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Saving You, Saving Me

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The ache in Latani’s knuckles has long faded, but the sting of humiliation is still burning in her chest like smoke from distant brushfire when Djukara tears his way back into the station, howling in wordless fury. The human girl follows at a safe distance, pale and grim, her mouth pressed into a thin line.

Latani stares after Djukara for a long moment, stomach twisting. Two words with her and off he went again, never mind the danger, never mind getting caught or leading the CA straight to them both, all that mattered is Djukara got impatient and had to deal with his feelings right now.

As if Latani is never angry. As if she doesn’t spend every single day of her life beating back the flames of rage, as if she doesn’t walk through the world a girl and a Hairy both, with the leers and the sing-song voices and the filthy, slimy suggestions on top of the condescension and hate and dehumanizing ignorance that her brothers face.

Every single day Latani has a sun growing inside her, hot and molten and overflowing, but she remembers the crack of the gun and the empty thud of her sister’s body collapsing on the concrete of the carpark, and she thinks of her father in the containment facility and her mother still missing and tells herself they’ll be no better off if she lets her anger rule her and gets herself killed. Five minutes of satisfaction — nails tearing into skin, bone cracking beneath her fists, blood spurting between her fingers and ribs caving under the violence of her boot — isn’t worth it when they’d only come back with guns to pump the entire Zone full of bullets.

Djukara doesn’t understand. Maliyan doesn’t understand. They think they can solve the problems of the world with their fists — and if they can’t, a short, and violent life that ends choking on blood and brings the same to everyone around them is better than trying to play it smart. They think their pain is the only kind that matters because they scream at the stars and spit and swear every time they feel their anger rise. They have no idea the oceans Latani carries in her chest.

Latani can make the calculations, can catch the rage roiling inside her and wrestle it down, at least for now. It feels not a little like lightning in a bottle, all that elemental fire and fury stuffed into something very small and very fragile, but for now it’s holding, and that’s what matters.

She can’t talk to Djukara. Not now. And even if she did, she wouldn’t have anything useful to say anyway. His new brothers can sort him out.

The human girl — Alinta — watches Djukara go, a frown on her face and arms wrapped around herself, blunt-tipped fingers digging into her biceps. She stands there, bouncing on her toes, half turned like she can’t make up her mind which way to go. And as much as Latani wants not to get involved — the blonde reporter and her self-righteous tears still burn in the back of Latani’s mind, voice shaking with shock as much as fear, completely unprepared for the consequences of her actions — this human stranger first talked Djukara down from one of his stubborn, snarling fits of principle and then came back with him in full wailing grief-mode completely unharmed.

More than unharmed: unafraid. And maybe it’s bravery, maybe she’s too fool to know she should be, but Latani thinks of that leech of a reporter, babbling on the ground as her voice shook like a leaf in a gale, and can’t help but mark the contrast.

She’s not intrigued, that’s too strong. Call it morbid curiosity. Latani shoves her hands in her pockets, fights the impulse to tug her hood up over her head like armour, and strides over.

“Latani,” Alinta says, blinking like she’s surprised. And well she may be, it’s not like Latani’s made herself chatty since she got here. Then her face pinches, smooth forehead wrinkling as she turns to Latani with wide eyes. “Your father’s gone, I’m sorry. The whole place was cleared out.”

It’s stupid, because the ugly, angry part of her that sits deep down inside didn’t want Djukara to succeed, didn’t want him to be right after everything he’s done, but it hurts anyway. This isn’t what she wanted; she’d wanted him to turn back at the doors, to realize he’d get shot and killed if he tried to muscle his way in and have to slink away in defeat. Not having to start over with both her parents missing all over again.

Latani hisses through her teeth, but her grief is not a spectacle for humans to gawk at and so she pulls it back. “Why did you go with him?” she asks instead. “My brother I can understand, but you had no reason to go. Or did you want to play at living dangerously for the day?”

Alinta jerks back a little, but only from the shoulders up. Standing her ground. “He needed someone to go with him. Someone to watch his back, make sure he didn’t try thing too reckless. And if we got spotted, he could hide and I could make up some excuse to draw their attention. Better than letting him go off on his own.” Her expression turns disturbingly sincere, eyes nearly burning Latani as they fix on her. “This is the Zone. We look after each other.”

She wouldn’t blink an eye at any of this coming from one of her people, but standing here listening to a human spout a togetherness speech while masses of armed guards and screaming protestors block the food trucks from making their way through makes Latani want to laugh. The old man from the gym with his flat-eyed glare choosing his weak, soft, useless boys over an actual student sticks in Latani’s spine like a policeman’s jab. But there was also the old woman in the apartment, the plate of pasta and the soft blankets on the couch and the fake ID and new contact lenses and decide who you want to be, and if it doesn’t make up for all the people trying to kill her she can, maybe, take this one at face value.

“If you say so,” Latani says. “But why you?”

Alinta makes that blinking face at her again, like Latani asked her about the colour of the sky. “Why not?”

There is, of course, no way to answer that, and when Latani doesn’t answer, Alinta chews on her lip and looks over her shoulder toward the human apartment blocks. “I’d better go tell my dad what happened in there. He’ll have an idea.” There’s an odd, tight look on her face when she says it, but then she glances back at Latani with a small smile. “See you around, yeah?”

Self-preservation tells Latani to say no, to curl her lip and stick with her own, to take care not to cling to two words of kindness after so much mistreatment. That’s how they get you. But at the same time part of her aches from carrying the weight of so much anger all the time, and after the reporter and the men at the gym and the CA with their guns and the protestors hurling slurs at the gates, it might not be terrible, maybe, to set it down for a few minutes and pretend now and then that things could be different. Just for a while.

“Sure,” Latani says. She tugs at the bottom of her sweater. “I’m around.”

 


 

Latani half expects that to be the end of it, but later that night Alinta shows up with her hands in her pockets and a funny, jumpy look on her face. “Hey,” she says. She ignores the others staring at her, though nobody says anything to her, not even Maliyan. “You wanna take a walk with me? I need some air.”

It’s such a funny, human thing to say that Latani wants to laugh, except she understands the feeling. All the hiding, all the running, and the walls of the station underground press in close with the thick smoke of the fires scratching at her throat, and Latani has never seen the trees and open vistas of her ancestors but she can’t deny the calling in her blood. The city chokes her with its lifelessness, its crowds and noise and its pollution, the land beneath it crying out for mercy in a voice that the parasites who ravage it will never hear.

Latani jerks her chin and pushes herself to her feet, setting aside the carving she had been half-heartedly whittling just so she’d have something to do with her hands. Alinta leads her up and out, and they head away down the streets toward the residential area. Latani’s shoulders tense, and she flips her hood up over her head but Alinta doesn’t break her stride. Once they pass a pack of toughs, a mix of Hairy and human who slow down and turn, but they fall back when they recognize Alinta and keep walking.

Alinta leads them to a block of flats, and they take a set of stairs all the way up to the roof. They’re not the first ones to have the idea; there’s a set of lawn chairs, a rickety table and a scattering of empty bottles, and Alinta kicks them aside and pulls the chairs over to the edge, facing away from the city lights toward the ocean. She drops down into a chair and braces her feet on the lip of the wall, knees pushed up against her chest.

The chair next to her gives under Latani’s weight when she sits, but it doesn’t feel like it will actually collapse, so that’s something. She lowers herself gingerly and takes a moment to study Alinta’s profile, the soft line of her features against the sharp angle of her brow. Why did they come here?

As if sensing the colour of Latani’s thoughts, Alinta shakes herself and sits up a little. “Sorry,” she says. “I didn’t drag you out with me to mope, I promise. I think it would be nice to get to know each other, that’s all. Not many girls in that mob, you know.”

No, and Latani can’t quite figure out Alinta’s role there, either. She isn’t one of the boys — she doesn’t get invited to join them at the gym, or to play in any of their hyper-aggressive sports games — but they defer to her when she speaks sharply to them, and no one seems to give her any lip. And those men just now, the ones who passed them in the street, Latani knows how to spot trouble and she knows what she sensed before she saw Alinta’s face.

“Who are you?” Latani says finally. “I mean, here, to these people. I can’t figure it out.”

Alinta flushes a little. That’s another thing humans do that marks them as prey animals: their emotions writ large across their faces, blood rushing to the skin and flushing to broadcast when they’re compromised. “I’m a West,” she says, as though that explains anything. “My family has lived here for generations, long before the walls went up. Or when the walls were still there but nobody admitted it, as my dad likes to say. You coming here means they built walls that everybody could see, that’s all.” She blows out a breath and rests her chin on her knees. “I’m — my family has always been part of this community. We work hard to make sure everyone has a voice, that people get what they need, that it’s impossible for others to ignore us, pretend we don’t exist. We’re good at that.” She lets out a quiet huff, halfway to a snort. “We’re less good at taking care of each other, apparently.”

Latani might not be an expert in human relationships, but she knows not to poke a pile of flaming tyres. Whatever family issues have chased Alinta up onto the roof in the company of a near stranger, Latani isn’t going to stick her hand into it. A silence grows between them, heavy and awkward around the edges, as a distant siren wails on the city streets outside the Zone boundary.

After a while, Alinta shifts again. “What was your family like? Before all this happened.”

Her first instinct is to reel back, curl her fingers to bare the nails she no longer wears sharp and jagged, but Latani swallows it down. Sitting alone in that one-bedroom apartment full of ghosts, hiding in the streets, brushing shoulders with Djukara and avoiding his pleading gaze as it burns into her back — when was the last time she talked about her family? The last time she thought about them alive, together, happy?

Alinta glances over, brow furrowed, already backtracking. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to —”

“It’s fine.” Latani wets her lips. She waits a minute, lets the memories come to her, holding still until they settle on her outstretched hand like leaves blown on the wind. “My brother and my dad fight a lot. My brother hates humans. He thinks if we kill enough of them, we can force them to fear us. Not our existence, not our differences, but what we can do. What we can do to them. If they fear enough of us, they will come to respect us. They’ll have to give us what we want.” She stares down at her hands, smooth and shaved, the nails clipped short and harmless. Her stomach twists. “My dad has lived a long time, so he has a different perspective. He left his tribe to be with my mum. He brought us out of hiding to try to give us a better life. I don’t know if he really believed in peace, but he wanted it to be true, because there’s no future for any of us in the alternative.”

Too late Latani remembers who she’s talking to, but if Alinta takes offence at being lumped in with ‘them’, she doesn’t let it show. “My mum’s more angry than my dad, I think, but she tried not to let us see it. Mum is proud, and she taught us to be proud, too. When I was little I used to sneak out to watch the human kids play, and once I asked her if I could shave down. Nobody knew we existed then, but I wanted to be like the human girls. They got to play in the sun and dance and wear beautiful clothes and I didn’t. I begged Mum to let me shave and I cried my eyes out when she said no. But she told me that I was beautiful, and fierce, and powerful, and I should never want to make myself less.”

Pressure builds behind Latani’s eyes as the memory plays, the intensity of her mother’s gaze burning through her, her mother’s strong fingers gripping her chin. She’d sobbed then, clutched close against Mum’s chest, and her mother had held her, whispering in their language so her words disappeared into Latani’s hair like secrets.

For several heartbeats nothing passes between them but the sound of their breaths, Latani’s ragged and Alinta’s slow and measured, like she’s working extra hard to keep it level. “When I was a kid,” Alinta says, looking out over the roof toward the ocean, “we were colouring pictures of families in primary school. One of the girls in my class ripped the paper out of my hand, told me I was doing it wrong. Said I wasn’t using the right colour. She made her friends bring me this ugly peach coloured pencil, only it wasn’t called that, it was called something stupid like ‘skintone’ or ‘flesh’. When I wouldn’t do it, she took my paper and coloured over it herself. And then she held it up to my face and said how it didn’t match, only this was the people colour, she said, the coloured pencil makers said so, and so if me and my family didn’t look like that, then we must not really be people.”

It isn’t the same. It isn’t anything even close to sitting frozen and helpless on the sofa, watching a crowd of people stand by and do nothing while men in black send waves of electricity surging through your mother, your brother, their bodies convulsing on the ground. Little girls and their mocking can’t come close to watching a man with a blank face raise his gun and put a bullet through your sister’s chest.

Latani curls her hands on her knees, the old anger rising, but something in Alinta’s face stops her. That isn’t what the story’s about, is it, and so she lets out a breath, lets the instinctive reaction escape on the exhale. “What happened?” she asks instead.

Alinta’s mouth twitches. “I punched her in the nose and got sent to the principal. My dad got called in to take me home, because my mum was at work, and at first he was very disappointed, you know, about me resorting to violence. Until he heard the reason. And then you should’ve seen him. He tore into the principal like a demon. He said bullshit like this was the reason he never finished his education, and he wasn’t going to let some little asshole make his daughter a second-class citizen in her own school. And then he refused to leave the office until the other girl’s mum got called in, and he made them both apologize.”

Latani lets out a laugh in spite of herself. Of everything about Alinta’s life that feels unreal, this world where a father can kick up a fuss about bullies and get away with it without a boot in his back has got to be the strangest thing yet. “How did he not get thrown out?”

“That’s my dad,” Alinta says, as something in her voice twists. “He really cares, you know. He wants the world to be better, but he doesn’t sit around waiting for it. He goes out and he fights and he makes change happen, he always has. That’s what he wanted for me, and that’s what he wants for you and your family — for all your people.”

Latani waits for the other shoe, and sure enough Alinta runs a hand through her hair, digging her fingers in the dark curls against her scalp. “So how come he can do all that, fight for everything that’s good and right, and then cheat on my mum?”

What a question. If Latani could answer that, she suspects she could put her finger on the pulse of a much bigger truth. Still, assholes are assholes, and they’re not too hard to figure out no matter what species. “My dad used to tell me that it’s a mistake to think that only evil men can do evil things. Maybe that’s true for shitty actions too.”

This time it’s Alinta’s turn to laugh, wet-sounding and a little hysterical. “Maybe you’re right. I’m not going to be like him, though. I’m not going to decide that doing good things means I deserve to be selfish.”

It’s not the same thing, but Latani thinks of Djukara slipping the gun into his pocket. She imagines him doing the sums in his head, weighing how much pain he has to swallow before he’s justified in turning it back, calculating the exchange rate between Hairy and human lives so he can make his payback. She can’t go down that road — not yet, at least.

She studies Alinta again as the question curls between them. “Why’d you bring me here?” It’s not an accusation.

Alinta bites her lip. “I found out my family isn’t perfect and it’s like my whole world fell apart. Meanwhile you had so many horrible things happen to you, but you’re still fighting. You’re brave and strong and you never give up, and I wish I were more  you. But just because you’re strong, you shouldn’t have to do this alone. I talked to Mum, and she said you can stay with us until we find your parents — if you want to.”

She may as well have whipped off her top to reveal a sparkly clown suit and danced around the rooftop. Latani gawks at her as her brain struggles to catch up. “What? You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?” Alinta sets her jaw. “I grew up in the Zone. I know what it’s like to live here, and it’s not easy being on the outside of the mob, believe me. I want to help you, but I also like you. I want to be your friend. And I’d like you to be mine.”

“You don’t even know me,” Latani says. It comes out much less sharp and a lot more helpless than she meant it to. 

“Yeah, but.” Alinta turns to her, dark eyes glowing in the moonlight. “Sometimes you just know, right?”

Latani thinks of old woman Virgil making acerbic remarks toward the newscasters, asking Latani if she needed to change the channel or if she wanted to keep watching. She thinks of her bed in the railway station, a rickety cot with a thin wool blanket and a lumpy pillow in a room crammed wall to wall with others who cough and cry late into the night. She should be grateful for a place that’s safe and dry, but in the dark all she can feel is the empty air on either side of her and how she’s right back where she started, back in the Zone, with no mother and no father and no Jyra, and a brother who’s slipping further into himself every day.

Djukara would warn her not to trust the kindness. He would tell her to keep her anger honed whetstone-sharp, not to let this human girl with her innocent ideals make her soft. But this girl also faced Djukara head on and marched with him side by side into a government containment facility without flinching, with nothing to protect herself but her soft, defenceless skin — and here she is telling Latani she finds her brave.

“Yeah, all right,” Latani says, before she can talk herself out of it. The worst that can happen is that it’ll be awkward, and she sneaks out the window and heads back to her cot in the station. “I mean, at least for now.”

Alinta smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Great! I’ll tell Mum. She’ll be heaps pleased I’m sure, it’ll be good to have someone else in the house to talk to who isn’t Jake or Gub. All they do when they stop by is run in, stuff their faces and dash off again.”

They stay out a little longer, enjoying the view and the relative quiet apart from the occasional siren or shouted argument from the streets below, as Latani runs over the evening’s events and tries to work out exactly what just happened.

 


 

“Here,” Alinta says the next day, dropping her bag on the bed next to Latani. “Brought you something.”

Latani raises an eyebrow. Alinta spent the day away at school, while Latani had to stay home and do her best not to climb the walls. Nerida, Alinta’s mum, said she’d been pushing to set up a school or even an official community centre in the Zone since day one, but the government had shut her down every step of the way. As soon as the walls went up, all public facilities except the clinic got shut down.

“If you don’t like it, I can take it back,” Alinta says, ducking her head a little. One of her cheeks dimples at her smile. “But it’s not fair you have to stay here all day, so.”

And, well, fine. Latani unzips the bag and folds the flap down, then blinks as she stares at a pile of thick, hardbound books. “Okay,” she says slowly.

Alinta laughs in delight and bounces onto the bed next to her, pulling the texts out of the bag and laying them out in a line. “They’re textbooks! From school, see? I nicked them when the teachers weren’t looking. I reckon if you have these and the internet, there’s no reason you couldn’t learn everything on your own. Plus there’s always Mum if you get really stuck, she’s a great teacher.”

Latani runs her fingers over the glossy covers, a strange lump in her throat. Science. Mathematics. Literature. “No history,” she says, glancing up.

Alinta wrinkles her nose, her entire face crinkling with it. “I mean — I could get you one, if you wanted. But I reckon you’d know better than they did, and they say some pretty shitty things.”

“Might be good to see where people get their ideas from,” Latani muses aloud, but no, there’s enough ugliness out there ready to spit in her face. She doesn’t need to see it committed to black and white ink on paper, preserved for generations like a sacred text of ignorance. She picks up the mathematics book and flips it open, and revels in the sensation of her mind unfolding like a flower under the morning sun.

Alinta watches her for a minute, eyes soft, then picks up her own homework and takes a seat at her desk. She rests her feet on the bed next to Latani, and they work in silence until Nerida calls them down for dinner.

 


 

There’s something off about Mr. West. He saved Djukara, and he’s vowed to find her parents, and Latani watched the minister and that awful TV host eviscerate him on camera for daring to stand up for Hairypeople even a they planned to set him up with that attack on the twelve-year-old kid, but — even so. He has a manic light in his eye when he talks now that reminds Latani of Djukara, funnily enough, like he’s trying to convince everyone else to join him on a wave of passion and hopes they won’t think too hard about what he’s saying, or the cost. 

It’s enough that Latani can’t bring herself to call him Uncle Waruu like the other kids in the Zone, no matter how much he clearly wants her to. Even ‘Waruu’ on its own is too informal, and Latani finds herself putting mental distance between them without meaning to.

She also sees the way Nerida shies away from him, the ramrod tension in her posture, the enforced tightness to her smile that says the girls are watching but don’t push it. Whether it’s the cheating or long nights on the job or sacrifices he’s making in the name of justice or whatever fight he gets into that brings him home late one night with his face banged up like he got on the wrong side of a bar scrap, Nerida isn’t happy. It’s also clear that Mr. West is content to pretend they are, playing up the perfect, caring husband and father for his daughter and her friend whenever Latani and Alinta are around.

It’s not Latani’s business, she’s only staying here. If anything, she’s grateful they’re not getting their domestic mess all over her — nothing more awkward than when couples shoot their dog in the street. But then one night the sound of angry voices tears Latani out of sleep, and before she even realizes what’s happening she’s leapt off her air mattress and into a crouch, hands curled into claws on instinct.

It’s not the CA. It’s Nerida and Mr. West, arguing in tight, furious tones, doing their best to stay quiet but not — quite — succeeding.

“What are you going to tell Alinta?” he says in an urgent voice, somewhere between sharp and cajoling. “These are desperate times, Nerida. We should be putting up a united front.”

“I can think of a few times where you should have thought of that,” Nerida says. It comes out calm, controlled, but Latani knows that voice, has lived with her father long enough to recognize the cost of that composure. Only an idiot would take that tone for a lack of emotion. Step into what looks like a calm stream and the undercurrent will rip your feet out from under you and drag you out to sea.

Mr. West knows better, too, because he doesn’t argue. He lets out a noise that’s half sigh, half growl, but then he stalks away without another word. A few moments later comes the creak and grunt of springs as his body hits the sofa, followed by the quiet click of Nerida’s bedroom door.

“It’s all falling apart, isn’t it,” Alinta says from the bed. Latani looks over to see her curled into a ball in the corner, hugging a pillow to her chest with her face mashed into it. “He can be a good man, this deal he’s working on is a good thing, I don’t understand why — I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t complain in front of you. I just wish I knew what was going on.”

Latani isn’t about to start playing the misery game now, but if nothing else, she has never doubted her parents’ commitment to her and to each other. They love with a primal fierceness, a fury that runs deep like the lifeblood of this planet, because the humans might burn and shoot and steal but they can never take that love away from them. Boondee of the Bindawu did not leave his tribe for the love of Araluen only to abandon her for someone younger, or endanger his family for political gain.

So much privilege, and what do humans do with it? Invent new ways to bring down bullshit on each other. It’s amazing.

But now is not the time. Not when Alinta’s fingers curl in the fabric of her pj pants, twisting pulling at a loose thread and wrapping it around her fingertip. Latani watches as the thread cuts off circulation, the skin purpling, but Latani only stares fixedly at the door, her breath hitting her chest in short gasps.

“Come on, then,” Latani says, reaching for her hand. “Up you get.”

It takes a second for Alinta to register she’s being handled, which says something. “I’m fine,” she protests as Latani drags her out of bed, but doesn’t try to pull away. “Where are we even going?”

Latani hooks her arm through Alinta’s and leads her down the hall to Nerida’s room, where predictably, Alinta does finally balk. But Latani grew up with a sister who wanted to be big and brave and never worry anyone even when she was far too young for the world to lay so much on her shoulders, and she doesn’t feel bad about playing a few of those old tricks on a friend now. “I’m sure your mum will want the company,” she says. She doesn’t bother trying to sound persuasive; Latani’s strength has never been cajoling, but in stating fact and waiting for others to realize that she’s right. “You shouldn’t let her sleep alone.”

This time Alinta only hesitates a little before knocking softly on the door and slipping inside. Latani shakes her head a little and turns to head back, but she’s not gone more than a few steps when the door opens again. Nerida brackets the gap with her body, giving the darkened living room a wary glance, but when no footsteps come she turns back to Latani with a quiet, thoughtful sort of look.

Latani isn’t sure what to make of Nerida. She keeps her emotions to herself, unlike most humans, keeping it all behind a mask until it’s time to unleash.

“You should come too,” Nerida says finally. “I’m not leaving you alone to sleep on the floor by yourself.”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m sure you’re fine,” Nerida says. The corner of her mouth turns up in a smile that’s not exactly happy, more like a shared secret. This must be where Alinta gets it. “Doesn’t mean you have to.”

Latani feels every breath as it fills her chest, as though her lungs fill with some strange, heavy gas instead of oxygen. But Nerida steps back, pushes open the door to show Alinta already curled up in the double bed, and Alinta flicks back the corner of the blankets with a tired smile.

(Jyra at her side, head a comforting weight on Latani’s ribs, small hand pressed to her back for comfort. Mum sitting behind her, hand stroking over Latani’s hair in a soothing, rhythmic motion as her voice croons out a low, husky lullaby. Falling asleep with the warm comfort of her sister and her mother on either side, knowing that if she wakes all she’ll have to do is reach out to find them.

Waking up alone in that apartment outside the Zone, alone and terrified and gasping, scrabbling out with bare hands and clutching nothing but empty sofa. Slamming both hands over her mouth to stifle the anguished scream.)

All at once the pressure behind Latani’s eyes is back, hard and stinging. “Sure,” she says. The word comes out short, bitten off quick before any of it can start to tremble, but Nerida only smiles again and Alinta is already patting the pillow to make sure it’s nice and plumped. It’s absolutely ridiculous. She should get out of here right now, make a run for it and jump out the window, but because she’s absolutely lost it instead Latani stretches out on the edge of the bed next to Alinta and forces herself to exhale.

“The point of sleeping is to relax,” Alinta says, her voice teasing but without the hard edge of mocking. “You’ll be right, you know. Here.” She crooks one arm over Latani’s side, fingers curled against her shoulder, and settles in close behind her.

It’s all strange. It’s not her family; they don’t know the stories of the ancestors to share as night falls and eyelids grow heavy, and the echo of the overheard argument hangs in the air like a poison. But as exhaustion creeps in and Alinta’s arm curls arm and comforting around her, as the sound of their sleep-breathing fills the room, slow and steady and comforting, Latani finds that the edges of difference start to blur.

She wakes in the morning to sun on her face and Alinta’s head on the pillow next to her, and for the first time since those monsters killed her sister the iron band around her chest squeezes a little less tightly.

 


 

But of course it doesn’t last. The only constant in this world is blood, and the monsters come with their guns and their trucks and they burn it all down and take Latani’s world from her, again.

 


 

Fingers twined before a wave of protestors, gripping hard enough to hurt. Snatches of sleep caught with heads resting on shoulders, curled up together in the corner of a sofa with curtains drawn. Foreheads pressed together in the back of a government van. Latani carries the memories with her as she waves her way into the bush, shedding the grit and concrete and glass of the city with every burst of berries and splash of cool, clear water on her tongue. Yet the further in she travels, the more the memories shimmer. By the time she finds her father — by the time he wraps her in his arms and pulls her close against his chest — and brings her to his people, proud and strong and fiercely, unapologetically Hairy, everything from the city starts to feel like a terrible dream.

“I had friends there, baaba,” Latani tells him. A fire crackles in front of her: not the sullen, furtive flames of a pit fire in the Zone, low and careful and fed by paper and rubbish, but proud and tall, protected by the cliffs and dancing up toward the stars. “They took care of me.”

“I am glad to hear it, nyugiyan” he says, stroking her cheek with one smooth finger. “But now we have found each other. We take care of ourselves again.”


 

Latani, as ever, is in between. She is not the Elders, content to stay in their forest and hide while the world encroaches, hoping their city brothers and sisters will die so the humans will forget about their existence. She is not Jarli, a snarling coil of rage, looking at the world to provide an outlet for the frustration and helplessness he feels and creating one if it will not.

She and Jarli move through the trees in silence, heading for the city. As the lights draw near and the memories shake loose of the spell that held them dormant, Latani thinks of the girl who planted herself in front of her, stubborn and naive and ignorant of the grinding daily terror of Latani’s life but refusing to move from her side nonetheless. She learned it in the end, the breathless fear of every car driving past, the heart-stopping moment when the doorknob rattles, the chafe of cuffs on her wrists and cold press of guns to the back of her head. Just like Latani said she would.

To Jarli, even to the Elders, Alinta would be just another human, deserving of death if she crossed the boundary. Who knew how the friendship would alter their opinion of Latani.

Latani grits her teeth and picks up the pace.

 


 

Men. Gunfire. Screaming. Brothers and sisters caught in a hail of bullets, bodies crumpling in the stairwell. Glass crunching underfoot, leaving trails of blood. Her mother’s scent, sharp and familiar after all this time so the tears prick in Latani’s eyes, though they don’t have time for a reunion. But they make it out, past the lines of soldiers, past the barricade, their smooth, helpless kin blinking at the light and clutching at each other’s arms. They escape as the man who betrayed Latani’s family steps out into the light with his hands raised.

It’s good, it’s only right that he does so, but Latani no longer feels the fire of justice burning within her at the trade. Now all she feels is a hollow emptiness. More lives lost. More useless deaths. For they will kill him, and now her people will lose one more ally — and though they do not need a champion, friends are precious few.

But now they have a clear path to the edge of the city, to the Bindawu and Jarli’s dream of a new future for the ‘Included’ despite the elders’ inevitable revulsion. Latani leads them through the side streets and they follow, mute and terrified, but then she stops. Down this road is the central processing station for the CA, where they’ll have Nerida and Alinta if they’re still captured. If they’re still alive.

Mum comes up to stand behind her. Her presence is pricked, sharper than it used to be. She has seen even more than Latani, more than Dad. She feels even more like Djukara now — the loss burns sharp and bright — anger bubbling close beneath the surface, but she holds it to her skin. “What is it?” she asks. She follows Latani’s gaze to the CA facility and her teeth click together in a derisive snap. “Soon, nyugiyan. Soon they will no longer have power over us. But today we must escape.”

Latani stays fixed. Behind her the others shuffle. Jarli snaps a handful of impatient words, eager to be gone, for the mountains to close their protective embrace around him. “I have to go.”

Mum’s head jerks up as she lets out a hiss. “There are no more of us left there,” she says. “They’re all at the clinic, or dead. The only people there are — no.” She grips Latani’s arm in hers, fingers digging into the hard muscle. “No, I won’t let you risk yourself for one of them. Not after I just got you back. Not after everything I went through! Latani!”

The world spins under Latani’s feet. She could run now, run with the others and make it to the mountains and they would be safe. Even if they decided not to try the Bindawu, even if they chose to take to the bush and live on their own, this is Latani’s best chance at a real life. Away from the guns, away from the humans and their hate and fear.

No, I’m not leaving you!

“I’m sorry, Mum,” Latani says, even as the words tear a hole between them. “Take care of the others. I’ll come back.” She takes one step, and then another. Araluen presses both hands over her mouth to stifle the anguished cry: one scream could bring the guns down upon them. Latani melts away into the streets and doesn’t let herself look back.

 


 

With most of the CA’s attention on the breach at the new living facility and no more Hairy prisoners remaining to look after, security at the primary containment building has thankfully decreased. She gets inside through one of the service entrances, knocks out a guard and steals his ID card without much trouble, and uses it to log into the nearest computer and access the main prisoner database.

West, Alinta. West, Nerida. Relief punches Latani in the chest like a concussive round. She leans her forehead against the cold surface of the desk, breathing in large gulps of air until her chest aches, then sat back and forces herself to continue. The records make no sense, the dates a jumble, no record of that terrifying day with the black van in the alley (Alinta’s forehead pressed to hers, tears sliding down her cheeks, breaths hitching between them), no record of Latani at all — but they are here, alive.

Latani clears her search, logs out, and slips back into the hallway. Ignoring the pounding in her heart, she presses on.

One of them. One of them. One of them. Mum and the others will have reached the edge of the city, disappeared into the safety of the trees, or the bullets will have cut them down. Latani refuses the unknowing, rejects the second possibility as she turns another corridor in her search for the cell block she has etched into her memory. No distractions. They have to make it out safe, and so they did. Here, in this maze of metal, a divided mind will get her killed.

There: the numbers over the door match the one Latani saw on the screen. She swipes the passkey, heart a thunder in her chest, knowing that every time the system will send up a flag that the guard she’s impersonating is not where he should be. A bored pair of guards lounges on the other side of the door; they snap to attention when Latani bursts through but it’s too late, a few quick lunges and blows and precise strikes and they crumple in a heap to the floor, weapons clattering out of their hands.

“Latani!”

She whirls. Alinta has her hands pressed to the smeared glass of her cell wall, palms flat and fingers extended. Her eyes are hollow, ringed with the kind of bruises that come from exhaustion and worry and not from fists or blows from booted feet, and her hair and clothes have not been washed in days but Latani’s desperate once-over can find no blood. Alinta’s fingertips whiten from the pressure against the glass. “You came back!”

“Her code is 4492,” says Nerida from across the room. She wears the same look about her, exhausted but unbowed, and she presses her mouth thin in an expression of tired pride. “Thank you, Latani.”

“Mum’s is 1807,” Alinta adds as Latani punches in the first code and hauls the door open.

Nerida strips the guards of their weapons, and they shove the men into the cells and push the doors closed. Alinta’s hands twitch at her sides as though she’s looking to pull Latani into a hug, but they’ve been through too many harrowing escapes by now to make that mistake. There will be time to celebrate once they’re clear, not in the middle of it.

“I hoped you were alive,” she whispers as they sneak back through the back corridor toward the exit. “Tim said Hendricks — his partner, the one who took you — he said they found him alone in a parking lot. Said they hushed it all up because he wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. I hoped it was you.”

Latani reaches down to squeeze her hand. Her nails snag on Alinta’s skin but she doesn’t make a sound, only grips back harder as blood trickles between their fingers.

They’re almost out when the shock of a taser between her shoulder blades knocks the air from Latani’s lungs, a full gasping second before the pain. She slams the ground hard — jars her elbow, hip, side of her head — but she needs to stand, needs to fight. Latani struggles to one knee, sucks in one ragged breath before the air slithers away again, leaving her gasping, blackness creeping in at the edges of her vision. She waits for the boot to the ribs, the skull, that will end the fight and send her to the cells forever —

A gunshot crack echoes in the narrow confines of the corridor. The silence that follows feels almost as deafening in the aftermath. Latani fights off the last of the muscle spasms, swallows the sour bile and pushes herself, staggering, to her feet.

Alinta stands in the middle of the corridor, arms locked in front of her, a pistol braced in both hands. Latani follows her white-rimmed eyes to the body on the floor behind her, a puddle of blood slowly pooling on the steel floor. Nerida has one hand pressed to her chest, a stricken look splashed across her face.

“He was hurting you,” Alinta says in a small voice. “He was going to kill you. I couldn’t let him do that.” She wets her lips, and her wide-eyed gaze finds Latani’s. Something about the eye contact gives her courage, for the tremble in her voice turns firm. “I wasn’t going to let him do that. They’re not going to take you away from me again.”

“They won’t.” Latani takes a step sideways, crosses foot over foot until she comes within arm’s reach and closes her hand around Alinta’s wrist. Alinta jumps, but she lets Latani lower her arms and pry the gun from her clenched fingers. “You did good, Alinta. But we’ve got to go.”

She’ll suffer for that later. Alinta’s not weak, but killing a man isn’t something you can walk away from without a scar, and the weight of it will land when she isn’t buoyed by all the adrenaline and danger chemicals flooding her system. Her friend’s innocence is hardly the most devastating or precious thing the CA and the government have destroyed, but Latani adds it to the list of reparations.

Latani almost doesn’t believe the sunlight when she sees it. It’s a trick, some psychological game the CA have set up for them, to make them think they’ve made it out while they sit back and record every move on their computers. But no, that’s the guards swarming the far entrance around the other side, giving them a precious few seconds before anyone notices the service door. Latani shoves Alinta and Nerida through and all three of them put on a burst of speed.

Hearts and feet pound as they zigzag through the streets. No more time for stealth when alerts will be plastered on every screen in the city. Nerida’s breath has started to catch, and she has one hand pushed into the stitch in her side as she runs. Even Alinta’s face has purpled, compulsory exercises at school giving her an edge but not much. Running laps around the track and playing rugby aren’t the same as blocks and blocks of sprinting at breakneck speed, but they don’t stop. Don’t ask Latani to slow down.

Reaching the bush feels like waking from a nightmare and slipping back into a dream all at once. Squawking bird calls, the canopy of the trees stretching up overhead, the earth giving way underfoot in recognition of her presence. She lets out a long exhale and straightens, throwing the weight of the city from her shoulders.

Alinta and Nerida take in their surroundings with wide eyes, jumping at unexpected noises. This is foreign to them, not a homecoming — but they’ll learn. Latani can’t take them to the Bindawu, not unless she wants them killed on sight, but the bush is wide. They’ll find a place somewhere. Latani strips a handful of berries from a bush and pops them into her mouth, letting the tart juice burst on her tongue.

She turns to grin at the others, berry juice staining her teeth like blood. “Reckon we shouldn’t stand around here,” Latani says. She plucks a sprig of berries and tosses it to Alinta, who catches it and gives the bright red fruits a sceptical look. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up. You look like you just got out of prison.”

 


 

A whistle from the trees, and Latani’s head snaps up. Alinta, learning how to fashion a hunting knife, Latani’s hands curled around her own, glances at her with concern, but Latani only shakes her head and slips away. She meets her parents in the trees, heart pounding, lets the hot tears leak from her eyes as she enfolds herself in both their arms for the first time in far, far too long.

“And the humans?” her mother asks finally. Through the trees Alinta brandishes her knife, the stone chiselled with a less than skilled but patient and enthusiastic hand, with a delighted laugh. “Are they your family now, nyugiyan?” The words are not accusing, not quite, but carry an edge: after everything I did to find you rings in Latani’s skull like the aftermath of a booted blow.

“You are my family,” Latani says with fierceness. She looks back at Alinta, hair braided back from her scalp, sleeves pushed up above the elbows, brows knit in concentration as she picks up her stone and works down a rough edge. An odd spark hits Latani somewhere in the gut. Latani’s family! Alinta said that day, half a hundred years ago, snarling with protective fury, and she’d meant it then, but now the word sits with an odd ache, like a dislocated shoulder that won’t slide into place.

“We trust you know what you’re doing,” her father says, squeezing Mum’s shoulder, and Mum sighs and draws Latani in for another embrace.

 


 

“Latani,” Alinta says one day, twisting a rope fashioned from strips of tree bark around her fingers. She won’t (can’t?) meet Latani’s eyes, skittering away when Latani tries. “Do you think — would you ever —”

“Alinta,” Latani cuts in, bewildered and exasperated all at once. They’d faced down an army together. What could she possibly need to say that would take more nerve than —

Oh.

Latani has always carried her connection to the world around her as a point of pride, but now it disappears. Her entire awareness flickers out, distilling to white-hot points of contact: hands light on her shoulders, Alinta’s shoes bumping against hers, an awkward knock and jostle of knees. The press of Alinta’s mouth to hers, warm and hesitant and gone just as Latani finally registers what happened.

“Sorry,” Alinta says, the words tumbling out in a rush. “I’ve been wanting to do that, and I didn’t know how to ask —”

Latani fists her hands in the front of Alinta’s jacket, yanks her down and kisses her as her heart pounds a hard staccato in her chest. Alinta laughs against her mouth and kisses back, twisting her fingers into Latani’s hair, and that strange, out of place sensation that’s been floating in the back of her mind finally clicks home.

 


 

They run. They hunt. They kiss under the stars. They tell Nerida, shy and fumbling and defiant all at once, and deflate in hard relief when she laughs and kisses them both on the forehead. They survive. And outside, like the first spatters of rain that will bring the canopy down, the world begins to move.

 


 

Cleverman Koen West has a spiderweb of scars across his throat and a slash across his gut that’s angry even now. He won’t talk about what happened the day he left Latani at Bennelong House but he does let Alinta touch his scars, a reverent press of fingertips before she flings her arms around his neck and clings tight. He doesn’t try to embrace Latani, but they exchange a long gaze over Alinta’s head and Latani lifts her chin in a nod.

Latani is still trying to grasp how the world has changed. Jarli convinced the Bindawu elders that they can no longer hide and wait for the humans to destroy them. A peace accord between the government and the Hairypeople granting them full rights without assimilation is in the works. It won’t stop hate, or ignorance, or even the daily grind of ordinary people being stupid, but — it’s something. No more running. No more hiding. No more breaking off pieces of themselves to try to fit an ever-changing mould. They’re clawing their way up out of the hole now, instead of trying desperately not to fall.

Alinta curls up against Latani’s chest, half-dozing as Koen tosses another branch onto the crackling bonfire. The surf crashes onto the beach behind them, the stars a blanket of pinpricks in the dark sky overhead. “Koen,” Alinta says, her voice a mix of sleep and mischief, “if you ever need help finding someone now that you’ve saved the world, I reckon I’m the expert of the family now.”

Latani snickers. Koen’s eyes shadow but he smiles, the firelight catching his silver-blue eye. “Yeah? What’s your advice, then?”

She hums a moment, nosing Latani’s shoulder. It’s ridiculous, given that they forged their bond in fear and clenched fists and locked gazes and feet planted against men with guns and CA vans, but here they are. “Actually, I take it back,” Alinta says. “Without the guns and the revolution and everything else I don’t think I’d have any idea where to start. Maybe don’t listen to me.”

Koen’s mouth twitches again, and he stretches out one leg to nudge Alinta in the foot. “I’ll keep that in mind if things ever go to shit again,” he says. “For now, you two will have to be the disgustingly well-adjusted couple in the family to make up for the rest of us.”

“Ha,” Alinta says, clearly pleased, and cuddles closer. Latani leans back against the driftwood, lets her eyes fall half closed, and follows the trail of sparks from the bonfire to the sky.