Sometimes he still remembered the flames.
The debris had caught them by surprise, lurking on the dark side of Alpha’s second moon. Emergency maneuvers had only done so much to mitigate the damage, and only Fortune, that fickle bitch, had relented with the smallest of smiles for them to not have been smashed into smithereens.
Strobing alarms ring and flash around the confines of the stealth carrier. His squad, the men and women who had served with him for years, bravely struggling to keep their ailing craft together. They had only one chance left: force a landing on the planet itself.
He tossed restlessly, brow furrowing as phantom heat raced up his arms and torso.
They streak like a falling star, battered shields barely holding out against the heat of re-entry. He takes the controls himself, even as their engines fail one by one, armor plating tearing away as they slice through the thick atmosphere. The dying ship keens its death-song, even as he frantically reroutes what power there is left to the emergency thrusters.
One wing tears away violently; he barely hears the screams of his brave squad-mates who could not avoid the cruel fingers of depressurization. His head grows light, and he blinks furiously as he wrestles with the controls, desperate to save what was left of his squad.
A wretched grip twisted at the sheets, tearing grooves into the silk. Knuckles grew white in the dim glow of the darkened chambers. Sweat trickled down a fevered brow, caught in memory’s wicked claws.
The moment of impact blacks him out for a moment, perhaps a minute or two, perhaps seconds. He remembers little, save for white hot pain. But he is alive, and burning flesh sears his nostrils. His arm is twisted at an odd angle, dislocated. Next to him, his XO stares glassily at him, head held in place by torn metal impaling her through the throat.
He is dimly aware of the wet slickness as he half-crawls, half-drags himself away from the flames. In his functional hand, he struggles to drag the one man he managed to find still breathing. He must save them, even if it was just one. No! There had to be more! He will not leave anyone behind!
He curses his weakness, coughing wetly as he stumbles, the unfamiliar gravity of the planet throwing his balance off. The air is thicker than he was used to, though the smoke and ozone fills his senses, making him even more lightheaded. His man lolls limply against him, unresponsive. He needs to get both of them clear of the wreck.With the flames as they were, the whole thing would blow up once they reached the reactor.
A low groan issued from deep within, a keening sound of remembered pain. Muscles bunched tightly as the man spasmed, head jerking from side to side. A quiet whimper escaped tightly clenched jaws, almost a sob.
Flames. So much fire.
A concussive blast sends him flying, crashing face first into the loam. He loses hold of his squad-mate, and screams as a second blast hits him with a second gift. He coughs, a wet tearing sound, chest heaving painfully with every breath. Broken ribs, and who knows how many more cracked. He can only hope he hasn’t punctured a lung.
Still he lives, and burning heat scorches his very back. In blind, unthinking agony, he crawls forward, though his left arm flaps uselessly by his side. He pauses for only a moment to grit his teeth, before shoving the damn useless thing back into its socket. He blanks out briefly at the white hot pain, but at least it wasn’t flopping all over the place now.
He needs to get away. Still too close. Only survival matters now, and it lays on the cooler side.
He has drawn blood from his lip, but caught in the throes of this familiar old nightmare, he does not wake. Can not wake, not from his own personal hell. Night after night, the ghosts of the dead haunt him, wreathing him in spectral flame.
Blood. He is losing too much, too quickly. One side of his vision is a bloody crimson, matting his long hair together. He feels the wet warmth of his lifeblood on his stomach, knows that he must have torn something earlier, but too exhausted to figure out what.
Voices in the distance. Training, grit, and sheer pride compels him to stand. He is in enemy territory now, and if he must die, he would die on his feet, like a real man. He wobbles unsteadily, and even manages to draw the longsword with his still functional right hand.
“I am Kiri du von Lucianos, and I bow to no one! Face me!”
A soft hand descended on that tortured brow, dabbing away at the trail of sweat. The man jerked again in his sleep, crying out wordlessly. The same hand paused, then resumed its work. When the man reaches out again, a hand is there for him to clutch, like a lifeline in a storm.
Even one-armed and losing blood rapidly, he cuts down no less than two men in a row before his knees give out, and he falls, barely holding himself upright with his sword. He coughs again, hacking up a spray of blood, and knows that he is not long for the world.
He hears startled cries in the near distance. “Princess! Stop! It’s too dangerous!” But he is too weak to do more than look up at the patter of light feet dashing towards him. A small child, just a girl, unarmed and alone, approaching him. He almost laughs - is this how he would die, with a child in attendance? The Gods were merciful indeed!
She comes close, unafraid of him. She smells of spring and flowers, of innocence unsullied. He smiles, preparing himself for death. It would not be so bad, to have a child send him off. Abruptly, he is reminded of his younger sister, and hopes she will not grieve him too much.
“Don’t die! You’re not allowed to die!”
What nonsense was this child spouting. Does she not understand? If he lived, her planet would be in danger. He was her enemy. Enemies were to be eliminated. Foolish, foolish child.
He opens his mouth to speak, but more blood only bubbles up from his throat. Ah, so he did puncture a lung after all. Bad way to go, that.
“Blood! Stop! Stop bleeding! Blood, go back! Back!”
This girl must be out of her senses. If he had the strength, he would have laughed at her.
The girl-child repeats her mantra, as if by sheer force of will she could stop whatever was happening to him. He manages to suck in a painful breath, to try and knock some sense into her.
“You must let me die, or else your planet will be invaded, understand?”
He is strangely alright with the thought. Yes, his mission will fail with his death, but there will be others. He has lived well, and this was a good death. He has done his best.
Her tiny hands were on him, covering the most obvious of his wounds: the torn abdomen. He hisses at the contact, wanting to shove her away, but his limbs were trembling and he was barely even able to stay as he was.
“Stop it! Let me die in peace! Just let me die!”
He yells at her, but it comes out in strangled gasps. She chants her nonsense rhyme to herself, as if wanting him to stop bleeding would make it so. He tilts his head up to try and re-state his point, but is rendered silent by the tears running down her face, as she desperately tries to stem the flow of his lifeblood.
Why does she weep for him? He is the enemy. She should be happy for his death. He is lost and confused, his head spinning from fatigue and blood loss. All he wants to do is lie down, and let Death take him. Yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea…
“DON’T DIE! BLOOD, GO BACK!”
A flash of blinding white light. That is the last thing he remembers, before he wakes to the sound of a sweet lullaby.
The man gasped again, jerking awake in bed. His bare chest was heaving with exertion. Long hair pressed wetly against his sweaty skin, and he tasted iron on his tongue, a familiar sensation.
A tremulous voice wavers to his right, and Kiri blinks the last of his nightmare from his eyes, turning to see the princess looking anxiously at him. They stare in silence at each other for a long moment, and Kiri remembers where he is in time.
This was his wedding night, and Princess Sakura was now his wife. They had retired to the bedchambers earlier to loud cheers and whistles, but nothing of the sort of activity most people would expect had taken place. He hadn’t even needed to touch Sakura to know that she was terrified and nervous as hell, and he had said so out loud, before telling her that they should go to bed and get some rest. He would not expect her to force herself to do something she was not ready for, and the relief and gratitude in her eyes had been unmistakable.
“A bad dream, my lady. Nothing more.”
His words were thick and fuzzy, as if he had marbles in his mouth. Shaking his head, Kiri ran a hand through the tangled mess of his hair, cradling his skull. He had forgotten about the nightmares. It had not been a problem when he had a room of his own. He was not yet used to sharing a space with someone else, and this was the result.
“Are you alright? You look pale.”
Sakura was biting her lip, looking worried. Kiri tried to plaster on a confident look, even though he was still shaken.
“I will be alright. I apologize for waking you.”
“Why did you ask me to let you die?”
Sakura’s words were quiet, but it sounded like an explosion in the room. Kiri swallowed nervously. Had he been talking in his sleep? Or did she remember? No, she could not have. She had never shown any signs of remembering, after the burst of power that had healed the worst of his wounds and knocked her out at the same time. He should have died back then, but for the will of this princess who was now his wife.
“An old nightmare, Princess. I was merely talking in my sleep…”
“Lord Kiri, why do I remember your blood on my hands?”
Her voice was trembling, and she looked confused. Kiri stared at her. Did she remember? If she did, what could he say?
“You saved my life.” He blurted out without thinking. He reached out halfway towards her, but hesitated - he did not want to betray her trust by touching her without permission.
“I did?” Her voice was dream-like, as if lost in thought. Trance-like, she held up her hands, as if seeing the long-gone blood on them.
“Yes.” He ached to reach out to her, to hold her, but restrained himself. It did not help that she was in her nightgown, and he averted his eyes to avoid the temptation.
Instead, she reached out to him, placing her hands as she had before, almost 8 years ago. Across the same spot on his abdomen, and he hissed aloud, a perfect mirror of his past self. The contact sparked an open connection, and he read her confusion, the “whys” pinging off inside her head. She did not remember, not in detail. Just mere impressions, but enough to disorient her.
“Enough.” His voice was low and rough, and he removed her hands from him before abruptly letting go, cutting the connection. She was still too close to him, and he didn’t quite trust himself to be near her now.
“Lord Kiri?” He slid out of bed, turning his back on her as he scooped up his ever-present longsword where it lay within easy reach.
“I will not disturb your rest any longer, my lady. I will sleep outside.”
He walked out before she could finish, closing the door to the bedchamber softly behind him. The rest of the royal apartments was richly furnished, and he could have picked a couch to rest on, but old camp habits made him plant his sword next to the door, settling himself against the broad blade.
He should have taken into account how his nightmares would affect someone else near him. Silently, Kiri wondered how he was going to arrange separate sleeping quarters without causing scandal. His eyes fluttered shut in a warrior’s meditation, something he practiced to regain equilibrium and gain some measure of rest in a semi-wakeful state.
The door creaked open, and his eyes snapped open. Sakura stood by the door, looking forlorn. She was also carrying a thick stack of blankets.
“It is cold tonight, Lord Kiri. You shouldn’t be outside like...that.”
She was staring at the space on the wall above his head. It took him about 5 seconds to realize that he was still shirtless and that the princess had probably never seen another man naked in her life. The way she had yelped and turned away when he had undressed earlier was hint enough. It was almost enough to make him smile.
“I...thank you, my lady.”
She handed the blankets over without a word, and was about to turn away when Kiri cleared his throat, making her pause.
“Wait.” He bit his lip. Whatever possessed him to make her stop? A moment’s weakness, no doubt.
“What is it?” Sakura’s voice was gentle, and Kiri found himself talking before he even realized what he was saying.
“Will you...will you sing for me? I...have trouble sleeping.”
It was a frank admission of weakness, and Kiri almost kicked himself for revealing it. He worried at his still torn lip, looking down at the pile of blankets on his lap, and the way his hands were still clenched and clutching the fabric. He was startled when Sakura’s smaller hands rested over his, reopening the connection between them.
“But of course, Lord Kiri. I’d be happy to.”
She was smiling, inside and out. She had been worried for him, and was happy that he had reached out to her for help. He closed his eyes, feeling her kindness sweep into him, like balm over his wounded soul.
The voice of an angel lulled him, and he felt his muscles relaxing as Sakura’s lullaby calmed him. His breathing evened out, becoming smooth and regular, long before her song ended.
“Goodnight, my lord, and sweet dreams.”
A phantom touch against his forehead, and the rustle of cloth, before gentle sleep claimed the last vestiges of consciousness. The faint smile on his face never faded.