| In the compound, they hadn't cared about me, all the guards and doctors who were my only sentient contact. They'd kept me alive because Domitare said so--because as long as I was alive, so were they, but the moment I died they knew Domitare's attention would be turning their way.
But it didn't mean they had to be gentle. If I could stand, they figured, I could walk. It'd been that way for fourteen years.
I took it for granted that my rescuers, whoever they were, would take the same philosophy. So, once my head had stopped buzzing from the drugs they had pumped me full of, I tried to get to my feet.
Vaughn, still at my side, motioned me back. "Hold on there, Effie, what do you think you're doing?"
"We have to go," I said. The words were not as crisp as they could have been, but the aftereffects of the drug made my lips feel unusually thick and unwieldy. "Brett said ..."
"We are going," Vaughn soothed. "Right now, after Brett's done packing up, we're going."
Vaughn patted the makeshift gurney I was lying on. "Wheels," he said. "We've got you covered. Brett doesn't want you moving around a lot. This was a field operation. He says he'll fix you up fully once we get back and he has better equipment."
He would be twenty-three now, I calculated, falling back to logical numbers to prevent myself being swept away by the sudden influx of change around me. Ten years old he was, when he'd disappeared one day and we'd never seen him again. He was so different now; not even his voice was the same. Except for sometimes--some of the words he spoke carried that tell-tale accent that had never gone away. As he spoke, it cropped up from time to time--just one word--as if to remind me that I wasn't dreaming; that this really was Vaughn, and not simply someone who bore a frighteningly similar appearance.
Somehow that made things simultaneously harder and easier to bear. It was hard, because my six-year-old brain had grasped, all those years ago, that Vaughn was dead and that he was never coming back. It had engrained itself into my brain and now I was being forced to reconsider, and it was hard to simply accept.
But at the same time, at the same time ... It was so comforting to have run, to have fled finally from the compound and fallen straight into the arms of two people I'd grown to love and thought I'd never see again.
And they both knew what they were doing. It was clear in the way they moved, the way they interacted--just the plain fact that they were here. Some part of me wanted to lie back and let them take me, let them take over for once.
But fourteen years of complete self-sufficiency is hard to let go. Still ... I could feel it as a mask now, instead of as my entire being. So I laid back, making sure the look I gave Vaughn was one of grudging acceptance, and inside let myself relax as he wheeled the gurney over to Brett and Caity, who were waiting near the edge of the clearing.
"We're ready," Vaughn said.
"Let's go." Brett nodded at Vaughn, then started off into the trees at a quick walk. Vaughn followed with the gurney, and Caity took up a position a few paces behind him, keeping an eye out to our rear. I just stared. It was still hard to move; the drug had not quite warn off completely, but that was all right. The sky was so open, so clear--so different from the perpetual stone roof which I'd lived with for so long.
And it was always changing somehow, with the flight of a bird, with the passing of a cloud, with the slight change of a color's hue, that I didn't even want to look away.
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