5 kept the parts hidden inside him until he reached the work shop.
"There you are!" 2 said from behind his work bench, "I was getting worried. It's not like you to venture out alone. Are you alright?"
"Fine, perfectly," he lied. Okay, he was physically fine, so it wasn't really a lie, right?
"Are you sure? You look like there's something on your mind."
"I'm just tired. I've got a project to work on."
Now he had 2's interest, "Really? Come on, let's see."
5 was tempted to explain the whole thing to 2, and maybe get the inventor to accompany him on the return trip. But he had promised 7 he wouldn't. Still, 2 had an eye for the fine work the axle would require, and the work would go quicker with both of them.
5 pulled the replacement parts from his burlap along with the damaged ones and set them out on 2's work bench.
"I can't tell you where I got these," 5 said nervously, "But I need to make these parts capable of replacing these broken ones."
"These aren't yours I hope- but no, you're not limping," 2 replied, studying the parts. Then realization dawned across his face.
"I know you won't tell me much about these parts," the inventor said at last, "But at least tell me- are they alive?"
5 smiled at his mentor.
"All three of them."
2 picked up the bent axle and turned it over in his hands.
"You work on that gear. Let's get to it then."
They'd been at work for about fifteen minutes when 1 barged into the work shop with 8 at his heels.
"So you're back, then," 1 said coolly, eying 5, "What have you got your hands on now?"
5 shrank under his elder's gaze, absurdly thankful for the bench between him and their leader. He avoided 1's optics, he just knew that with one glance 1 would be able to drag 7's secret from him. Fortunately 2 spoke up.
"My new hip joint," 2 said, getting up from his work bench with a noticeable limp, "I took a bad fall earlier and this one's warped now. The boy was kind enough to go fetch me some replacement parts to work with."
2 smiled at 8, then 1.
"I'd like him to finish up as soon as possible. The slipping is starting to get to me."
"I suppose his absence was necessary then," he replied, "But remember how dangerous it is out there."
"I could hardly forget, after a fall like that," 2 said cheerfully, "But I might have to send 5 out again for more parts. The struts in my knee are acting up too."
Not until 1 and 8 left did 5 dare to look up.
"Why do you put up with him?" 5 asked his mentor.
"He means well, my boy, he really does," 2 replied, plunking himself back down at his bench.
"Now come on. Those teeth aren't going to file themselves."
Four hours later 5 was picking his way through the dusk to the remaining stitchpunk's new hideout. 7 appeared to be sleeping when he entered the room, handkerchief pulled back up to her neck, with 3 and 4 curled up on either side of her. Her optics opened immediately.
"Good to see you," she said, yawning, then shuddering suddenly as her body reminded her she was injured.
"I've got your parts ready," he told her.
"2 helped," 5 admitted, "But I didn't tell him anything."
7 sighed, "He probably figured it out anyway. Oh well. Maybe knowing we're alive will help convince him to join us."
"I hope so."
5 found himself hating 1 with a new passion. If 1 weren't so bossy, narrow-minded, authoritarian... they could all live together. Then he wouldn't have to choose between the mentor he loved as a father and the warrior he loved.
5 approached the bed and gently tapped 3. The twin's eyes unshuttered and flickered at him.
"You need to move," 5 said, showing 3 the parts. 3 sat up and shook 4 awake, and with a quick flickering conversation both twins were out of the bed. 4 went to the head of the bed and placed both hands on 7's shoulders, and 3 pressed lightly on 7's legs.
5 smiled at them.
"It's what they do," 7 replied. 5 moved the handkerchief aside.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
5 eased the seam open and set to work screwing in the new axle. It fit perfectly, which 5 had never doubted. 2 did good work. He cranked it as hard as he could without stripping the threads, trying to ignore the shudder of pain from 7 as he did so. The new parts wouldn't do her any good if they fell out.
"Try not to move for this next part," 5 said as he lined up the gear with the axle.
"What do you think I've been doing?" 7 muttered, trying not to tense everything as 5 slid the gear into place. It went in easily, and in a few minutes 5 had the bolt holding it on the axle screwed tight.
"Let's see if it works now," 5 said. The twins took that as their cue to release 7. They watched in anticipation as 7 flexed her right leg, then bent it at the knee and kicked out experimentally.
"You were right, good as new," she said. 5 started threading a needle.
"Be easy on it for the next day or so," he told her as he lined up her split seam to sew it shut, "It looks like the Scientist designed the threads on those parts to tighten as the gears move but you don't want to jar them out until they do."
"I'll try to be careful."
5 had the distinct sense 7 would be fighting cat beasts again within days.
"Please be careful with yourself," he pleaded between stitches, "It hurts to see you like this."
She snorted, replying, "It hurts to be like this."
He tied off the thread and cut it with the knife from his quiver. 7 got to her feet and picked up her gear. 3 and 4 put hands on both of her arms and flickered at her.
"They're right, you really should rest, at least til morning," 5 said.
"I will," she replied, "But this is 3 and 4's bed. My room's down this way."
She turned to the twins.
"I'm okay guys, don't worry. Why don't you research gears now in case something like this happens again?"
At the mention of research 3 and 4 let 7 be and started scaling a nearby bookcase.
"Is that safe?" 5 asked.
"They have lots of practice," 7 replied, "They know that bookcase inside and out. Come on."
5 followed 7 into the hallway.
"I should go. 2 will worry himself over me."
"Not even I cross the Emptiness at night unless I have to," 7 told him, "Stay until morning, at least, since you're not staying permanently. I'm sure 2 would rather have you wait until its safer."
5 glanced through a window at the pitch-blackness outside. No, he wouldn't be going anywhere in that.
"Okay, you win," 5 replied, "Guess I should find somewhere to sleep."
"My bed's big enough," 7 said. 5 stopped stock-still.
Did 7 just invite me into her bed?
He realized abruptly that 7 hadn't stopped walking and scurried to catch up.
The space 7 had picked for herself was small by this stone monolith of a building's standards. A massive wooden wardrobe dominated one wall, a dressing table and chair another. The room was surprisingly free of books save one thick dictionary on the floor that appeared to be functioning as a work table. Pieces of metal littered its surface along with a sharpening stone and a few completed blades. Staves of various lengths and thicknesses lay propped against the side.
7 led 5 to the far side of the wardrobe, where a doorway just big enough for any stitchpunk except 8 had been cut into the wood. 7 propped her spear and helmet by the door and ducked into the darkness within.
"Come on," she called from inside the wardrobe, then clicked on a penlight. 5 entered, and by its light could see that the wardrobe was empty, save for one coat at the far end. 7 had built her bed in the centre out of an old blouse, the red silk retaining some of its sheen despite its age. A large dagger lay above the head of the bed, and as 5 watched 7 placed her shield next to it.
"It's safer in here," 7 explained, "And warmer too."
"Do you always keep a weapon handy?" 5 asked.
7 smiled and sat on the bed.
She patted the space next to her.
"Relax. You've had nearly as long a day as I have."
5 sat wordlessly. His gears were whirling so fast he had to be vibrating. 7 plucked up her blanket and passed it to 5.
"You know I still get nightmares. Nothing like 6's, but I might wake you if I stay here."
"All the more reason you shouldn't be left alone in a strange place. Lie down. I'll get the light."
"I could do that," he said, but she responded by pressing him down to the bed.
"You don't know your way around the room," she replied, then she was up. The light clicked out a moment later. 7's footsteps were so light 5 couldn't tell where she was until he felt her slide into the bed next to him. He passed her the blanket, then curled onto his side facing away from her.
"Save some for yourself," her voice came from the darkness next to him.
"It might not be big enough," he replied.
"I can fix that."
5 felt the blanket being thrown over him, then 7's arms slid around him, one beneath his neck, the other around his chest. He found himself relaxing in her grasp despite his nerves.
"Are you comfortable?" 7 asked.
"Yes," 5 replied, "Thank you."
7 squeezed him a little tighter.
"If I can't have you I can at least keep you for a night."
5 tried to think of a good response, but before he had one he felt 7's body relax into sleep.
"I hope the morning never comes," he told the sleeping warrior. 5 tried to stay awake as long as possible, to savour the feeling of 7 pressed against him and pretend that all was right with the world. That there were no machine beasts hunting their kind. That all of them could live together without problems. That he could spend every night this close to 7. 5 fell asleep soon after. He slept like a baby.
Early the next morning 7 escorted 5 most of the way back to the Sanctuary.
"This is as far as I go," 7 said, tipping her helmet up as they stopped behind a car, "I can't have those guys seeing me."
"I won't say a word," 5 replied.
They stared at each other wordlessly for a moment.
"Thank you for the repairs."
"Oh, no problem. Any time."
More staring. Then before 5 knew what was happening 7 grabbed him and kissed him full on the lips. The kiss was over almost as soon as it began, then 7 dropped her helmet and raced off into the Emptiness. 5 stood there stunned for a moment, raising a hand to touch his lips. He was elated, because 7 had just kissed him, but he knew the odds of seeing her again were low as long as he stayed at the Sanctuary.
But if I could convince 2 to leave it wouldn't be a problem taking 6 with us... he thought as he started towards home. Until then he would miss her.