It was like meeting an old friend or an old piece of herself, a piece that she’d never thought she’d find again. She smiled, feeling that smooth metal against her skin, her eyes shining bright as she pressed her fingertips to the scanners just beside the trigger and heard it begin to hum. She laughed then, she couldn’t help it, her hands whipping up to fire a bolt into the wall. It fired so quickly, so quick she couldn’t see it without her Radar, but it landed where she’d wanted it to, lodging itself in the wall with a loud, crisp crunch.
“Bet you could fight your way out of here with that,” she heard, and she turned, seeing him sitting there on the step, his chewing a little loud for someone only eating porridge, the evening sun somehow making his sun-kissed skin even warmer.
“I doubt it,” she said, turning back to stare at her crossbow in her hands.
“Really?” he asked, shaking his head and licking his fingers. “I’m pretty sure you could, you could do some damage at least,” he said, and she laughed, a short, quiet, little laugh, her hands whipping out so she could fire another bolt. “Where’d you get that anyway?” he asked.
“I found it,” she said. “A long time ago, then I fixed it up.”
“What, really?” he asked, putting his bowl down on the steps and getting up. “Let me see.”
He scoffed, shaking his head. “What? You embarrassed?”
“What? No,” she said, her forehead lining in a crease, her eyes narrowing into slits. “It’s mine,” she said, but she didn’t expect him to laugh.
“So you are embarrassed,” he nodded. “It’s alright, Phe, it’s not like I’m an expert.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” she said, that crease then a scowl, her fingers pressing into the scanners and turning it off.
He was so quick to take it off her, his eyes shining bright, a soft smile on his lips as he held it up and aimed it at the wall. It looked so strange to see him holding it, her shoulders and back going so stiff at the sight, something in her stomach burning. He pulled the trigger, that smile fading, his forehead furrowing into a crease as he pulled it again. He pulled it a few more times, each click louder than the last, that crease in her forehead then turning into a frown.
“Stop that,” she said.
“It won’t work.”
“Of course, it doesn’t work. You think pulling the trigger harder is going to make it?”
“It was working just now.”
“I turned it off,” she said, and his eyes went wide and then he looked down at it in his hands, holding it out to her and nodding.
“Turn it back on,” he said.
“Come on, Phe, turn it back on.”
“Why would I do that?” she shook her head. “What are you going to do with it anyway?”
“I’m going to bake a cake, Phoenix, what do you think I’m going to do with it?”
“No,” she said, grabbing it back off him, her face scrunched up in a tight scowl.
He looked like he was about to say something, his lips a thin, tight line, but then he only frowned, his eyes flicking away to glare at her bolts in the wall. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t like that frown, her heart beating a little quicker, her mouth going dry at the sight of it, so she rolled her eyes, pressing her fingers to the scanners and handing it over. So quickly that smile was back on his lips, his hands whipping out to snatch it and then fire a bolt at the wall. It was a clumsy shot, his eyes going so wide, that smile turning into a grin as he laughed, and her mouth went so dry then, her heart so quick as she watched him.
“Wow, Phe, you made this?” he asked.
And she shook her head, needing a moment to clear her throat, her voice so tight and strained when she said, “I found it.”
“You didn’t find it looking like this,” he said, holding it up higher and staring at it. “And you locked it? You know how much money you could make unlocking and locking gear out there?” he laughed, shaking his head. “That’s seriously impressive, Phe.”
She remembered the Master’s words then, wanting to ask him how he knew, wanting to know more about him and his life before he’d come here, but suddenly she couldn’t find her voice. Her mouth was so dry, her heart so loud and quick as she watched him, so she shook her head, holding her hands out to him, her breathing a little heavy when she said, “Give it back.”
He didn’t fight her this time, only smiling at her and nodding. “I wasn’t trying to steal it,” he said. “It’s good, Phe, you’re good, you should be proud.”
She didn’t know why, but that made everything so much worse, her eyes going wide before they narrowed into thin slits. She pressed her fingers to the scanners, turning it off and shaking her head, but then she couldn’t say anything at all, so she turned, handing her crossbow back to the House-slave that had brought it and heading straight to her room. Her mouth went dry again when she saw him the next morning, her forehead lining in a crease when he nodded to her and smiled. Nothing had ever made her feel like that before, nothing she could think of anyway, and it couldn’t mean anything good. She shook her head, her face a deep, tight frown, when they stood in the queue. She stared at Cassie then, her heart beating a little lighter, her shoulders dropping.
“Cassie,” she said, when it was her turn. “I need to talk to you.”
Cassie raised her eyebrows, dropping her ladle into the pot and putting it on her hip. “Well, speak up, Phoenix, I’m listening.”
“I know what I did wrong, I won’t do it again.”
“That’s it?” Cassie shook her head. “I’m on half-rations because of you, do you even know that last time that happened?”
“I get it, I’m sorry,” Phoenix nodded. “It won’t happen again.”
“I’m not paying for your mistakes,” she said. “You did this to me, you find a way to fix it.”
Phoenix stared at her a moment, her eyes unblinking, her head tilting to the side. “You’re almost done,” she said. “What do you want me to do? There’s no-,”
“You give me your rations for two,” Cassie said, her eyes narrowing into slits.
“And how’s that going to work, Cassie, hmm?” Phoenix asked. “I won’t make it two weeks without-,”
“You give me your rations for two or no one gets food for a week.”
Phoenix heard the canteen go so quiet then and she felt all those eyes turn to stare at her. She didn’t know what to say, she didn’t know what to do, but she knew that what had happened to Cassie was her fault.
“One week,” she said.
“Two,” Cassie shook her head. “You don’t get how this works, Phoenix, we’re not equals.”
Phoenix stared at her a moment, only wanting to rip that ladle from her hand and make sure she could never hold it again, but she bit that back, leaning in close and saying, “I can get you a real shower.”
Cassie’s eyes narrowed, her face going stiff and tight. “Bullshit,” she said.
“I can do it, Cassie, I swear, but you tell anyone and I’ll tell the Master it was all you.”
Cassie scoffed. “He knows everything that goes on back-,”
“I know how to do it. Why would I lie?”
Cassie stood up straight then, her eyes never blinking, her face so blank and tight. “Prove it.”
“Let’s go,” Phoenix said, jerking her head towards the corridor.
She kicked off her boots when they stood outside a pod, climbing inside and staring at the panel. She only had an idea that this would work and there was a chance that he already had an idea of what she was planning and had changed the code. Either way it was worth a shot, so she climbed in, holding her hand out to stop the door from closing and turning to Cassie.
“Come on,” she said. “I have to do it with your wristband.”
“I’m not getting in there with you, what do you think-?”
“Listen,” Phoenix cut in. “Chances are we only get to do this once. We can use that time on me to prove that it works, but it’ll take me a while to figure out how to do this again.” Cassie stared at her, her face so tight, her eyes so cold and sharp, but then she kicked off her boots, climbing in beside Phoenix and huffing. “I have to be quick,” Phoenix said. “And we’ll probably have to do it a couple of times before I get it done right. You can add a day every time I mess up, but I know what I’m doing, I swear.”
“Just get on with it,” Cassie said. “But if this is a trick, Phoenix, I swear things are going to get so much worse for you.”
“I get it, it’s not a trick. Press your hand on the panel.”
Cassie glared at her one last time, her face so tight when she pressed it and Phoenix heard that beep. Phoenix’s fingers flashed, pressing on the panel, darting and flicking and typing in a number she’d watched him type so many times before. It had to be what she thought it was, it came up too often and always when he was running a program, but she didn’t know it all, the last two digits missing and always going by so quickly. She heard that beep, knowing that she had run out of time and Cassie’s armbands pulled, yanking her arms up, Cassie growling and gasping and kicking at Phoenix.
“That’s one,” she said.
“I know, I get it.”
They were both soaked through, even after that water had turned to air, the both of them standing there panting. Cassie looked at her, her eyes so cold and sharp and then she pressed it again. Phoenix was so quick, her fingers flashing just like those numbers running through her mind, and then she heard that beep and Cassie growled again. Phoenix tutted, her shoulders dropping, her face scrunching up in a frown, but Cassie’s bands didn’t pull. They both turned to stare at them, Cassie shaking her wrists almost like she was testing them, her eyes wide, her face so soft and slack, but Phoenix didn’t give her time to celebrate. She pushed her, her arm pressing into her neck, her face inches from hers when she said, “You tell anyone and I’ll kill you.”
Cassie stared back at her, her eyes so narrow and dark, but then she pushed Phoenix back. “You couldn’t kill me even if you tried, Phoenix,” she said. “I’ve survived a lot more than you, trust me… And I’m not an idiot, no one’s going to find out about this.”
“Good,” Phoenix nodded. “So we’re done here. I’m back on full-rations.”
Cassie watched her, her fingers playing with her wristband, her leathers sticking to her skin as they stood there under the water. “Deal,” she said.
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