These Broken Stars Page 36

I take the blanket he thrusts at me, and lean on the tree as I get to my feet, stiff and cold. The voices have stopped, but I’m still shivering. I’m working at the knotted laces for a full five minutes before I realize that I haven’t taken this dress off in five days, the laces are soaked and waterlogged, and my hands are so cold I can barely make them curl around the strings.

“Tarver,” I whisper. “I need help.”

There’s a spark of heat left in me, because I feel my cheeks beginning to burn as he turns to me, confused. Understanding dawns as his eyes fall to where my hands are fumbling at the neckline of my dress.

Muttering something foul-sounding in a language I don’t recognize, he closes the distance between us again and directs me to warm my hands under my arms while he tries to unknot the laces. Eventually he’s forced to pull out his knife and saw through them while I look away and try to think of something else. The dress was already so far past saving anyway. This is just one more tiny casualty in the name of survival.

I had the delicate purple flower that he gave me on the plains tucked down my bodice, and as I peel away the remains of the dress, I find it crushed against my skin, almost beyond recognition. I’m forced to let it go, drop it in the mud.

What does it say about how I’ve changed that I feel more for the loss of one tiny flower than for the loss of the dress?

He turns away to start finding kindling that isn’t soaked through, careful to keep his back to me, and I let the dress fall to the ground. Leaving it where it is, I grab the blanket and wrap it around myself, gasping in the cold. I drop to my knees so that the blanket will cover more of me as I huddle.

A tiny flicker of orange against my closed lids prompts me to open them to see Tarver nurturing a fledgling fire so carefully that his hands are shaking with the effort.

The trees above us have thick, broad leaves, but even so, it’s raining so hard that some water finds its way through. I can’t quite stop the inarticulate sound of relief that he was still able to find enough dry wood to burn. He looks up at the sound, eyes flickering down when he sees me in the blanket, then jerking away.

I must not be as covered as I think I am. Clearly I’m warming up, because suddenly I actually care, and hunch more carefully into my cocoon.

“On with the mechanic’s suit, Miss LaRoux. You’ll be the height of fashion, I promise. Then give me the blanket so I can dry off as much as I can.”

That’s what finally convinces me to give up my claim to the blanket. He’s still dripping, forced to lean away from the fire as he works so that he doesn’t swamp it. We’ll never be completely dry with the rain that makes its way past the canopy, but damp is better than soaked. I get to my feet and let the blanket fall so I can shove my legs into the bottom half of the suit and zip it up. It’s made for a man, and I draw my arms inside the loose material to cradle them against my chest, letting the sleeves hang empty. The material’s so rough that when it comes time to move out, I’ll have to wear the dress underneath or risk rubbing my skin raw. But for now, it’s comparatively dry, and that’s enough.

It isn’t until I crouch down next to the tiny fire that Tarver looks up again, cautiously. He adds another stick to the flames before standing to retrieve the blanket and start stripping off his own wet clothes. I am not as honorable as he is. My mind goes blessedly blank as I watch him drop his jacket and his shirt to the ground. His dog tags leap and gleam in the meager glow from the fire. His skin is taut with cold and covered with goose bumps, reddening as he scrubs at it briskly with a fistful of the blanket.

The jacket goes back on, and he lays his shirt out on the other side of the fire to dry before retrieving the blanket from the ground. He wraps this around me, and I don’t even care anymore about its coarseness—it’s warm despite being damp, and though all I can feel right now is the chill of my own body radiating back at me, I know in a few moments I’ll be better. My eyes follow Tarver as he goes through the motions of setting up camp, jerky and quick. It’s not until he’s got the canteen set to boil over the fire that he joins me, ducking abruptly inside my cocoon of blankets and wrapping an arm around me before I can react.

The fire’s still too young to give off much heat, hissing unhappily at the drops that squeeze past the sheltering trees overhead. After a time I stop shivering, but he keeps his arm around me nonetheless. There are no voices to be heard above the popping fire and the splat of raindrops on the canopy above, and in a rush my sleepless nights catch up to me with all the force of a mag-lev train. I ought to disentangle myself from Tarver, go to sleep properly on my own. I ought to wait for dinner to boil. I ought to let him rest without having to take care of me.

But I’m warm now, and for once there’s no one calling to me in words I can’t understand, and for reasons I don’t care to examine, the thought of pushing Tarver Merendsen’s arms away makes my stomach twist unhappily. And so I stay still, and let my head drop onto his shoulder, and if he minds the way my wet hair drips on him, he says nothing, and lets me sleep.

“You told us that Miss LaRoux suffered some minor head injuries as a result of the crash.”

“That’s right.”

“There were no side effects? She was able to travel without difficulty?”

“I’d like to see you hike across a planet in a ball gown and the type of shoes those girls wear. I don’t think I’d say the walk was without difficulty.”

“It’s a relevant question, Major Merendsen.”


“And I’d be obliged if you’d answer it.”

“I’m not aware of any difficulties she had that were a result of the knock to her head.”

“What about you?”

“It was a walk in the park. What do you think?”



SHE WAKES EARLY, this girl who probably used to sleep until noon and lie abed until three. I roll over into the warm spot she leaves behind, eyes closed, but I can feel her watching me. She pushes away the dirt I used to bank the fire, stirring up the coals. Warmth flickers against my face as she builds the fire up again with the kindling I gathered last night.

Moving slowly, probably stiff and sore from our drowning dash last night, she crouches down beside me and rests a hand on my shoulder. When I crack open an eyelid to peer up at her, she looks tired. Both her eyes are marked underneath with dark smears of blue and purple, and one is still marbled black and yellow as her magnificent black eye starts to fade. She’s pale, with new freckles from the sun overhead standing out like punctuation on a page.

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