitting up. All she saw then was that white light, her eyes so heavy, her head rolling when she heard a knock on her door.
She wanted to answer, to tell him that she was on her way, but suddenly she couldn’t say anything at all. He opened the door, only poking his head around the side of it almost like he wasn’t expecting to find her, but his eyes went wide when he saw her and he shook his head and stepped inside her room.
“You alright?” he asked.
She almost said no, she almost said yes, but she still couldn’t speak. He closed her door, coming to stand in front of her, his forehead lining in a crease, and she had to look away, her body shaking like it had before the oil, her face scrunching up in a wince.
“You hurt?” Belfire asked, and she shook her head.
“I’m fine,” she said, her voice so strained and tight.
“I said, I’m fine.”
“Let me see,” he said, and she shook her head. “I’m not going to hurt you, Phoenix, just let me see.”
Her eyes flicked up to him, cold and sharp, that wince on her face then a scowl, but he did not seem to notice. She didn’t need his help, she didn’t want it, he was the one who looked like he needed help with his cheeks so pale and those circles under his eyes so dark. She tutted, rolling her eyes and lifting her shirt, thinking it would be the quickest way to get rid of him, but she watched those cheeks go paler as he knelt in front of her, helping her roll her shirt back down and shaking his head.
“You shouldn’t be training today,” he said.
“I have to.”
“I’ll talk to Emery, he’ll-,”
“I have to,” she cut in, and he stared at her a moment, not saying anything until he sighed and reached for her boots.
“You found something out?” he asked as he helped her slip one on and she shook her head, gritting her teeth and biting back that hiss.
“No,” she gasped. “Not really.”
“But you met him?”
“What do you think?”
She wasn’t sure what to say then, her eyes flicking to him, her forehead lining in a crease. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Did he look like he knew what he was doing?”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head. “I guess. I don’t know, Belfire, I don’t really know what to look for.”
“You talked with him?” he asked, and she nodded. “What did he say?”
“He-,” Phoenix started, but then she didn’t know how to finish. “He keeps talking about respect and trust.”
“Hmm…” Belfire hummed, getting to his feet and brushing his palms against his thighs.
“You figured out what we’re training for?” she asked.
“No,” he sighed. “And it’s only making less sense the longer we’re here,” he said. “I tried to talk to some of the others, but it’s like they’re afraid,” he shook his head. “I can’t tell if it’s because of Cassie or him… Can you stand?”
She nodded, taking in a quick breath and feeling her face go tight. She stared at his hand, only for a moment, before she took it, her face scrunching up in a wince, her eyes brimming with tears as she got to her feet and swayed, but he grabbed her arm, keeping her steady until she could open her eyes and nod.
“You did something?” he asked.
“Don’t, Phoenix, you still have a way out. Don’t make him angry over nothing.”
She glared at him, that wince then a scowl, her head shaking side to side. “I don’t need your help, Belfire.”
“Everybody needs help, there’s no shame in that.”
“Is that why you’re here? You think I’ll help you if I become a Favourite?” she asked. “Only the strong get to eat, Belfire, you have to figure it out on your own, no one’s going to help you.”
He stared at her, his head tilting to the side, his eyes blinking a little quicker almost like he was trying to keep up, but then he shrugged, his forehead lining in a crease, his eyes a little softer.
“I was just helping,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting anything back.”
Phoenix doubted that, but she didn’t say anything as she walked past him or anything to the others when she met them out on the sand, but soon she couldn’t say anything at all with her skin on fire, the colour draining from her cheeks as she gasped and clutched at her side. It had only been a graze, nothing really, only a clip from Mia’s sword, and then Phoenix couldn’t breathe. She dropped her sword, stumbling a few steps in the sand and shaking her head, but then she heard a tut, her hands trembling, her knees almost giving out from under her.
“Pick it up.”
“Leave her alone, Cassie,” she heard Belfire say.
“Stay out of this, Belfire,” Cassie warned, her hand on her hip, her eyes so cold and sharp as she glared at him. “Pick up your sword, Phoenix.”
“She’s hurt. Just give her-,”
“I said, stay out of this,” Cassie said, her eyes narrowing into thin slits. “This has nothing to do with you, Offender.”
Phoenix caught a breath then, standing up straighter, her chest heaving as she turned to Belfire. She could see how his shoulders were raised, his hands clenched into fists as he glared at Cassie, but Phoenix didn’t have the strength to tell him to stop. Her eyes flicked down to her sword in the sand, not knowing how she would reach for it, knowing she didn’t have a choice, but Mia picked it up, holding it out to her, her cheeks all pale, her eyes so wide.
“I’m sorry, Phoenix, I didn’t-,” she said.
“Drop it,” Cassie said, pointing her sword at Mia. “Put it down, she has to pick it up herself.” Mia’s eyes went even wider, her cheeks paler as she stared at Cassie, but Cassie tutted, knocking Phoenix’s sword from her hand and scowling.
“Cassie!” Belfire snapped.
“Rules matter around here,” Cassie said, rounding on him. “I know that’s difficult for someone like you to understand.”
“Someone like me?” Belfire asked, his voice so quiet, his eyes shining so bright. “You don’t know anything about me, Cassie.”
“I know everything I need to,” she said. “And I know you’re not helping now. She broke the rules, that’s all that matters. Were you excused from training today, Phoenix?” she asked, and Phoenix shook her head. “That’s all there is to it,” Cassie shrugged. “If you’re here to train, you’re here to train. Pick up your sword.”
Phoenix nodded, a quick, short nod, just about all she could manage, before she was gritting her teeth, her hand clutching at her side as she bent her knees. She gasped when she got down, crouching as close as she could to her sword and reaching her hand out. She almost screamed when she did, her face scrunching up in a wince, her eyes flicking up to stare at the sky so she would not cry. She just had to be stronger, if this was what it took, then this was what she was going to do, what other choice did she have? She gritted her teeth again, letting out a big breath through her nose when she stood up, her chest heaving, her hands whipping up to flick away her tears.
The pain was a little duller the next day, her shaking a little softer. Hopefully soon there would be nothing left and she could think a little clearer. She already was, it wasn’t good, it wasn’t right to pin everything on him and his computer, she had to find a way to look for Iris herself, or at least find a way to get to that computer without getting caught. Belfire knocked on her door, she wasn’t sure why when he didn’t wait to come in, closing the door behind him and already staring at her right after their alarms rang.
“You any better?”
She nodded, reaching for her boots, her hands shaking, her muscles aching, and then he sighed, kneeling down in front of her and helping her slip them on and somehow out of everything he made the least sense of all.
“Why are you here, Belfire?”
He looked up at her, his cheeks so pale, his face so tight and gaunt, his forehead lining in a crease. “I’m just checking on you, Phoenix.”
“No, I meant why are you an Offender?”
He went stiff then, his shoulders rising just like they had when Cassie had called him that the day before, and then he looked away, holding one of her boots in his hand as he stared at the floor.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, and she stared at him a moment, studying that dim light in his eyes and those deep, dark circles underneath them. He wouldn’t last that much longer, not like this, and Phoenix had her answer, so she reached a hand down, taking her boot from him and gritting her teeth as she went to put it on. “Just let me do it,” he said.
“I don’t need your help.”
“I can’t, Phoenix,” he shook his head, and her eyes flicked to him. “I lost a lot of people and it hurts,” he said, his voice getting quieter, that light in his eyes growing brighter. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
She stared at him a long while, watching and waiting, but finally she sighed, dropping her boot onto the floor and looking away. She knew a bit about loss, more than her fair share and then some.
“It doesn’t help to talk about it,” she said. “You keep them here, that’s the only thing you can do,” she tapped at her chest.
He watched her, that crease growing deeper, his head bowing. “You lost people before?”
“A lot,” she nodded, and he looked up at her, that crease then something that was almost a wince as his shoulders dropped, his eyes half-closing as he shook his head.
“I haven’t,” he whispered. “I-,” he cut himself off, his head bowing until it rested on her knee.
She saw his shoulders shaking, only a little, only slightly, his breathing heavier and airy as he took a breath in through his nose and wiped at his face. She knew her heart should be a little heavier as she watched him, but she could not even remember the first time she’d lost someone, a part of her a little dry and burning now that she knew he’d gone so long without knowing this pain himself. His head whipped up then, those cheeks then dry, his eyes still pink.
“Sorry,” he said, the corners of his lips twitching like he was trying to smile. “I don’t usually-,” he cut himself off, shaking his head and reaching for her boot. “You’re a good listener.”
She stared at him, her forehead lining in a crease, her eyes narrowing into slits. She wasn’t even sure what that meant, there wasn’t anything to listen to, not in here, but he did smile then, slipping on her boot and shaking his head again.
“I’m here too,” he said. “If you want to talk about anything.”
That crease grew deeper, her head shaking a quick shake as she watched him. What was it he wanted to talk about, she hadn’t learned anything new since yesterday and neither had he, but she did not expect him to laugh, a short, airy laugh, and then he stood.
“You have a lot of friends?” he asked, and she shook her head, but he nodded as he watched her, a soft smile springing to his lips. “Mia and Boris are nice. They’re good people, you can trust them,” he nodded again and he let out a little laugh when her face went tight. “Don’t worry, Phoenix, I’m from here. You get pretty good at figuring out who you can trust pretty quickly.”
Phoenix doubted that, especially for someone like him who could sit there and cry in front of someone he didn’t even know. Maybe trusting the wrong person was what had landed him here to begin with. He smiled at her, a soft, small smile, but he wasn’t smiling at the table by dinner time. She watched him close his eyes, rubbing his fingers to his forehead, as he sat at the table with nothing in front of him, and she knew that he was getting closer. They all were, how much longer would it be before that steel in him snapped? She didn’t think it would be long, not with how pale his skin was and not with how his fingers shook.
She stared down at her own food, not knowing what she could do. She owed him something for his help, that much was certain, even if he wasn’t asking for anything in return. If she were home, it would’ve been a lot easier. She’d have her gear, her traps and her crossbow, but here she had nothing, only a bowlful of porridge to go around four people, and then that would be taken away too. And if she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t train, and if she couldn’t train, she’d be breaking her side of the deal. Her mouth went dry then, her forehead lining in a crease as she stared at her bowl and she had her answer. She didn’t like it, she didn’t have to like it, but there it was and it wasn’t going to change.
She found Cassie in the yard the next morning, already knowing what Cassie would say, but not knowing what else to do, so she cleared her throat, Cassie turning to look at her and wiping away the sweat from her face.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I-,” Phoenix started, but then she had to clear her throat again. “They’re starving, Cassie.”
“I know that, but what’s it to you?” Cassie said, her forehead lining in a crease. “I’m doing my job, Phoenix, stay out of it.”
“You’re pushing them too far,” Phoenix shook her head, and Cassie’s eyes narrowed then, that crease turning into a scowl, her eyes going cold and sharp.
“I know what I’m doing,” she said. “And I don’t need someone like you coming in here and telling me what to do, I’ve been doing this a long time.”
“I know about hunger, Cassie, you’re taking it too far. They’re just going to get desperate.”
“Good,” she said. “Desperate people do what they have to and they have to fall in line with the rest of us.”
Phoenix stared at her then, her eyes unblinking, her head tilting a little to the side. “What do you need them to do?” she asked.
“I don’t need them to do anything,” Cassie shook her head. “They need to understand that there’s an order to things. I hand out the food, I decide who eats. I’m in charge,” she nodded. “You mess with that, you mess with everything and that includes the Master. He put me in charge for a reason, you think he has time to come down here and deal with everything himself?” she shook her head. “You’re still new here, I get it, Phoenix, but you question me again and we’re going to have a problem.”
Phoenix watched her, feeling her face go tight and her skin bristle, but this wasn’t her fight so she nodded, clearing her throat and looking away.
“You won’t do that to me,” she said. “I don’t-,”
“You don’t get to decide that,” Cassie cut in, shaking her head. “Don’t do something I have to punish you for and there’s nothing to worry about, but that’s not up to you to decide, you understand? I’m trying to be patient with you, Phoenix, but you’re pushing it. You’re a Woodlander, but that doesn’t make you special, not down here,” she shook her head. “I’m his Favourite, that’s the only thing that matters, you understand?”
“Would you threaten me if I was too?” Phoenix asked, her eyes flicking back to Cassie and Cassie stared back at her, her head tilting to the side, her eyes unblinking.
“It’s not a threat,” she said. “It’s just the way things are. And you’re not a Favourite, Phoenix, and you won’t be for quite a while. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
Phoenix nodded, not to Cassie but to herself. There was another answer, another one she didn’t like, but one all the same and the list of things she had left to do just kept on growing. She shook her head, turning around and finding Mia on the sand, her mind wandering, her heart so heavy.
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