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The Deserter

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How much does Helen know?

She knows what the rest of the neighborhood knows: that Gul is always running. If she has free time, she's running. If it's morning, she's running, and if it's evening, she's running. Never at lunchtime, unless she's inexplicably at home for the entire day, in which case, definitely at lunchtime. She's always about to turn the corner and bump into someone, but she never does, with reflexes like that. She's always dressed in long-sleeve shirts and sweats, but there's a breadth of shoulders and power of thighs underneath that no amount of loose fabric can completely disguise.

And Helen has sharp eyes, and Helen has an imagination.

Whatever Gul's job is, no one knows, and no one really believes what she says about it, which is that she is an English tutor. English tutors don't really keep the hours she does. They don't disappear for weeks at a time, and they don't lurk inside their houses for days afterwards, and they definitely don't confuse their and they're and mistakenly respond reply all to the neighborhood watch. 

Not that Helen minds.

What else does she know? Well, she knows what the rest of the country knows: one hundred soldiers went into a cave in Ashrock and none of them came out. This is the government's excuse for the entire city of Eplore being demolished the day afterwards. They tried, they tried. There will be hearings no doubt and whether or not they tried their best to stop it will be the subject of debate for a long time, and there will be some who never believe they tried, and some who believe that hundred never even tried to stop it.

They're wrong, of course. All of them.

One hundred soldiers went into a cave in Ashrock and one of them came out. Her suit was still set to stealth, and her control panel got half-scorched, and so stealth she stayed, stumbling down the rocky mountain pass until she came to a thin, cold stream. When she wrested the suit off her (helmet first, and then gauntlets, and then the torso, unlatched, and finally the trousers), and flung herself into it, it wasn't even deep enough for her to submerge herself. She watched through half-lidded eyes as the water flowed away from her, faintly green. She had a vague idea of why, and it should have made her feel guilty, but in that moment, she was only faintly relieved some of the poison was washed off of her. Faintly relieved, and faint. Guilt would come later, a lot of it. 

Helen doesn't know this today and won't learn it tomorrow, either. But forever is a long time to make confident declarations about.

What does Helen know? At this point in the evening, Helen knows it is too late to go for a walk alone tonight. She is tall, but slight, with all the combat ability of a willow tree. She also knows that the next morning will be rainy, too rainy to go on a run then, and that the following evening, she'll be caught up in running her sister's baby shower, and that at roughly four in the morning after that, she'll have to wake up and get herself together to advise a client on an auction taking place halfway round the world. So she knows she probably won't go running for the next two or three days, really, because she's sensitive to her sleep patterns being thrown off. And this means she won't see Gul. She's too tired to do anything and too restless to sleep and why does it matter, really, that she hasn't seen Gul around the neighborhood in a couple weeks? Perhaps it's a longer business trip than usual. That's it, that's probably it. She should go to bed, that would be the right decision.

Except she doesn't go to bed, which is the first bad decision, and for the rest of the night she'll keep on making one bad decision after another. For the rest of her life, quite possibly. (But again, forever is a long time.)

Because behind her back door, crumpled on the doorstep but about to knock out of politeness anyway, will be a broad-shouldered woman with half the skin of her left side scorched green. Opening the door will be a bad decision, helping her in, grabbing her by the odd dull gears of her suit and hauling her into the bathroom. Undressing her will be a bad decision, mitigated only a little by the fact that she'll help clumsily in the process, fingers scraping at layers of cotton under the crinkle of the suit. Looking at her will also be a bad decision, a really bad one, considering that only something like four dozen scientists and a very small handful of soldiers, all handpicked, have ever seen wounds like this, that it is in fact illegal to have this sort of genetic material in her possession, and in light of that bad decision, the decision to turn on the tap and wash some more of the green down the drain will seem like a good one. (It won't be.) And when she cries out at the first drop of water and clutches at Helen's arm, all these bad decisions pale in comparison to the one spectacular and terrible decision of the night, which will be a kiss, pressed to her temple with some wordless murmur of comfort.

This kiss will have been a long time coming, which makes it worse.

Or rather, that's the next kiss, the one where Gul will turn her head, her lips cracked and swollen and dry, her mouth slipping open so easy, so hungry, and Helen's hands will cup her head strong and careful. Gul's short-cropped dark hair will be greasy but still somehow luxurious in its softness and when she twitches and tenses, when she goes ah half-choked in the back of her throat, Helen won't be able to tell if it's from the kiss or if it's from her wounds. It's not information Gul will volunteer and it's not a question Helen will ask. Instead, she'll use a washcloth, careful of bruises and green, and even more careful not to use soap or shampoo (she knows that much, at least), and then she'll take Gul to bed. She won't sleep, and this will be perhaps the worst decision of all, because it's not the kiss that will lead to the wreckage of Helen's entire life, not really. The moment that will seal her fate will be the moment when, still sitting at the edge of the bed, she feels something soft at her hip and turns to see Gul nudging up beside her, searching for her even in sleep. That will be the moment in Helen's mind when they have to flee the country, two days later.

All these bad decisions and more are in Helen's future. But for the moment, she's just leaning against the kitchen counter, staring off into the dark, thinking of the mysterious woman she wishes she knew better, and how nothing interesting ever happens around here.