A/N: I have a very good memory from growing up that involves roasting venison tenderloin over an open fire on green sticks, and then salting the ever-lovin' fire out of it when it was cooked. I still think that it's one of the best ways to eat it, and I'd recommend it if you get the chance.
Royce was one of those men who didn't simply stand. He didn't simply move here and there. He uncoiled, like a slick leather cord and wrapped himself in and around his environment so that, unless you were specifically looking for him, you weren't going to see him at all.
Isabelle watched him making his way down the backside of the ridge through her scope and took an eighth of a second to reflect on the fact that she found this quality quite sexy. Days had passed, and she was still fighting the wear and tear from the neurotoxin. Her left leg would seize up, her right arm wasn't as steady as she needed it, which lead to a lot of prone shooting. Compensation for bodily failure was not acceptable, and it made her angry. She took grim pleasure in the doctor's death, only she wished it could have been slower.
Royce reached her in fifteen minutes or so. There was no gauging time by the sun here. They had worked the timing out. Sunrise lasted all of five minutes, and then there was daylight for close to 45 hours. This was followed by an equal length of darkness, and then the light exploded again. The sun had just gone down. Royce was moving slowly as he approached her, tired. Something big, red, and meaty hung over his shoulder. He shrugged when she raised a brow.
"The dogs were eating one," he said non-commitedly, and strung it up in a tree. He'd already gutted the creature, whatever it was, and he began skinning. Isabelle built a small fire. When she looked up, Royce was hacking into what appeared to be the haunches, and she laughed quietly.
"Don't take it from there. There are easier ways," she said.
He looked back over his shoulder with a half-curious face, and offered her the knife.
She rose and took it from him, chuckling. "City boy," she smiled. "If you take the haunches or shoulders, you have to bust the joints and it takes longer to cook. The meat along the backbone is the easiest to get, and usually…." -she paused to peel back what appeared to be fat- "it's the best tasting."
Royce shrugged and wiped his grimy hands on the front of his equally filthy IBA. "Did I mention that I've got salt in my pack?"
"No!" Isabelle was aghast with mock astonishment. "Truly, though?" Both of them were dehydrated, both of them were bottoming out for need of electrolytes, and she had been craving salt all week. Royce half grinned at her and turned to dig through his pack while she pulled the last of the backstrap loose from the spinal column.
They ate it in slices, salted and then cooked on the ends of green sticks like you might roast a hotdog. Isabelle had never tasted anything so good in her life. The best of it was they still had salt left over when they were through.
"Aw hell. That was good." Royce leaned back and cocked his head to the side, listening.
Isabelle nodded in agreement. "That's one more thing we know we can eat, yeah?"
Royce smiled. "You know how to bust the joints on this thing?"
"If they are anything like a gazelle."
The shoulder joints weren't, in fact, anything like a gazelle's. The hindquarters were, though, good ol' ball and sockets, and they cleaned the skeleton of anything that looked useful or edible. It was almost too much to carry, and they knew that they'd probably have to make the choice later to leave most of it behind. Or use it for bait.
It's just that the idea of having enough food to last was too much to turn away from at that very moment.
They had nothing but the ground and each other's packs to sleep on, and ordinarily, they would have set watch; Royce first, and then Isabelle. They were going to be moving within the next twelve hours anyway, and god only knew what the falling of night would bring. But when Isabelle looked across the fire and Royce had one arm extended in invitation, she took it.
"This is probably a mistake," he said and she slipped under his long arm and rested her head against his chest, sighing. Then he started to snicker.
"Just remembering the last time I said that to a woman."
Isabelle propped her head up and looked at him, waiting.
Royce got this half uncomfortable look in his face -he was always half-emotional, Isabelle realized- and sighed. "She was my girlfriend's sister."
"Oh! Yes, a mistake, then…"
"No…not really. I mean…I had to learn the hard way that you don't mix business with pleasure. Her sister was working for me, research mostly, but she'd seen action so I brought her along because I thought I might need her. Thought I might."
"And well. She passed. And it ate me alive. And I had to go to Missouri and set her whole family down and tell them what happened and beg'em to forgive me."
"So what were you doing with her sister?"
"I couldn't really handle it, so I walked out to the barn, and she'd beat me there. Was up in the loft and I heard her. So I crawled up and we just sat there and mourned. I got to where I couldn't take it any longer, and she had stopped crying. She started talking about growing up with her, about all the shit they got up to as kids, and there's this big hay-pile right underneath us, and she's laughing her ass off through the tears and I look at her and go, "This is probably a mistake," and just shove her off into it. You should have seen her face, Isabelle." He was smiling simply.
"Did it help her?"
"She bided her time until I was down out of the loft and put me in a water trough. In February."
Isabelle propped herself up and looked at Royce. She was having a hard time imagining anybody able to put Royce somewhere he didn't want to go, and then he tugged a small notebook from his pack. There were photos crammed everywhere. He pulled one out, and pointed.
"The tall one. She plays basketball for a living nowadays."
Isabelle laid her head back down on his chest and laughed with him. "I promise I won't put you in a water trough."
"You'd have your hands full." He sighed, cocked his head, listening again. Then he looked down at her. "You remind me of her, you know."
"Who? Your girlfriend or her sister?"
"May. Her name was May. She was just…one of those people. The kind you don't see, EVER, and when they do cross your path you look at them and go: "Why me?" And then you realize it's you because it's EVERYBODY. She just…she would have saved the world. But she couldn't. So she learned as much as she could about it. Meant the Army. So she saw some service in Iraq. Put it to use. And then went for it. Shot for the moon. Contracted to the US government as a fact-finder, and then they loaned her out to selected folks in the private sector. S'how I met her. She cared like you do."
The girls in the family photo he'd shown her had all been bright blondes, Scandinavian queens with large, merry blue eyes and glowing faces. Nothing to compare to Isabelle's dark stillness. She didn't know what to think.
"That's a compliment," he said quietly, bringing a hand up to the crown of her head and working his fingers through her hair.