Nora and Bram had picked a dead tree trunk as their target, rotted and blooming with mushrooms. It was a clear day, and the light filtered through the canopy of pine trees. After a few deafening shots from the Chaperone, the forest had become so quiet that there was nothing left to hear but their own breaths.
Bram lowered the shotgun, hoping against hope that he'd hit the stump this time. He hadn't. Nora let out a snorting laugh that broke the silence like another gunshot. Bram handed the gun back to his wife and rolled his right shoulder, wincing.
"It's, ah… it's got a kick," he said finally.
"All the best things do," Nora said, hefting the gun and aiming down its sights. When she looked back to Bram, he was shaking his head.
"The first time you let me touch it, and you didn't even warn me it has a kick?"
"You never noticed?"
"Well, you never flinch," he said, winking.
"Guess I know it too well," she said with a smile.
The air was chill; he pulled his threadbare coat from his shoulders and draped it onto his wife's.
She handed the Chaperone back to him and slipped her arms into the coat's sleeves. It didn't quite close over her belly. None of their scavenged winter clothes did anymore.
"You'll get used to it too," she offered. Pity as consolation. He raised the gun.
"Stand sideways. Now hold it against your hip," she said. He propped it on his hipbone; she pushed it aside. "Not like that."
Bram rolled his eyes, but it was with a smile. He did as she directed. He had always been a good listener.
"Remember when we first met?" she said, stepping away.
"I met this gun first," he replied, and fired.
It had been in some dusty ruin on the road. The business end of the Chaperone was the first thing he'd seen.
Bram stared into the barrel before looking into the eyes of the woman holding it. When she saw he was no threat, the muzzle dropped.
"Nora Jericho," she said, as if she hadn't been about to shoot him. "Where'd you come from?"
He gestured behind him.
"What's your name?"
He tried to speak, but nothing came out. He was still shocked into silence.
"You know it ain't safe here, right?" she asked.
"'Cause of you?" he blurted without thinking. Grimacing, he looked wide-eyed at her for one tense moment.
Then she laughed, a short bark that made him flinch, and held out a hand in greeting.
"Nora," she said, starting again.
"…Bram," he answered at last. He shook her hand and gave a high, breathy laugh–a laugh of relief.
This time the shot hit its mark; the stump burst with the impact. Nora watched her husband smile, slow and triumphant.
Then they heard another shot, then another. A sudden burst of Arc energy seared the tree trunk beside them, crackling and burning. Bram stood frozen, but Nora grabbed the gun away from him and held it steady as she surveyed the rows of straight, tall trees.
A movement at the corner of her eye; she whipped around and fired. She hit the edge of a tree, enough to startle the Fallen behind it.
It turned to run, tripped on a root, and hit the ground. Its shock pistol skittered out of reach. It rolled onto its back, scrambling, as Nora approached with her gun. She heard no other shots, no other movement. It was alone. It was terrified. Two of its arms had been cut away at the elbow. The Fallen looked up from the barrel of her shotgun and locked eyes with her. It didn't even try to reach for its pistol.
Nora stood silent, her finger on the trigger, for a long moment. Then she nodded her head. At this permission, the Fallen rose to its feet, then turned and took off into the forest.
Nora waited until she could no longer hear its footsteps. Then she stooped, squatted, and picked up the gun the Fallen had dropped. She handed it to her husband.
"Here," she said. "More your speed."
She held onto her gun tightly. She wondered, briefly, if the Fallen had heard their practice shots and assumed they fired first. If it had attacked out of fear. She couldn't know.
Her husband's arms came around her. She relaxed her grip on the gun.
That night, she and Bram lay together in a shelter he had made in an old, rusted truck; he'd cleared the cab of spiders and put down blankets for a little comfort. Nora had climbed in, smiled, and declared it "good enough." In her way, that was thanks.
"Why'd you let it go?" Bram asked. Nora thought back to the Fallen's terrified eyes.
"The Chaperone ain't for killin'. It's for protectin'."
Bram put a hand on her belly. He felt how their baby shifted inside her. Nora didn't flinch.
"Little star's got a kick," Bram said, with that same high, breathy laugh of relief.
"All the best things do."
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