The camouflage and tent eventually got put up, largely due to Alex and Mitulu who weren't busy balling their eyes out or comforting each other. Like most girls, Li and Amber felt better after a good cry and a hug and they set about setting up bed spaces.
Alex and Hex took charge of preparing the evening meal using a portable gas cooker and a large billycan. Alex would have loved to use a fire but considering their close shave with the army earlier that day he was not eager to test their luck anymore then he had to. Instead they emptied the last of the meal sachets into the pot to create a stew that was hopefully enough to feed seven.
Mitulu proved his worth by returning from an hours foraging with several large seedpods and dozens of wild figs. He then showed the two older boys how to crush up the seeds from the pods, which he insisted would make a nice thickener for the stew and add some extra flavour.
"Ceratonia siliqua or Carob tree as it is more commonly called." Li explained looking impressed at the find, when Alex asked her about it, confirming it was edible.
Camilla and Paulo were woken up for dinner and climbed out of the cab to find themselves concealed under the camouflaged awnings with darkness approaching and the smell of a hearty stew wafting towards them. Hungrily, the pair joined the rest of the group in the tent, where everyone sat cross-legged as the stew was poured into bowls.
Li looked up, as the sullen eyed Argentinean sat down, he seemed reserved, not his normal overconfident self. No cowboy grin covered his face, which seemed very plain and lifeless without it. For the first time Paulo noticed his splinted hand and peered across at Li.
"Did you splint this?" He quietly mumbled waving his bandaged limb.
"Boxer's fracture, I've seen a few in my day." She explained referring to her time in full-contact martial arts tournaments.
"It commonly occurs with inexperienced fighters or boxers who are too used to having gloves cushioning their fists."
"You did a good job." He admitted, still sounding morose. "Thank you."
Alex started sliding steaming bowls of stew in front of the team and the dull clatter of green plastic spoons echoed as Hex handed out cutlery. The hungry group hacked into the food without hesitation; the day's events had drained them all. As the happy sounds of eating diminished Alex addressed the group, briefing them on the plans for the rest of the night and for the next day.
"Ok tonight there will be sentry again, starting 1900." He announced to the collective moans and groans of the group.
"But it will be a 50% watch; just one sentry at a time meaning everybody will get a bit more rest. We still have to remain alert we know the enemy is out there." He explained gravely.
Amber circled a location on the map and passed it to Alex, who quickly evaluated it and continued.
"According to Amber's navigation we have another forty kilometers to cover tomorrow in order to reach the first aid drop by 0600. That means we are away from here no later then 0500. It's an early start I know." He acknowledged seeing the downcast looks around him.
"The good news is once we have the supplies our timings are our own until the next drop in three days. Mitulu will guide us to the villages that need us, we dispense the aid and then repeat the cycle. We will be back in the game and back on track." He finished with a grin that was far more confident then he was feeling.
Camilla looked around the dejected group as it fell into silence; they looked absolutely shattered at the moment not the hardy group of teens she remembered from a week ago. She was embarrassed about how she had fallen to pieces back at the village and felt as though she had to prove herself to the friends again. Despite the lingering nausea from earlier, Camilla forced down her sadness and fear, twisting her face into what she hoped was an upbeat expression.
"Come on guys." She cheered brightly. "I know we have had a really rough last couple of days, but we are through the worst of it now and just need to push on for a little bit longer. Once we make this first drop we can decrease the tempo a bit and create a little more time to recover."
Alex shot her an appreciative look.
Li caught the girl's enthusiasm and tried to rally the team as well, "She's right come on we are Alpha Force; hard work is right up our alley, since when did we ever shy from a challenge?"
"That's the spirit." Alex encouraged.
Hex's face remained serious as he raised his hand like he was in school.
"What about the footage we obtained today?" He asked raising his eyebrows and directing his question at Alex.
Alex looked anxiously across at the yawning African boy beside him and sent the group a pointed look.
"We will discuss that later tonight." He hinted.
"Might be time for bed there Mitulu?" Camilla said firmly, catching Alex's drift.
The young boy turned to face, yawned again and nodded.
"I sleep in truck, guard truck." He declared simply rising to his bare feet and disappearing in its direction.
"Okay, about the footage." Alex whispered conspiratorially. "We've got some footage of the slaughter back in the village, but since Hex has limited connectivity out here we basically have no way to transmit it. So we carry on with our original objective but at the same time try to make contact with the UN to let them know what we have got and hopefully transfer it across."
Camilla looked troubled at the mention of the village, but she held her tongue. Amber too looked bothered by Alex's executive summary.
"Wait." She interrupted. "Why isn't it a priority to transfer the film?"
"Well…" Hex answered her hesitantly. "It may not be enough alone for the UN to act on and conduct some sort of intervention."
Paulo also spoke up for the first time "While the UN makes a decision, people here will still be starving and dying so our priority remains delivering aid and helping them."
Li was surprised by the passion in his voice.
Amber nodded in defeat, satisfied by her friend's rationale.
"I'll take first stag, the rest of you get some sleep," Alex concluded rising to his feet.
"Oh and Paulo?" He added "No sentry for you or Amber tonight, just get some rest."
The pair nodded in exhaustion and retired, Paulo to share the Unimog cab with Mitulu and Amber to the tent. Li and Camilla walked to the edge of the net to wash the dinner dishes with antibacterial wipes. declining Hex's offer to help. The two girls felt more then capable of handling it and also welcomed the chance for a bit of girl talk in the darkness.
Shrugging with indifference, the hacker ambled back to tent and flopped down on his bed; beside him Amber went through her nightly routine of checking her blood sugar levels. She glanced over, her body beginning to burn up as he slowly removed his shirt and kicked out of his boots.
She reached across and lightly laid a hand on his bare muscular back. Hex jerked at the sudden contact and looked over his shoulder at her.
"It's healing up well." Amber whispered, her fingers tracing between the multitude of nicks and cuts from the shrapnel that were healing over on his back. He had removed the bandages earlier since Paulo had suggested airing the wounds.
Hex turned on his bed to face her.
"We need to change your bandages tonight." He reminded her reaching for the basic first aid kit at the top of her pack.
In silence he removed the filthy bandages that covered the various scratches and cuts on Amber's arms and legs. With the wounds exposed, he soaked a square of gauze in disinfectant and gently started dabbing. Amber instantly pulled away under his hands and turned to scowl at him
"OWW! Damn, that stings!" She accused raspily.
"Don't be such a baby.." He shot back, returning her scowl.
Amber whimpered slightly and continued to make scathing comments until Hex had finished.
Then she smiled an evil grin.
"I guess we better change the one on your chest too." She commented her voice dripping with venom.
Without asking for permission she gripped the edge of the tape that secured his bandage and yanked with all her might. With a horrible ripping noise, the tape tore from flesh, dragging with it a quantity of Hex's fine, dark, chest hair. The hacker screamed in hushed pain watching the sadistic grin of the girl grow with his obvious show of discomfort.
"Oh don't be such a baby Hex." Amber teased sarcastically. "Besides getting waxed hurts girls way worse."
"And that was just your chest." She added seriously.
Hex was lost for a response, looking down at his missing patch of hair and was too distracted to stop Amber snatching the disinfectant off him. She plunged a new piece of gauze into the strong liquid and started wiping the edge of his sutured cut. Her fingers eagerly splayed out across his firm chest to hold him still with one hand as she cleaned with the swab. With quiet joy at touching the boy, she worked slowly and methodically.
Hex gritted his teeth, determined not to make as bigger deal as she had when he did it to her. Apart from the sting of disinfectant his body also reacted to the presence of her other hand that clutched his body in a more then just supportive manner. Was it just the pain pushing up his heart rate and making him feel dizzy?
With the wound clean, Amber applied a fresh dressing and was slightly disappointed as he replaced his shirt, nodded thanks and slipped into his sleeping bag. Feeling the strain she was putting on it, she decided not to say anything in fear of losing her voice altogether and she climbed into her own bed silently.
At the edge of the netting the two girls chattered away incessantly in a hushed whisper as they wiped the dishes from dinner in the cool night air. From his sentry position further around the net, odd snippets of conversation reached Alex as he lay on the ground scanning the open savannah. He heard bits and pieces of some of Alpha Force's stories, much giggling and what he could have sworn was his name more then once.
That can't be good, Alex figured, Li sharing some embarrassing stories about me I bet.
As the two girls bonded over their work and recent shared experiences the questions became a bit more personal and tended to focus on each other and their friends.
"So are those two an item?" Camilla asked slyly, nodding her head towards the tent where the talking and movement had just ceased.
Li rolled her eyes and replied with a laugh, shaking her head.
"No they aren't. They may as well be, but they dance around the issue. They care for each other so much but refuse to admit it."
Camilla cocked an eyebrow suspiciously. "Are you sure? They were snuggled up pretty cosily the other night."
An amused look crossed Li's face. "You mean like you and Alex were?"
The blondes face heated up under the moonlight.
"I'm just a little cold here Alex.." Li imitated, making it sound very suggestive.
The pale girl beside her was appalled; the night hid the deepening red of her face as she guiltily replied.
"I thought you were asleep."
Li broke into a giggling fit. "Not quite. Real smooth by the way."
Camilla pouted stubbornly, maintaining her silence and hopefully my dignity, she thought, the only sound becoming the scrape as she rubbed food off the spoons. Noticing the change in the girl Li pressed home the advantage.
"Paulo says that he doesn't have a girlfriend back home you know?" She revealed sweetly, loving the jerk of surprise that occurred from the other girl.
"Oh right because I asked?" Camilla replied trying to sound sarcastic and offhand, pushing up the barriers around her again despite the leap that occurred in her chest.
"No, but you wanted to." Li snapped back her voice full of mischief as she finished wiping down the pot.
"Paulo says huh?" The blonde countered slyly, ignoring the blow and throwing the last clean bowl on the pile.
Li didn't reply while darkness enveloped her face, as they turned to carry the dishes back to the camp.
With the nights gossip session, over the rest of the night passed uneventful, apart from Hex tripping over a sleeping Li on his way to sentry and waking the whole unamused tent.