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If Kate thinks about it, she might consider it disturbing that her life in captivity now has its own default setting for what's considered normal. It could be unsettling, but that's slowly becoming the state of things. Everything is going back to normal. Evolving, even.

All the small simple parts of their routine are habit now. And it is very much their routine. So many moments in Kate's day are now occupied with Juliet.

They clean together. Kate kneels to scrub the coffee table while Juliet cleans spills from the oven range. They share laundry duty and it doesn't even occur to Kate to be embarrassed when Juliet folds her underwear and hangs her bras to dry.

They cook together side by side. Kate is learning how to cook, but she still isn't trusted with the knives. Even now, when she feels herself becoming so docile, it's reassuring in some small way to know that they are still on uneven footing. Kate is still seen as a threat, a potential flight risk.

And though the fire in Kate's chest might feel as though it's already burning low, Juliet still sees it there inside her somehow. It's a feeling like waking from the dead.

So Kate asks again, "Are you sure? Really, I don't mind," and smiles at being denied.

*

They make a nice casserole when Alex comes by for dinner. Nothing fancy, but everyone enjoys the meal and Alex is very eager for seconds.

"How's your dad doing?"

Kate has noticed that when Alex begins to visit them more and more, Ben is often nowhere to be seen. Not just avoiding Juliet, but gone. Distracted. Probably up to something. Plotting. That's what wicked people do, right?

Apparently Juliet's noticed it too. "Has he been keeping himself busy?"

"How should I know?" Alex responds with the precise clipped staccato of a teenager about to deliver a piece of her mind that's been prepared well in advance. "Nobody tells me anything." She takes a bite, chewing with purpose. "That's how come I had to find Karl all by myself."

Juliet's fork stops midway to her mouth, which is a pretty sure sign that whoever that is must be important. This is a Big Deal.

Kate wishes she had even the slightest clue what they're talking about.

Alex taps her fork against her plate, like the impatient drumming of a finger.

"Oh?" Juliet looks at the fork and then at Alex's face. "And how is Karl?"

"We didn't exactly have a heart to heart."

Kate is starting to wonder if they've forgotten she's even there. That happens sometimes now. Maybe even worse than the possibility of becoming one of them is the reality that right now they sometimes treat her as something less than human -- like a small child or animal in the corner of the room -- too simple to comprehend. She might consider being outraged, but better to just spy instead.

So Kate barely dares to breathe in the silence that ensues, with Juliet and Alex both sizing each other up.

It's Alex who eventually breaks the stalemate. "You knew about it, didn't you?"

"How about you tell me what you know, Alex, and I'll tell you if I know it too."

"They're torturing him." Okay, so that gets Kate's attention. If this were someone else, like say Ben or Juliet, she might think this was an attempt at manipulation but Alex isn't very good at subtle or coercive. She does things very direct.

Unlike Juliet, who right now is smiling a smile so thin it's damn near transparent. "It's not torture, Alex. We don't do torture."

Kate forgets herself long enough to laugh, and both sets of eyes shift in her direction. Well damn. "I guess I don't necessarily agree with your assessment," is all she says, hoping that will be enough for them to accept and go back to forgetting that she's here.

Too much to ask for. Juliet gives another one of her practiced smiles that doesn't touch her eyes, both of which remain disengaged from any part of the emotion, saying, "Well, I'm so glad you appreciate my hospitality and all I've done for you." She returns to her meal in earnest, without looking back at Kate.

It worries Kate how much that smile unsettles her. When Juliet vacates her own expression that like, Kate can't help but wonder: where does she go?

But even more of a pressing concern is the fact that Alex's eyes are still on her, studying. Kate knows that look.

Alex is hatching a plan and Kate should be very afraid.

*

It's a day and a half later before Alex catches Kate alone. By now Kate is actually sometimes allowed outside on her own. She tends the garden and even chipped in when a few of the others decided to repair Juliet's neighbor's roof.

But then the guy tried to give Kate a friendly pat on the ass to show his appreciation and Kate almost broke his fingers. Juliet says it was only a sprain, though.

Not from lack of trying.

Today she's pulling weeds as punishment, which feels a whole lot like when she's just doing regular gardening as a part of her normal chores except that instead of sticking to Juliet's house she's doing about half the compound. This particular route actually takes Kate all the way around to the back and close to the tree-line. That way is only jungle, dense and inviting. In the other direction she can just barely make out those big electronic pillars they use as a boundary.

Kate couldn't say exactly how those things work. The most she knows is that the first time they let her outside she made a break for it across those fields when no one seemed to be looking.

She should have caught a clue from the fact that nobody bothered to chase her.

All she really remembers after crossing that line and twitching in the dirt is Juliet's face hovering over her. Kate was back at her place -- or their place maybe -- and at least alive. Juliet looked so tragically disappointed and Kate got put on weed pulling duty for a week.

So for now she makes do with weed work. At least it allows her time to think.

Finally away from Juliet's watchful eyes for a few hours, she takes a break in the shade of the house that happens to be closest. Kate picks a spot directly beneath a window to best hide herself from the view of anyone who happens to look out when passing by.

This doesn't really work out when the person in question is climbing out the window ass first and steps directly on Kate's shoulders and head instead of the grass. "The fu--!" Kate crumples onto her side, taking whoever it is down with her.

"Oh god."

Oh god is right. Kate knows that voice and she recognizes those shoes bumping against her chin. "Alex?" She straightens up and pats at the teenager's legs, checking for any damage. "Are you okay?"

"... wounded ego," Alex mumbles from her position on her back, blinking upward. "Otherwise I'm good, I think."

Kate's nose is bruised and her jaw feels sore, but they both could be a lot worse. She stands and offers Alex her hand, squinting at the building behind them. "How did I not know you and Ben live here?"

"Beats me." Alex looks at Kate and folds her arms over her chest. She has so much teenage defiance she's willing to spare some for almost any occasion. "For someone so observant, you do a hell of a job not noticing things that don't affect you directly, I guess."

It's damn annoying to have a kid act so smug and superior, but even worse when she's probably right.

"Come on."

Just like that Alex is marching toward the jungle, only stopping at the edge to gesture for Kate to follow.

"What?"

Alex sighs. "Like I said: come on, follow me." She doesn't get the response she wants quickly enough and adds; "You were who I was looking for anyway."

That at least triggers Kate's curiosity and so, with one last cursory glance at their surroundings to make sure no one is watching, she follows Alex into the underbrush.

They walk a while before Alex turns to look at Kate while she speaks, still walking backward without faltering. "I want your help rescuing Karl."

Kate stops walking. "What?"

Reluctantly, Alex stops too. "My boyfriend. Karl."

She can't help but snort. Kate's heard the kid mooning over her missing boyfriend before, but she didn't expect that to be the same Karl that made Juliet so tense at dinner. All this fuss over a guy?

"No way."

"But Juliet trusts you."

The thought's pretty ridiculous, actually, and Kate looks incredulous. And maybe a little bit unsettled. "Juliet doesn't trust me to not put my clothes on backward."

"You're a part of the community now."

"I--" Kate wants to argue, but isn't sure that she can. She's not even sure she knows what makes up a community. You don't have to belong to be stuck together.

"Does she even lock the door anymore?"

Kate can't remember the last time she's certain she heard the bolt slide in place. She used to listen for it nightly, anticipating the moment Juliet would make a mistake. Now she finds herself lying stiff and still in bed, afraid to test her luck.

She doesn't know where she would run to anymore. All roads seem to lead back here. Kate wouldn't think of herself as discouraged or surrendering. She's just been waiting for her moment. Maturing. She's learned patience.

So why can't she look Alex in the eye and give her a straight answer?

"Doesn't that make you mad?" Alex purses her lips and kicks a pebble at her feet. "They only do it because you're a girl," she says, and okay, now Kate's pretty sure Alex is just projecting with that part. "Do you think they would have ever let your boyfriend out of that cage by choice?"

She means Sawyer, and suddenly Kate can see him as clear as if he was standing there, foliage tickling his feet. He was so restless in his confinement, but unbroken and unbending. She remembers how he smiled as the sunlight lit up his face, kissing her while they shouted and the world fell apart. With his mouth and his hands, he spoke only defiance, even as Juliet looked on.

Kate stops walking, this time all on her own. The way the sunlight streaks through the trees makes her squint until she looks down, studying the dirt. "So," she says, poking a rock with her shoe and turning it over to see the worms underneath. "Tell me you've got some kind of plan at least."

"Oh!" Alex grabs Kate's arm and pulls her into a close embrace. Sometimes she is such a normal teenager that she almost seems out of place in her given surroundings. "Oh, Kate."

The hug is maybe too strong, going on too long, and Kate tries to gently pry Alex's arms from around her. Kid's much stronger than she looks, though. "Hey, uh. Don't worry." Kate tries to pat awkwardly at Alex's arm but misses and ends up only rubbing at her elbow. "We'll get your boyfriend. Don't worry."

 

* *

Despite herself, Juliet is starting to feel kind of proud of Kate.

She's integrating well and keeping to a steady pace. The progress surprises Ben; he says as much, and sometimes Juliet even thinks that he may be disappointed that more drastic measures weren't required.

"Austen seems to be doing rather well," he'll say with the same tone of voice you'd expect from a child who's snow day spent at home has been cancelled. It's a nice thought, imagining him with so many plans gone to waste.

All Kate needs to do is keep behaving a little longer. The rest of them just need time to adjust to her, and she'll be past most of the severe reprisals.

It just takes time. Kate can be pretty off-putting at first brush, after all. Juliet knows better than anyone.

"Feet down," Juliet still has to say when she catches Kate propping her feet against the coffee table on a lazy hot day. "We're not animals."

Sometimes Juliet could swear Kate does these things just to get a rise out of her.

"How would you spend your day if I didn't give you these little things to feel superior about?" she'll say, shifting her feet to the end of the sofa so that Juliet has nowhere to sit. "You'd be so bored."

"You know what? I give up."

"Don't I wish."

But it's about the little things when it comes to Kate.

She volunteers to do the dishes without having to be asked. That's how she learned about the problem with the plumbing that traces back to the pipe outside. Kate spends a whole afternoon on her back with tools laid out around her.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

"Are you sure you need to ask for a fifth time?" Kate grunts with the strain of twisting something that Juliet could have sworn she'd already turned in the other direction a half hour before. "I promise not to break your house."

Under other circumstances, Juliet might want to comment on the reliability of a promise from a criminal but it doesn't seem very fair what with Kate doing her a favor.

Instead she brings lemonade to the porch and forces Kate to stop working long enough to enjoy it in the shade. Kate gulps a lot when she drinks and swipes her hand over her mouth. She pants and sighs, squints and stretches.

She laughs, looking down at herself, and says, "Taking care of you is a dirty job."

"You're not sitting on the sofa looking like that," Juliet says, though she smiles.

Later she lays a towel down to keep the cushions safe until Kate has time to wash. It seems like the least she can do and Kate smiles in a way that actually seems grateful, though she doesn't say anything.

You have to learn to be observant with Kate. Verbal communication isn't exactly her strongest area.

 

* *

It's only once they're halfway across the water in Alex's boat that it occurs to Kate that they possibly should have talked things through a little further. Most of their planning had to do with getting Kate out of the house without Juliet noticing. That was easier than she had guessed it would be.

The door really isn't locked anymore, and Kate has spent so much time in those rooms that she knows every squeaky floorboard. She and Alex planned to meet at the line of trees, close to where Alex lives.

Kate knows where that is now. From there it was a walk in the darkness to where Alex keeps her boat.

"You have a boat?" Kate had asked, but with limited enthusiasm. She's starting to not feel surprised by how many secrets every one of the Others has. "I guess your dad doesn't know about this."

The look Alex gave her was the kind usually reserved for only the dumbest of adult statements. And fair enough.

But now they're nearly at the second island and Kate's starting to worry. She had to wait longer than she'd planned for Juliet to go to bed and the walk through the forest was slowed by leaving a few dummy trails to throw anyone who might have followed. They're far behind schedule and sunrise is only two hours away.

They have to hurry.

*

By the time they reach the right building, the sun is already up. Normally this would be the time to ditch the old plan and come up with a new one, so guess it's lucky they never had one to begin with.

"That's the only place I haven't searched yet. He's got to be in there."

And it just keeps getting better and better. "You don't know he's even there?" Kate's eyes are two sizes too big and if she weren't already in doubt of Alex's mental capabilities she might feel compelled to smack her upside the head. "You said you found him."

"I narrowed it down."

Kate closes her eyes. Counts to ten. "Okay," she says, steadying herself. "Where's your gun?"

"Fifteen, remember? Why didn't you grab Juliet's?"

Meaning the gun that Juliet keeps near the bed where she sleeps. "Because I didn't want her to wake up and shoot me with it."

Kate is really beginning to worry that Alex might not have thought this through at all.

 

* *

Kate had been doing so well. She'd been making so much progress, both within herself and with the people around her. She'd come so far and now this.

Most disappointing of all is when Juliet realizes that she cares about what becomes of Kate. She feels hurt and genuinely let down.

Well, this is new.

They're keeping her in the cages again, though for now she's still dressed in a pair of Juliet's jeans and one of her shirts. There are dirt smears all over and a small stain that looks like blood. But Kate looks more bored than afraid, almost defiant, until she sees Juliet coming toward her.

Suddenly Kate is on her feet, startled. She takes an unconscious step back and swallows, licking chapped lips.

"Oh, Kate."

Kate doesn't want pity or probably even sympathy. Juliet can't say she blames her; she doesn't want those things either, and is even less interested in feeling them for Kate Austen of all people. Yet here they are.

Kate doesn't look ready to reply. She doesn't look ready for any of this. She's overwhelmed and hiding it even less than usual, so Juliet picks up the slack; "You want to tell me what happened?"

"Don't I get to see my lawyer first?"

The smart ass response is almost a relief. It means she's still Kate in there. "I'm the best defense you're going to get right now, Kate. So I'd recommend you talk to me."

"Guess I'm pretty screwed then, huh?" Kate murmurs, but draws closer to the side of the cage.

Juliet loops her fingers around the bars, just holding on. "Did you hurt anyone?"

"What?" Kate looks surprised, almost insulted. "No." But then she seems to think better of it, adding, "That kid Aldo might have a headache, though."

It's pretty unlikely that Aldo told Kate his name while being knocked unconscious. That confirms what Juliet already suspected. "Kate, who were you helping?"

Kate's eyes shift past her and Juliet doesn't have to turn herself to know that Kate is staring at the camera. "Nobody," she says, eyes moving back to meet Juliet's. "All my idea."

Juliet can't help but smile at that. Kate is such a terrible liar.

But maybe Ben doesn't know that yet, and Juliet doesn't plan to help him work it out. "Okay," is all she'll say. "So what now?"

Kate draws even closer, until their faces are inches apart. "You tell me."

"Well--" Juliet has to stop, steadying herself when Kate's fingers graze across her own. She wasn't expecting that. "Um, I don't know. They aren't going to let me take you home tonight."

"Home," Kate repeats, her voice low but steady.

It's strange. If Juliet didn't know better, she would describe the look on Kate's face as homesick.

"But I'll try."

Kate swallows and retreats back to the distant wall of the cage. "Right."

 

* *

After her first full night back in the cage, Tom comes to visit Kate with a bucket and sponge.

"What? No dress this time?"

He snorts. "Juliet dropped by with another shirt for you, if you want to change. Bit lighter." He drops the sponge into the bucket and kicks it toward the bars, sending water sloshing over the sides. "Might be a good idea with this heat."

From experience Kate knows that just about every day on the island feels as hot as another, but apparently living under a roof has her going soft. Today the sun is really getting to her.

Not to mention the crick in her back.

Kate stands slowly, feeling stiff all over. She'd forgotten how amazing a night spent on cement can feel. Like how it's amazing that she can walk without groaning.

"Tom, can you turn your back?"

He gives Kate a skeptical look, leaning on the bars. "You think I look stupid today?"

"C'mon, please?"

Tom just sighs and squints off in the other direction, keeping his eyes focused toward the main research facilities and away from Kate.

See, she's learning. Juliet would be so proud.

*

Same rocks, same sun. Same suspicious glances from most of the same Others -- with one or two notable exceptions missing.

Same parched throat and the same sore shoulders. Mostly the same Kate.

After a few hours, she stops to ask for a drink of water. They say shut up and to get back to work. She thinks about socking the guy in the face and just taking the water. She thinks about his gun right there in the open on the table. Kate could ram the butt of his rifle into his jaw with one quick movement, just like she did with Aldo the day before.

She thinks of the promise of going home to Juliet's tonight where a warm meal and secure bed wait and, with barely suppressed rage trembling in her voice, she says, "Please?"

Juliet would probably be proud, even if Kate is starting to wonder she herself would be capable of feeling pride anymore.

 

* *

When Kate comes home at the end of the day, she is uncharacteristically quiet. She crumples onto the sofa and doesn't move again until the food is ready.

While it should be a welcome relief, Juliet finds herself missing the sarcastic comments and asides. She feels the loss of a second pair of hands when preparing the meals, but decides to give Kate the opportunity to rest.

"Come on," she says gently, shaking Kate's shoulder to rouse her. "Dinner's ready."

*

"Austen is getting to be a problem," Ben says, and his eyes drift across the doorway to the bedroom where Kate sleeps.

"You think so?"

"And you don't?" Ben draws closer to the door, peering inside. His eyes move quickly, skimming over objects as if taking an inventory. "Typical."

"Of what?"

"You, Juliet. You're very soft when it comes to certain people."

Juliet tries to scoff, to sound properly indignant, but that look Ben gives her makes the sound die away quickly in her throat.

"I'm not sure you're the right woman for the job anymore."

Ben has a plan. It's obvious. What it is or how long before he sets it in motion isn't clear yet, but it's unlikely that he'll let Juliet stand in his way. He never has before.

She looks down, sees the second hand ticking on her watch. It's evening. Kate will be home soon. "She's started to trust me. I thought that's what you wanted."

"What I want, Juliet, is her obedience." He draws closer, blinking up at her. "She does trust you. You're right about that. Trusts you to have her back when she's caught breaking the rules."

He's still building up and she wishes he'd just get to the point.

"You're like her mother, Juliet." More blinking. "Or something worse."

"So what do you suggest?"

Ben blinks and shifts this time, as if waking up from somewhere deep inside his own thoughts. He looks out Kate's window at the darkening sky. "Room 23."

Room 23. Juliet remembers the first time Ben showed it to her. Protein drip and padlocks. Three speakers on every wall. Flashing lights and insulated walls. No one to hear you scream.

"It's about showing them their full potential," he had said. "Opening people up to a better identity."

Kate would have seen it when she helped Alex free Karl. Juliet wonders how much it must be frightening her now to know that she might be next. "You really think that's necessary for Austen?"

Ben doesn't respond. He eyes Kate's things spread out on her dresser. Her comb and tooth brush.

"Does she frighten you that much?"

He picks up a book and thumbs through it before setting it off to the side next to the handcuffs.

"Ben--"

"What frightens me, Juliet, is that you don't think it's necessary."

When he turns to look at her again, Juliet tries to hold his gaze but flinches. She looks away. "I just think it's a waste of resources. But you do what you want." She checks her watch again.

It's getting so late. Kate could be here any minute.

"Resources?"

"She's already broken, Ben. We should be making use of her now, not wasting more time." Juliet feels her lips purse together, a comfortably superior expression. She's become very good at using it over the past three years. It feels safe. "And besides that," she adds; "Don't you usually need a brain to be brainwashed?"

That big empty room. She knows Ben must miss having his human toy to play with.

But then he smiles his small and sour smile. His lips pucker and his eyes narrow. This is Ben's most genuine display of amusement. The wide friendly grin is just for show; this is real.

It's a good sign.

"Alright," he says. "I'll give her a few more days breaking rocks and then she and I are going to have a nice long chat about her friends on the beach."

Oh, that'll go over well.

 

* *

Kate is getting stronger every day. It isn't only physical, either. She feels it mentally too. A resilience. She's learning not to let her emotions get the best of her in every situation.

Now she gets overly emotional only some of the time.

They actually have weekends now. Kate isn't the only one breaking up rocks, and the guards put on duty to watch over all of those working look forward to their days of rest. That means Kate gets a day or two to herself too, but instead of spending it resting up on the sofa she decides to channel that energy.

They're having another football game out on the grass, but Alex isn't there this time. Nobody claims to have seen her since that morning and maybe Kate would start to worry if she didn't figure Alex is probably better off. Lucky.

With some players missing, there are new ones Kate hasn't faced before. Aldo is there too. Him she knows.

He smiles at her, almost as if he doesn't recognize her, but Kate doesn't buy that for a second. His forced kindness is even more unsettling than if he would just show anger. Anger is a normal reaction. This is something else.

"Hey, Austen. Head in the game."

"Right," she says, turning back to her own team's huddle. "Sorry."

Whoever Kate happens to be paired up with usually values her as a player. She's tough and unrelenting. She likes the physicality of it. In fact, the games have only gotten more aggressive since Kate started joining in. People come away now with bruises, blood stains on the grass.

Sometimes it's even Kate's blood.

She gets hit from behind after tossing off the ball. His name is Danny and Kate recognizes him too. He's slow to get off her, letting the pressure of one knee dig into her lower back until Kate begins to groan, gasping in the grass. Her chest feels tight. She can't fucking breathe.

And then he's up, jogging off. His expression is dark and pinched in but he doesn't spare a glance back at her.

Kate remembers him. His wife died. One of them killed her, though she doesn't know who.

"Them" being her own people, of course. Assuming they really still are her people anymore. Hard to know.

*

It's a rougher game than usual. Even Tom complains that it's clear Kate is being targeted for abuse. She spits in the grass and there's a streak of red that comes out with it. 

"Stop giving her the ball if she's too slow to avoid a tackle," says Danny with a casual shrug, running his fingers over the laces on the ball. "It's just a game, Tom. Don't take it so personal."

"Maybe if we want everyone to stay calm, you should sit this one out then, Danny."

He turns at that, emotions already flaring, and Kate moves to step between them. "Look, boys, I'm fine."

"You see?" Danny violently shrugs Kate's hand off his arm. "She's fine. Let's play."

This time Kate doesn't even touch the ball before Danny knocks her from behind, head colliding with the dirt. The air whooshes out from her lungs and the world spins.

Danny's smiling face blinks in and out of focus overhead. He laughs and blows her a kiss.

Enough is enough. Kate's matured, but there are limits and it looks like they just found hers.

"You okay?"

It's Tom asking and Kate just waves him off. She doesn't need the distraction right now, doesn't even notice Juliet standing at the periphery watching. Maybe something like that should give Kate doubts, a moment's hesitation, but as it is she is one hundred percent committed to tackling Danny at the waist.

So maybe he doesn't have the ball this time either. Kate doesn't particularly care.

"You asshole," she spits. And she dodges, almost ready when he takes a swing.

But only almost. The full force misses but he still lands a hit on Kate's ear and she's stunned, shuffling back across the grass. Disoriented. So she doesn't hear the feet behind her on the grass, running closer, until the sound is right on top of her and it's Aldo's boot in her chest.

He's got pretty good aim. Can't throw a football worth a damn, but can sure kick a girl when she's down. Literally. Great big hero.

Kate remembers why she hates these pieces of shit. Her fingers dig in the dirt, scratching over rocks, and she spits blood out in the grass. She's primed and ready, prepared to strike, but not quite fast enough. One more hit to the head and the world goes dark. Lights out.

Sound is what's left to her and it's going softer by the second. Just voices, getting closer. Footsteps. Kate tries to wince, to tell her body to pull away from the next hit she knows is coming, but she can't move. Too much effort.

Better to sleep.

 

* *

Juliet is worried. Here she is in her own home spending her time fretting over Kate Austen for the second time in a week.

"This has to stop," she says to no one, because Kate is still unconscious and everyone else has left.

They had wanted to question her, to get the facts settled quickly, but Juliet told them that they'd be hours waiting and that settled that. No one here cares enough about Kate for that.

Except Juliet who is stuck here with her, waiting and worrying. It makes her angry. Angry with Kate, and angry with herself. When Kate finally starts to wake up, Juliet is ready to yell and to scold. She's ready for the lame attempts at excuses and smug sarcasm.

She isn't ready for Kate's smile, lopsided and small. "... hey." Or how her voice sounds, muffled and wrong. Distorted by the swollen curve of her mouth.

Juliet isn't ready so she stalls, saying, "Don't try to talk, it's alright," and stands to get a compress for Kate's jaw.

*

"Aldo?"

Juliet nods.

"God, that almost hurts worse than--" But then Kate laughs and quickly proves herself wrong. "-- Oh, oh no." She hisses, jaw clenching. "No, this is worse."

Kate's hand draws instinctively to clutch at the pain in her side, but Juliet bats it away.

"Shit--"

"Don't touch. You'll make it worse."

"Worse? There's a worse?"

Juliet can only look on with sympathy. Kate is a patient now, and it's only going to hurt worse before it gets better. "Lay back down," she says, hoping she sounds gentle and convincing instead of demanding. Kate doesn't respond well to directions that are too close to commands. "You need your rest."

"I'm fine," Kate mumbles, though she complies.

She's so strangely agreeable when she's actually helpless for once. It's almost nice.

*

Taking care of Kate has become a full time occupation. Aldo bruised two ribs and Kate can barely move without hissing, whimpering.

The longer she stays stuck in bed, the more drawn out her whining and protests become. Kate Austen does not enjoy captivity, and this is probably the most genuine sense of containment she has ever experienced. Juliet should know. She's read the file.

"Look, you need to sleep. You'll feel better in the morning." That might not be true, not right away, but with every new morning it will come closer to being real.

"I'm not tired. I'm not a child, you don't have to keep treating me like one."

"Apparently I do."

It's strange to Juliet that she still feels patient. She should be furious with Kate, fed up by now. Instead she pulls the covers gently to her chin and flattens them out with her hands. "Look," she says. "I know this isn't easy, but soon, alright? You're getting better. You'll be up soon."

"Great."

Kate's voice isn't distorted anymore. The swelling in her mouth has gone down. Now it's just the same angry line, the same defiant twist and smirk.

There's something to the shape of her mouth, how it hangs almost open, ready with more complaints. Discontent. Juliet thinks of Kate when she smiles. She doesn't know why she cares, but she'd like to see it again.

"Relax," she says, but the way Kate's eyes jerk to her face, suddenly agitated, means she's not having quite the desired effect. Time for a more direct approach.

"How--" Kate is beginning to say, but then Juliet's mouth is against hers, catching the sound. Kate's jaw doesn't relax at all either, it stays tensed, halfway through the word.

Her mouth tastes sour after the days spent in bed, but it's soft despite her chapped lips. At first there's no response, lips limp but compliant, but then Juliet feels Kate's tongue darting out to touch her own.

She feels it and both their breathing changes. Juliet smiles to herself and breaks away. Kate's mouth is still hanging half-open, as if suspended in movement and time.

"Is that what you were looking for?" Juliet says in a teasing whisper.

Kate's mouth is redder than Juliet remembers seeing it before. The purple bruise across her jaw makes the rest of her pale skin seem almost translucent, like a sheet of paper.

That is except for the rising flush spreading over Kate's cheeks. That's something new. Juliet reaches out to touch it, one finger grazing over a still sore spot and then pulling back quickly when Kate winces.

But that's the only movement from Kate. She is still except for blinking.

"Go to sleep now," Juliet whispers, rising to shut off the light. But she can still see the moon lighting up Kate's face and the eyes that follow her movement in the dark.

 

* *

Juliet sleeps curled on her side with the curve of one leg drawn up toward her chest. She seems peaceful, sleeping soundly, and from her place in the doorway Kate can't help but feel a pang of jealousy.

She's never seen Juliet's bedroom before. Kate isn't sure what she expected, but it seems strange to find everything so normal. Juliet even has photographs, snapshots of Juliet and another woman, arms around each other and both smiling.

There's someone out there that Juliet considers important enough to be worth remembering. That makes her more normal than Kate.

Except for the gun. The gun on the night stand is somewhat exceptional. Kate finds it hard to look away from the way the moon glints along the steel in a soft light. Or the glow of Juliet's skin, like a voice whispering.

Kate knows the gesture was meaningless. Just Juliet's belated revenge, getting back at Kate for old assumptions and mistakes. But still, Kate can't sleep.

And here's Juliet, so content, or so it seems. Kate isn't sure why she's here. She thinks she's come with the intention to yell, some kind of confrontation, but the impulse has left. She'd rather leave Juliet to sleep in peace.

But Kate isn't familiar with this side of the house. She's never even stood outside Juliet's door before, and careful as she tries to be her foot hits on a loose floorboard. Juliet is up immediately, drawn into action even before she's fully alert. "Who?" she says, reaching for the night stand, the gun.

Kate can't help but think how glad she is that she never tried to come for it before. "It's me," she says.

"Kate?"

"Who else?"

Good question. For a moment Kate wonders about the other woman in those photographs. For the first time it occurs to her that Juliet has a life beyond these walls, she existed before the island. She is someone Kate still doesn't know, not really.

Kate wonders why she cares.

Juliet's back is stiff. She almost looks afraid, disoriented. Kate wonders how long it's been since Juliet last had someone else inside her bedroom. Her hand hasn't moved yet, fingertips still ready along the edge of the gun.

"You planning to use that?" Kate nods at the weapon, every movement feeling stiff and strange. She feels very aware of every inch of skin, her own and the pale dip of exposed throat at Juliet's shirt collar. The memory of Juliet's mouth is still warm against her own.

"Do I have to?"

"God, I hope not."

Juliet's features are still, frozen. Except her eyes. Her eyes bore into Kate, into and through. She isn't really looking at Kate at all. She sees something past her. Beyond.

It makes the hair on Kate's arms stand on end.

"You can't stay."

"What?"

"Here." Juliet swallows, throat moving slowly. She turns her head and the moon lights up her hair in silhouette. Like a halo. "You can't spend the night here. With me."

Kate had thought she meant something else. She thought Juliet, with her eyes so deep and far away, had meant this house, this community. She thought she was being kicked out for good. To be thrown out instead of escaping on her own, no chance to run on Kate's own terms -- the thought is terrifying. Kate's glad to be wrong and to have further reprieve from analyzing her feelings, the fact that she's even still here at all.

"Oh," is all she says, drawing closer. Juliet's hands are so small. Long fingers but lean, and when she presses them against her temple Kate can't see her eyes. Another step closer.

"Aren't you listening?"

The words come out distorted against the palm of Juliet's hand so Kate speaks louder for the both of them, saying, "I thought you read my file." Her knees brush up against the bedspread. "I don't do stay."

Juliet raises her head, her eyebrows lifting. She's listening, but the rest of her is still. No invitation or concession, only waiting.

They're both so god damn stubborn that Kate wonders what right Juliet thinks she has to act so superior all the time. "Are you going to move?"

Juliet moves her mouth as if to smile, but it only goes halfway there. Her eyes are off somewhere else and the smile can't reach them. "Say please."

Screw her. Kate plants her knees on the edge of the bed and is already pressing herself up against Juliet before it dawns on her to be concerned with the pain in her side. Their lips only manage to flutter briefly together before she gasps and recoils, eyes wide with the shock of it, a pain so vivid and intense that it's surprising every time. "Shit," she wheezes, jaw clenching. Then, "Shit," again.

Juliet sighs and shifts to the side. "You are an infant," she says, but with a smile on her lips. She fluffs the second pillow up and makes room, offers a concession. Kate doesn't want to take it for granted, so she follows.

This time her mouth finds Juliet's jaw. She tastes of sweat and rain. Her mouth tenses and Kate feels the muscles moving, and so she licks just to feel more. Rain and something else. Its' strange but familiar, and Kate wants to know. In all the ways and times she has had to give in, make way, settle, this time she resists. This will be hers. She grabs hold of Juliet, one hand against her cheek, and starts to suck over her pulse.

It feels like a fire directly beneath Kate's tongue, all heat and sparking, building. So that when Juliet groans and forces her mouth on top of Kate's, it's almost not a surprise. Kate could taste it coming, but she gasps anyway.

 

* *

Kate moves awkwardly but constantly. She doesn't even seem to breathe, and clearly she doesn't stop to think. She licks Juliet's throat and fingers the curves of her collarbone.

Her hips feel good underneath Juliet's palms, rough little rising ridges that shift and shudder upon contact. The peaks of her thrusts and the valleys of her sighs and thighs. Juliet's tongue tangles up with Kate's and her fingers worm up underneath the twisting fabric of Kate's shirt.

She feels the bandage crinkle under the slightest touch, and then Kate actually slows. She doesn't move, if only for a moment, only breathing. The sound she makes is incredible, almost animal. It's nothing Juliet has felt before, how her body aches with the sound vibrating over her tongue.

She reaches again, fingers grazing along the waistband of Kate's borrowed pajama bottoms. Even that is too close and Kate gasps this time. She jerks and starts to pull away, but stops on her own. Her mouth is inches from Juliet's and their eyes lock together. For just a moment Juliet wonders if she presses hard enough, could she make this woman beg. What must those eyes look like when Kate surrenders.

But that mouth keeps hanging open, waiting, and Juliet reaches out to touch it with the same hand that inspected Kate's torso so recently. She rubs her thumb across Kate's mouth and feels the slickness of her tongue flick out to meet rough round skin.

"Are you okay?" Juliet says.

Kate swallows and doesn't answer. Her pulse is beating so fast, Juliet can see it in her throat.

"Come on. Lie down."

"I'm fine."

"Don't argue with your doctor." Juliet shifts far enough that Kate's going to have to move anyway if she wants to follow her mouth. She draws around the blankets and makes room for Kate at her side. "Just rest for now."

This time Kate leans more of her weight into the pillow than against Juliet, immediately grateful for the support and moment's rest. She smiles a little, mumbling something softly to herself, and closes her eyes.

Normally Juliet wouldn't allow for this, but there's probably no harm in it just for tonight. If Kate tries anything, Juliet only has to poke her once in the stomach and she'll turn into a whimpering mess. One time isn't going to hurt anything.

*

Juliet wakes up to an empty room.

It's unusual for her to be caught unawares, let alone twice in the span of six hours, and by the same person no less. She's letting her guard down around Kate, which could be a mistake. Juliet thinks that it's good to know this about herself now, to prepare and learn from it.

She makes breakfast barefoot and watches the sunlight through the window. It's still early enough that it's not too hot. Just right. Bacon and eggs with a glass of orange juice, and it's only then that Juliet realizes she hasn't heard Kate yet this morning. Not a sound.

Kate's bedroom is empty and the sheets are cold. The bars are still in place on the window, but her shoes are gone from the corner. Shit. Shit shit shit, Juliet has gotten more than careless, she's become trusting around Kate. Now they'll both end up paying for it.

Juliet dresses quickly, without even one glance in the mirror. She's making a list in her mind, places to look. Anywhere Kate might think to run to or hide. 

She grabs her keys and is halfway out the door when she freezes mid-stride.

"Going somewhere?" Kate uncurls one leg from beneath her, adjusting her position at the edge of the porch, and immediately looks alert.

False alarm then.

But Kate's still looking at her expectantly and Juliet bites her lip to buy some time, making a big show of fussing with the door. "Looking for you, actually." She shakes the hair back from her face with one toss and looks at Kate with a long but even expression. "How long have you been out here?"

She's holding something close to her face, looks like coffee. But instead of drinking, Kate mostly just breathes it in, rubbing her hands against the edge of the cup. "Couldn't sleep," she murmurs, her thumb circling the bottom of the coffee cup.

It's a nice day and the sun is still rising, casting moving shadows on the grass. Kate shifts her legs again, stretching out, and squints up toward the sun. "Am I getting back to the rocks soon?"

"They'll want you to."

As she sips the coffee, Kate's throat constricts. She licks her lips.

Though Juliet doesn't remember taking note of them before, the minor details and gestures seem familiar.

"But as your doctor," Juliet says, clearing her throat; "I would advise against it. There are plenty of other things for you to do on this island that won't create undo strain."

Kate's eyes shift up again. They blink. The look on her face might be gratitude, or it may be something else entirely. Suddenly Kate seems capable of experiencing deeper emotions and it makes her that much harder to read. It's almost as if she's making progress.

Either that, or it's just Juliet regressing.

 

* * 

It takes a while to find a task more severe than tending to weeds but less strenuous than rock hauling. Eventually it's decided that Kate will help repaint the front doors on houses in the barracks.

Ben makes some joke about marking people's doorways when the plague passed through and how that somehow connects to an unlucky visit from Austen, but she isn't listening closely enough to pick up on all of it. Kate's learned that if you ignore Ben's clever comments long enough for him to realize he isn't going to get a rise out of you, he'll retreat to think of more.

It's only after Ben's left that Juliet comes around to join her.

"How're you feeling?"

Kate doesn't answer at first. If she felt up to full disclosure, she'd admit that bending over to dip the brush back into the bucket of paint or straining to reach the top of the door are both far more painful than she'd like.

But that's the kind of thing that feels way too weak and sounds even worse out loud. So instead she squints, nudging the paint bucket lightly with the toe of her shoe and holds off on dipping her brush at all now that Juliet's watching closely. "How long are you going to be babying me?" she says, eyeing the swirls of paint.

"A while," Juliet says, completely matter of fact. She puts her hands on her hips, and it's pretty clear she doesn't intend to leave any time soon.

Eventually, Kate has to resume her work so instead of reaching down she bends her knees, grunting once. In theory this should hurt less, but the pain is still so sharp that Kate clutches one hand to her side while the other dips the paintbrush.

"Does it hurt like that every time?"

Kate grits her teeth and stands again. She swipes the brush against the door a few times before saying, "Yeah," through gritted teeth.

"Then let me help."

Juliet holds out her hand, but Kate only gives it a passing glance and keeps on painting. "Don't you have, I don't know, doctor things to do?"

"You're a patient." Juliet moves in even closer and Kate can smell the shampoo from her hair. "This is me - doing my doctor things." She can smell the sweat on Juliet's skin.

It takes a few careful breaths in and out for Kate's voice to come out sounding even. Level and calm. "Help how?"

Juliet takes the brush and dips it in the can, carefully twisting to allow for the drips of paint to splatter back in the bucket before she straightens again. "Teamwork," she says and reaches up above Kate to stroke the brush at the top of the door.

Standing like this, with her arm raised, Juliet's entire body seems to grow taut. Her muscles stretch against the outline of fabric and it's all Kate can do to pretend not to notice.

*

Kate can hear the faucet running close to her hip but her eyes are only on Juliet, whose own eyes crinkle when she concentrates. She's been fussing ever since they came inside, inspecting Kate carefully for spots of paint, the most prominent of which is a long smear over her cheek.

"You're such a hopeless mess," she says, placing one damp finger against the smudge and rubbing in a small circle.

"That isn't going to work."

Though Kate isn't sure she wants Juliet to stop. She presses Juliet's hand against her cheek using the flat of her palm and smiles as the thumb keeps moving. Soft and slippery, like leaves of lettuce soaked in oil. Kate really is learning a lot about cooking. Like the boiling point for contents under pressure.

Juliet's hand is warm and so is her breath just inches from Kate's face. The sink is still filling with splashing water. It bounces against the curved sides and strikes Kate's thigh. 

It's warm too, like Juliet's mouth as it abruptly presses into Kate's. Her tongue is soft like her hand, fluttering and light as her fingers on Kate's thigh. The water makes Kate shiver and she drifts up into the kiss and the touch. Her toes curl and her heels press against the cupboard under the sink, as if she somehow might be able to lift herself up off the surface and more directly into the kiss. Into and on top of Juliet.

The kiss is more vigorous now, with her hands in Juliet's hair, on Juliet's hip, and the fabric of her shirt is riding higher as their bodies find a way to cling closer together. One leg hooked around the other and mouths fit snuggly, there's a sound in Kate's throat before she can even think or stop it. It's a murmur, low and throbbing, moving in time with her tongue and her teeth as they latch onto Juliet's lower lip.

They break apart and Juliet raises an eyebrow, her usual look of disapproval, but there's a grin there as well. Kate doesn't care. She makes another sound, lower now, and  clutches at Juliet's jaw, tastes the sharp edges of her teeth and around to her ear, her throat, the soft pad of her thumb. They stay this way for the space of several heavy heartbeats.

The sink hasn't filled completely but it is starting to give off steam. Kate can almost smell the heat of it, flinches when Juliet leans and it draws both their bodies closer to the spray. 

She turns it off and touches Kate's face again, stroking hair back from her eyes. "Don't be long," she whispers, and this kiss is fleeting but sweet. As gentle as her quiet laughter against Kate's cheek.

Kate knows she must look stupid, stunned. Eyes wide and blinking slowly, but she smiles anyway, despite herself. Despite everything else. She smiles a slowly drooping smile and clutches hard at the edge of the sink to keep from reaching when Juliet pulls away.

 

* * 

They seem to find each other every night now. It's never planned, but still it happens. Juliet might catch Kate on her way out of the bathroom, take hold of her arm, and press her into the wall. 

It only takes a few kisses and Kate's mouth is swollen and full, like opening petals on a flower. Damp from her tongue, but from Juliet's as well. 

There are none of their daytime limitations once the sun sets. No intrusions or anticipation. She doesn't expect anything from Kate except what they choose to give and take at any given moment. It's simpler this way. It's nice.

Kate arches over her in bed, moonlight ghosting across the angles of her face with her hair in a curtain falling to her shoulders, and she looks wild, vivid. Her mouth is open and her teeth shine brightly, on the verge of laughing. Their hands work across each other's stomachs, drifting high, low, but never too far down. They don't need to lose themselves to find each other.

"You seem so small like this," Kate whispers one night, almost in wonder. She is pressed against Juliet's back with her fingers circling Juliet's wrist, then sliding down to the crook of her elbow. The dip of her hip.

It tickles, but Juliet is determined not to squirm. "Thank you." She smiles. "I think."

"I like it."

Kate's voice is quieter at night. She is smaller too, almost not herself. Much of her swagger seems to disappear along with the daylight and she is much simpler now, easier. Her lip doesn't curl into a sneer when Juliet touches her face. She can run a finger over an eyebrow, across her temple to her jaw, and Kate barely even blinks.

She is patient at night, and alert. They never fall asleep together, never since that first night. Kate always leaves first, a smile ghosting over her lips and disappearing as she steps back into the shadow of the doorway.

"Sweet dreams," she whispers into the room.

Juliet shields her eyes against the darkness, against the fading waving lines of the human form in front of her, and imagines she is already dreaming. "Good night," she murmurs into the empty space of her room.

 

* *

Kate knows about the cameras now, the ones outside the cages, and she wonders if Juliet watched her there. Did she see Kate having sex with Sawyer, naked back arching against the bars and legs spread, wrapped around his hips? She wonders and then abruptly thinks that she should feel shame, or possibly fear. She should be concerned over who else may have seen.

But all she can think of is Juliet's eyes on her now, maybe undressing her, and already knowing every curve. She has seen so much of Kate before, changed so many bandages, but never asked to look at more.

Kate is picturing Juliet naked on the grass, taking her here and now as the wind flutters the sheets just above their heads.

Juliet turns to hang another sheet and her expression is curious, suspicious even. "I don't like that look, Austen." She runs her hands down either side of the current sheet of laundry, straightening it carefully. Kate moves to help her pin it to the line.

Their arms brush against each other and with the next move Kate's hip is pressed firmly against Juliet's.

They are never like this together in public, in places or times that they might be found. It's so dangerous, especially here on the lawn where anyone might step out for a stroll at sunset.

Kate remembers the frenzy of that night spent in the cages, the sweat and need. She closes her eyes against the breeze and can feel the cool sting of the bars against her spine. She lays a palm against Juliet's stomach and can feel the curve of her belly button through her shirt.

"What're you doing?" Juliet hisses rapidly, though she doesn't pull back.

"Helping you," Kate says, fastening another clip to the line while her fingers inch lower in search of that stretch of skin just against Juliet's hip. Kate touches it softly and imagines licking. Her tongue runs across her own lips instead.

Juliet does pull away, elbows pinned tightly at her side to keep hands at bay. "Not here."

But Kate's tired of bars, the barriers and restrictions. There's a smile on her face, a pure feeling of exhilaration, as she reaches to touch Juliet's cheek gently. The pressure draws them closer together, one step at a time, and Kate's voice is light and friendly when she whispers, pressing her tongue to the base of Juliet's throat. "I'll be quiet." 

She licks and hears Juliet's breath catching, feels fingers pulling at a front pocket of Kate's jeans, just something to hold onto. Keep steady.

"We'll be quiet," she adds as addendum, finding Juliet's mouth with her own like a magnet.

 

* *

Kate is back to moving rocks around and when she comes home at night, Juliet never asks about what passes between her and Danny. In many ways, she is happiest not knowing; it's easiest not having to consider the repercussions of potentially conflicting loyalties.

Juliet doesn't want to know whose side she's on. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss; and though in the past that might have made her think of Austen, now it seems far more apt when applied to herself.

So that even when Kate sits there with her back stiff, shoulders hunched and angry, Juliet would rather she didn't have to ask. She'd rather not analyze her own impulses to inquire as well, the concern she feels for Austen.

But we don't always get what we want in life.

"Kate--"

"Not now, okay?"

Juliet isn't sure what she's meant to take away from that. It's certainly not helpful or clear enough to stop her inquiries entirely. "I just wanted to know if you're--"

"I'm fine."

"Really." Juliet is so skeptical that it comes out sounding more like a monotone statement than a question.

"What, don't I look it?"

"Not very, no."

Juliet can tell already that this is going to be a fun night.

*

It isn't until dinner's over and they're both getting ready for bed that Kate shows up in Juliet's doorway, apparently ready to talk.

"How long have you known?"

Juliet's fresh out of the shower and is bent over slightly, still toweling her hair dry. She peaks at Kate through the space between armpit and elbow, saying, "Excuse me?"

Kate cocks her hip to one side and crosses her arms. This is the old Kate. The little girl in the grown up body with too much rage and desperation to think before she speaks. "You heard me."

This other Kate is almost like a stranger at this point, but even stranger still is how patient Juliet feels prepared to be. She sits down on the bed, towel draped across her shoulders, and waits for Kate to say all the things she's obviously just dying to let loose.

"So how long?"

"Kate, you're obviously coming to this conversation with something specific bothering you." Juliet is careful not to smile, just keeping her tone steady and even. She doesn't want to seem as though she's antagonizing when the reality is that she's just terribly confused. "Mind catching me up to speed?"

"Ben--" is all Kate says at first, and the word comes out with such venom that her entire face seems to recoil, twisting over the word. Kate jerks a little, nearly flinching, and turns her face away. She swallows hard and starts again. "He came to talk to me. He wants to know more about my people."

"And?"

The look Kate gives Juliet is openly hostile, but wounded too. "You think that I would betray them? That I would do that?" She laughs, but it's a short and dry sound, like a dry piece of wood snapping. "What kind of person do you think I am?"

"A good one." But Juliet knows that Kate won't believe that, not coming from her, not right now, so she adds; "Most of the time, at least. I don't think you want to hurt anyone, Kate."

"Oh, fuck you," Kate says, stepping backward. She retreats a step past the doorway and stands lit up by the light in the hall, her long back casting shadows up the wall. "You really think your sweet talking surgeon act is going to work on me right now?"

No. It's obvious that whatever it was exactly that Ben said, it's having the desired effect. Kate is a million miles away from where Juliet can reach her now.

But that doesn't mean that Kate isn't worth the effort to at least try. "Kate--" Juliet starts, but then Kate is already stalking off down the hallway to her own bedroom, pulling the door open so fast and hard that Juliet can hear the bolts rattling.

"Better lock the fucking door tonight!"

Then it slams, and the whole house shakes.

"Just perfect," Juliet says to the empty room around her, discarding the towel off to the side of her empty bed before she goes to follow Kate's advice and lock the door. Just in case.

 

* *

The worst part is that it should have been obvious. Kate should have known better -- did know better -- and that part hurts so much it's like an actual physical pain. Almost as bad as her ribs.

It's obvious at the end of the day that this is where everything had been heading for a while. Ben has always been the man with the plans, and Juliet is just another one of his pawns. Sure, she's the kind who says all the right things, knows just the right moves, but she's still made of plastic. No heart.

Lying in bed, Kate imagines she can hear Juliet in the bedroom next door. She wonders what she's thinking, whether this has fucked up all her great plans or if she's just lonely and horny. Sad little woman with no one left to really give a damn so she has to trick people into caring.

So then what would that make Kate?

She doesn't let herself think about it too long or carefully. Better not to know some things. Ignorance and bliss.

*

Kate hasn't seen Juliet since last night and their fight. She left this morning before sunrise and has been working steadily since. Nothing like awkward living conditions to get Kate to focus on the work day. Single-minded can be simple when it's comparatively pressure free. Simple and safe, just the kind of thing Kate tends to resent, yet here she's settling into it.

But her bandages are pulling loose and the muscles are pulling too tight and then it's too sore when she moves, pain so sharp it sets her teeth on edge. She comes looking for Juliet in a place she's never been before. She asks for directions to the medical center and stops just outside its doors, uncertain.

Somehow it seemed so easy to take that first step across Juliet's threshold and into where she sleeps, but this here is what she lives for.

Juliet is a doctor, saving and preserving life with her two hands. Kate is a killer, and a remorseless one at that. Something about seeing her here feels wrong, perverse and unsettling, even after last night.

Kate toes the line with her shoe and steps inside.

The air beyond the door is the same as anywhere else. Not sacred or special. Kate hugs her arms against herself and sways, listening. She can hear Juliet's voice from beyond a door down the hall; it reverberates all around her. 

Kate forces herself to walk steady and straight, arms swinging at her side, the picture of casual confidence. 

"I don't think it's infected, but I can clean and cover it up if that will make you feel better," Juliet is in the middle of saying, hands on her hips and hair falling in her eyes.

Kate sees her before she sees Kate, staring without speaking, but it's Danny who sees them both. "You," he says, eyes cutting quickly back and forth between them. "What're you doing here?"

Kate blinks and quickly looks away from Juliet who is staring back at her now, looking surprised. She isn't speaking, so Kate speaks for both of them, saying, "I need my bandages changed." The comment is for Juliet but is directed more toward Kate's own feet. 

She can feel the look Danny is giving her, see the tense line of his body from the corner of her eye. Even the way he squirms in his chair is aggressive. "Busy now. Come back later, Austen."

But Juliet is ignoring Danny, and Kate gets the impression she does that a lot. "Are they loose?"

Kate shifts her hands into her pockets. "Yeah." 

"Does it hurt?"

Hands back out again and eyes on Danny. She isn't going to answer that, not when he's smiling at her that way. "You forgot to change them last night," she says instead, more accusation undercutting her words than she intends. Juliet only blinks. If she's hurt, it doesn't show.

"At night," Danny says, smiling, but Juliet just pretends to ignore them both. She looks at charts and clears her throat.

Kate can't handle this now.

"If you don't mind waiting, I could--" 

"Later is fine," she says, words pressing together as she turns back to the door. Better to disappear around the corner before she can be stopped, out of sight and out of mind. Kate really is going out of her head here, after all.

Kate is half way down the hall and she can still hear Danny's rough laughter chasing after her, saying, "What else do the two of you get up to at night?"

An escape plan should really involve more planning. It should be deliberate, beyond impulse. Kate thought she had matured beyond those kind of things.

But when she walked out of the medical center, she just kept going. Through someone's yard, past another two houses, into the trees, and beyond. She isn't even sure what direction she's headed in, though squinting up at the sun seems to suggest she's moving northwest.

She tries to remember the path Alex took her on before, but the plants grow dense on the ground here and it's difficult to find a familiar trail.

Come on, Kate. Think.

She crouches down low, gasping aloud because of the pain, and examines the foliage up close. Someone has been this way before, though it's hard to know who. She crawls a bit further on her knees, head close to the ground, until she finds something almost like a trail; but what it really might be is a fresh start.

Kate follows it without looking back.

*

After a while, Kate thinks she can hear people off in the distance, maybe even voices raising into shouts. She must still be closer to the rest of the barracks than she realized.

Kate considers running, but that would only make more noise and draw them closer. WIth her injury, she's in no shape to outrun a whole village of assholes.

Better to hide and get away than to play the hero and get trapped again. Whatever happens now, Kate has no intention of going back to Juliet's pretty little cage.

That's when she hears the footsteps behind her. It's someone moving slowly, which means they still think they've got the element of surprise.

Kate takes a step to run and a bullet splits a branch at her feet. Slowly, hands raised, she turns to look at Danny.

"Not smart, Austen."

His nostrils are flaring, agitated. There's a quiver in his lip. Kate knows: he won't miss again.

"On your knees."

"What?"

He moves fast for a man his size, turning the pistol over quickly in his hand to swipe it against the base of Kate's skull. "I'm not here to discuss."

She feels a wave of nausea wash through her, beating against her brain in a slow and steady assault. Kate sways but stays standing.

"On your knees," he says again, words spat out and coupled with another blow to the face. He sweeps Kate's legs out from under her with one well placed kick to the back of her knees. 

Kate's jaw clips sharply when she lands nearly face first in the dirt, and struggles up again. She tastes vomit and copper. Blood salty like a transistor on her tongue. Black spots blink at the edge of her wavy vision and the ground seems to sink under her feet, but Kate still tries to stand.

Another blow to the head, a quick jolt, and Kate thinks it's strange that she can smell the dirt so clearly. Everything so sharp even as her eyes drift out of focus. She tries to lift but falls again, awkward on her knees. Blood drips from her nose and she realizes that isn't the scent of soil after all.

When she lifts her head, he's standing over her. His smile is wide and sharp and the click as the pistol cocks sounds as loud as a shot normally does on its own. He presses the barrel against the side of her neck and Kate quivers with the strain of holding herself still. She won't give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing her flinch.

"Any last words?"

Rainfall has begun. It comes slowly through the trees and washes trails of blood down Kate's neck and shoulders, down her back and trembling spine. She looks up at Danny, blinking water from her eyes and murmurs in a voice so low and tense it's almost like spitting, "Just do it."

He smiles, greasy thumb palming over the trigger. "My pleasure," he says.

Rain continues to fall, scattered by the cover of trees. It sends trails of blood across Kate's jaw and throat, down the trembling arc of her spine. All inside her head is the rush of noise, the pounding of her own heart beat and wind whipping through the leaves. The snap of branches.

"Danny!"

Three shots ring out in quick succession, no hesitation. The air is still ringing with the sound even as the wind begins to blow even harder.

Juliet's hand is absolutely steady holding the gun. She looks at Danny, at the pool of blood forming around him to be washed away quickly in the storm, and tucks the weapon back into her jeans.

She looks at Kate, an eyebrow raising. "You going to sit there all day?"

 

* * 

"How's your chest?"

Kate spins on her heel, indignation ready and bristling in her shoulders. "Excuse me?" With every step further from that place, she feels more like her old self. She won't go back to that other place, the loneliness and self-pity. The empathy.

"Your breathing," Juliet says in a subdued voice. "Your ribs."

"Oh."

"Does it hurt?"

"I'm fine," Kate says, turning away again. If they're lucky the rain will wash away most of their trail. They have to make use of it while they still can. If she lets herself be slowed down now, they aren't even going to make it through the night.

The rain will help to hide their path but it also makes the way forward more treacherous. With one misplaced step, Kate slips. For a moment all she sees is the rocks and roots underfoot, the place she's going to smash her brains out, and then one hand clutches hold of a tree branch. Her torso stretches, pulls, wrenching suddenly. Kate screams.

They probably heard. They're probably coming, but for now it's only Juliet with her hand between Kate's shoulder blades, slinging one of Kate's arms around her neck to offer support. They aren't coming; they're already here. She has to remember that Juliet is one of them.

"I'm fine," Kate says again, but it isn't even convincing her when undercut by a hiss of pain.

"Don't be stubborn, Kate. Not now. We need to get out of here. We both do."

The rain makes Juliet's features look like a painting, streaked and smeared. She blinks in and out of focus when raindrops splash from Kate's eyelashes. Her hand is on Kate's wrist while she holds the arm in place over her shoulders. Kate feels the pressure on her pulse, unrelenting and steady.

"Yeah," Kate says. "Okay, sure."