5. Aftershock
(After the Fall)

The sun was cresting the tops of the trees, its cold presence only half-reassuring. Heidi was dead on her feet, moving forward only because it seemed her legs couldn't stop. And she feared if they did, they wouldn't move again. Alec was behind her, his pace only slightly slower, his face ashen. They didn't speak. 

The twigs beneath her feet snapped with the sound of gunshots, and every wheezing breath sounded like screaming. She was shaking - she hadn't stopped. There was blood on her arms and across her T-shirt. Alec had zipped a jacket over it, but she could feel it clinging to her skin. 

Up ahead, she could see a break in the trees where the sun, still too low to provide warmth, flooded over it. For the first time in hours, she reached behind her to take Alec's hand. They towed forward together until her toes pushed against the edge. It seemed as good a place as ever to rest. 

"We shouldn't." 

Her eyes flicked over to Alec, trying to avoid the ugly smear of blood over his collar bone. 

"I don't think I can keep going, Alec." Was that her voice? She sounded so small. 

He gave her a sympathetic half-smile, squeezing her hand gently. She could feel her legs shaking already, prepared to drop to the ground for a few hours. The steady robotic movement from before was incomprehensible to her now. How did he expect her to keep going? Bitterness gurgled in her lungs - she had been distraught, terrified, exhausted. How did he expect her to do this? 

"Heidi," he said, voice soft as he stepped quietly toward her. She had the brief urge to step away. Catching her arms, he ducked his head to peer at her face. "We can't stop. They'll be all over this place in an hour. If we don't keep going-" 

She shrugged away from his hands, turning her face away to look again at the cleared area. It was longing that filled her chest as she stepped around Alec and walked on through the trees, silent acquiescence crowding into the space she left behind. She ignored his quiet sigh as he followed.

It was midday by the time Alec allowed them to pause for a half hour, settling into the cover of a gutter where the soil had been pulled away in the wall to form a shallow hollow. Her legs ached. 

"Eat." He nudged a mixture of nuts into her cupped palms. She didn't feel hungry. "Heidi." Popping a few into her mouth, she made herself chew and swallow. She didn't feel anything at all. Her eyes roved over Alec. He was disheveled and dirty, and his face was still pale, but he was carefully controlled. Everything about him screamed composed. If it hadn't been for the blood, she would have believed they were just out practicing. 

Her gaze fell to her own arms. The water hadn't reach past mid-forearm, and she felt her stomach turn. Eyes burning, she pushed the rest of the nuts into her mouth and reached for her water bottle. 

"Wait." Alec reached across her, pulling the item away from her and holding it delicately in both palms. "We have to conserve water - we don't know when we'll be able to get some more. And it's not necessary-" 

She saw him glance down at her arms. His cheeks became paler, and she felt he might have been holding his breath. When he looked away, the tiny sting in her chest baffled her. Only when he refused to look at her again did she realize why. 

Snatching the bottle back, she pulled a dishcloth out from the bottom of her bag and splashed water over it. Part of her wanted to get up and move somewhere else, sourness at the back of her mouth, but there was nowhere for her to go. And she knew it was childish. So she set about carefully scrubbing the red from her skin.

She didn't bother keeping the rag, and buried it instead. Wiping her damp fingers on the leggings she'd fallen asleep in, she leaned back into the hollow and closed her eyes. Exhaustion washed over her in waves, short doses that made her sink further and further into half-sleep. She was vaguely aware of Alec searching through his pack, and managed to drag her eyes open to see that he was changing into cargo pants and a dark shirt. Her eyes slide shut again before she could register being embarrassed at catching him naked. 

He let her sleep until it was time to go. Her eyelids felt sticky, and she was sluggish. Everything felt heavy and acrid, her nose burning and her mouth dry. 

"Can't we just stay?" She mumbled even as she changed her own clothes. Alec, back turned dutifully to her, shook his head. 

"You know we can't." 

She grumbled, incoherent, and dragged her hair back into a ponytail. He helped her shrug the heavy pack back onto her shoulders, and she clipped him into his. She paused a moment too along at the chest strap, her eyes drawn to the muddied red color. His breath ruffled the flyaway hairs on top of her head, and she felt his hands come up to cup her elbows. 

"Heidi," he said. A shudder rippled through her, and she shut her eyes to try and block it all out. She needed to forget. She needed desperately to let the past 24 hours go, or she feared she wouldn't make it to sundown. Sniffing, she nodded. 

"Okay." And again. "Okay." 

They moved off in silence, trusting Alec to get them to the highway one town over. She tried to ignore the feeling that they were exposed and vulnerable, unprotected in the shade of the trees. For all they knew, they were heading straight into a war zone. 

The End

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