Elif'rafaat walked in silence alongside the other survivors, all of them walking away from the massacre that befell their home city. The sounds of their heavy footfalls punctuated by the quiet groans of pain and struggled breathing: the only sounds in the dark tunnel they walked through. She couldn't recall hearing anyone cry in some time, though; their journey had become too hard to allow such frivolities. Energy spent weeping was better spent walking.
She walked near the middle of the group, which had gradually spread over the course of their travels until it spanned over a kilometer from beginning to end; the mood that hung over them all was dark and oppressive, the overwhelming sense of loss binding them all together. Spirits were low, and now only a dogged determination seemed to carry them forward.
At the start of their journey, she had hung back to thse rear as her sister had been unable to move faster, at the same time trying to motivate the stragglers and keep everyone moving. Pushing others made it easier to continue forward, herself. Lian had already been in poor shape, and her condition had deteriorated rapidly on the hard journey.
She refused to think about what had happened just yet, staving off her emotions and thoughts until they had found a safe spot and she could process it all. The quiet bundle on her back was a constant reminder, however, of what had happened. For all the joy such a child should have brought, the increased difficulty of their situation only delivered a quiet dread.
The grievously injured that could no longer walk were left on the sides of the tunnels, few willing to waste the strength to carry them. Those that did stay to carry and assist soon fell behind, themselves. Although it was hard for Elif to just pass by them, her supplies were limited and she knew she couldn't waste them on those that would not be able to keep up.
It was the hardest thing she had ever had to do and it became harder for her to remain hopeful. She knew the supplies were dwindling, as the rationing had gotten tighter, and every person that slowed and moved to the edge of the cavern made her steps a little harder. Reminding herself her first responsibility was to her sister's child, Elif began to move farther up the column so that she would not have to watch the disturbing number of stragglers increase.
They walked, and walked, days passing without notice as time blurred together. The flow of walking and stopping for the night had blended together until there was no difference from one night to the next, and were it not for the occasional struggle by An'jhi in her bundle, she might have remained in a numbed trance for most of it. She couldn't recall how far they'd walked and she wasn't sure what day it was when she noticed someone leave the column ahead of her, move to the tunnel wall, and lay down.
She found herself focusing on the individual with a growing intensity, unable to look away. She felt there was little choice for her, as she did not want to watch another person give up when there might be a chance to save. Elif didn't know how much more she could possibly take, but she didn't want to take any more; she could only deny her physician's nature so much.
As she started to leave the crowd to approach the male, she picked up the pace just in time to see another refugee break from the group ahead to move to the figure's side. She watched as the now-prone male shooed the blue-haired would-be helper away, but she overheard his words, the tone and cadence so familiar it threatened to break her heart.
"Don't touch me, Oru. Go. Keep walking."
For one brilliant, shining, unreasonable moment her heart soared at the recognition of Shiir's voice. Another she knew had survived! But her excitement was quickly doused as a mass of bitter realizations swarmed back into her thoughts; she now knew the fate of her sister's mate, but days too late, after Lian had already passed on. The irony of it twisted her inside, but she refused to acknowledge it; time enough to dwell on it some other century.
"Lian," she whispered, weakly, the sound of her pathetic, tired voice stopping her dead in her tracks. She could feel the tears wanting to spring to her eyes, but she reigned in her emotions fiercely; she would not allow them to take hold of her, not here. Not yet.
Fatigue and shock, she rebuked her near-loss of control with disgust, brushing aside the sorrow and despair that welled up and threatened to make her cry, blinking back the moisture that gathered. The time for mourning would come later, and she would be strong until then; for now, she replaced her hurt with anger, directing it at Shiir for having threatened her tenuous control over her emotions. She stalked closer until she came alongside the prone form and stopped, looking down at him.
"Shiir'fhayah." Elif said sharply, hands settling on her hips. "Get up."
The male had a good portion of his exposed skin covered in bandages encrusted with dried blood and cracked open his one uncovered eye to look at her. It took a moment before he could focus his malachite gaze on her face, but when he did, he simply snorted.
"Shove off, Elif." He growled at her, "I'm done."
"Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself," she countered, dismissively, "we've all lost everything, but we're still moving. Mourn later, we have to walk right now; I think we've still got a ways before we can stop for the night. Get up, before I stick my boot someplace very uncomfortable for you."
Shiir turned his eye toward the ceiling with a slow exhale, his entire frame seeming to deflate. He hadn't even bothered to argue, a fact which doused her anger with concern. Her physician's instincts kicking in, she knelt at his side and placed the back of her hand to his cheek: It was burning up. She opened her mouth, but no words could come out.
"Yeah. M'in bad shape." He said, quietly. "Couple of wounds are infected. I'm... m'dizzy and it's hard to walk. Let someone else take my food, Elif, I'm not worth it. Just keep walking."
She stared at him mutely, only the sound of shuffling feet behind her making her aware that time was passing at all. Her heart shrieked in frustration at his words as she watched his eye close and his breathing slow, as she watched him give up. Shiir, who'd been so proud, who'd always tried so hard to prove he was at least a woman's equal. Who was one of two things resembling family she had left, and who was now trying to leave her. She shifted the harness holding her infant niece so that it slung across her front and reached for the male.
"No," Elif said finally, grabbing his arm, "no, I won't."
Shiir grunted as she pulled him to a sitting position, hooking his arm over her shoulder. "Damn it, you moron, let me down." He protested weakly as she hauled him to his feet. "Let me die; I've earned it." In response, she shoved her knuckles into his ribs, letting his arguments get swallowed by his gasp of pain. "No, I won't," she replied, lowly and for his ears only, "I won't watch you give up when there's a chance you can go on. I won't let you get out of this so easily. You're a soldier and soldiers fight, so do your job and start fighting."
She stubbornly took a step, the extra weight she supported making it an awkward, shuffling thing. Growling through clenched teeth, she leaned close to his ear. "Pick up your goddessdamned feet, you worthless piece of lizard crap. Start. Walking."
Whether her sudden and colorful invectives surprised him, he made no outward signs, unresponsive for several moments. Then, almost without warning he took a deep breath, lifted a foot and set it down, putting as much weight as he could on it. Then, he claimed a second step. And then, a third.
On the forth step, they started walking together, shuffling along until they had reached the pace of the column once again. Shiir gazed unfocusedly at the floor before them, not noticing the bundle attached to her. With sweat dripping down his feverish face and staining the bandages further, quirked his lips in a cross between a grimace and a smile and, even though it pained him, chuckled.
"You're somethin' else, Elif... next time, just let me die."
"Mhm." She sighed flatly. "That'll happen."
The invective Elif wanted to let out would have been at such a volume and level of vehemence that heads would have turned almost half a kilometer away. Were it not for the fact that baby An'jhali was sleeping, she would have done so.
Once they'd finally stopped for the night, it had taken her nearly half an hour to remove the bandages from Shiir, using water to keep the cloths from pulling scabs away and breaking open the wounds. Ultimately, however, it proved to be a pointless endeavor; most of the male's wounds were swollen and his skin was a ruddy tone. Hot to the touch and very tender, not to mention seeping fluid and pus, Shiir's wounds had Elif seriously worried that her sister's mate would not be pulling through this, though she was careful to keep that worry buried deep where he couldn't see.
"This is your fault, and I blame you." She muttered under her breath as she dug through the medical supplies from her scavenged belongings, "I can guarantee you only rinsed these wounds off and bandaged them, letting others get properly mended first until there was nothing left for you."
"Guilty." He said, weakly, which only made her give an exasperated sigh. "Well, I can't sew anything closed until the infection goes down. I'm going to drain them and re-bind them." She didn't mention that she didn't have enough supplies for all of his injuries, but he seemed to pick up on the fact, regardless.
"I've seen enough injuries to know it doesn't look good." Shiir said in another moment of quiet seriousness. "And you can't ask an empath to help; infections are the most dangerous type of wound for them. I'm going to say it again: Don't waste your medicine on me, Elif. Let me go."
"Shut up, idiot," she barked, using annoyance to hide her fear, "I didn't ask for your medical opinion and I don't need it." As gruff as her rebuffing of his assessment was - and as true as she knew it to be - a big part of her didn't want to let the male go. Even though he was no relation by blood, he had been her sister's mate, and her sister loved him, hadn't given up on finding him. Even as Lian died, she wished only to find Shiir.
Ignoring his grunts of pain, she applied pressure to his injuries to push the bad fluids from them, wiping them away and irrigating the wounds with clean water. When they were as drained as she could get them, she applied what poultices and tinctures she had salvaged before bandaging him again.
He had passed out from exhaustion and fever by the time she'd finished, and she let him sleep. She draped her own blanket over him, strained to see that his injuries were already seeping through the bandages again. Deeply sad but unable to keep it from showing, she got up to get some food from the camp supplies and forced herself to eat it so that she could, in turn, feed her niece.
Claiming something light to feed Shiir if he woke up, she returned to his side, only to find him shivering beneath the blankets. Chills were a hopeful sign that his body was fighting, but she needed to keep him warmer, still. Without hesitation, she slipped beneath the blanket and pushed close, using her own body heat to warm him while she kept An'jhi in her arms.
Elif tried to force herself to stay awake through his crisis night, knowing that he would either overcome the infection or he would die. She didn't want to fall asleep and wake up with a corpse, but she was so exhausted that sleep came to claim her before she could put up a struggle.
It was a black, dreamless sleep she endured before she jerked awake with a start as the baby began to fuss and cry, hungry and in need of attention. Momentarily she had gathered her wits enough to recall the events of the previous night and immediately placed her fingers to Shiir's throat.
A wave of relief washed over her as she felt his pulse, strong and steady, his skin just slightly warm to the touch. It was obvious he'd been sweating through the night, but his skin was a healthy tone and his breathing wasn't labored. Carefully, she took one arm and soaked the bandage, unwrapping it to look at the long cuts on his forearm; though they were still swollen, they looked markedly better. When the stubborn male opened his eyes, she actually smiled at him.
"Hey, look, the idiot is awake. How are you feeling?"
He managed a pained grunt in reply that could only mean one thing. For the first time since that fated day, she actually managed a small giggle. "Welcome back, Shiir."
She lifted the bundle in her arms so that he could see the small face.
"There's someone I think you should meet."