Like Glowing Embers
Deslea R. Judd
DISCLAIMER: Characters not mine. Interpretation mine.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name on it.
RATING: R for low-key sex.
CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: Angst, romance, Knowle/Shannon.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Pre-XF, 1991, spoilers to NIHT II.
SUMMARY: "You're a stranger. And yet you know me better than anyone."
RELATED STORY: Follows Caro de carne mea (stands alone).
DEDICATION: To Spica. Happy birthday!
FEEDBACK: Cherished at firstname.lastname@example.org
MORE FICTION: http://fiction.deslea.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Spooky Awards 2003 eligible.
It's raining when you get home.
You draw her close under the eaves, shielding her while you open the front door. It's a strange, awkward intimacy, you think, fumbling with your keys, cupping her shoulder with a cautious hand. The forced intimacy of strangers, not the intimacy you have with the woman you just screwed against a wall.
You break apart at just the right speed when you get inside. Not too fast, not lingering either. You're momentarily pleased with your adept handling of the situation, and then it occurs to you in a wave of heat that it's a little late to be worried about playing it smooth.
(can't wait baby need to be inside you please it's been so long)
It wouldn't have mattered to you before. You like to think you weren't a selfish lover, but even if you were, it was no big deal. Plenty more fish in the sea, and you were young back then, strapping young soldier, plenty of time to settle down.
But now...well, you can't afford to fuck this one up, can you? She's all you've got. You hate thinking of it like that - like what they did to you made you a meat market of two. It feels calculating. Callous. But then, she knows it too, doesn't she? Why else would she invite herself back here? Why did she lead you into the alley at all?
She's looking at you in the dim light. Listening to the rain, waiting patiently while you think of something to say.
"Come into the bedroom," you say, unthinking, and then you wince. "I mean, your clothes. I'll get you some clothes."
She nods. A little stiffly. Hugging her ruined shirt around her.
You go to your room and drop down before the dresser, pulling out drawers in search of clothing. All business, even though your heart is pounding. She appears in the doorway and watches, leaning against the doorframe, and watching her from the corner of your eye, you're conscious of warring impressions. The clean starkness of her flimsy white shirt, belying the strong lines of her body beneath it. Jeans snug around slender hips, and you can remember kneeling before her, drawing them down with shaking hands as she watched you with those glittering dark eyes, still alive even now with fading heat. And something darker lurks there, too - an abyss of loneliness you know all too well.
You force yourself to concentrate on the matter at hand.
Your hand closes on two USMC t-shirts, and you consider them a moment, pondering the perverse irony of the matching set. Considering, too, the ways that they bind you, with their ties to the service and to the past. You weigh it up, and it seems to you that they could equally help or hinder, but there's only so far you can second-guess her, and in the end comfort wins out. You put hers on the bed, sparing her the indignity of letting go of her shirt to retrieve it, and then you turn your back on her, facing the window to change.
Her hiss of pain penetrates the stillness.
"Shannon? What is it?" you say, turning, caution forgotten. Urgent. Panicky. Wondering crazily if you've done something to her. What if your biology isn't compatible with hers after all? What if-
"My back," she says. "I scraped it. On the wall."
It's the first time either of you have alluded to what happened.
"Let me look."
She turns her back in silent acquiescence. Gingerly, you draw her shirt off her shoulders. It's stuck to her with blood, and tugging it free opens freshly-scabbed wounds.
"How is it?" she wonders, and you know what she means. Not how bad. How clean.
"Not too bad. There's some cotton fibre in there. A bit of plaster. I'll get it."
You get a cloth from the bathroom and wet it under warm water, and by the time you get back to her, her flesh is already healing up. It still bothers you, watching it, even after all these years, and the same old words rise in your mind. Unnatural. Inhuman. But for the first time that you can remember, your instinctive horror of your difference is tempered with something kinder. You frown a little, surprised by the realisation before you get to work.
You get it clean in time, taking your time to be sure. It heals up good. No ripples, no scar. You admire your handiwork, and risk a touch on her shoulder. "It's okay."
"Thank you," she says. She slips the t-shirt over her head and pulls it down over her body, but you stay where you are. Wary of breaking the tenuous connection you've made. She looks over her shoulder at you. "You know, I was in the Gulf in January."
You were there as well, but you don't want to interrupt whatever's sparked her train of thought by saying so. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Got shot up pretty bad. I wouldn't let anyone touch me. Let them heal over with the bullets still in there. I opened them up myself and got them out later."
You've done just as bad yourself, but you still wince in sympathy. "Afraid of being found out?"
She shrugs. "Afraid of being found out, afraid of transmitting it maybe - I have no idea if this thing can be passed on. I was afraid to ask."
You nod. Understanding perfectly. "They might have wanted more tests."
She gives a sudden, half-laughing sound that might just as well be a sob.
"You know, I don't even know you," she says, shaking her head. "It's been years since we served together - we were kids, for Chrissake. Now - now you're a stranger. And yet you know me better than anyone." She sighs. "I don't know if that's a good thing, or whether it's just pathetic."
You don't know what to say. Tentatively, you stroke her arm with the back of your hand, and she doesn't push you away.
"I feel like I owe you an apology," you say. "Back there - I was pretty, uh, gauche." It seems like an odd word, almost quaint, and it doesn't really capture your fumbled efforts in the alley, but you're not sure that you really want to capture them.
There's a hint of a smile in her voice. "I think we both were. Eight years is a long time." She holds you with her gaze, openly curious. "Did you know there was another one, Knowle?"
"Yes," you say. "But I didn't know who."
An uneasy silence falls, punctuated only by the sounds of the storm, and you see in her the same desperate search. The same panicky hope that maybe the unknown other would be the one who would make it all make sense, the one to take you out of the wilderness of whatever it was they did to you and help you to go forward.
And now that you have her, you have no idea what to do with her.
What the fuck did you think was going to happen, Knowle? You were going to fall into each other's arms and face the world together? You feel mildly ashamed of your own stupidity and naivete. Then, hot on the heels of that, a host of inarticulate hopes crumble beneath you. They fall away, leaving you suddenly, abruptly bereft.
"I'm not always - I don't -" you begin, and then you lose the thought. Sadness rushes over you, grief for a myriad of things lost to you, so hard and fast it leaves you reeling. Instinctively, you reach out, groping blindly for her. Tears slip down over your cheeks, just a couple of them, but you haven't cried since 1983, since the bombing of the MAU.
She stares up at you. Almost as shocked as you are.
"Knowle," she whispers, and she turns in your arms and she holds you, grasping at your shoulders, strong and ferociously tender. You cling to each other, and wracking sounds of grief pass between you without you knowing whether they're yours or hers.
You never really know where pain ends and passion begins. It isn't the first kiss, huddled together in the warmth of a shared breath - that's soft and slow and it tastes of mingled tears. It isn't the second, her shaking fingers finding your jaw as you push back her hair with your hands. It might be the third, when you gather her up, fiercely tender, and her palms grow firmer and surer and find their way into your hair.
"They'll use us against each other, Knowle, you know they will," she whispers against your lips.
You nod. You know.
It's gentler this time. Infinitely soft and slow. Not the harsh flames of ravenous hunger before. More like glowing embers splashing warmth and light in the dark. You see it when she kneels on the bed and stretches out her hand to you. You feel it when you sink down together into the pillows, blankets drawn over you both against the cold. You hear it in her voice when she seizes around you, sighing out your name.
"It's dark days ahead," she says when you're done and spooned together, watching the lashings of the storm against the windowpane.
You tighten your arm around her. "Yeah."
"They made us like this for something, Knowle."
"We'll face it together." You know that counts for very nearly nothing, but you say it because it seems like the right thing to say.
"That's not going to fix it," she says, but there's a note of indulgence in her voice, as well.
You don't have an answer for that. You stay there with her, stroking her, frowning.
"It's enough, Shannon," you say finally. "Maybe it doesn't fix anything, but it's enough."
She nods a little. Kisses your hand. Doesn't answer.
You drift off to sleep together in the dark.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The title of this one, like its prequel Caro de carne mea, is another biblical reference. This verse is less directly relevant to the story, but geeks - er, trivia buffs might be interested to know how it came about.
It started with the first story. Caro de carne mea is from the Latin Vulgate version of the creation story, in which Adam and Eve recognise their own likeness in one another and make love, much as Knowle and Shannon did.
However, this spawned a discussion of biblical etymology with a Hungarian friend, who mentioned that the Hungarian word for (hu)man is ember. This really appealed to me, with its connotations of warmth and (to mix my religious metaphors) the kind of phoenix-like themes I like to work with, of love and life springing out of the ashes of destruction.
So when the time came to name this sequel, I exposed my big ol' biblical geek roots and pulled out my concordance. "Like glowing embers" is from the NIV translation of Psalm 102:3, and it relates to being in pain and aching for comfort. It's also, I might add, a pretty crappy translation when compared with the Latin (I haven't checked it against Hebrew), but hey, literary licence and stuff.
And yet again, I've exposed the full range of my geekiness. Go me.