The fire had nearly gone out. It was almost time. They climbed the rise together, three abreast, silently, their strides matching perfectly.
The last time they agreed like this, without any conflict, was forever ago. Their last day in New York, Lauren wanted a frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity; Mercedes and Quinn came with her. That was another life.
At the very top, where the signal fire burned, they took each other's hand: Quinn took Mercedes's hand and Mercedes took Lauren's. The fire was circled by rocks, flat as coffee-table books, that Sam and Mercedes had spent a day and a half hauling up from the riverbank.
The fire had been burning since the day of the crash. On their way back to Lima, as the water below flashed blood-red, the plane snapped apart. Most of them died in the wreckage.
Mercedes came to to the sight of Lauren tossing aside a piece of fuselage, then slinging a raggedy-doll limp Quinn over her shoulder.
"You can get up," she told Mercedes.
Her left leg was pinned under a seat. It screamed in pain, then flashed numb, then screamed again, so Mercedes herself did not believe that she'd be moving anytime soon, let alone getting up. But Lauren stood as big as the Sears tower, dark and strong against the flames, so she did not disagree.
Sam and Mike and Puck survived, too. They'd been gone since about a week after the crash, when they set out to the south to find help.
They weren't coming back. No one was coming.
No one, that is, who meant them anything other than harm. No rescuers were coming; no rescue, no escape, nothing like that was in the offing, unless it was through one of the cairns on the other side of the hill.
They didn't bury their dead, but they did remember them. One cairn per soul, RachelMr.SchueKurtTinaSantanaArtieBrittanyFinn.
No one was coming and the nights were getting longer, the air staying colder. They needed the fuel for their shelter. No sense heating up the empty sky, no sense burning a whisper below the stars.
As the fire burned low and the dark filled up the sky, they sat together. Quinn held Mercedes from behind, her arms looped around Mercedes's neck. Lauren slid her good arm around Quinn's shoulders and tugged them both closer.
They slept just like this, most nights, one sitting up on watch, the other two curled into each other.
The embers glowed magenta and scarlet beneath husks of white. A few sparks lifted in the slight breeze and twisted around before winking out, swallowed up by the dark, one by one by one.
That first night, while Kurt lay dying, his face ashen, eyes bottomless as the sea and just as dark, the rest of them huddled around the fire, too scared and shocked to do anything but keep as still as possible.
Quinn started singing then, and the others slowly, hoarsely, joined in. They taught each other their favorite songs that night, one by one, singing them back until they knew them by heart.
Puck's song, "Sheena Was A Punk Rocker", was the easiest to memorize.
They sang it now, as the fire burned itself out. Puck's cairn was the newest on the hill; the Redtooth who raided their camp last night, foul breath and dull butter-knife, had worn Puck's Star of David necklace around his forehead like a crown. Puck's face flapped from the Redtooth's belt like a soiled handkerchief.
The ashes settled as the last of the wood popped and burnt itself out.
Quinn sang "Turn, Turn, Turn"; Lauren, "Heart Like A Wheel". Mercedes's song was "Amazing Grace", but when she opened her mouth, nothing came out.
Her voice was gone, black and gray, charred beyond recognition.
Quinn tightened her arms around Mercedes and buried her face against Lauren's chest.
Lauren looked up at the sky. Her voice had never been half so good as Quinn's or Mercedes's, but she inhaled the crisp, burned-smelling air and launched into Mike's song.
If you're blue and you don't know
where to go to why don't you go
where fashion sits...
Quinn blew her nose into the sleeve of her US Air bathrobe-wrap and joined in. Her voice trembled, wavered, then caught and held.
Mercedes closed her eyes and swayed.
The heat still radiated off the ashes, beating and pulsing as the night deepened.
After they gorged themselves on frozen hot chocolate, they had had to splurge on a cab to make it back to the hotel on time. In the backseat, they'd squished together, Mercedes in the middle, Quinn's hand entwined with her own, her small breast flattened against Mercedes's larger. They couldn't stop giggling; Quinn's lips were pink and soft, Mercedes's eyes stung with happy tears. When they kissed, Lauren laughed at them, a deep rumbling sound like water and joy, before she said, "About damn time, jeez."
Then, their mouths tasted like sugar and chocolate and laughter.
Now, there will be no rescue, but they were warm together. Mercedes took an experimental breath, winced, then joins her voice with theirs.
The last few sparks spit and rose, danced and swirled, shone on and higher.