The soldier called Carter prised Tekla gently from Sparrow's arms, carefully avoiding her knife."It's ok, kid - we'll take care of your sis."
"It was probably you that shot her..." Perkins muttered. Carter gave him a pained look and covered Tekla's ears.
Dee and Zed reluctantly lowered their knives. Bee still held her staff protectively in front of her. "Why should we come with you?"
"Bee!" Sparrow said, "They can help Tekla..."
Bee didn't move. "We've got the medikit - we can help her ourselves."
Sparrow laid a hand gently on Bee's arm, "Not this time. Bee, please?"
Bee shook her hand off, but lowered her staff. Sparrow turned to the captain. "Is it a long way?"
The girl shook her head briskly. "Not far. Just across the square."
The base turned out to be in the depths of the station. There were more young soldiers guarding the gates at the bottom of the stairs down from the square, and even more spread around the concourse in various stages of uniform. Some were sitting around playing cards, others were sleeping on thin mats between the pillars.
The returning soldiers laid their guns down and took off their helmets and jackets. Beneath their camouflaged faces they were young. Older than Bee of course, but not that much older. The captain looked to to be one of the older ones. "Carter, take that kid to Medic right away. The rest of you, stop standing around staring like you've never seen a bunch of kids before."
Tekla was crying for Sparrow, and struggling in Carter's arms. Rat ran up and grabbed hold of his leg. When Perkins tried to pull her away, she bit his hand. He jumped back, waving his hand in the air. "Son of a...! She bit me, she actually bit me!"
Dee and Zed laughed while Bee stood impassively by. Sparrow walked up and took hold of Rat's jumper, "It's ok, Em - they're going to help. Tekla, stop wriggling. I'll be right there with you."
"We all will." Zed said, coming up behind Sparrow with Dee and Bee. Carter shuffled over to the side of the hall, Rat still clinging to his leg.
The medic carefully cut away the ragged edge of Tekla's shirt and washed the wound out with water. Sparrow held her hand tightly as the medic then wrapped a bandage around Tekla's arm. She looked at the other children, then over at the captain. "I hope you don't expect me to cure the rest of them?"
Captain Glory Everton narrowed her eyes at the children clustered round the camp bed. "These two seem normal but the other four look strange..." The girl with the wrap over her eyes, the thin boy with one hand twisted in on itself, the pale-skinned boy with white hair that looked like all the colour was bleached out of it, and the wild thing that bit instead of speaking like a normal person.
"That's not a very nice thing to say..." Tekla pointed out, turning round to frown at the captain. Sparrow flushed as she remembered thinking of the others as 'stupid and broken' when she first met them. Everything she'd been taught told her that being different was wrong and dangerous. She sneaked a glance at Zed and saw that he was staring at the ground. Even the normally cheerful Dee looked deflated. Bee had her chin stuck up defiantly, but her shoulders were drooped. Only Rat didn't seem to care what anyone said about her.
"Being different isn't bad..." Sparrow said slowly.
"Of course it is!" The medic interrupted. "Captain, I strongly suggest you dump these brats back where you found them."
"That's enough, Brodie. I'll decide what happens to them. Is the girl stable for now?"
Brodie nodded and stepped back from the bed, "She'll need the dressing changed daily though."
"We can do that ourselves." Bee said.
"Well I'm not chucking you back out there in the dark. You can stay the night."
Glory found them an alcove away from the rest of the troops, and brought them over a few of the thin bedrolls. "Here, we don't need these ones anymore."
Sparrow took them from her, "Thank you." They spread them out in the alcove and arranged the backpacks around like a barrier.
Glory glanced back at the other soldiers, then crouched down to Sparrow's level. "What are you kids doing out here alone anyway?"
"We're looking for our dad." Tekla said, appearing at Sparrow's shoulder." But we found new friends."
Dee looked up at that, and smiled. "We're helping Sparrow; that's what friends do. Sparrow got me these glasses so my eyes don't hurt in the sun." He pointed to the plastic sunglasses on top of his head.
Glory's face quirked into a smile in spite of herself. She ruffled Tekla's hair and stood up. "Hungry, much?"
"Always..." Dee said with feeling, and rubbed his stomach.
"I think we can sort that out."
"I ain't serving them, Cap!"
Glory's face hardened. "Just give them some grub or you'll be on latrine duty next."
The cook slopped stew into six bowls, grumbling, "Outsider brats don't deserve good honest food..."
"I don't know if I'd call it good...or honest either, considering where those vegetables came from." Glory scooped up the tray and passed it to Sparrow. "Maybe best to find somewhere quiet to eat this."
Back at their bedrolls, everyone grabbed a bowl and started to eat. The hot stew was thickened with barley and filled them up. Sparrow took the bowls back while Bee and the others shared out the blankets from their packs. When she came back, Tekla was the only one still sitting up.
"My arm hurts..."
Sparrow wriggled under the blanket next to her little sister. "You were such a brave girl." She reached into her bag and searched around until she found what she was looking for. "Hold out your hand. Close your eyes."
Tekla's fingers closed around the cold, hard object. When she opened her eyes, she saw Sparrow's red pin badge from school. "Blue for new, red for bled..." she mumbled sleepily.
"I think getting hit by a bullet beats having a blood test for bravery any day." Sparrow said, pinning the badge to Tekla's jumper.
Tekla reached up and gave her a hug, then curled up underneath the blanket. Sparrow slid down next to her, but lay awake, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. She could hear Tekla's breathing slowing as she fell asleep. The shadows on the ceiling jumped and changed as people walked past the lights that were shining over where the others were still awake.
She closed her eyes but all she could see was Tekla lying there on the ground in the dying light of the flare. Her little sister got shot because of her. She was supposed to take care of her, not put her in danger. Tekla should be able to run around and play like normal kids did. Not hiding in a run-down train station with a bunch of soldiers. Sparrow opened her eyes again. She'd stay awake all night if she had to, but nothing else was going to happen to Tekla. Or any of the others. She checked underneath the bedroll for her knife. Still there. She eventually fell asleep with her fingers wrapped around the handle.