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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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I miss him, she says without sound.

You grieve because you love. That is as it should be.

Again, silence falls, and Dakota waits. It is not her place to hurry an elder, or to speak before spoken to. After a time, the light shifts among the trees, shadows rippling with the movement of a long body as it walks between them. Koda catches the sheen of sun off golden fur, the twitch of the end of a long tail. Igmu Tanka. At the thought, a puma steps out of the woods and comes to sit in the center of the small glade, gazing up at Koda with eyes like molten bronze. Round patches of fur show dark against her belly. She has cubs.

Ina, Koda acknowledges.

And I must kill something for them by nightfall, comes the answer, and with it the taste of hot blood. As you must kill for your own.

A pang stabs through Koda’s heart. I have no cubs. My child died with my beloved.

Igmu Tanka nips at a bit of twig caught in the fur of her shoulder. There are cubs, and there are cubs. Those for whom you are responsible are not of your body, yet they are yours nonetheless.

My responsibility is to fight this battle.

Your responsibility is to fight this battle, and others. And then it will be your responsibility to rule.

Rule? But Kirsten—

Is Chief. You are something new.

I don’t understand.

You don’t need to, not yet. I have something to tell you: do not hesitate to flee when the time comes. Victory will follow you.

Koda feels her brows knit. I don’t—

Understand. That does not matter. What matters is that you should obey my younger sister when she gives you an order. For the sake of all the People, two-footed, four-footed, winged and creeping, you must do what you least wish to, when you least wish to.

I will be here waiting when you return.

With that, the puma turns and pads back into the trees. Koda follows her movements until she is lost in shadow, then turns back toward the road and the burden laid on her.

* * *

A somber, thoughtful Dakota opens the door to the house and steps inside, more by rote than conscious act. Padding softly through the kitchen, gaze turned more inward than out, she stops upon sighting Kirsten. Sitting on the tattered sofa, her legs tucked up under her, the young scientist stares into the monitor of her laptop as her agile, graceful fingers fly over the keyboard. The window across the room is open, and from it, a shaft of sunlight lances in, gilding her in pure gold, her hair a halo that quickens the pace of Koda’s heart. The love she feels for this woman is so strong, and so pure that it hurts, deep within, like a tight band across her chest.

Quite without her permission, her mind drifts back to her conversation with Igmu Tanka, and she finds herself comparing this new love with the one she lost so long ago, comparing Tali’s dark, reed-slender lines with Kirsten’s golden, muscled curves, Tali’s quiet sweetness with Kirsten’s mercurial intelligence, passion, and deeply hidden pain. What paths, she wonders, would her life have taken had Tali not been taken so quickly from her?

"You have the makings of a warrior," Igmu Tanka had said. Would Tali have appreciated this growth in her, accepted it as simply and wholeheartedly as Kirsten does? Perhaps, she thinks. Tali had a good heart, a good soul. But she valued constancy in her life; the safety and security of knowing that each day would be much the same as the last. Family was the most important thing to her. Their loving was gentle, and quiet, fulfilling and comfortable. She gazes at Kirsten again, remembering their joining of last night. Her blood stirs hot in her veins and she moans softly. Kirsten accepted the raw desire, the deep passion in her. More than that, she embraced it, craved it with as much fire as Koda herself.

Tali was the love of who I was, Dakota realizes, with something akin to shock. But she, she is the love of who I am becoming; the woman I am meant to be.

At that very moment, Kirsten, who has turned her implants off for convenience’s sake, turns her head and locks eyes with her lover. Koda finds herself falling into the sunlit green of her direct, loving gaze, her sprit separating from her body seamlessly, painlessly as the world around her tunnels and rushes past, unacknowledged.

She’s running through a jungle thick with moisture and the scent of the earth. Broad green leaves caress her face as she passes, coating her with their moisture as her heartbeat, loud in her ears, sets her pace. Her spirit is filled with an almost savage joy as she runs, her feet light on the ground cover, her pace easy and relentless. She is the hunter, and her prey is very close. She can smell blood and earth, and a predator’s smile breaks over her face, turning her eyes to molten silver.

A sunlit clearing of deep green grass suddenly appears, and she stops, blood thrumming, as a woman, dappled green and gold, rises from her crouch, swaying to the tempo that Koda’s heart has created. Her hands reach out, gracefully beckoning, and Koda heeds their call, running to her, merging with her. They are one body, one spirit, one essence, writhing, pulsing in an ecstasy neither has ever known.

They explode then, their atoms scattering through space, and reforming randomly as the earth spins above them, blue and green and glowing, lit behind from the sun. Their combined heartbeat fades, to be replaced by the squalling of an infant breathing her first, then by the triumphant yowl of a hunting cat, until finally, it becomes the howl of the wolf going on and on and on until it is everywhere and everything.

Dakota comes back to herself as she is pulling away from Kirsten’s soft, swollen lips. They collapse against one another, panting breaths mingling, hearts thundering against their bony cages.

"Dear God," Kirsten whispers when she finally has the breath to speak.

Cupping her lover’s cheek, Koda stares down into her eyes, so green and shining. "Did you…?"

"Feel that? God, yes. It was the scariest, most wonderful thing I ever felt in my life."

A sudden wave of dizziness rolls over her, and her knees give out, dumping her less than gracefully back onto the couch. Dakota follows her down, squatting between her splayed legs and grasping her hands gently, chafing them with concern as she looks into clouded green eyes.

"Are you okay?"

Though she can read her lover’s lips easily, Kirsten suddenly craves the sound of her voice, and, pulling one hand away from its warm nest, thumbs her implants back on.

"Kirsten?"

"I’m—." She lets out a breath, long and shaky, almost, but not quite, a laugh. "I’m…not sure. I think I may be…taking a little vacation from reality."

Cocking her head slightly, Koda narrows her eyes, all but pinning Kirsten to the couch with the strength of her gaze. "Explain."

"That’s just the problem," Kirsten replies, tucking her free hand under the thick fall of her hair and rubbing at the back of her neck, where a mountain of tension has suddenly decided to take up residence. "I don’t know if I can."

"Try." Koda’s voice is soft and soothing, and Kirsten clings to its timbre like a lifeline.

"Remember when I told you about my raccoon visitor?" she begins, blushing slightly. "The one that wasn’t really there?"

Dakota nods.

"He wasn’t really there again today." She laughs. It’s a dry, almost bitter sound. "Sitting in a tree just as big as life." She shakes her head. "A full blown visual and auditory hallucination that I would have heard even with my implants off."

"What did he say?"

"Oh, he had a lot to talk about, most of it put-downs." The laugh sounds again, though a bit more genuine this time. "I can’t even manage to come down with your garden variety delusions of grandeur. Noooo, I have to hallucinate a wise-cracking vermin with a nasty attitude who seems to find my general ineptitude with life quite amusing." Closing her eyes, she hangs her head, her chin not quite touching her chest. "When he’s not getting his jollies out of dropping eggs on me, that is."

Koda’s eyes dart over to where Kirsten’s boots stand at the foot of the couch. With a small smile, she notes the dry streaks of yellow on the laces. Her suspicion fully confirmed, she releases Kirsten’s hand and, reaching up, gently cups her lover’s cheek, her strong thumb tenderly tracing over the baby soft skin. She remains silent, allowing Kirsten the much needed time to process her thoughts.

Deep green eyes finally raise and open, and Koda feels, once again, that sense of temporal dislocation. This time, she fights the urge, biting down on the inside of her lip until the feeling passes and she is firmly in control of her spirit. This is not good, she thinks, before Kirsten begins speaking, and she turns her attention to that instead.

"I feel like Alice going down the rabbit hole. Just when I think life is making sense, things start spinning out of control. And sometimes I think that if I just close my eyes real tight, maybe I’ll wake up and find this has all been a dream."

"Do you want it to be a dream?" Dakota’s voice is steady and soft, but Kirsten has no trouble seeing the unease in her striking eyes.

Without thought, she takes the hand cupping her face and brings it to her lips, brushing a kiss against the warm knuckles. "Not even one second of it. I should hate myself for feeling this way. It’s so damn selfish. But if none of this had ever happened, I would never have met you, and that is something I would never want to change. No matter what."

"Nor would I."

The two embrace and hold each other tightly for a very long moment before Koda pulls, with reluctance, away. "For what it’s worth, love, you’re not crazy, ok?"

Kirsten looks up at her, clearly wanting, needing to believe, but, equally clearly, not believing—not entirely, at any rate.

"Maybe…." Koda’s throat clicks audibly as she swallows. After a split second of hesitation, she gives voice to the thought plaguing her for the past several days. "Maybe you should go off base until all this is over. My parents would keep you safe, and I’m sure by now the entire family is dying to meet you."

Kirsten’s eyes widen as her jaw sets. Koda fancies she can feel the anger building in the smaller woman, and she winces internally.

"I--," Kirsten begins. "You--. You want to send me away?!? I can’t—you really do think I’m losing it, don’t you!" She gathers her legs, beginning to stand, but Koda holds tight to her waist, pulling her in again. "Let me go."

"No."

"Damnit, Koda! I said--."

"Listen to me, Kirsten!" She pulls back just enough to meet her lover’s blazing eyes. "It’s not you! I don’t think you’re crazy! You’re saner than anyone I know! It’s me! Don’t you see it?! I can’t lose you! Kirsten, I…can’t…lose…you!"

The hoarseness of Dakota’s voice finally filters through the red heat of Kirsten’s anger, and she relaxes against the large, trembling body holding her with desperation. "What—What did you say?"

"I can’t lose you," Koda repeats, voice muffled against the fabric of Kirsten’s t-shirt. "Not now. Not ever." Her hands tighten and tangle in the cloth, pulling her lover so tightly against her that not a molecule of air can pass between them. Kirsten can feel her breaths, tight and raspy, against her chest, and her arms close instinctively about Dakota’s broad shoulders, giving what comfort she can.

She’s scared! Kirsten realizes. For me! Dear God…! With a feeling of wonder, she slowly rocks the body half in her arms, her restless hands smoothing over Koda’s thick, shining hair as she replays her lover’s words to her over and over. Finally, slowly, she pulls back, and tips Dakota’s chin so that their eyes meet. "I’m not going anywhere," she says firmly, with finality. "Not without you. We started this together, and we’ll end it together, or not at all. Understand me?"

After a moment, Dakota nods.

"I can’t lose you either, my love. Not when I’ve just found you. I—I can’t ask you not to do what you do best out there, once this war finally starts. What I can ask is that you come back to me, whole and healthy. Be careful. Okay? For us?"

"For us."

They embrace again, tightly, and this time, neither is inclined to pull away for a very, very long time.

CHAPTER FORTY FIVE

"ALRIGHT, YA BIG goober, just give me a second here." Asi dances on his forepaws as Kirsten struggles with a screen door that doesn’t want to open. Though the sky is a crisp, almost autumnal blue, the wind howls through the trees as if heralding a hurricane. "Damn…stupidass…state…" she grunts, giving the handle one final heave, and almost falling over as it opens far too easily, nearly taking her hand with it. Uncaring, Asimov dashes into the house, yodeling.

With a sigh, Kirsten releases the door, and it slams closed on another gust of wind. Instead of trying to wrestle with it again, she turns away, content, for the moment, to put off going in the house to spend more long hours in fruitless pursuit of the missing code. Even if the breeze is stiff enough to drop a mule, the sun is warm on her shoulders, and the air is fresh and sweet.

What a difference a week makes, she thinks to herself. The tepid, frightened, holding-pattern feel of the base has been replaced, almost overnight, by an almost hive-like intensity. Men and women, civilians and military alike, move across the grounds with purpose, heads held high and shoulders squared. She even spies several groups that appear to be drilling. Broken into squads of twenty, they run about the grounds in orderly rows to a musical cadence sung out by the squad leader.

As she looks on, one such group rounds the curve toward the house. She smiles as she recognizes the leader, and raises a hand. Clad in running shorts and a green T-shirt emblazoned with ARMY across the chest, Tacoma spies her, grins, and snaps off a stiff salute, barking to his charges to do the same or risk his wrath. Watching the few civilians in the crowd stumble about trying to salute and run at the same time causes Kirsten’s grin to broaden, but she reins it in and returns the salute as solemnly as she can manage. Her smile breaks through at last when Tacoma tips her a wink, and she watches with true pleasure as they all run off in step, even the four sixty something year old men, veterans of the first Gulf War who had buttonholed Tacoma and warned him that if he even attempted to get them off base and out of the fighting, they would stage a coup and depose him.

With a last, deep breath of fresh air, she turns back to the door, yanks it open, and strides inside. Her steps slow as she becomes aware of a presence she does not expect, and a smile of joy crosses over her face as she looks at her lover, seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch, eyes closed, breathing soft and even. Dressed in cargo shorts and a black tank-top, her beauty is a Siren’s call to Kirsten, and she finds herself heading into the living room without being aware of her movement.

Koda’s eyes open, and the simple welcome and deep affection in them warms Kirsten’s heart so greatly that tears spring to her eyes. As Dakota rises easily, fluidly, to her feet, Kirsten holds up a hand. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--."

The rest of her statement is muffled as she’s gathered into a strong embrace. Koda’s warmth, scent, and strength surrounds her, filling her with a peace she’s long been lacking.

"You’re all knots," Koda murmurs into her hair, long fingers pressing gently against the bands of tight muscle along Kirsten’s back and shoulders.

"Nerves," Kirsten replies, wincing as the gentle pressure sends sparks of pain down her arms.

"Let’s do something about that." Pulling away, Koda smiles down at her.

"A massage?" Kirsten asks innocently, well remembering where their massages have ended up in the past. "I suppose that will relax me. Eventually."

Rolling her eyes, Dakota takes a step back. "Let’s try something else first, shall we?" Strong hands still on her shoulders, she gently urges the young woman to sit on the floor. "Here, cross your legs and get comfortable, alright?"

"C’mon, Koda, I’m no good at this meditation stuff. Remember what happened at the sweat hut?" A tremor of anxiety wends its way through her belly as she remembers that time, quite well. Muscles which were starting to relax instantly become tense again.

"Relax, cante skuye. You’ll be fine. Just relax and close your eyes."

Sighing softly, Kirsten does as requested. Closing her eyes is the easy part. Relaxing is something else altogether.

Dakota’s hands come down on her shoulders again, their heat filling her body with a sweet, welcome warmth. "Relax and concentrate on your breathing." Koda’s voice sounds very close to her ear and she shivers slightly as the dulcet tones sooth their way through her. "Deep cleansing breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Yes, like that. Good. Now, with each breath, feel some of your tension drift away. Can you feel it?"

Not really, Kirsten thinks, but doesn’t speak aloud, not wanting to disappoint her lover.

As if reading her thoughts, Koda chuckles and squeezes the firm flesh beneath her palms. "Don’t try so hard, my love. If nothing else, think of it as a few minutes without worries, ok?"

"Hm. Well, if you put it that way…."

"I do."

"Alright, then."

Wiggling her backside a little to try and gain more comfort on the hard wooden floor, she makes a great effort to relax her muscles and control her breathing. She can feel her lover’s solid presence behind her, and takes in her scent on an indrawn breath, letting it surround her and mingle with the warmth of the strong hands on her shoulders. Without realizing it, she slips into a light meditative state.

Opening her eyes, she finds herself in some sort of field. The land is flat and treeless and empty, stretching on for miles as far as her eyes can see. Tall grasses with feathery tufts have been pressed flat against the ground, laying a rich golden carpet over the earth.

A familiar, piercing cry sounds overhead, and she looks up, smiling as she sees what can only be Wiyo circling overhead on the warm, late-summer breeze. Instinctually, her hand raises as if to wave to her old, trusted friend, then freezes as the slanting sun winks off something on her finger.

A ring.

On the third finger of her left hand.

Her vision blurs as she stares, dumbstruck, at the simple golden band through a film of sudden, joyful tears.

The hawk’s cry sounds again, and this time it is answered by an identical cry to her left. Blinking, she shifts her gaze in that direction, looking on in dazed wonder as Dakota appears as if from nowhere. She is a magnificent sight. Dressed only in a beaded loincloth of red, yellow and black, her skin is dark and shining with sweat and oil. Her feet are bare as are her breasts. Her hair, drawn into two fat, shining braids lying easy over her broad shoulders, sports two eagle feathers, both pointing toward the heavens.

In one hand, she holds a handled drum, and she taps on it with the fingers of her free hand. The rhythm is that of Kirsten’s heartbeat. With each tap, Dakota takes a step, ball of her foot to heel and ball to heel again, approaching her in a slow, sinuous and utterly captivating dance.

Her mouth opens, and she utters, again, the cry of the hawk, which is echoed by Wiyo, and then by human voices.

Many human voices.

A long line of men and women appear behind Dakota. Leading the line is Tacoma, dressed identically to his sister save for the single feather in his hair and the bone whistle cradled securely between his lips.

He looks at her and winks. She can’t help but smile back, filled with a sense of warmth and family far beyond anything she has ever conceived of knowing. She almost laughs aloud as the line dances slowly forward to Koda’s rhythm and she recognizes the men and women following. Andrews, his shockingly red hair free and down past his shoulders, wears a pair of Army camo pants and no shirt, his fair, freckled skin already starting to burn in the blazing light of the sun. Manny is next, looking every bit the full blooded Lakota, his hair finally grown out enough to braid.

Her jaw drops slightly as she recognizes Maggie, breasts proudly bared, her ebony skin shining blue in the sun, her teeth a blinding white as she nods to Kirsten and breaks into a beaming grin.

"My family," she whispers, her eyes filling with tears once again. "My people."

The strident scream of an air-raid siren breaks through her vision, jarring her back to full consciousness as her muscles close their steel traps once again.

She feels herself being lifted to her feet and steadied as she sways the tiniest bit, still caught between the present and what can only be her future. Can it? the more cynical part of her mind asks. Can it really? Dreams like that are not for you, Kirsten King. Not for you. Not for you. Not for you….

"We’ll just see about that," she growls, grabbing Dakota’s hand just as the door bursts inward and Jackson plows through. "The enemy’s been spotted, Ma’ams. They’re coming."

"In the air?" Dakota asks.

"No, Ma’am. On the ground. It’s…." He shakes himself out of his nervousness. "The Colonel requests your presence in her office. Best possible speed."

"Let’s go."

Jackson leads the way back out, but as Kirsten is about to follow, she's tugged to a gentle stop by Dakota. She looks up into gleaming eyes.

"You were given a vision."

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