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She heard that knocking the next morning, soft and distant, her eyes a little dry as she rubbed the sleep from them and sighed. It had been a long night, a long night of more encrypted files and no more answers, but at least she could say that he was looking. She’d caught a look at that computer too, not much, but enough, her mouth going dry, a strange burning in her stomach whenever she thought of it. She wanted to try, she wanted to be the one to flick through those files and make that code flicker through the screens, but then she heard that knocking again, taking a deep breath in through her nose and sitting up. She found them outside, Belfire and Mia huddling around Boris’ door, Belfire’s eyes flicking up to look at her when she opened hers.

“Sorry,” he said. “Did we wake you?”

“You sure he’s in there?” she asked, nodding towards Boris’ door.

“Yes,” Belfire answered. “He has to train today… Did your alarm ring?”

“No,” she shook her head, and he nodded.

“Boris,” he said, knocking on his door again. “You have to come out, Boris, he’s going to get mad if you don’t go to training.” She watched Belfire try to open the door, turning the handle and pressing himself against it, but the door didn’t move. “Boris, come on, you have to come out,” he said, and then he shook his head, letting out a loud sigh as he looked down at Mia as she stared up at him, her eyes big and wide, her hand clutching at the front of her shirt.

“What’s going to happen to him?” Mia whispered.

“I don’t know, Mia, but he’ll get the rod that’s for sure,” Belfire sighed, and Phoenix felt that burning, knowing that she shouldn’t, but that she did and she shook her head, her boots a little heavy, but still she found herself walking towards that door.

“Boris,” she said, her voice tight and strained. “Boris, you don’t want the rod, trust me,” she said, but he didn’t say anything back and Phoenix looked up at Belfire, watching him shake his head and hearing him sigh again.

“Come on, big guy, I won’t go if you won’t,” he said, and she wanted to tell him that that was a mistake, she wanted to shake her head and tell him that was too much to give.

“Just go, Belfire,” she heard from inside.

“I won’t, you know I won’t, Boris. You’ll have to make me.”

“You’ll get the rod,” Boris said, opening his door a little.

Phoenix could set that split across his nose, a dark bruise lining his face under his eyes, and she heard that crunch again. Her mouth went dry and she didn’t know if he knew how close he’d come to being hurt even more and she didn’t know if she could ever tell him.

“I heard it’s pretty bad,” Belfire nodded. “I’m not in the mood to get hurt today, how about you?” he asked, but Boris looked like he wouldn’t answer, his face lining in a slight scowl, his eyes half-closing, but then he shook his head. “Alright then,” Belfire said. “Let’s go, we can still make it for breakfast… You coming, Phe?” he asked, and Phoenix looked up at him, her eyes unblinking, her head shaking side to side.

“My alarm didn’t ring,” she said.

“You could still join us for breakfast,” he said, and she watched him smile, only a small, soft smile, that light in his eyes growing warmer. “Were you just going to sit in your room all day?”

“I-,” she started, but then she shook her head. “I guess not,” she said, but she didn’t expect him to laugh as he wrapped an arm around Mia’s shoulders and jerked his head towards the corridor.

“Last one there has to buy the beers after work,” he said.

“I miss beer,” Boris said, his voice so soft and quiet, as he walked behind them.

“And coffee,” Belfire sighed.

“And chocolate,” Mia whispered, and Belfire laughed again.

“I’d kill for a piece of chocolate,” he nodded. “But nothing would beat a real shower.”

Mia gasped then, her forehead lining in a crease, her eyes shining bright. “A real shower!” she said. “That would be so good!”

Belfire nodded, patting Mia on the shoulder as he sat her down at one of those worn, wooden tables, darting off to the queue and somehow managing to come back carrying all four bowls. Phoenix watched him hand them out, never once dropping one even though he held three in one hand, and then he sat down beside her, smiling and nodding to Mia again.

“You’re doing better, Mia, I saw you knock Bolt over yesterday,” he said.

“You did?” she asked. “How? You weren’t there.”

“I was watching from the balcony,” he pointed his finger up to the ceiling.

“He kept you there all day?” Mia asked, her voice so soft and quiet, as she leaned in closer. “I’m so sorry, Belfire, he doesn’t hurt you, does he?”

Phoenix looked at him then, a part of her wanting to know too, a bigger part of her wanting to know what they talked about when they were alone in the Master’s room or if Belfire sat on a stool beside him all night too.

“It’s not so bad,” Belfire shook his head.

“I heard-!” Mia gasped, and then she leaned in closer. “I heard they make their Favourites walk around naked and they get to sleep with them whenever they want and there’s nothing their Favourites can do about it.”

Phoenix’s mouth went so dry then, her eyes big and wide as she stared at Mia.

“I’m not a Favourite,” Belfire shook his head.

“That’s what I heard,” Mia whispered. “He doesn’t make you do that, does he, Belfire?”

“I’m not a Favourite, Mia,” he said. “And Cassie still has all her clothes.”

“That’s terrible,” she whispered, shaking her head as she looked at Belfire. “That’s so horrible, Belfire, he doesn’t do that, does he? That’s-,”

“Shut up,” Phoenix cut in, her stomach burning, her face so tight. “Shut up, Mia, no one wants to hear it.”

She watched Mia’s face go so slack and pale, her eyes shining bright as she stared at Phoenix.

“I’m sorry,” Mia said, her voice so quiet and she shook her head. “I’m sorry, Phoenix, I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean-,”

“Shut up!” Phoenix snapped. “You can’t-! You have no idea what-,” she shook her head, her eyes so heavy, her heart hammering in her chest and then she shook her head again, going to stand and walk away, but Belfire grabbed her hand.

“Just sit down, Phe, hmm? She’s not going to ask again and you’re going to be nicer,” he said.

“Nicer?” she shook her head. “I’m not the one-,”

“He doesn’t do that to me,” Belfire cut in, his eyes flicking to Mia, his hand squeezing hers even tighter. “But you have to be careful how you ask things, Mia, people get hurt.”

“I…” Mia whispered, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t mean to upset you, Phoenix. I just thought it was sad and I-, I don’t want you or Belfire to go through that.”

“Well, don’t bring it up,” Phoenix said, her eyes narrowing into slits. “We don’t need to talk about it, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, Mia, what are you going to do? You going to take our place when he calls for us?”

“I-,” Mia stammered, her face so pale, her hands shaking.

“It was nice of you to ask,” Belfire said.

“No,” Phoenix shook her head. “You stay out of-,”

“She asked because she cares, Phoenix, not because she wanted to hurt you,” Belfire said.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Phoenix said. “We don’t need to talk about this. I won’t-, I can’t-,” she cut herself off. “She’s just a kid,” she whispered, and Belfire nodded, letting out a soft sigh, his eyes half-closing.

“What you got, Phoenix, what do you miss?” he asked, and she looked at him, her forehead lining in a crease, her stomach burning. She opened her mouth to speak, that crease then a scowl, that burning even stronger, but he spoke before she could snap at him. “Beer, coffee or chocolate?” he asked, and she looked away, gritting her teeth, her hands clenching into fists. “Come on, Phe, what do you miss more? Probably coffee, right?”

She closed her eyes, shaking her head and trying to breathe. “I’ve never had coffee,” she said, her voice so quiet and strained.

“You’ve never had coffee?” Belfire asked, and her eyes flicked open the glare at him.

“Where would I get coffee from?”

“What about beer?”

“No,” she said, her face scrunching up in a scowl, and then she felt them all watching. “What?” she asked. “I didn’t need them, I made it this far without them.”

“What about chocolate?” Mia asked, her voice just barely above a whisper.

“I don’t know,” Phoenix shook her head. “I don’t know what it looks like.”

“It can look like a lot of things,” Belfire nodded. “Most look like a thin, flat, brown bar.”

She looked at him then, her head tilting to the side and then she nodded. “I think I had that once… It was a long time ago, I found it,” she said, and Belfire laughed, a soft, quiet laugh as he shook his head.

“So you found chocolate, but no beer or coffee?” he shook his head.

“He didn’t have any on him,” she said.

“Ha, or maybe you just didn’t know how to trade for it,” Belfire smiled, and she looked at him again, her forehead lining in a crease.

“I didn’t trade for it, I found it,” she said. “I don’t know how old it was though, he smelt pretty bad… I don’t remember what it tasted like.”

She couldn’t understand why they all went quiet, their eyes flicking to each other before they came back to her. She almost asked them what was wrong, she almost just shook her head and went back to her bowl.

“You-?” Mia gasped. “You ate chocolate from a dead man?”

Phoenix stared at her, her forehead lining in a crease. “It was wrapped,” she said. “I’m not an idiot, Mia, I’m not going to eat open food from a corpse.”

Mia kept staring at her, her eyes so wide, her cheeks so pale. “I’m-,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Phoenix, that’s so horrible.”

That crease grew deeper, Phoenix’s eyes narrowing as she stared at Mia. “I-,” she shook her head. “You shouldn’t say you’re sorry, you didn’t do anything.”

“I’m sorry you went through that,” Mia said.

“Went through what?” Phoenix shook her head. “I found it, that’s a good thing, it’s always a good thing when you find something.”

“Did you-? Did you kill him?” Mia asked.

“No, I found him,” Phoenix said, that crease even deeper. “You don’t just kill a Head-hunter, they’re chipped. You kill one and they’ll all come to check where he died, don’t you know that?”

“I-,” Mia shook her head. “It’s not like that in the Outlands,” she said. “We live in towns and the Head-hunters… They just pick people up from the farms or when you’re out on your own. They’d get killed if they tried to steal someone from inside town.”

Phoenix stared at her for a moment, her eyes unblinking, her head tilting to the side. “You kill them?”

“Well, I didn’t,” Mia shook her head. “But I’d help if I needed to, we all do, it’s the only way to keep everyone safe. It’s-, it’s not like that in The Forests?”

“There is no one to help, not really,” Phoenix said, her head tilting even further. “We would if we could when we saw each other, but,” she shrugged. “We usually just stick to our territories,” she shook her head, but then she sighed when she saw them all still staring. “I don’t know when,” she shook her head. “It had to be a few generations ago at least, what was left of our village split up. They divided the land into territories and the territories split up amongst themselves and that was that. No one knows where anyone else lives, that’s the point. Not all of us are going to make it, but some of us will, they have to.”

They were so quiet, so quiet and still, Mia’s eyes so wide, Belfire’s face a frown and Phoenix almost asked them what they kept looking at.

“So you were all alone?” Mia whispered, but Phoenix didn’t like the way Mia stared at her, that light in her eyes so soft and dim, but somehow shining so bright., so Phoenix cleared her throat, not knowing what to say, not knowing what she needed to to get them to leave her alone.

“I-,” she started. “I have a sister… They caught her too.”

“Oh, Phoenix, I’m so sorry,” Mia shook her head, those eyes then only shining bright and Phoenix’s chest went tight, her mouth dry, as she stared at her.

“You didn’t-,” she started.

“She’s the one from the auction?” Mia cut in, leaning closer to Phoenix over her bowl.

“I-,” Phoenix shook her head. “Yes,” she whispered.

“She looked strong,” Mia nodded. “She’ll make it, Phoenix, don’t worry. She’s like you, she’ll make it.”

Phoenix wanted to gasp, she wanted to cry, she wanted to scream and tell Mia that she didn’t know what she was talking about, but all she could do was bow her head, her heart racing, her eyes so heavy as she closed them, taking a slow, deep breath, her forehead lining in a crease.

“I-,” Mia started, and then she leaned in closer. “I heard there are groups that help Woodlanders,” she whispered. “They steal them from the Masters and-,”

“Quiet, Mia,” Belfire cut in, his face so blank and stiff, his eyes darting around the canteen.

“That’s what I-,” Mia shook her head.

“You want to end up in The Mines?” Belfire asked, leaning closer over his bowl, his eyes shining bright. “Don’t talk about that again, you understand me? You’re not in The Outlands anymore.”

Phoenix stared at him, her eyes never blinking, her heart beating a little quicker. He knew something, he had answers, that much she could tell just by looking at him.

“What-?” she started.

“I mean it, Phoenix,” he cut in, whipping around to look at her, his eyes narrowing into slits. “You don’t talk about that, not unless you want to end up dead. That’s what happens to anyone who talks about that, you understand, Mia? And not just you, anyone you were talking to too, maybe even your family. You have to watch what you say.”

“But that’s all I know, Belfire, it’s not like I know where they are or-,” Mia started.

“Mia,” he snapped, his face so tight, his eyes so dark. “Look at where you are, look at what you are. It’d be bad enough for a free person to be caught talking about that, what do you think’s going to happen to a slave? Zip it, alright? Pretend like you never heard anything.”


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