Written for 30 Day OTP Challenge: Realization. Also submitted to C/P's MOC, prompt: "Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic" as well as challenges by the dozen for the song, "Sea of Lovers" by Christina Perri. Also, I realize this concept is very similar to a fic I did before, but hopefully has a slightly different take.
I intended this to be just a short ficlet, but obviously I failed. I struggle a bit with Shana's voice because I imagine her very blunt and to the point without much flowery language, which contradicts my style. Hopefully I managed it and you can hear Shana's voice as you read this. All feedback very much welcome!
Title is taken from Lord Byron's poem, "She Walks in Beauty."
This is set in the GI Joe: Renegades verse, pre show.
A certain type of wind has swept me up
But till it's found each bone
I am overcome
There is an icy breath that escapes my lips
And I am lost again
He Walks in Beauty
Groggy limbs shift in my bed. My bleary eyes squint into the nearly pitch dark room.
For a moment, I don't know why I'm awake.
Rolling to one side, I check the bedside clock. It blares 2:00 in obnoxious neon red, and next to it my phone glows with a soft halo of light, freshly awakened by a notification and the vibration which must have woken me.
Only one person ever texts me at this hour.
*Acquired schematics. Will be in D.C. tomorrow 0100.*
I push myself upright, snatch up my phone and unlock it. My eyes blink against the engulfing light, my half-asleep brain sifting through a set of different yet essentially identical replies. Okay. Sure. Something short and simple. See you then. Something innocuous, forgettable. I'll be waiting. Stay safe.
Five minutes later, I know I should have replied by now. I know I shouldn't be staring into the empty text box, heart racing over the unsaid meaning of every damn syllable. In one hour I will get out of bed and don the uniform of a United States Army intelligence officer, an expert on cold facts and hard logic, and my fingers, capable of handling the delicate trigger of a fully-auto M16, shouldn't hesitate over the keypad like I'm defusing a bomb.
It's Snake Eyes, I tell myself. Just Snake Eyes.
But these days a wind is in the air. It blows around us and between us, shifting everything that once felt steady and sure. It grows stronger with every meeting, every absence, every loose action or word.
And I resist its pull because deep down, I know I don't want things to change.
I reply with nothing, and by dawn I'm still awake.
The dark circles under my eyes must give me away because at work, Lt. Montgomery, who wouldn't notice a snake two feet away before it bit him, asks me, "Late night, O'Hara?"
This time, I don't hesitate to answer.
"Early morning. Now get back to work."
I wait up for him. Not because I have to, or because he expects it. He could – and has before – slip silently into the house, leave the schematics on the table, and be en route to New York or Paris or Shanghai before I'd started my next REM cycle.
I wait up because there's no worse feeling, in the hollow mornings after, than knowing he was here and gone without getting a chance to see him, without even a glimpse of his shadow to tide me over until he decides to materialize back into my life.
Sitting cross-legged in bed, I drum my fingers against my knee. Whether it's a ninja thing or just a Snake Eyes thing, he's punctual to a fault, and when 0105 ticks on to 0110 I begin to fidget, twisting the end of my ponytail around my forefinger. Ten minutes later my shoes are on and my keys in hand when he climbs in through the window and jumps lightly to the ground.
Of course, he's bleeding in three places.
I say nothing about the blood, and try to hide my burning cheeks by untying my shoelaces as casually as if midnight jogging were a typical past time. "Are you okay?" I ask with a yawn.
He nods, then asks for a drink of water.
He follows me downstairs to the kitchen. His feet make no noise down the creaky staircase. The bottom floor is cool and quiet, filtered by the cleansing darkness of night. Tap water sloshes into the glass.
He sinks into a chair.
"Here." The glass passes between us.
He bows his head. [Thank you.]
I haven't turned a single light on, which is why he feels safe enough to take off his mask and drink. Without any street lamps, there's not much to see of him except a silhouette, graceful and trim, a kind of tangible phantom bleeding all over my new hardwood floors.
He drains the glass in one minute. I take the glass and head back to the sink.
[You didn't have to wait up.]
"I was awake anyway." The truth flows like the water out of the faucet, too easily, too embarrassingly. I almost wish I was a born liar. But I cover with my usual bravado, setting the refilled glass in front of him and crossing my arms. "And I'm glad I was, because now I have evidence that even ninja masters can be late for an appointment. What held you up?"
He doesn't touch the glass. [I came across an injured stray on the way.] He points towards the window. [Two blocks south. Near that horrible laundromat.]
"I warned you not to mix your lights and darks."
"They didn't teach you how to launder at ninja academy?"
[Not clothes, anyway.]
I pull up a chair and sit down next to him. "So what happened to the pup? Did you drop him off at the pound?"
He shakes his head. [He was too far-gone. I coated a bone with some sleeping poison and fed it to him.]
"And that took thirty minutes?" I want to be bothered by the fact that I don't need to question where he keeps his poison (left calf pocket ), or why a certified ninja finds it necessary to keep doggie treats on his person (second right breast pouch). But all I feel is a thread of warmth unwinding in my chest. Familiarity, comfort. Like reading a favorite book.
[No. But I waited for him to die. Then I buried him.]
For anyone else, I would have rolled my eyes at the waste of time and resources. But by the looks of him he buried his best friend, lover, and mother all rolled into one, so all I can do is say, "I'm sorry."
"... for your loss?"
Even in the darkness I see the gentle twist of his lips, and there it is again. The wind. The change.
He rises from the chair. [Thanks for the drink.]
[I've got something coming up in a few days.]
I don't want things to change.
But there are too many little things. The tired shoulders. The grace of a sunrise in every movement. The way he can laugh at himself, or wait beside a lost, unwanted dog so it won't have to die on alone. So instead of letting him walk back upstairs and disappear through the window, I stand, put my hand on his shoulder and say:
"It's almost morning. Why don't you just crash on the couch?"
He sleeps longer than me, probably because he hasn't slept for days.
I try not to watch him, or even think of him, chest rising and falling, breath as even as the tide as he lays silently on my couch.
I try not to wonder what it is he does while he is awake and I am asleep.
The next day is Saturday, and I convince him to give me a refresher on the Unsu kata which I don't really need before he takes off on his next far-flung assignment.
Morning light has flooded my town home, which means the mask is back on – in more ways than one. Last night our friendship felt real enough to hold. Now the sun has dissolved the informality, and the slight stiffness is back, the famed Japanese politeness which requires him to bow and demure and never tell me a damn word about what he's feeling.
As we form the Nekoashi-dachi – the cat stance – the frustration mounts until I erupt with: "You're still upset about that dog, aren't you?"
He stays stock still except to turn his head and treat me to a dead stare. Then his hands move in his slow, scolding way: [Why do you think that?]
What I want to say is: Our movements are half a second off, and it's not my fault. You keep staring off to the south, to a little puppy grave, when you think I'm not looking. The angle of your feet would make any black belt worth her salt cringe, and the death of innocents has a history of upsetting you, doubly so when you think it's your fault.
What I say is nothing.
The silence stretches until his chest expands a fraction more than usual – a sigh – and he signs in that choppy way I've come to associate with annoyance. [Can we just get through this kata?]
His expression is so transparent I can nearly see the eye roll through the mask, but we manage to get through the kata and then he asks which part I want help with.
"The spinning kick," I say without thinking. Obvious choice, because it's the most difficult move, the most in need of rigid instruction.
But another motivation, one that must have been there all along but I refused to recognize, becomes apparent when he comes up to me and starts arranging my body parts into perfect order. It's nothing new, of course. Years ago, when he was first training me, he'd touch every part of me, elbow moved to an angle, feet pointed out to the correct degree, knees bent just so.
Back then it was nothing, nothing but a means to an end, because there was too much heat from anger and vengeance to feel the burn of anything else.
[Your head needs to be parallel to your left arm,] he signs, [facing directly forward.] He puts his hands on either side of my face, guiding it to the precise position, and I feel the flames all the way to my toes.
I've felt infatuation before, affection and lust.
But I've never felt all three all at once, gathered together like a stack of coals, burning me alive.
It's Snake Eyes, I tell myself. Just Snake Eyes.
But I've never been a good liar. "Snake Eyes?"
His hands are holding my waist as he inclines his head. What? The mask is a barrier, but I think I've found the breach. I think I've learned to see through it, and through him. Because the mask is really just an elaborate illusion, a sleight of hand to distract his opponent from the fact that there is a man existing behind it.
A part of me wants to go back and live inside the safety of the illusion. But the rest of me lifts my hands to cup his face, and then slowly, so he knows what's coming, I gently roll the dark fabric back, inch by inch. I feel the tension coiling within him, muscles tensing under my touch, but he doesn't stop me. He should stop me, but he doesn't, and I don't know why except that maybe he's also tired of hiding in an illusion.
The mask flutters to the floor. What it once covered stares me in the face.
But I can't talk about the scars, the burns and deeper abrasions. They were there, of course, and bad by any standard (but not nearly as bad as he must believe them to be). But they were overshadowed by something else.
[Why?] he asks.
"I just needed to know."
He nods, and looks away. [And now that you know?]
I'm a United States Army intelligence officer, an expert in cold facts and hard logic. I don't dwell on the immaterial, or view the world like some kind of Byronic poem. But in all the horror of his mangled flesh and the unknown tragedy that formed it, his eyes were beautiful, perfect, and whole, grey as stormy beaches, and the wind became a hurricane, a monsoon roiling around us in the quiet stillness of a Saturday morning.
I don't want things to change.
But even more, I don't want them to stay the same.
"I want to know more."
In the sea of lovers without ships
And lovers without sign
You're the only way out of this
Sea of lovers losing time
And lovers losing hope
Will you let me follow you
Wherever you go
Bring me home