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c'est la vie, c'est la mort

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Mira
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In the grand scheme of things, explosions were nothing out of the ordinary. Worlds came and went with a bang. It was an explosion that ushered in the universe at the dawn of time, and it had been a series of explosions that rocked the planet nearly a year ago and ushered in the Sixth Mass Extinction.

It was explosions that concussed the warehouse that morning, and woke the man called Waylander.

There was no real transition between sleep and waking. One minute he was lying down, the next he was lunging upright, fully alert. Well, maybe not fully. He didn't remember falling asleep the night previous, and for a disoriented moment the man hunted about himself, as if expecting to find another there with him. The only evidence that he may not have spent the night entirely alone was a lone disturbance in one of the quilts: a ripple of wrinkles where another body had sat, as well as an open (but untouched) bottle of water.

Whatever last night's circumstances, he was on his own now—save for the rifle resting beside him—and another explosion sent him scurrying to his feet and yanking the canvas curtain aside.

Down below, others had been roused, and the alertest among them were already sprinting for their weapons. Waylander, leader of the South Cardinals and resident of the lighting fixture department at Home Depot, slung his rifle across his back and sailed down the ladder to his shelving unit. He hit the ground running.

"Stations!" A voice gentle in conversation barked the order, projecting itself all the way to opposite ends of the warehouse and back, almost loud enough drown out the booming outside. In the pandemonium, Waylander's eyes sought the side exit to the store's garden department; but if there was no time for anything, there was definitely no time to locate his second-in-command. Joanna could take care of herself, anyway, and everyone else she crossed paths with—whether they happened to be with the faction or not.

"Commander, we've got company!" someone hollered as Waylander waded through a sea of panicked bodies towards the front of the store. Dodger, his best scout, drew abreast of him. The other's rifle was shaking in his hands. Waylander reached over to switch the safety on. While their group had been no stranger to raiding parties these past few months, the explosions had everyone rattled. They were too much like the ones that had ended the world eleven months back, and ended all of their lives as they knew them. Waylander thought he would never find himself thanking God for grenades and grenades only... but then, there were a lot of things the man had never thought he'd find himself doing. Commanding a crew of humanity's last survivors was one of them.


   
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Jersey
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There was no sleeping, not anymore, and the raucous sounds that assaulted her ears only awoke her from a false slumber. Her eyes, a sharp crystalline blue, snapped open immediately, and with speeds no human could replicate Joanna was out of her bed and pulling shoes unnecessarily onto her feet. A rifle followed suit just as quickly and the woman charged forward, entirely without back up and unperturbed by the fact. The sound of the explosion carried her at a pace far too quick for even her long, lithe legs, but without witness she found it hard to restrain herself to normal speeds. Investigation of the explosion’s cause was temporarily more important, and when she found the problem at hand ( several men launching grenades at what functioned as their community home), she considered solving it herself before anyone could see, but the harsh cries of her companions drew her back to join them. There was risks even she could not take, not when she had such an important purpose for keeping her cover.

A bullet cracked overhead and she flinched down only for the benefit of the others, turning only briefly to see the rapidly approaching reinforcements. Raiders were not uncommon, but the ones particularly well armed were especially annoying. Their bullets couldn’t do much to harm her, but that didn’t mean they didn’t sting. She weaved through the sea of approaching bodies and familiar faces, who in respect formed empty space around her as her gaze sought desperately one single man. Keen eyes alerted her to his presence momentarily, and she need not even slow her steps until she caught pace along side of him with a natural sort of ease. She fell in perfectly synched step with him as though designed for place at his side.

“They’ve got some kind of improvised grenade launchers. Easily the most heavily armed group we’ve seen in a while,” Her words were not cheerful nor anything but painfully blunt, stating the truth in the most unbiased way possible. The way she spoke only seemed to emphasize this, voice remaining perfectly composed despite the way it pitched up to be heard over the shouts and open fire. There was another sharp crack of ammunition spray nearby and they were forced to duck behind artificial cover, placed in the well worn battlefield specifically for that reason.

Her rifle had already been removed from her shoulder and was held firmly in her grasp. Joanna popped up only long enough to take the shot, and there was the sharp cry of agony that followed a millisecond later to signify her success. Tucked momentarily behind the barrier, she turned to Waylander and with a wry sort of grin remarked, “Good morning. Sleep well?,”

His response would be mostly lost under the sounds of intense battle. Despite the more advanced weapons, the South Cardinals were pressing back with surprising skill. Their numbers were greater and they knew the environment well, most of those on her side pressed tight against strategically placed barriers. There was only one problem, that being the few men armed with grenade launchers. The men were too far away for an accurate shot, even with her vision, but allowing them to continue further no longer remained an option.

Joanna momentarily considered informing Waylander of her intentions, but knew within that same instant he would just simply run after her despite any of her protests. The woman met his eyes only briefly instead, and hoped hesitation would be enough to make him too late to follow. She leapt up suddenly from her crouched position and took off at a dead sprint for a closer barrier to take the shot.


   
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She appeared, as always, in an instant, not so much arriving as materializing out of thin air. While Joanna's almost unearthly punctuality seemed to spook most people, Waylander was so used to it by now he would have been alarmed to turn his head and not find her flanking his left. But there she was, as expected: dark hair rumpled from sleep, same as his own, but eyes glowing with a clarity that the rest of them had yet to summon to the fore. Joanna delivered her report, and Dodger fell back, weaving from group to group to spread the woman's intel. Waylander mustered a grunt to signify he understood before the spray of bullets hit, and the time for conversation was at an end.

The two of them ran, hunched to minimize surface area, and dove up against an available bunker. They were two of the first to arrive, but more would soon follow: the South Cardinals were a ragtag group of former civilians, but what they lacked in experience they made up for in preparedness. Waylander pulled an extra round from his pocket and passed it to her wordlessly. Everyone had been caught in their pajamas that morning; fortunately, his didn't lack pockets. He almost always made it a habit to sleep in his jacket—it got cold in his loft at night, and he had long ago donated the majority of his blankets to the other families. Joanna, on the other hand, didn't appear to feel the cold as keenly as the rest of them. While shorts and a t-shirt were practical, and, he may as well face it—cute—odds were she'd left any spare ammunition in her "other pants".

They were out of time for discussion, but Waylander did find a moment to wince briefly at her remark. He hadn't meant to fall asleep last night. He never did. When Joanna had started stealing into the warehouse to visit him past curfew—and it was becoming a nightly ritual, these conversations—well, it'd fast become one of the few things he had to look forward to. His nights sustained his days. No matter how often they spoke, they never seemed to run out of subjects (or in Joanna's case, interesting facts. The girl was a walking encyclopedia of information and a hell of a lot smarter than he was). Sometimes, they didn't speak at all: they spent the evening staring off into the chandelier constellation that made up Waylander's front yard, or out past the barricade, in the rare instances that it was he who visited her. Sometimes, there was just more to be communicated through silence. Through base companionship.

Everyone felt that way, surely.

But it embarrassed him more than a little that he was always the first to nod off. Joanna didn't seem to mind, but it was something he agonized over. Did she not trust him enough to fall asleep in his presence? That was all right, if so... still, just once he thought he might like to wake to find her there. Just once, he'd like to be the last one conscious, the one to rearrange her until she was warm and comfortable and safe, as she had rearranged him so many times. Because despite the fact that he currently wore a jacket, he definitely didn't remember falling asleep in one.

All thoughts of the girl's safety and comfort flew from his mind when she trained that look on him, though. He only had a chance to widen his eyes in response before she took off for the next barricade several yards ahead. The man cursed below her breath and followed, as they both knew he would. His behavioral patterns were as predictable as hers weren't.

He slid in beside her a half second later, pressing his back flush against the sandbags the Cardinals had erected earlier that week. It was a new addition, this barricade. Waylander had been hesitant to allow its construction due to the possibility of bringing its occupants so close to enemy fire, but that was precisely why Joanna had pushed for it. Today would be its trial run.

"I'd sleep better knowing you're the sort of person who doesn't run right into the thick of things," he mentioned as he reloaded. "You're going to need another pair of eyes for this shot."

Once his rifle was secure, Waylander snatched his binoculars and turned back to the front line, easing himself up just enough to get a visual. Another spray of bullets had him ducking back down again. He locked eyes with Joanna calmly despite the perspiration beading his brow.

"Launcher, two o'clock."


   
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Jersey
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There was much the forty eight members of South Cardinal did not understand about the mysterious Joanna, but the same could be said in reverse. While they found her skill to appear and disappear so unobtrusively strange, she judged their ability to take any of her many interactions with Waylander as indisputable truth the two were secretly together similarly. There were some things about humans Joanna feared she would never properly understand. She did her best to feign normalcy and had been mostly successful in her efforts, but on occasion she grew forgetful. Like when she forgot the average soldier required ammunition to be truly dangerous, while she was lethal with nothing more than her own hands and teeth. 

He passed the rounds to her silently, and she tipped her head shortly in thanks. He seemed to realize exactly what she’d forgotten, and as usual, had her back. The tight fitting shorts she wore had no pockets for ammunition and were mostly impractical in the chilly weather. But she was numb to all weather and climate, to anything but the feel of sunlight on her skin. Her conscience made taking weather appropriate clothes from those who truly needed them impossible. She tucked the block of rounds into the tight fitting waist band of her pants, missing the flinch that overtook his features as she spoke of sleep.

Her late night visits might’ve fueled more than a few unsavory rumors, but Joanna was mostly unconcerned. As long as such talk did not affect Waylander’s ability to lead, she found herself entirely unperturbed to what the more creative minds of the South Cardinals could think up. Their visits had started out as time to simply discuss battle plans or whatever had been bothering the group at the time, but as the tradition progressed further into simple habit, their conversations became more casual. Typically she remembered to dismiss herself before he grew too tired, but on nights like the last she had forgotten his need to sleep and had only remembered after he had fallen silent, slumped over on his bed. A combination of guilt and her strange, compulsive desire to protect the man had led her to put him in the jacket he currently wore. Whether he realized this or not she did not have time to consider, not as another violent explosion shook the area.

The men armed with grenade launchers needed to be taken out, she could not afford to wait any longer. She met his eyes only briefly before leaping up with an impulsiveness in battlefield that was a likely result of her own near immortality. She had hoped in vain that the quickness she had moved would have been enough to stun him properly into remaining where he was, but she wasn’t too particularly surprised when he clambered to his feet behind her. The narrowly dodged a spray of bullets before managing to slide into place behind the make shift barrier. She remained with her back pressed tight against the sand bags as he crept up, announcing the grenade launchers position as he quickly sank back down.

She did not need to signal her understanding, the way she gripped her rifle and twisted for a proper shot was proof enough. Her aim had been on target and took one of the heavily equipped men out, but not before a grenade rocketed forward with the clear destination of their barrier. It took Joanna mere milliseconds to process what to do, and unflinchingly the woman shot the grenade in mid air. The explosion that resulted shot shrapnel into their direction, but disaster had mostly been avoided. Or so she had thought. With her heightened reflexes she had been quick enough to duck back down, but it seemed Waylander had not. So often she forgot the frailty of humans, and she cursed herself for it once more. Twisting to face him, she was confronted by the thick trails of blood that dripped down his face and arm. Her blue eyes suddenly alighted with indecipherable emotion. 

What troubled her more beyond his flesh wounds, was that her first thought had not been one of concern. It had been one of hunger, of urge to take his marred face in her hands and taste the blood that beaded tantalizingly down from his split lip. Her lips parted, suddenly dry from temptation as her mouth grew moist with saliva. She had not fed in weeks due to the lack of activity, and her self-control was being sorely tested. However the pain in his eyes snapped her suddenly from her own internal struggle, her own strife compartmentalized. Joanna took his face in her hands delicately for fear of harming him further. She inspected the damage, twisting his chin gingerly this way and that with detached ease. 

She was reassured by the fact his cuts were nothing that couldn’t be healed with proper medical care. Her sharp gaze found no major damage on his face despite the blood that suggested otherwise. She was oblivious to how her behavior and sudden proximity might’ve affected him, her gaze calculating as she considered. The shrapnel had dug into his face but he seemed mostly unaffected. As it turned out, most of the metal had imbedded itself into his arm as he’d thrown it up for protection, but there was little she could do about that now. The fact his condition was stable provided only a slight relief. If she had acted only a second faster, been only a slight more diligent in her protection the injury could have been avoided in its entirety. She released his face abruptly and glanced up, peeking up over the barrier momentarily. Only a few more men armed with grenade launchers remained, and when she ducked back down it was with utmost seriousness. Her gaze caught not on the blood staining his features, but the dark of his eyes with a piercing urgency.

“If you think you can make it, head back to the farthest barrier. Otherwise stay here, and I’ll be back once I take care of the men with grenade launchers.” Her instructions were spoken with the crispness of a veteran soldier, a striking lack of room for argument in her otherwise monotonous voice. She hesitated, and then remarked again in after thought. 

“Try not to be a hero, you’re not as bullet proof as we all like to think,” The woman’s lips stretched thinly in what might have been a smile, a rarity he was mostly afforded in her efforts to have him listen to reason. There was a slight note of something, perhaps concern, in her voice hidden behind the cool, composed way she spoke. While she remained merely his second in command, it was quite obvious she expected him to take her demands seriously. She met his eyes for a moment longer, unwilling to leave him but knowing it was a necessary for the success of the group. Only a few terse seconds later and the woman was on her feet, rushing past the barrier with the sound of bullets cracking sharply in the air.

 

   
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Mira
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Nothing ever slowed down, not in Waylander's world. Time never crawled on the battlefield; bullets never sailed any slower; none of their fallen ever had a chance to breathe true last breathes or imprint a final parting word. They just blinked out. One moment Joanna would be by his side, the next she would be gone, with him left helpless and hoping he would see her alive again once the dust settled.

And he had no say in any of it.

But he had a say now. Launcher, two o'clock. In his peripheral, he saw Joanna pull back and take aim, as if time slowed for her and her alone. Waylander rose to cover her, risking exposure only for what he perceived to be an instant, and then it was over—the man firing on them was dead—but then it still wasn't over. The launcher belched a last grenade as the raider tumbled backwards with a bullet through his brain; the projectile was headed straight for them. Joanna swung around immediately and fired off another shot, this one exploding the live grenade above their heads. Shrapnel rained down around them as the two ducked for cover once more.

Now Waylander was cringing for more than just the sake of another close call.

He had been hit. What they said was true, at least—in the arms of adrenaline, he barely felt any pain—but he could feel that he was wounded all the same, and he could see it in Joanna's eyes...

Then again, he didn't know exactly what it was he saw in Joanna's eyes. It was enough to make him want to shrink from the person who carried the distinction of being his oldest living friend, but all it took was the touch of her too-cool hands and Waylander was leaning forward instead.

Maybe time finally did slow down for him then, just a little. Joanna tilted his head to assess the damage, and he complied. An urgent voice in the back of his head screamed that this moment had to end, now, before it got them both killed, but in Joanna's hands he had always been a defeated man. He could only hope she found it in her to release him long enough to finish the job he had been elected to do.

And she did, of course. Waylander fell back heavily against the barrier, confused by his body's unwillingness to respond more promptly to his commands, and Joanna took advantage of his disorientation to assume control. He watched through a red lens of blood as the girl stooped to converse with him quickly, but he couldn't keep up with her. Why did she always have to move so fast? Maybe he was getting old.

"Were you hit?" he tried to interject, but he could see for himself that she was fine. Shrapnel wounds didn't tend to hide for long. "You aren't bulletproof, either—Joanna!" The ghost of a smile, and the girl was gone. Waylander cursed, something he only ever did when he was alone, and attempted to reload his rifle. What should have been a five-second job dragged on into minutes when his wounded arm proved useless to the task, and by the time he'd risen to rejoin the battle it had all but ended; the surviving raiders were retreating. Waylander retired his rifle, not having the same heart to pick them off as some of his more vengeful soldiers. Instead, he moved to tend to the wounded.

There were three dead, nine injured in total. A fourth of their number out of commission. Waylander tried not to let the strain show on his face as he worked swiftly to get everyone back inside. They could assess the damage to the barricade later, once things had quieted. He was in the process of dragging a concussed teenager back to base and barking orders when a sudden hitch in his stride caused them both to go down. He felt the kid being lifted away from him as he was pulled to his feet, the world suddenly spinning wildly around him.

"Get the commander to the infirmary!"

Maybe some shrapnel wounds hid themselves after all.


   
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Jersey
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Joanna’s abrupt departure was marked only by a short laugh consumed by the sound of enemy fire. Bulletproof, indeed. 

She moved faster than she would have typically allowed herself in the presence of humans, but the only one close enough to register the velocity at which she moved had little time to dwell on it. There was a sharp crack of ammunition, and a bullet through the jugular. She continued taking her shots, picking off the remaining launchers with ease from her new vantage. With the carnage came the smell of freshly spilt blood, and it took Joanna more than a moment to gather her bearings. It had been far too long since she had last fed. 

Her limits were sorely tested as she eyed the corpse before her. It would only take a moment, the burning in her throat assured her, and her fangs slid out reflexively even as her mind protested. It was unwise, but perhaps necessary, especially if she were to return to Waylander’s side in his current state. Waylander. Her fangs flicked back in with purpose at the thought of her injured comrade, knowing full well she could not be delayed. But it seemed she would be, as a raider had taken advantage of her momentary lapse in attention. 

She was aware of the knife as it pierced violently through her stomach, leading every fibre of her being to suddenly alight with pain. Vocally, she only gasped (this wasn’t her first stabbing unfortunately, but they ranked a little worse than being shot), In comparison, the reaction of the man who stabbed was considerably more dramatic. She removed the knife gingerly from her abdomen, and the skin around it healed within the moment. He swore, and confusion would have registered plainly on his face had she allowed it, but he fell dead before he had the chance to even knit his brow. Shaking off the unpleasantness of being stabbed with the same nonchalance one might dust off their shoulder with, Joanna made quick work of returning to the group once the battle had ended. After a brief visual inspection, she was confident in that the price of victory had not been too steep.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Waylander fall to his knees, and abruptly she was not so sure. Her light jog quickened to a sprint, though men had already hefted their commander to his feet by the time she reached them. “Take the boy, “She delegated instead to the man on the right, taking his position at Waylander’s side. His arm slid easily around her shoulders, too easily she thought with concern. Her thoughts became preoccupied by how pliant Waylander felt against her, and the smell of his blood remained entirely disregarded. 

The walk to the infirmary had never felt so long as it did then. But relief did not come even when Waylander was settled into a cot. She dismissed the other man to help the others with injuries, as surely the few nurses they had would be preoccupied. Frowning, though unaware of it, the dark haired girl began the tedious work of removing the shrapnel and cleaning wounds and dried blood, forcefully biting her tongue through the entirety of it. There was a lot of blood, but as the other freckle-face nurse had assured her after pausing in tending to a rather moody red haired man, he would be okay. 

The pain medicine she gave Waylander, and momentarily considered lacing with her own blood, knocked him out rather successfully. However, as the infirmary gradually emptied and time marched tragically on, Joanna remained at his side. Her need for food was perhaps unwisely disregarded, but the stinging ache in her throat seemed so unimportant when compared to the sudden pallor of Waylander’s skin. 

He awoke slowly, and she remarked “Nice of you to join us,” in response, her eyes brightening imperceptibly.


   
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It wasn't a nice feeling, being there one moment and gone the next. One minute he was pulling a bleeding kid to safety, and the next thing Waylander knew he was waking up in the infirmary—the state of the survivor's camp in question, the kid's whereabouts unknown. Had they been attacked again while he was out? Was Joanna harmed? Any one of a number of possibilities flew through Waylander's brain, none of them good, but as he made to rise and resume command he found himself falling back into the makeshift bed, head spinning.

Powerful forces were at work here. Morphine, he thought, and in the next instant the man wrenched the tube from his arm and flung it as far from him as possible. Whoever was sitting beside him had to understand... understand that he didn't want any of it wasted on him... it needed to be conserved for emergencies. He couldn't lead without a clear head, but the damage was already done. Waylander sank into his pillow, suddenly woozy, as the phantom at his bedside rose to hover over him. Squinting, the man raised a hand to cup the curve of his nurse's face. Skin like satin, cool like frost.

Joanna sat back down, and Waylander relaxed a little bit. But not much.

"Where is he?" he croaked, referring to the soldier he had misplaced. "Are we under attack?"

In repose she was out of his reach, so his hand sought her knee instead and gave a squeeze of desperation. He needed to maintain some sort of connection to her to keep himself grounded... but the sudden thought of Joanna slipping away threw Waylander back out onto the battlefield, and back into the moment when he had watched her disappear into the cloud of dust kicked up by the raiders and their weapons.

Suddenly, and perhaps for the first time, he thought he saw everything clearly. The unbearable halo of bright light overhead shrank as his vision returned, and he beheld Joanna's face, eyes bright as if she'd been... crying? No, that wasn't the woman he knew. Past the unearthly color of her eyes he could never tell what she was thinking. He doubted the same could be said for him. She could probably decipher his every thought by now, said or unsaid; he could only hope that they were cycling too rapidly at present for her to get a clear read. He certainly couldn't. It was like watching two actors perform in a film. He didn't feel in control at all anymore—he was just a helpless spectator, awaiting the next move of what had once been the predictable male lead.

This time, Waylander did manage to rise, using Joanna's knee for support. It was thin enough he imagined the effort he exerted might snap it, but it stayed as strong as a steel girder beneath him. She was always there to support him, often to the exclusion of all else.

But where was he, when she needed him? Where was he? Doped on morphine and out of commission.

God, she was beautiful.

His thoughts were everywhere, fragmenting like the pieces of a detonated grenade. Thankfully, it was this metaphoric thought that focused Waylander away from the others currently clamoring for his attention.

"Nice shot," he added, rotating his shoulder with a wince.


   
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Jersey
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An instant seemed so small a unit of time, so easily disregardable to one who had lived so many
centuries, but it had taken only an instant for the grenade to impact. It had taken only an instant
to realize what happened, taken only an instant for Waylander’s bloodied face to remind her
harshly of human’s devastatingly fragile morality. Joanna dwelled on this as she stitched
Waylander’s wounds with well practiced precision. She was slipping. She had reacted far too
quickly, and worse, she had not even thought to protect him, a compulsion that typically came
naturally.

Forgetting Waylander was human was not a common error she allowed herself, but she had
never considered him anything less than her equal. Perhaps as a result, she tended to be briefly
neglectful to remember her own immortality did not carry onto to those who surrounded her. She
had privately thought, once or twice in moments of bitter loneliness she would not recognize as
such, to turn Waylander. However, time had a way of changing even the most incorruptible, and
she quite liked him the way he was, so earnestly human. Even if it made caring for him in what
little capacities she was still capable so much more difficult.

As though punctuating her thoughts Waylander woke abruptly, and her seemingly nonchalant
remark was ignored as he pulled the make shift IV from his arm. Joanna thought to stop him at
once, but was afraid of hurting him in the process. Her hesitation showed clearly as she quickly
rose, hovering over him in way that contrasted sharply to her impassive expression. For a
moment she was afraid she might have to restrain him, but with a troubling weariness he settled
back into his pillow. Perhaps most startling of all, was the sudden feel of a calloused cupping her
cheek. Whether she was too startled by the embrace or chose consciously to linger remained without answer,

as she wordlessly sat down the moment his hand drifted from the side of her
face.

His voice was hoarse and rasped horribly, but it was of no surprise to her the concern that
marked it so heavily was not for his own sake.

“He’s fine, left the infirmary with nothing more than a mild concussion and sprained ankle,” She
informed Waylander crisply, an indiscernible pause marking her words the moment his hand
took hold on her knee. “No. The raiders left running hours ago, and we managed to acquire a few
grenade launchers as a result,” Her explanation was nothing short of brusque, but hopefully her
intent to reassure him translated regardless. Considering the recent trend of raiders attacking
more frequently, it had admittedly been one of their better, more decisively victorious battles
(even though it felt like such a strange thing to admit as he remained bed ridden).
Whether intrinsically aware of her thoughts or simply thinking along similar lines, Waylander
rose unsteadily from the bed with only her knee as a crutch. She mirrored his actions, rising with
more certainty as he did and with the intention of forcing him back into the bed. Such intentions
fell awry however, his words troubling her more than their sudden proximity. The otherwise dim
lighting cast sudden, harsh relief onto the new angry scars carved into his face. Unbidden, a
frown pulled the corners of her pale lips downward.

“It could have been better,” She amended not fiercely but with little room for argument, light
eyes taking on a sudden darkness.


   
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