THE GROWING

Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha

CHAPTER FORTY TWO

Koda shivers as she stands on the bathmat, the breeze that stirs the curtains ghosting over her skin. Despite the morningís brightness, it leaves no warmth behind it, and she feels the gooseflesh rise and tighten along her arms. More out of habit than conviction, she turns on the hot tap and lets the water run while she collects towel and washcloth from the tall, narrow cabinet above the clothes bin. The stench of blood is on her still, mingled with sweat and dirt and the oil-and-metal smell of the APC. She is used to blood, and used to smelling of it. You cannot, after all, turn a breech foal or perform emergency field surgery and remain clean. It goes with the job.

Killing a man in a duel and taking his warband for prize does not go with a veterinarianís job. It does not go with a warriorís job, either, she reflects. Or it has not, at least for the last thousand years or so.

Yet there was nothing in it that was strange, or unfamiliar to her. There had been a pattern to the encounter that revealed itself as the fight played out, a choreography. It was as if she had been thrust out in front of the footlights in riding boots and a complete innocence of Tschaikovsky, and had danced a perfect Swan Queen. Tacoma had called it the warrior spirit waking within her, growing. He should know. As she had been called to the life of a shaman, he had been born a warrior. Strange, that like as they are, each has been given the otherís heartís desire.

Koda steps into the shower and pulls the curtain to keep off the draft. The water hits her like a rush of snowmelt, so cold it burns. Gritting her teeth, she stands still, shivering, watching as the brown stains on her skin liquify and sluice down her body, swirling crimson around the drain at her feet. She unwraps the length of cotton around her arm and lets her own blood join the flow. As if, she thinks, we were making relatives in the Hunkapi. At that moment, her enemy seems as close as her own brothers and sisters, as her own lover.

Her hand, half numb, closes on the soap, and she begins to work it into a lather on the bathsponge. Just as she turns off the frigid water pelting down on her, Asiís deep bay sounds in the hall, and the door shakes on its hinges. The dogís howl comes again, with a second battering against the door, and with it Kirstenís voice, high pitched in fear. "Koda!"

*******

Kirstenís weight hits the door for the second time, and suddenly its solidity is gone, giving way before her and carrying her straight into Dakota where she stands wet an naked on the bathmat, her hair streaming down her back and over her breasts like dark floodwater, water and blood running red in branching rivulets down the length of her legs, dripping from a long, shallow cut visible on her forearm.

The cold water soaks through her own thin shirt, chilling her. But it is the fear that causes her to shudder as she pushes Koda away, holding by both arms as her eyes run the length her body, searching for the source of the blood on the clothing still lying in a heap on the floor. But there is only the single wound, clearly not lethal, only a crimson thread against the copper of Dakotaís skin. Kirstenís heart, lodged in her throat, slips back into its accustomed place, and she begins to breathe again. "All that blood," she gasps. "It isnít yours."

"Not mine, no," Koda echoes. "I killed a man."

Her fingers tighten on Dakotaís arms, making small white marks where they dig into the skin. "At Minot? They fought you?"

"Not Ďthey.í Just one." Kodaís eyes are on hers, a light in them that is part triumph, part desire, part something else she cannot name. "We took his men from him."

"We?" Kirsten asks carefully. "You mean Ďyou.í"

"I challenged him. None of our soldiers was killed, none of his. Just him."

Once again, she sees the tall figure racing ahead of her onto the shattered bridge at the Cheyenne, dark hair streaming behind her like smoke. Once again, the fear strikes through her, this time without the hum of adrenaline in the blood that had drawn her out of herself and propelled her across the pile of tumbled concrete after the other woman. She is still not sure whether she acted from blind trust or blind panic. "How dare you," she says softly, the words hissing between her teeth. "When so much depends on you."

"When what depends on me?" Dakota steps closer, so that Kirsten can hear her breathing, not quite steady now. The light from the open window, glancing through the blowing curtains, shimmers over Kodaís wet skin, slipping over her shoulders and breasts like silk.

She is made lean and hard, lithe muscles stretched over long bones. The form of the hunting animal, elegant in understatementólong-legged cheetah moving with harsh and angular grace through the high grass, gerfalcon stooping on her prey like a meteor out of the blue heaven.

"I depend on you, goddammit." A tremor runs through her, part fear, part not. "You have no right to risk yourself alone."

"I wasnít in any danger. No greater than we face here, every day."

Kirsten opens her mouth to make the obvious retort, but instead looks away, silent. I risked as much, myself. Hypocrite.


But if she died, I would be so alone. So alone.

Again.

Intolerable.

Her breath catching, Kirsten runs her hands up Kodaís arms, over her shoulders and up into her hair, pulling her head down. Dakotaís mouth meets hers, hot and open, and Kirstenís tongue traces the austere lines of the otherís lips, savoring the heat and the acerbic tang of salt. Koda pulls back abruptly, lowering her head to Kirstenís throat to trace a line of hard kisses from her ear to the hollow of her collarbones.

She can feel the heat of Dakotaís skin through her clothing, the hardness of her nipples through the thin fabric of her T-shirt. Fire begins in the cleft between her legs, licks down her thighs and up her spine, knotting in her belly. "Bedroom," she gasps, pulling back just enough to move, drawing Koda after her by the hand.

Dakota growls deep in her throat. The scent of blood on the clothes at her feet stirs her; a primal, animal sensation that is equal parts rage and lust.

The lust of the battle sheís fought.

The lust of the blood sheís spilled.

The lust of the woman who stands before her, so open and so ready.

It all coalesces within her, a spiral of red and black, pulsing with the beat of her heart, growing more acute as the scent of blood mingles with the scent of Kirstenís need, and the scent of her own. It pulls each muscle taut, tension thrumming like a live wire, threatening to burn out of control with the tiniest of sparks.

Pausing only to kick the pile of bloody clothing out of view into the bathroom, Kirsten leads Dakota into the bedroom that has become theirs. Like a distant drum, Koda feels the pounding of her blood in its hidden channels, flowing hot as molten earth from the veins of Ina Maka. As she moves, Kirstenís free hand claws at the fastening of her jeans, pushing them down around her ankles where she can step free of them. Her sandals follow, and she looses Dakotaís hand just long enough to pull her shirt over her head, flinging it unheeded onto the floor.

"You hunger," Kirsten states as she stares up into a face haloed with black silk and lighted by heated silver eyes.

"Yes."

"Show me."

Fully naked, Dakota presses her roughly down onto the bed and stands for a long moment, taking in the compact body before her. Her sight narrows, hunter vision, and she runs her eyes over Kirstenís face, open now with hunger to match her own, eyes dilated to midnight pools in their thin rim of green. She notes the pool of shadow at the base of the throat where the pulse beats visibly in its blue vein; her breasts rising and falling in short, sharp spasms, tight rippled flesh about her nipples; the hollows of ribcage and belly; the shadows between the lean legs. "Mitawa," she growls, low in her throat. "Winan mitawa."

She kneels on the bed, predator, hunter, running one hand over the Kirstenís belly, tracing the hollows of her hipbones, slipping between her thighs. The pulse beats there, too, against her hand as Kirstenís legs part for her and she runs her thumb through the soft curling hair to spread the lips of her loverís sex. The wetness flows free there, and she growls, deep and long.

She feels Kirstenís body jerk as she finds the nub of her clitoris, circling it slowly, pressing hard against its own hardness. Her mouth follows, and Kirsten moans, a low, animal sound, as her hands tangle in Kodaís hair. Dakota scarcely feels it, caught up in the throbbing of flesh against her mouth, the blood singing against her lips. She pulls away abruptly, running fingers down the wet curve of flesh, sinking fingers deep into Kirstenís body and withdrawing only to thrust again and again, feeling the other womanís hips buck against the long, hard strokes. Growling, needing, she adds another finger, feeling the tender tissues stretch to their limit as she pushes inside, curling her fingers into blunt claws.

From somewhere comes a cry, piercing and wild, and hot liquid flows over her hand and Kirstenís thighs. The other womanís body shudders as the waves of orgasm beat over her, pounding their rhythm against Kodaís hand.

Kirsten feels the cry leave her throat, a wild thing escaping into the air. Her body shudders with the force of her coming, pleasure so intense it is hardly distinguishable from pain shaking her flesh loose from her bones. Above her she sees the strong curve of Kodaís spine, the fall of her hair spilling down her back like a cataract. Her loverís fingers withdraw from her, Koda turns to trace curving signs on her belly with her own essence. "Mitawa," she says again, huskily. "Mine."

"Mine," Kirsten echoes. "Youíre mine."

Rolling over onto her side, she brings Koda down beside her, covering the long body with her own. "Mine," she says again, tongue outlining Kodaís mouth, licking away the fine beads of sweat that have gathered over her lip. Moving down the column of her neck she laps at the moisture there, savoring the salt taste mingled with the sharp sweetness of lavender that runs along her tongue. Drunk, says the small part of her mind still capable of words, drunk with her.

Koda stretches under her, her hips lifting blindly, searching. "Wait," says Kirsten. Beneath her lips, Kodaís throat vibrates with a small, incoherent sound, half moan, half growl. For answer, Kirsten presses her down against the bed again and sinks her teeth into Kodaís shoulder, tasting salt again as blood flows.

"Damn vampire," Koda breathes, her fingers digging into Kirstenís arm. But Kirsten pulls away, biting her own forearm this time, pressing the flesh with its thin red trickle against Dakotaís lips, feeling sharp white teeth against the edge of the wound as Koda sucks at it. Kirsten draws her arm away, then, and brings her own mouth down on Dakotaís, stained now scarlet as her own. She feels a shudder pass through Kodaís body as their tongues meet, tasting themselves and each other. Blood of my blood. The phrase floats up from some dark place in her mind.

"Hunka." It is Kodaís voice, no more than a breath ghosting over her ear. She does not know the word, though she knows what it must mean. Bound now, inseparable. For this life and forever.

Her mouth moves to Kodaís breast, tongue swirling around the nipple, her free hand slipping down the smooth skin of her flank to slip between her legs. They part for her, and she trails her fingers along the tender skin, rakes through the triangle of dark curls at their apex, slips her fingertip into the growing wetness beneath her hand, withdraws to trace again the long muscles of flank and thigh. Kodaís head tosses against the quilt, eyes narrowed to blue slits, her breath coming in small, hard gasps.

"What do you want?" Kirsten whispers. "Tell me."

"Wantó"

"Is it this?" Kirstenís hand covers Kodaís sex, spreading the flesh wide to press her mouth against the clitoris, tracing its shape with her tongue. She feels Koda tense, her climax gathering, and withdraws. "Or is it this?" she asks, her fingers following her mouth, then sliding down circle the hot entrance to Kodaís body.

"Wantó"

"Tell me."

"Fuck me," Koda gasps. "Now. Now!"

"Oh, yes," Kirsten answers, and slips her fingers inside, holding still.

Past words now, Koda thrusts her hips against Kirstenís hand, and Kirsten at last begins to move in long, slow strokes, her thumb finding the clitoris again, pressing and releasing, then swirling over the distended head until Kodaís spine arches and her body goes rigid. Looking up, Kirsten can see the pulse where it hammers against her loverís neck, point counterpoint to the frantic beating of blood under her hand. Koda cries out wordlessly, and her climax takes her, rippling through the taut belly under Kirstenís hand.

"Mitawa," Koda murmurs again after a time that seems to stretch into infinity. "Winyan mitawa. Cante mitawa."

"Mitawa," Kirsten agrees, drained now. She rocks back on her heels, then shifts to lie beside Koda, who slips an arm under her head. Dakotaís eyes slide closed, and darkness takes them both.

*******

For the second time this day, Koda emerges shivering from the shower. She wraps one of Maggieís luxurious towels around heróanother amenity that is among the last of its kind; there will be no more Egyptian cotton anytime soonósnatches her clean clothes from the hooks on the door and runs the half-dozen steps to the kitchen.

Kirsten already has soup on the stove, with the oven lit and its door open.

Within the compass of its heat, Koda pauses in the doorway, struck once again by the compact grace of Kirstenís body as she goes about the mundane tasks of preparing a belated lunch. Her shorts and tank top leave her arms and legs bare, browned skin smooth over muscle attesting to unexpected toughness. Her hair, drying rapidly in the warm air, curls around her ears and over the back of her neck. The late afternoon light streaming through the window as she sets out bowls and spoons touches it to gold.

The sight brings a flush of warmth to Kodaís own skin, mingling with the heat from the stove as she steps over Asiís snoring bulk, unfurls the towel and begins to rub herself dry. But she says only, "Grandma Lula used to talk about how she and her brothers bathed in a big aluminum washtub in front of the stove back on the rez. Maybe we should start doing that, too."

"Grandma Lula?" Kirsten flashes her a smile and an inquiring glance. "Reservation?"

"My momís mother. Pine Ridge. She believed that suffering is good for you. Builds character."

"Catholic school?"

"Oh, yeah. Thatís why Inaís such a radical. Equal and opposite reaction."

Kirsten sets the last of the silverware on the table, then turns to face her. "Your motherís going to object, isnít she?"

There is no need to ask what Themunga will object to, no need to skirt the answer. Koda lays the towel over the back of a chair and begins to pull on her clothes. "Sheís going to have a conniption, if she hasnít already. But Ate will win her over." She pauses for a moment, head buried in a long-sleeved shirt in Black Watch tartan. "He already counts you as a daughter, you know. So will she, given a little time to get used to the idea. It doesnít hurt that youíre already picking up some Lakota ways."

"Like talking to raccoons?" Kirstenís mouth twitches in a quizzical smile.

"Among other things." Koda grins in return. "Not even Themunga would argue with one of the Four-foot spirits."

"Mm," Kirsten observes noncommittally. "Howís your arm?"

"Just a scratch." Koda rolls up her right sleeve, peels the backing off a clear Coloplast bandage and slaps it over the cut. "Next week you wonít even know it was there."

"Sure I wonít. Letís eat?"

The meal is simple, lentils and vegetables stewed together; they are rationing the meat brought by Wanblee Wapka because there is no time to hunt, and no rancher thins his herd in the spring. It occurs to Koda that there is a certain optimism in the assumption that they will last as long as their supply of protein; unless they win the upcoming confrontation, it will hardly matter whether there is meat for the next month or not. "So," she says, sopping a piece of frybread in the savory broth, "what did you find out about that bomber droid while I was gone?"

Kirsten drops her eyes, giving her entire attention to the soup plate in front of her. "Pass the bread?" As Dakota hands her the basket, she says, "I found the control code. So I made a few more of them."

The tone is so casual that it almost gets by, but the sheer improbability of it snags on Kodaís brain and hangs there, flapping in the breeze. She sets her spoon down carefully. "Say again, please."

Suddenly losing interest in her own food, Kirsten pushes her bowl away with a short, sharp gesture. "I said, I found the code and made some more bomber droids."

It makes no more sense than it did the first time. Granted that Kirsten is brilliant in her field and could probably rig a working computer out of string and paperclips and a few printed circuits. But the Base does not have the materials to make a convincing android, much less "a few more" of a very specialized model. Not in the space of three days. "What," she says, "did you make them from?"

"The droids already assembled. At the plant down at Butte."

Butte is just over the state line in eastern Nebraska, perilously close to Offut and the massing enemy. Dakota leans her forehead on her clasped hands. "You want to tell me about it? Or do I have to keep playing twenty questions?"

Kirsten reaches across the table to touch her arm briefly. "It was no big deal. I put together a patch that will target other droids instead of humans. Then I went down to Butte, did my biodroid act, and installed it in their inventory. I tested it. It worked. End of story."

"Tested it on what?"

"A squad of military units."

Koda lifts her head from her hands, her eyes on Kirstenís face. "When did you decide to go?"

There is no sign of a struggle there; the clear green gaze meets her own. "When Jimenez brought me the part of the bomber droid that gave me the idea. Before you left for Minot."

At least there will be no lie between them. It is cold comfort. "You might have mentioned it." Koda speaks very clearly, biting off the words. "Say, just in passing. Something like, ĎKoda, Iím going to risk my life and everybody elseís chance of survival on a solo, possibly suicide, mission to a droid plant.í Would that have been so hard?"

"Yes," Kirsten snaps. "It would have."

"You had no right!" Kodaís fist comes down on the table, rattling the soup bowls. "Youíre the President! Youíre the fucking Commander-in-Chief! Get used to it!"

"I had the obligation! The goddamned fucking obligation!" Kirsten rises and flings away from the table, facing for a moment out the window. Koda cannot see her face, only the rise and fall of her back with her rapid breathing. When she turns, the color has risen in her face, flushing her skin from the base of her throat to her forehead, turning her tan almost to copper. "I canít ask anyone else to take risks I wonít take myself, Dakota. That includes the lowest private on the Base. That includes Maggie." She pauses a moment. "And that includes you."

"Goddam it, Kirsten. No President since Washington has led his own troops, much lessó"

"Much less fought Cornwallis for his!" Kirstenís chin comes up, eyes blazing. "Donít talk to me about not having the right. The world has changed, Koda. You know that."

A silence stretches out between them, spun fine along the currents of anger. Kodaís eyes linger along the red line of her wound, visible under the cloudy plastic of its dressing. Finally she says, "Fair enough. But why didnít you tell me?"

"Because I could have died."

At that Koda looks up, searching Kirstenís face as she goes on more quietly. "Or you could have, only I had no idea how. And I didnít want this fight to be the last of us."

"I wouldnít haveó"

"Yes you would. Iíd have tried to stop you, too, if Iíd known you were going to fight a duel."

"Iíd have gone with you."

"And you wouldnít have been where you were really needed." Kirsten meets her gaze levelly. "There are things only you can do. Things only I can do. We have to acknowledge that."

"I donít like it."

"I donít like it, either. But we are what we are."

Stalemate. Donít leave me! Donít you leave me! The words echo in the dark places of Kodaís mind, driven on the wind of panic. But she will not speak them. Instead she says, very quietly, "I donít want to lose you."

After a moment Kirsten steps around the table to lay her hands on Dakotaís shoulders. "You wonít. Weíll see this out together, wherever it leads."

Koda turns in her seat, covering Kirstenís hand with her own and laying a soft kiss on her wrist. "Wherever."

Kirstenís arms slip down over her own, soft hair tickling her cheek, followed by soft lips. She leans back into the embrace, giving herself up to her loverís persuasion. "If you keep this up--" she murmurs.

"óweíll end up back in bed. Hmm?"

"You have anything better to do?"

"Not a thing." Very delicately, Kirsten bites the side of her neck.

"Vampire."

Koda draws Kirsten around to stand before her, then down, straddling her lap. "Thereís really something to be said for this kiss and make up thing, you know? Letísó"

She never finishes her suggestion. A fist falls on the door like a hammer, and Jackson follows it into the room as it swings open and Asi scambles to his feet, baying. "Ms. President! Maíamóoh." He fixes his gaze on a point somewhere midway the lintel of the door.

"Quiet, Asi!" Kirsten gets to her feet and turns to face the airman with what Koda considers remarkable aplomb under the circumstances. "What is it, Jackson?"

"Maíam!" he gasps. "The Colonelís compliments, and would you both please come to her office. General Hart has gone missing!"

*******

Maggie looks up as the door to Hartís office flies open and Koda comes storming in, Kirsten following on her heels. She holds up a hand. "Hang on, guys. We just found out."

"How," Kirsten demands, coming to a stop before an immaculate, and empty, desk.

"He set up a meeting with his secretary for noon. She waited for an hour or so before checking out his house." Though itís late in the afternoon, Maggie looks, as always, neat, trim, and immaculately pressed.

"Empty?"

"A hovel," Maggie answers succinctly, rapping her knuckles on the desk. "But he wasnít there."

Koda, having gone over to the window, parts the blinds and peers out into the warmth of the sunny spring day. "A note?"

"Suicide?" Maggie guesses.

Still peering out the window, Koda lifts a shoulder in elegant reply. A shaft of sunlight lances through the blinds and across the room, to land on the scuffed and bland military tile, highlighting its many imperfections.

"No. But she was looking for a man and not a note, soÖ."

Nodding, Dakota turns from the window. "How about the gate?"

 

"Already checked. Nobody in or out since you came back." She turns a significant eye toward Kirsten who, to her credit, hides her flush well as she peers around the empty room as if looking for something sheís lost. Maggie, who isnít buying the ruse for a moment, hides her smile behind a patently faked cough, earning her a right proper glare from glittering green eyes.

"Anybody spot him before then?" Koda intones, deliberately ignoring the none-too-subtle byplay between her two companions. "He might have slipped out when the convoy returned."

Maggie narrows her eyes, about to protest. Then she thinks better of it and sighs, resigned. "Iíll check again, but I doubt it. No one made any mention of seeing him at all since sometime yesterday."

Crossing the room, Koda lays her hands, palm down, on the Spartan desk. "Do you know where Tacoma is?"

"Yeah, I sent him out with the squad to scour the base. Why?"

"Heís a damn good tracker." Rising to her full height, Dakota eyes Maggie steadily. "Send someone out to find him and tell him to see if he can spot any tracks that might lead to our man. Kirsten and I will comb over his house and see if thereís anything to be found there. Weíll meet you back here, or in your office in, say, two hours. Sooner if we find anything."

Maggie nods crisply, resisting the urge to snap off a salute. Inwardly, though, sheís smiling at the effortless way that Dakota assumes command of the situation. Itís something she saw in the tall, quiet woman from the first moment they met, and sheís pleased to see the shining potential slowly coming to fruition.

It is only when the dynamic duo has left the office and the door closes quietly behind them that she lets the smile bloom fully over her face. With a jaunty little whistle, she turns back to work.

*******

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to those who celebrate! swordnquil@aol.com 

continued - Chapter 43

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