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All this darkness past

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News comes at dawn the mimics have surrendered.  Rita pulls on her training uniform and frowns.  

It has to be a trick, she figures, some kind of ruse.  The mimics would never surrender.  They would feint, they would lure.  They would make you think you were winning right up until the moment you weren't.

Rita dreamed of battle last night, of Paris, of storming the Louvre.  She shakes herself off, pulls on her boots.  Heads to the training grounds, uneasy.

***

The first vision starts as Cage walks towards her—I know him, Rita thinks, and sees fire, the bright heat of battle, a mimic running towards her. She sees Cage in a battle suit, flying through the air. Rita blinks. She focuses on Cage’s face, this Cage’s face, his teeth, his major insignia, glinting in the strange fluorescent light.

He grins at her, says: “You’re not going to believe this,” and something in Rita snaps, sharp and furious, at his self-assurance, at his smile, at his perfectly pressed suit. The absurdity of her entire wartime situation. She has mid-morning training, she has a squad to corral, she has a captain to convince that they shouldn’t let their guard down, not yet, not when it comes to the mimics. She has absolutely no time for officers who have never seen combat, live and up close.

Cage chuckles. Drops his voice. Says: “I was you, before Verdun.”

Rita’s heart sinks. “I trained you?” she asks, quick and immediate. Starts to turn over her dream from last night, her visions, in her head.

Cages gives her a wry little smile. He tells her: about killing the mimc, about stumbling, haphazardly, through his first resets, about finding her. How she drilled him, made him into a soldier. How they tracked the omega to Paris, together.

How he killed it.

How they both died.

Rita suspects, deeply, that Cage leaves a lot of things out. How carefully he chooses his words, how gratefully he looks at her. She breathes, in and out, two full counts. Asks: ”Is this the first time we're having this conversation?”

Cage stares back at her, confused.  "This particular conversation?  Yes.” He tries another grin.  “A conversation?  No, I just told you—”

Rita closes her eyes, tamps down another flash of anger.  "Cage, I'm asking if you've ever reset as the omega, not as the alpha.  You just told me you were drenched in the Omega's blood.  Surely you've made that connection yourself, that you've got the power again?  Or, even worse: you've got a new kind of power."

Cage stares at her, stunned and slightly terrified.

Rita sighs. Throws her hands up in the air.  "Come on, then. Let’s go find Dr. Carter.”

***

Dr. Carter leans forward, eagerly, as he takes in Cage’s whole story. Looks at Rita in awed disbelief and says, “We did it?!”

“We did it,” Cage confirms. Looks at Rita, proud.

Rita looks away.

***

Here is the truth; here is the thing that Rita has believed, deep down: it was always going to be her. She’d find the omega, and she’d kill it, and nobody, not one person, in the world would ever understand. Instead, it’s this Cage with his smile and his swagger, his steady hands, and Rita—Rita wants so badly. To have her memories mean something, to have the blood on her hands washed clean, made new, forgiven.

Her second vision is of the sky, smoke billowing. Cage leaning over her, frantic, and holding her in his arms.

***

Orders come through: Beer for the troops, a moment of silence, and a toast at 1700 hours. France, in the morning. At dawn.

Rita watches the kegs roll through the base, stacked three high on flatbeds, strapped down, and secure.

Rita waits, as her tomorrows come back to her in flashes, in memories, in fragments.  She sees: the inside of a house, a dropship, an abandoned suit. An empty field. She sees Verdun, vivid and clear, the colors of the battlefield in technicolor, those months and months of slogging, of fighting, of holding on survival with both hands.

She sees Hendricks.

Cage finds her just as the beer starts flowing, soldiers lined up on the airfield, the crowd starting to fill in. Rita watches his gaze linger on J squad.

"How well do you know me?” Rita asks Cage. Tries to sound conversational, like she’s wondering. Like she has no idea. She takes a long sip of her beer. Feels her metal mess cup clanging against her teeth.

Cage is quiet for a long time, considering.  "Well enough to know it doesn't matter how many resets we went through. You don't know me in this one.  Not really."

Rita looks down, frowns.  He's not wrong.  The bits she’s seen, the bits she remembers, are all surface level, focused--meeting Cage for the first time, over and over again. A day’s worth of knowledge. With Hendricks, in Verdun, it was different. He knew her before the alpha; he knew her cold. If he’d survived, if he’d remembered, if he’d—

It doesn’t matter, Rita reminds herself. He didn’t.

Rita pushes forward, and loses Cage in the crowd.

Finds her way back to Dr. Carter’s lab, party raging, pressing in from all angles, loud and raucous.  Watches him excitedly pushing pixels around the blue glow of his model, reshaping the alphas into something distinctly human-like, as something like dread burns beneath her sternum. Sits down next to him, quiet. Steadies her shaking hands.

Rita asks, “Could I be remembering? Is that even possible?”

Closes her eyes when he answers, “Yes.”

***

When she finally falls asleep that night, she dreams of a van, of watching France fall away through the side window. Cage sitting, calmly, at her side.

***

Morning comes. She puts on her battle suit. She nods at her squad. She sees Cage striding across the tarmac, at ease in his suit. Camera crew trailing close behind. He stops and talks to a soldier, here and there, pulls them out of line. Always a salute in response.

Cage approaches, and the cameras behind him falter, once they see Rita’s face.

"I can't believe you outrank me," Rita mutters, makes use of the two seconds of privacy before the private holding the boom mic trots up to them, apologetic.

Cage raises his eyebrows in response, and has the decency to look sorry about it. “The Angel of Verdun,” he says to viewers at home.

Rita feels a familiar rage wash over her, a crisp white anger, and glowers. Doesn’t look back, as her platoon marches forward to lift up to their dropship. Listens to the steady reassuring beat of her eardrums, as they ascend, as they fly, as the bottom of the ship opens up, preparing for release. She breathes in and out, and remembers the dozens, the hundreds, of drops before today. Cage resetting, over and over again. Lets herself fall.

The beach is empty, eerie. Quiet. Thousands of mostly hungover soldiers landing reassuringly around her. Rita knows Cage must be somewhere, must be close. He insisted on riding with J squad, despite their complete and utter disinterest in him, to a man.

Across the sand, move forward. Step left, duck right. Cross the trench, look to her right. Rita hears a thud, and turns around. Sees Cage watching her, mouth hanging open, like he’s seen a ghost.

***

“You remember,” he says accusingly, later that night, temp barracks five miles inland. Rita’s squad fared mostly okay with their hangovers. Someone pulled a flask at mile two, fight fire with fire, and Rita, not being drunk enough to be feeling terrible to begin with, got pleasantly, reassuringly tipsy. She doesn’t have to stay sharp, doesn’t have to worry about mimics, about the omega. They’re not coming back, she wanted to yell at her staff sergeant, at her captain. Let’s just get on with it.

Rita shrugs, loose and easy. “Seems like.”

Cage has the gall to look betrayed. Switches tacks, smiles, low and dark. Says, “So you remember that you don’t hate me?”

“Haven’t got to that part yet,” Rita shoots back. Works hard on enunciating every word, crisp and sure. Watches Cage’s face shift into something like fondness, something like hope. “Just bits and pieces so far,” she says, casually. Like it’s something that happens every day. “Still sorting out what’s real. What’s not.”

“Need any help with that?” Cage asks, earnest, genuine. “Seriously, if you have questions—“

“I’ll let you know,” Rita cuts in. Nudges her flask at him. “Drink this, so I don’t have to.” Stands up unsteadily. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she calls out, waving over her shoulder.

Doesn’t tell him: she wishes she doesn’t have to. She wishes—she wishes she found the omega, on her own.

***

Before Verdun, Rita watched the coverage, watched the wall of red inch closer, and closer, and closer into France.  Fight or die, those were the options.  

After Verdun, Rita wondered how it had taken the mimics this long, how their takeover hadn't been immediate, instantaneous.  One minute you're sitting at your kitchen table, chopping onions, the next, you're overtaken. Gone.

***

They continue their long slow march across the countryside, pick their way through mimics, through booby traps, through a wide open desolate landscape, zig-zagging, vaguely, towards Paris. They bunk down in Zutkerque, in Bollezeele. Lookouts are assigned at each mini-base to keep watch, to make sure. The soldiers are jittery, no one quite believing this is it, that the mimics aren’t coming back.

Rita believes. Rita sleeps just fine.

Cage flits at the periphery of Rita’s day, always close by, always near. Rita remembers him trying to keep her on the dropship, trying to keep her away from Paris, and hates, hates, hates his guts for it. Rita hates herself, most of all, for not doing the same to Hendricks, back when she had the chance.

In Bailleul, Cage finds her in the early morning, a cool low mist blanketing their camp. Rita looks up from her pushups, pushes herself back to her knees, stands up.

Rita stares at him, straight on and clear-eyed.  "How many times did you let yourself die, once I was already dead?"

Cage falters.

Good, Rita thinks.  Let him be disappointed.  There are men she joined up with lying in unmarked graves all across France.  Men she saw die, again and again, men she could do nothing to save, while Cage slipped on his dress uniform every morning, sipped his coffee.  Sold death in the form of global patriotism from the warmth, the safety, the sanctuary of a tv studio.

What Rita doesn’t say: she thinks about him, about France and that farmhouse, much more frequently than she should.

He stays farther away, a whole entire week.

***

In Nieppe, he brings her a bottle of salvaged wine, dusty and forgotten, like a penance. Like an offering.

Cage clears his throat. “You liked me, you know.”

“I tolerated you,” Rita answers. Squares her shoulders.

Cage pushes on. ”You told me I was a good man, and that you wish you had a chance to know me better."

"Moment of weakness,” Rita answers wryly.  “I knew I was dying.” She works her knife into the cork. Wiggles it free.

Cage steps closer, frustrated.  "Rita, we're all dying.  It's just going to happen a little bit slower, now that we're not at war."  His face clears, he takes the cup of wine she offers him. Holds it up in a toast.  "Know you don't hate me, somewhere deep down,” Cage says, and takes a sip.  "You kissed me once, you know.”

“I do know, in fact,” Rita answers. She looks at him, direct. “If I didn’t remember, would you have told me?”

Cage doesn’t answer. Rita closes her eyes.

“Would it have mattered to you?” he asks, quietly.

“Maybe not,” she admits.

Through it all, the battles, Verdun, the mud and blood and death, with every step, Rita had a purpose, a mission. Her fight, and hers alone.  Kill the omega or die trying. Wake up, and die again. Now.  The world, her future, spools out in front of her, strange and uncertain, a living, breathing thing.

She holds her cup in her hands. Looks up. “But it matters to me now.”

***

In Lille, word comes through from above, that Cage is to give a press conference, deliver a speech, to be broadcast worldwide. Worst of all: they want Rita, the face of the war, face of the soldiers, standing by his side.

***

“I’m not doing it,” she tells him, as the troops mill around after dinner, restless, bored. They haven’t hit the worst of the damage yet. This part of France had months, years of warning, before the mimics invaded. To evacuate, to escape. The most disturbing part about their march has been the emptiness, the lack of violence, of blood.

Rita doesn’t know what waits for them further on, in Germany. Doesn’t particularly want to find out.

“We killed the omega, saved the world,” she says. Looks up at Cage.  “What more do you want from me? There’s nothing we can tell anyone to make them understand.”

Cage looks at her, incredulous.  "We have--how can you even--there's still work to do. You’re a hero, Rita.”

Rita shrugs.  The mimics took from her, again and again. They took from her for so long she doesn't even begin to know what she wants back. If she thinks too hard about it she sees: Hendricks, in basic training. Her family, twenty years ago. Cage, bloodied and battered, moving forward. Steadfast and sure. She doesn’t want to be a war hero, or an angel. She wants—she wants to remember what she wanted, before the war.

Rita shivers, involuntarily. “There’s not any work for me.  Me, I'm a weapon—my entire body is a weapon. I don’t have anything useful to do here.”

“Rita, you are the reason—“

"We don't need to talk about it, Cage," Rita interrupts, impatient.  "I remember.”

He’s quiet for a long time. Says finally, “Okay.”

Rita stands, turns to leave. “And by the way, Cage. If you tell one more person that it's the technology, that it's the suit, that anyone could have fought like me--I'll strangle you with your own organs.”

***

She does the press conference, obviously. Doesn’t say a single word. Just sits there, and seethes.

***

Rita ignores Cage all the way to Amiens.

He’s being careful with her, in a way he never seemed to be in the loops, in his resets. Rita knows better now. He always was, always has been. Was just better at hiding it. It’s easy to hide your feelings when a person can’t remember your tells, she supposes, but. Rita remembers them, now.

Rita remembers: Cage's hands on her back, her neck, her arm, dressing her wounds, a cup of coffee, the quiet empty stretch of road ahead of them, driving through France.

Rita remembers wanting, so many things, and knowing she couldn’t have.

At night, when the soldiers relax, peel off their boots, pull out their cards, their flasks. Rita goes to Cage’s bunk. Watches him take in her eyes, her hips, her hands.

Their orders are Paris tomorrow, hitching a ride on an Army transport that’s allegedly on its way from the coast, trucks, that finally managed to cross the sea. Rita wants to storm the city, to burst right into the Louvre. She wants Cage there, at her side.

“Do you really want to know me,” she asks him. Is lips distance away when he smiles, presses his fingertips into her waist. Breathes, Yes.