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     A watery morning sunshine already filled the room when Blink finally stirred out of a disturbed sleep, the next day, jolted out of her rest by a bad dream about her family. We don't want you back, you misplaced, ground-bound idiot, a terrifying, cruel version of her beautiful best friend snarled, her usually-gentle voice as harsh as rusted gears grinding against each other. Why would we EVER want you back? You're so slow and sluggish and all you ever do is whine. You running out on us was the best thing that could have ever happened. ... Now I can love my poor RJ without worrying if you're going to have another of your jealous tantrums.

     But I still love you, Skydash. I mean it! More than anything-... I-I... can't imagine living without you, and-

     You love me so much you couldn't run away fast enough? I know. Just stay away from us. Stay out of our lives.



     For a few minutes, Blink wallowed in drowsy confusion, struggling to separate the dreams from the reality, and simultaneously trying to work out why she was on the floor, and covered in fabric, and why everything felt so strange. Then the events of the night before all came back to her, in a sudden big rush, and she immediately wished she could retreat back into the unpleasant dreamworld that was nevertheless infinitely better than the waking one.

     So it's real. Incomprehensible as it is, it really did happen, and I really am... organic. The thought made her cringe, and curl tighter into her quilt cocoon. It was so tempting to try and force herself back to sleep, to pretend the world didn’t exist. The chill in the air didn't help, making her exposed skin prickle.

     For a while, she just lay and stared at the heap of clutter near the wall, dispirited and not wanting to get up. The skin around her eyes felt sore, and it felt almost as though the muted light coming in through the window was too bright, and making her squint. Is this what crying does to you? She pressed her face into the quilt and sighed. I knew my melodrama would catch up with me one day. I should just... stop bawling at the drop of a hat. Maybe it's my subconscious' way of scolding me for always subjecting poor Dash to it?

     Dash. Miss you, so much... Blink sighed, again, more deeply, and felt that same annoying prickle in the corners of her eyes and up in her nose that had accompanied her tears last night. No. No more crying. She swallowed the tears back down, with effort, struggling to banish the thoughts from her brain. She knew that thinking about her lost sweetheart was going to just trigger another fit of bawling.

     Thankfully, something unusual caught her attention. A new sensation – hard to describe, and like nothing she had ever experienced before. Curious. It was a very new sensation. As she breathed in, she found she could percieve something in the air – something invisible, but-... she inhaled more deeply through her nose. Was this what they called 'smell'?

     As a machine, her so-called sense of olfaction had been nothing short of woefully rudimentary – she could perceive and often analyse a volatile chemical in the air, certainly, but nothing had ever been like this, before.

     And-... She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to understand. It was... almost… pleasant?

     She sat up, carefully, trying to avoid upsetting those awkward, fluid-filled biological gyroscopes, and then climbed unsteadily to her feet. Remaining wrapped in her blanket, she shuffled to the door like a bipedal caterpillar, and peered out.

     In the entry annexe, Rae sat tending to a little gas-powered stove he'd found somewhere – little more than a gas bottle with a wire stand on top – on which he had set a metal pan, to boil some water. On the floor next to him, curls of steam rose from two small mugs. He evidently heard her moving around, as he glanced over, and gave her a smile. “Greets, Honeybee. How are you feeling?”

     Blink made her way carefully down the sloping deck towards him, leaning against the wall to keep her balance and her toes involuntarily curling down in an attempt to grip the deck. “Foggy,” she admitted, sitting with extreme care to avoid knocking the stove, then huddling down in her blanket on the floor opposite him. “I still feel drowsy, and my head hurts.” She rubbed her temples. “Feels like someone's tied a sheet around it, and has been twisting it tighter.”

     “I’m not surprised,” he agreed. “You've had a traumatic couple of days, that'd put a strain on anyone. Listen.” He gestured to the steaming little cups by his side. “I made you a drink, if you’d like it. I guess the smell woke you up?”

     Blink nodded, hoping that agreeing would help her avoid the real reason she'd stirred. Besides, it had been the smell that had finally coaxed her out of her cocoon. “Thank you. That would be nice.”

     “Well, here you go.” He held out the cup. “It’s not keem, more's the pity, but it's got vitamins in it and a bit of a kick. It might help clear your head a little, wake you up better.” He relinquished it into her hands. “Go careful, it's still quite hot.”

     Blink cupped her hands around the stoneware container, and inhaled deeply on the steam rising from the surface. That same smell as she'd noticed when she'd finally emerged from her torpor, but stronger. It had an indescribable fragrance – not really sweet, but not savoury, either. More of a sharp, fresh tang to it that made her nostrils tingle.

     She sipped at the fragrant liquid, careful not to burn her lips on the hot liquid, and… oh, that wasn't anywhere near as good as it smelt. Strong and astringent, it left her mouth feeling uncomfortable, almost dry. She grimaced, disappointedly.

     Rae spotted the expression before she could hide it. “Problem?”

     “…it’s… I’m not sure how to define it,” she explained, softly. “Bitter, maybe? Quite strong.” She winced, apologetically. “I don't think I like it. I'm sorry, Rae.”

     “Ah, don't be sorry. I wasn't sure how you'd get on with it, but wanted to give you the option of trying it at least. Maybe you just need some sugar in it. I know I used to have to sweeten it.” He leaned across with a spoonful of pale, granular substance, and clanked the spoon around in the cup until the grains had vanished. “Try it now.”

     Now the strange, semi-acrid flavour was more of an aftertaste, hidden behind the less complicated taste of refined sugar. Blink stared disappointedly down into the hot liquid. “Maybe it’s an acquired taste,” she accepted, quietly.

     Rae watched her sip, and sighed. “Sorry, Bee. I promise, not all food tastes bad.”

     A smile faltered across her face, as though understanding that he was trying his hardest, but it quickly vanished.

     At least, he consoled himself, she was drinking it. “I swear, I'll find some keem in this place if it's the last thing I do.” He grinned, showing his teeth. “Now that is such the opposite of an acquired taste, it's unreal. I'll have you hooked, I bet.”

     Blink found a more genuine, albeit watery smile for him. “Trying to get me addicted, Rae? That could get you into trouble.”

     He laughed, and took a swig of his own tea, turning off the stove and decanting the water he'd boiled into a bottle. “How are you feeling this morning, anyway? Any better?”

     “I don't know. Physically, a little less... wobbly, maybe. Emotionally? I hoped I had hallucinated it,” she admitted, turning her cup between her hands. “That Larissa shooting me had destabilised something, and I just... imagined having a very strange refit, with my consciousness downloaded into the wrong frame. I was, um...” She shrugged one shoulder, awkwardly. “A little disappointed, when I finally woke up.”

     Unsure what to say, he reached out a hand, and rested it gently on her shoulder.

     She leaned into the touch, very slightly. “I'm sorry you had to put up with me last night,” she apologised, looking guiltily up at him. “It wasn't fair of me to do that to you.”

     “Oh, don't talk nonsense,” Rae scolded, amused, stroking his fingers down her arm. “After suffering trauma the like of which I have never even come close to experiencing, in my entire life? I think you're entitled to feel upset. Don't deny yourself a normal, natural emotional response because you're scared what some stuffy, unemotional old spur will say.”

     Blink stayed curled in her quilt with her cooling tea cupped in both hands and watched him while he scurried around, packing supplies into a couple of heavy duty bags – guilty that she couldn't help, but knowing she'd only be a hindrance. In went those hated ration bars, bottles (probably containing water), rope of various thicknesses, spare knives, metal pans and blankets, some spare clothing and matches.

     The whole, get down off mountain and make way to Kust plan... was looking like it might well be an uncomfortable exercise in hard work. She rested her chin on her knees, with a little sigh, and wished – futilely – it had been safe enough to stay aboard. The crash had more than put paid to that option. She closed her eyes and let herself doze. The rustling of fabric and Rae's footsteps made a pleasantly soporific white noise.

     Evidently, she did go to all the way to sleep, as the next thing she was aware of was Rae, calling to her.

     “...hey, Blink...? Yoo-hoo, mission control to cloth-ears? You in there?”

     “...?” She stirred out of her doze, and grunted uncomfortably at a crick in the neck. Looking up, she found Rae holding out a heap of clothing. “What...?”

     “I think we can head off soon, if you're ready,” he explained, setting the clothes into her arms. “The ground has dried, so the rocks are safe to walk on, but it's still nippy, out. I thought you could do with some warmer togs.”

     “Thank you...” Blink unfolded the heap of fabric to reveal a second pair of thick trousers, and a heavy jacket lined with some sort of fur. She groaned inwardly; just what she wanted, another chance to make herself look like an inept idiot, unable to even dress herself. Thankfully, Rae sensed what she was thinking, and kept his back turned, to save her embarassment.

     Getting into the trousers proved as much of a struggle as it had the other night – the fabric was looser than the leggings she still wore, but the blunt claws on her toes hooked into the fabric just as frequently, not to mention her issues with finally getting the fabric up over her hips. Standing to do it wasn't much easier, with her still-precarious sense of balance.

     The jacket wasn't much easier – she ended up resorting to her teeth, to hold the sleeve where she could reach it – but it felt incredible, once her arms were securely into the sleeves. Soft on her skin, and warm. She snuggled it around herself, and startled herself with an involuntary purr that turned into a surprised hiccup.

     Rae chuckled, and watched as an embarassed pink rose in her cheeks. “They fit all right?”

     Blink nodded, tucking her face down against the deep collar to hide her blush. “Nothing for my feet?” She wiggled her toes, by way of explanation.

     Rae shook his head. “I couldn't find anything, but then they'd only make it harder to balance. Your pads will grip better than any soles.”

     He held out his hand and helped her to her feet; she wobbled unsteadily, looking a little bandy-legged, but managed to stay upright on her own. “I think I'll be all right,” she agreed, answering the unspoken question on his face. “The more practice I get, the better, correct?”

     “Well, so long as you're sure. I don't want you to struggle. There's going to be some heavy terrain, out there, and I had to pack you up a bag.” Rae held out a beige fabric satchel; nowhere near as big as his own pack, it still looked heavy. “I didn't want you to have to be a pack-animal, but I couldn't cram everything into my own.”

     Blink accepted the satchel; it made her small arms sag, and she struggled to keep it up off the deck, but she pursed her lips and clung on to it. “It's only fair that I should share,” she agreed, a determined set to her small jaw. “It's my fault we're here.” She joined him in the makeshift, torn doorway in Happenstance's flank.“So what are we going to do now?”

     “First things first, eh? We need to get off this mountainside.” Rae stared out into the strengthening sunshine. “As soon as we're safe on the flat, and in friendlier temperatures, we can think a bit more about where we're going to aim for. Right?”

     “Right,” Blink agreed, dubiously, and admitted; “I don't really know much about this world, except that the population is tiny. What chance is there of finding anywhere that can help us?”

     “If I'm honest? I don't know.” Rae shook his head. “I just know that our very best hope will be in one of the old cities. It's where all the technology is.” If there's any left, twenty years after everyone died of the Fury. He set his hands carefully at the least-jagged margin of the gash. “Come on-”

     Blink gave a little gasp. “-wait, wait! Stop!”

     Her exclamation almost made Rae leap out of his skin. “What is it?!” His voice came out as an awkward yelp, and he lurched dramatically against the wall, just in case he needed to try and hide himself.

     “I forgot something!” She let the bag bump heavily down to the deck and staggered in the direction of the hold. “Wait for me!”

     “Ugh! Bee. Give me a heart attack, why don't you?” he groused, watching as she disappeared through the door. He followed her just in time to watch her hunt unsteadily through the den of crates where he'd first found her. “What have you lost, anyway?”

     She emerged from the mess with a small piece of torn paper in her hand.

     “You had to go back for a scrap of paper?” He sighed, with a little glare, stepping back to let her past. “Better be worth it. What was on it, anyway?”

     “Just a picture,” she replied, defensively, sliding the scrap safely into a pocket on her satchel. “We can go, now.”

     “Yeah, thanks...” Rae gave his eyes a little roll, and returned to the giant window in the ship's side. It was a lot harder getting out than it had been getting in, trying to reach the floor without tearing his skin on the unfriendly bent metal, but at least a good sturdy shelf of rock was close by and he made it with only a small graze on one hip.

     Turning back to the ship, the floor of the interior was level with his armpits. First, he lifted his pack down, after Blink had scooted it across the floor to him, and then her satchel. Last of all, he put his hands up for the little fessine, who was looking wistfully at her comfy quilt. “Crouch down, eh?” he encouraged, and cupping his hands under her arms, carefully lifted her down after him-

     “Eeh!” she exclaimed, startled, involuntarily tucking up her feet.

     Rae grunted in surprise at the sudden addition of weight, and staggered a step or two, somehow managing to not drop her. “What, what is it?”

     She pinked up, sheepishly, hesitantly putting her feet back down, checking for the floor. “Sorry. I wasn't expecting the rocks to be so cold,” she admitted. “I didn't mean to make you jump.”

     He exaggerated a sigh, and looked down at her to ensure she was steady before trying to let her go. “You're determined to kill me of a heart attack today, aren't you?”

     She mumbled something apologetic and allowed her weight to rest back down on her own feet.

     Rae allowed for a self-indugent couple of seconds to get a good look at her. She was actually rather attractive, he allowed himself to recognise, now it felt safe to do so. Now she wasn't such a fragile, vulnerable, traumatised little thing. And those eyes-! Such completely alien blue eyes-

     Blink looked straight up into his face, those alien blue eyes staring straight into his plain yellow ones, and reminded, softly; “Um. You can let me go now.”

     “Oh! Sorry. Yeah, I, uh, I was just checking you were able to balance all right,” he apologised, lying through his teeth, letting her go so abruptly it was as though she'd just grown a coating of thorns. “Shall-... shall we go?”

     Blink gave him another of those small, forgiving smiles, and nodded.

* * * * *

     Getting down off the jagged boulders of the mountain turned out to be the easiest bit, Blink found, and her balance didn't even need to be too great – if a downward climb presented itself, she could often just sit on her rump and scoot herself carefully across the weather-smoothed rocks, lowering her satchel in front of her by its strap.

     Moving across the gently sloping grassy foothills was infinitely more difficult. She had to stand, and walk, somehow maintaining her balance over the uneven ground as they followed a narrow animal trail through the squat bushes. At least when she tripped, she could land fairly safely in the springy scrub on either side, and her stumbles did become reassuringly less frequent, the further they walked and the more practice they got.

     ...unfortunately, her problems evolved as they walked, a new problem swelling to fill the gap left by her improving balance. The rough terrain became the biggest obstacle, the coarse gritty dirt and scrambling, thorny roots proving very unfriendly to the soft pads on the underside of her small toes. Rae had no such problems – constant daily use had hardened the soles of his feet into tough, leathery cushions that barely felt the gravel they walked on – but Blink found herself falling further and further behind, her unsteady stride turning into an awkward hobble.

     At last, she found a convenient boulder to sag onto, next to a stand of tough little trees on the edge of what looked like it had once been pasture, panting for breath. Her pads felt like someone had given them a good scrubbing with a brush made of hot wire, and once she'd lifted them up off the ground it was almost impossible to put them back down.

     “Rae? Please-... wait a second?” she croaked, struggling to remove the lid of her water bottle. “You're going too fast for me to keep up-...”

     Hearing her call, the spur jammed on the brakes, and hastily returned to her side, concerned. “Everything all right?” he wondered, crouching in front of her.

     Blink forced a smile, although it turned out looking more like a wince. “Just-... just tired,” she lied, in between gulps of water. “You're better at this than me. Let me catch my breath, and I'll be all right to carry on.”

     “All right. And now we've got past the 'treat Rae like he's an idiot' stage, what's really the matter?”

     She averted her gaze, and admitted, “my feet hurt. I don't think I can walk much further.”

     Rae pursed his lips, guiltily – the admission didn't even really come as too great a surprise, so he should have noticed, or at least suspected, that she wouldn't be so used to walking as him. “Why didn't you say anything...?” He carefully took her ankle in one hand, and lifted one of her feet, to examine the underside. Although the skin was hidden under a layer of grime, what had started out as pale pink soles were now swollen and bruise-purple.

     She still refused to look him in the eye. “I didn't want to slow us down.”

     “Aw, Bee. I'm sorry if I made you feel like that.” He sighed, apologetically. “It's not like there's any need to rush. Kust isn't going anywhere. Better that we go a little slower, so you can still walk, than rush ahead and cripple you.” He touched one of her pads, gently.

     “Ow-...!” She twitched her toes away from his hand.

     “Sorry, I'm sorry.” Sigh. “Listen, we passed a stream a while back. I'll get some water for you to bathe your feet...”

     He glanced up at the sun; its zenith long since passed, it was now sinking towards the horizon. They had a few hours of dayling left – just enough to tend to travel-induced injuries, make camp, and have something like supper before getting some well-earned rest.

     “You know what? This spot here probably is a reasonable place to make camp,” he acknowledged, with a nod to himself. “Flat ground to make a fire, and those are some good sturdy little trees, we can nest up above the ground where it's a bit safer. Well picked, Bee.”

     Blink stayed with her back to her boulder, watching while Rae bustled around setting up their campsite. After making them both a cup of strong, bitter tea, her friend warmed a little more water for her to bathe her sore feet.

     “I don't really want to have your smelly feet in my saucepan, but as we don't have a basin, it'll have to do,” he joked. “It's not like it won't wash clean, huh.”

     The small pan didn't leave a lot of room for both the water and her feet, but the warmth was soothing on her painful toes. She sighed, softly, letting herself relax a little. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

     “Yeah, you can take it easy.” Rae dumped his first small heap of kindling into a small hollow in the packed earth at the centre of the cluster of trees, then headed off to hunt for more. “You need to be fit and ready to move again tomorrow, because I ain't carrying you.” He shot a grin back over his shoulder at her.

     “I would never ask you to do that-...!” she protested.

     “I know, Bee. I was joking, yeah?”

     Blink helped herself to another spoonful of sugar to put in her tea while Rae's back was turned. Drinking it hot and sweet allowed her to – almost – ignore the hard aftertaste of astringent tannin. Maybe it wasn't such an acquired taste, after all? She took another mouthful and winced. All right. It WAS an acquired taste. She flexed her toes in their bath of cooling water, trying to avoid letting them stiffen up.

     Night drew in surprisingly quickly, and Rae just managed to get their makeshift camp constructed in time, before the dwindling sun at last vanished all the way behind the horizon. He wasn't especially keen on the idea of sleeping out in the open, like this, and if he'd been given a choice, he'd have aimed for the old farmhouse he'd seen a couple of miles further down the valley, but it wouldn't have been fair to drag Blink even further on sore new feet. Besides, he reminded himself, the house might not have even been habitable, and they'd have only found out when it was too late to do anything about it. Better to make the best of a less-than ideal situation, right?

     And this little camp was quite the masterpiece of engineering, he decided, admiring the two cosy hammocks strung between the branches above his head, and the scavenged old tarpaulin he'd found in the pasture would keep any rain off. Any hungry predators would have to really work hard to get at them up there!

     Blink still sat at the side of the clearing, on a mat of springy old branches tucked between the roots of one of the gnarliest trees. As he approached, Rae discovered that the fessine had actually managed to go to sleep, even on that prickly, uncomfortable seat, proving how exhausted she was. He almost didn't have the heart to wake her, but letting her sleep down on the dirt defeated the object of making a proper camp.

     “Hey... hey, hon. You can't sleep down there.” He gave her shoulder a little shake, and at last she stirred. “Come on, love. Time to go to bed, huh?”

     She mumbled something he didn't quite catch, and groaned softly. “...w'salready sleepin'.”

     “I know, but it's not safe down here.” He helped her upright. “Anything could getcha.”

     “Ah-!” She groaned, her legs giving way. The pain in her feet had gone from a sharp burning soreness to a long, dull throbbing that seemed to shoot right up her legs when she put her weight on them.

     “Easy, there. Not far to go.” Rae helped her hobble over the the trees strung with the hammocks. “It's far more comfortable up there, not to mention warmer than the dirt.” He guided a rope into her hands. “Hang on tight, now.”

     She clung to the rope with her arms and thighs, and gritted her teeth as Rae hauled on the other end, lifting her into the branches. Getting across and into the hammock was an even more precarious manoeuvre, and twice her feet slipped and skidded across the rope, adding friction burns to her collection of blisters. At least the hammock was comfortable, she consoled herself, rolling the blanket up over herself, and she could properly take her weight off her feet.

     “All right up there?” Rae called up.

     “...I'm fine, thank you...”

     “A'right. Well, I'm coming up there to get some sleep myself, so you better have everything you need!”

     “Mmm-hmm,” Blink agreed, quietly, slipping her hand inside her jacket and using thumb and forefinger to stroke the scrap of paper – a photograph of her family – she'd tucked into the inner pocket. “Everything I need.”

     She listened to the scrape of claws on bark, and Rae's soft grunts of effort, and listened as he rustled about in his own hammock, for a little while.

     “G'night, eh, Blink?” he called out, softly. “Sleep well.”

     “Thank you, Rae. You too. And-... thank you for helping me get this far, today.”

     “Oh, pssh. It was nnn-” He punctuated his sentence with a yawn. “Nothin'. You did all that yourself.”

     Blink lay and listened as Rae' breathing deepened, and rapidly turned into quiet snores. The spur sounded even more exhausted than she herself felt. I should have helped him. Next time, I will. She stroked the photograph, guiltily. Just because I'm out here, lost in the wild, soft-bodied and weak, I need to still carry myself in a way that would make you proud of me. I love you.

     Sleep took a long time to finally return, but when it finally did, it was at least free of dreams.

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