These Broken Stars Page 21

She looks down to see what I’m doing and gasps, one hand lifting to cover her mouth. But in whatever passes for reality for her, even she must see the shoes have done their duty. She’s silent as I hunt through the first-aid kit, carefully wrapping and taping the worst parts of her feet. In the end I have to let out the straps, and fasten the newly flat shoes around her swollen feet as best I can.

I offer her my hands, and she lets me help her to her feet. She does this without a groan, without a whimper. I’m not sure I could’ve made it this far on feet that badly torn up. Lilac LaRoux’s handled a forced march with more determination than some of the recruits I’ve taken out in the last couple of years, even if she seems to be doing it out of spite more than anything else.

I give her hands a squeeze. “There, see? When you get home, all the girls on Corinth will be dying for heelless high heels. I know you know how to set a trend.”

And there it is, against all hope, like the sun peeking out from behind the clouds. The smallest hint of a smile.

“Did you have any goal other than reaching the crash site?”

“You make it sound as though I conspired to get myself landed on the planet.”

“And why would you do that?”

“That’s my point. We wanted nothing more than to get out of there.”

“Very well. What happened next?”



I’M TOO OUT OF BREATH TO TALK and walk at the same time. Major Merendsen keeps upping the pace, so I’m forced to pant and struggle along behind him, with very little opportunity for complaint. Eventually, after the fifth or sixth time that I’ve tripped over a low-lying root, I let gravity finish its work and claim me. I hit the ground harder than I’d like, but I’m too tired to care.

Ahead of me his footsteps come to a halt. There’s a long, long silence before he speaks. “Take a break. Rest your feet, have some water. Let’s move again in fifteen minutes.”

From somewhere I find the energy to push myself up on my arms. My legs are made of lead, and each movement rubs the straps of my shoes against raw skin despite the tape. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take the blisters and calluses on my feet to fade when we’re rescued. How soon will I be able to wear proper shoes again without displaying my battle scars?

He’s standing some distance away, not even winded. Does he have to rub it in, how easy this is for him? I’m determined not to give him the satisfaction of pitying me. I’ll show him how much a LaRoux can handle.

For all I know, there are rescue craft headed for our pod’s crash site as we speak, but because of his idiocy, we’re out in the middle of the forest instead of somewhere they might see us.

A tiny voice at the back of my mind tries to point out how much better suited for this situation he is than I am—how much more he knows. But I’m tired of being weak. I’m tired of being led. I’m tired of having this soldier decide my every step. I’m Lilac LaRoux.

“Major, we need to rethink our plan.” I try to keep my voice even, but I’m not doing a very good job. “The Icarus crashed behind a mountain range. There’s no way we can make this sort of trek. I know it worked for you on Patron, but you had a whole team of soldiers and field researchers there. Just because it worked once doesn’t mean it’s the solution now. We can do something to make the pod more visible.”

“There’s nothing we can do that will guarantee us anything,” he replies, shaking his head in quick dismissal. “We can be sure there’ll be rescue craft at the wreck site.”

“If we make it there,” I snap. “We have to go back, it’s our best hope.”

“I prefer to make my own hope,” he snaps right back, wheeling around to look me up and down, as though he finds me wanting. “Listen, I can’t drag your ass through the forest for you. You have to work with me.”

“I’d thank you not to do anything at all with my ass,” I reply, glaring at him. “You’re not the lord and master of this planet, and you’re not the lord and master of me. My opinion is as valid as yours!”

“Are we going to discuss every single step we take?” I’ve reduced him to a frustrated roar, but there’s no lick of satisfaction in response—I’m too furious myself. This stupid, arrogant boy. How old is he? He can’t be more than a couple of years older than me, yet he acts like he’s got a lifetime of experience just because he liberated one tiny outpost once. A one-trick pony with a chest full of medals.

“Are you going to listen to reason, Major?”

“If that’s what you call reason, then hell, no.”

“No!” I echo him in frustration. “That’s all you ever say—no, you can’t rest again, no, we have to keep moving uphill, no, you can’t use the filtered water for bathing.”

We stand, both locked in place, waiting for the other to break.

“Miss LaRoux,” he says eventually, “I’ll do my best to protect you if you’ll let me. My duty demands that much. But I’m not going to sit here and die for you, waiting for rescue that may never come. And I’m certainly not going to beg to keep you safe, on top of everything else you’ve been serving up. If you refuse to come with me, that’s fine. I’m going, and you can come or not as you wish.”

“Not.” My hand is itching to slap him, but I force myself to remain in place, spine stiff. “Leave me half the supplies and a blanket to carry them in, and you can be on your way. Relieved of duty,” I add nastily.

“Fine,” he spits. He throws his pack down with unnecessary force, and without another moment of hesitation starts unpacking things and laying them out on a blanket. He makes two even piles of everything—the contents of the first-aid kit, the ration bars, the cable scavenged from our pod. Then one pile, plus a small metal case, a tatty jumpsuit from the pod, and a notebook I haven’t seen before, goes back into his pack, and the other is left on the blanket. I feel like telling him to keep the ration bars, since he seems to enjoy them so much.

The major straightens, casting me a dismissive look. “Best of luck.”

He’s waiting for me to cave. We both know he’s not going to leave me alone in this forsaken wilderness—it’s a question of who will admit it first. He may be an ass but he’s a chivalrous one, and he’s not going to let me die to prove a point. I know it, he knows it—and as we watch each other across the blanket, I have to admit a flare of pleasure shoots through me. This is a game I know.

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