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The dawn was slowly breaking behind the dusty windowpane I had been staring at for at least an hour, my fingers playing with the scratched buttons on the faded red cardigan I was wearing. The early autumn chill had set in firmly during the night - it had been what had woken me up in the first place - and now I could feel the goosebumps creeping up and down the skin of my arms. The murky grey-and-cherry of the sky had seemingly entered through the glass and was now highlighting the room in places normal sunshine never reached. Speckles of dust danced through the air, slowly and languidly, as if not daring to disturb the peace the whole city had fallen into outside.
I barely blinked when a voice cut through the deafening silence, making the dust shudder and shiver in the cool morning air. I shrugged my shoulders, refusing to answer the ridiculous question - after all, I was up, wasn’t I? Cautiously slow footsteps fell onto the wooden floor, quiet and measured, and a moment later I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. Clearly she had been under the covers longer than I had, and her body still held the sleepy warmth. Fighting the urge to shudder again from the shocking heat that spread itself from her fingertips and onto my skin, and then deeper, somewhere between my bones and my tired muscles, I finally looked up to see her face inches from mine, a worn-out smile on her winsome face. Her grey eyes had almost lost the red rim that had been there hours before, though her eyelids still looked puffy and somehow ill. A line that had not been there before had carved itself into the skin of her forehead, making her appear older in the scarce lighting.
She raised an eyebrow elegantly, probably like she had used to back in those days, asking for permission to sit next to me. I sighed and nodded, the dawn was too beautiful not to share. Gasping from strain that was shifted onto her bad leg, she tightened her hold on my shoulder and ungracefully set herself down onto the windowsill, stretching her unhurt leg out beyond the window-frame, into the fifteen-story abyss beneath us with her bad leg nestled carefully in the hold of her two arms. I looked at her sadly, knowing it would never be the same again - the leg would heal, I knew it, I had seen these kinds of wounds before, but the rest... Her gaze softened when she saw where my stare was directed and just put her arms tighter around her injured extremity. People had gotten hurt before my eyes countless times, and yet I still could hardly bare to see her squirm and shiver from the shocks of pain.
“How much longer?” I cringed. My voice, that same voice that had once used to charm people with its smoothness and pitch, was scratchy and almost non-existent from shouting out orders and crying from loss. I raised a hand to my neck only to feel scar tissue beneath the skin of my fingers. It was no longer tender, and nothing was affected, and yet a small thought had nestled itself into the deepest corner of my brain - what if all this came to an end? I would not be a hero. I would just be a survivor with a burnt neck.
“Elodie promised to be back before dawn. Any minute now,” she reassured me in a whisper. The ‘if she ever returns’ that had gone unsaid hung in the air like a disease. Elodie was one of the bravest on the team - her smiles and the fervor with which she threw herself at every order was admirable, to say the least, and loosing her would not only mean loosing a friend. It would also mean loosing manpower. I could not afford that.
“Go to sleep if you can,” I answered, pursing my lips. They felt chapped and somehow foreign, as if a cramp had been keeping its hold on them for some time. I nearly let out a chuckle, remembering the small tub of lip balm I had used to keep at my bedside all the time - the skin of my lips had always been a little sensitive and I had not been able to go a day without moisturizing it. Now even laying eyes on that tiny tub seemed like a demented fantasy. I had not brushed my hair for weeks, I hadn’t seen a mirror in months, but the one thing about war that went to my advantage was that nobody cared what you looked like. Neither did I, remembering the spoilt little princess that I once had been with a nostalgic smile now and then, knowing that even if we won, we would never be able to return to what had once been.
“I think I’ll stay up. You need someone by your side, you know.” I could feel gratefulness slide into the place of some of the guilt I was feeling. The building we had stumbled into had once been an office, long before all of this had started, it was the ideal place to nurse the wounded and catch some rest, and yet I couldn’t help but blame myself for being a bad leader. I had not an ounce of the sixth sense, not a gram of muscle mass - before the war, though, now I knew it had changed a bit - I could finally lift weights and go long distances, though I still felt exhausted every time we stopped. The adrenaline rush was good for the run, but when the danger dissipated, so did my strength. The heavy burden of keeping the people in my care alive was sometimes too much to bear and if it hadn’t been for Sam, I would be six feet under, in a manner of speaking. Nobody got buried now. The dead bodies lay as they had been left by those who had killed them - there was no respect for the living, let alone for the deceased.
“Thanks.” I nodded to her, still hoping she would let it go and try to rest a couple of hours. We hadn’t been planning on moving away from this place, but food was becoming a necessity more than just a convenience and finding any at all in this ghost megapolis was something only a desperate dreamer could think of. She was my second-in-command, my right arm, my rock… Not that she knew, of course. Even to Samelia, I was forced to be the captain, at least in daylight. Here, before the dawn steals what we have, we could give each other comfort.
I watched her take her head in her once-delicate hands and pull a grimace onto that pretty face. Her fingers were battered and scratched, remaining spots of blood still on them and down to her very wrists, the blue veins underneath the skin were showing. I wondered many times how she had looked before the war, and I could curse myself for not knowing her back then. Putting a hand onto her knee carefully, as not to disturb the painless state she had found for her injured leg in that position, I cocked my head to the side, tilting my chin upwards:
“Your headaches are getting worse, aren’t they?” She raised her pained gaze to me, and for a second I could have sworn she could read every thought I had ever had. I had never been a sucker for grey eyes, and yet there was something about hers that made you want to just reach out and grab onto her, as if you didn’t know for sure she was real. In a way, she wasn’t. Someone this compassionate, this considerate, this beautiful simply couldn’t exist in the destruction around us. It wasn’t right. She was a diamond, a rose, a single ray of sunshine, she had to be cherished… Yet there she was, nursing a wounded leg she had acquired during another fight, helping others with their amputated extremities, cleaning up blood and vomit, not even cringing when someone half-blackened by death grabbed onto the hem of her worn clothes. She was a noble person, I knew that, still it astounded me every time – the ease with which she helped others and forgot to help herself.
“I’m fine. I promise,” Sam replied, giving me a feeble smile that was meant to reassure but instead made me more concerned. A tiny crease made its way into the corner of her left eye as she finally let go off the side of her face and looked at me properly, a grim expression set into her features: “I guess that is what happens when you take a bat to your brain.”
“You are not being funny,” I said sharply, feeling a muscle in my face twitch with indignation. I tried to take care of them all, sometimes it wasn’t enough. I had first met her when I accidentally stepped onto her bruised form lying in what once used to be an alleyway. It was a clean hit, something almost professional, clearly whoever had done it to her had been well aware of what they were doing – Sam still hadn’t much to remember about herself – her name was something I had once found in a book when I was younger, maybe a fairy-tale, maybe a history textbook – and Enriq, out resident nurse – at least, he had been one before - had stated she was mid-twenties, maybe younger. The rest was blank for Samelia, and I, the fearless little creature who had led countless allies to their death and winning, was powerless against the laws of biology. “We’re going to find a solution to this, Sammy.”
Her gaze softened as she nodded shakily in agreement and scooted closer to me. I opened my arms for her to nestle herself into, and exhaled in the feeling of comfort that enveloped me when she laid her head onto my chest. Her warmth had always been the best thing about her. Except for maybe her words.
“What if my name is something stupid, like Adele or Muffy?” She whispered into my skin, her arms tightening around me as I turned as a bit so that my back was against the wall and our legs were no longer hanging over the ruined city below us. I let out a strained chuckle and pressed a kiss to her hair, inhaling the scent of blood, dust, sweat and something undeniable Sam-like… To me, it smelled like home.
“I’ll still love you as much, even if your name is Skanky.”
Her soft laughter was cut off when our lips met. This was a game we both knew how to play very well – friends during the day, soft kisses and desperate lovemaking by nightfall. She tilted her head sideways slightly, finding a better angle and let out a shaky moan into my mouth. I pressed myself into her further, hoping but never fully giving back what she was giving me. This woman trusted me with her life, she had let herself be led into a group of people she hadn’t known, into the arms of a girl who back then had barely known how to make a fist, but instead of rebelling and doing thing her own way, she languidly whispered suggestions into my ear and dropped advice over blueprints and raids. She was my consort, I guessed, my support, and definitely the strongest person I had ever met. She was my life.
When we pulled apart, a soft smile ghosted over her lips as the suddenly bright dawn illuminated our faces with its blood-red colors:
“I love you, Hannuh. We’re going to be okay.”