Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
SPECIAL DISCLAIMER: And god, I really hate to have to disclaim this, but in any event, this chapter contains explicit scenes of two women making love. If this will make you, the reader, uncomfortable, you are encouraged to skip this chapter entirely and come back when it’s over. Thank you.
"God damn you all, I want justice for my father!"
"Mr. Dietrich," Harcourt begins patiently, "we know you’re grieved by the loss of your father. But we have a procedure here—"
"You have a procedure here that’s taking the word of the sons-of-bitches who killed him! He’s not here to speak for himself!"
Koda’s hands clench into fists on her knees, fingers curled so tightly into the palms that her skin shows white and taut above the sharp angles of the bones. All through Manny’s account of finding and freeing Dietrich’s victims, all through Andrews’ corroborating testimony, she has held herself small and quiet behind a barrier of calm, withdrawing into the far places of her mind where her grandfather and Wa Uspewicakiyapi himself have taught her to seek refuge from pain. And in those places is Kirsten.
With a conscious effort, Koda forces herself to ignore the anger battering against the walls of her refuge from without, forces back the rage that burns white-hot just beyond the limit of conscious thought, that requires only a moment’s inattention to burn through. Instead she deliberately recalls the pressure of Kirsten’s body against her own, the generous yielding of her mouth. Deliberately too, she recalls the sense of rightness in their coming together, as if her own journey from her parents’ home, Kirsten’s struggle over half a continent, had found their appointed ends in the snow at Minot.
Everything happens precisely as it should. Precisely.
And where, she wonders, does that come from? Dakota is no fatalist. Nor, she knows, is Kirsten. If the last months have taught her anything, it is that fate is shaped by human will, or by lack of it. Many of the uprising’s victims have died not so much from the androids’ onslaught as from a moment’s unbelieving paralysis. Like Kirsten, she has come to Minot and now to Ellsworth by a series of refusals to be stunned into inaction, by choices to fight against an enemy still unknown. And out of those actions has come the warrior she has felt dormant within her the whole of her life. And out of them, too, this unexpected love, ripening now in its appointed season.
The shout breaks her calm, jerking her mind abruptly back into the anger that pulses off Dietrich in waves. With an effort she stifles the rage that rises to meet it: if he did not set the traps himself, then certainly he knew of them, was complicit in the pain and death of every creature caught in them. He stands before the court, his face blotched scarlet, his hand raised as if to strike out at the men and women of the jury panel.
"Sit down, Mr. Dietrich." Harcourt motions to the uniformed Sergeant still standing at the door of the Judge’s Chambers. "If you persist in this disruption, I will have the Bailiff remove you.
Dietrich’s color remains high, but he pauses for a moment, deliberately lowering his hand to rest at his belt. When he speaks his voice is quieter, though none of the tension has gone out of the corded tendons at his neck. "You heard them. They were robbing his traps. He had a right to defend his property."
"Given that, item—the Judge ticks off his points one by one on his fingers-- leghold traps are illegal; and that, item, trapping of any kind without a license is illegal; and further, that the grey wolf remains a federally-listed endangered species, I’m not sure that the late Mr. Dietrich could lawfully claim any property interest in the fruits of his activities. Now: sit down, sir. Dr. Rivers, please."
Dietrich resumes his seat as Koda takes up her place beside the table with the projector. As she steps up to the low dais, a murmur runs through the room. Deliberately she turns her eyes away from the crowd. She knows what she will see in their faces: admiration in some, awe in others, contempt in a very few still trapped in the prejudices of an age long dead. It is the same almost everywhere she goes now, except for the clinic or among the men and women who have stood shoulder to shoulder with her under fire and who give her the respect of one warrior to another, no less and no more.
"I must warn the court that some of what I have to show you is graphic and disturbing," she says as she unpacks the laptop and attaches the cable to the projector. "Some of these slides are from photographs taken by Lieutenant Rivers and Lieutenant Andrews at the sites of the traps and depict injured animals in pain. Others show victims that did not survive."
She begins with the snapshot of the coyote, which draws a nervous giggle from the back of the room. Keeping her voice even, she says, "Among the Lakota, Coyote is a trickster, famous for getting himself into difficulties. Many of those adventures are funny, with the joke on Coyote himself. But this," she says as she turns to face the audience, "this is an individual animal, not a myth or Coyote-with-a-capital-C in a traditional story. If you look more closely, you will see that he has chewed his own tail half through in a effort to escape." A flick of the switch zooms in on the wound, with teeth marks clear on the small vertebrae. "A little more closely, and you can see the infection that might well have killed him even if he had succeeded in freeing himself."
This time there is a small gasp, and more than one head turns away from the sight of the inflamed and swollen flesh, the pus seeping into the ragged fur. "If the infection had not been stopped, this is what would have happened to him."
The projector clicks softly, and the dying badger appears on the screen. "I can’t say for sure exactly how long this animal remained in the trap, but for full-blown sepsis—‘blood poisoning’—and terminal pneumonia to develop would require a matter of days."
"Excuse me, Doctor Rivers." One of the jurors, an elderly man whose grizzled beard approaches prophetic length, interrupts her. Turning to Dietrich, he says, "Now, I can understand why someone might get the impression that federal laws don’t apply any more. In fact, I can understand why someone might get the impression that there wasn’t any law at all. And I take it you admit that you knew your father was trapping?"
"Sure I did," Dietrich answers. "He’d been running lines for years. And he’s not the only one who did it, either."
The juror nods understandingly. "No, I imagine not." He pauses, looking at his hands, then raises his head to stare at Dietrich, milky blue eyes blazing. "What I can’t imagine—damn it, I refuse to imagine it—is that any half-way decent man would set traps and not check them at least once a day. God knows we may get thrown back to stone knives and bearskins, more’s the pity for the bear. But to leave an animal to suffer like that"—he shakes one gnarled finger at the screen—"is plain sadism. I refuse to accept that as necessary, sir. I refuse to."
‘Sit down, Mr. Dietrich," Harcourt says repressively, before the man is halfway to his feet . "I will not warn you again. Do you have any further remarks at this time, Mr. Leonard?"
The juror shakes his head, leaning back against his seat and staring balefully at Dietrich. We’re going to make it. There is a grim triumph in the thought, and a small ironic smile pulls at the corners of Koda’s mouth. They’re as disgusted with the old man as they are with the son. They’re going to confirm the law. Aloud, she says, "Shall I go on, Judge?"
"If you would, Doctor Rivers."
Steeling herself, Koda cues the next slide onto the screen, turning to face the panel, deliberately looking away from the image of Wa Uspewicakiyape dead in the snow. Her voice sounds hollow in her own ears as she says, "Here we see what happens when such injuries and subsequent infection run their course. This victim is an adult male Grey Wolf, Canis lupus, an endangered and federally protected species." She focuses in on the shattered leg, and a young man in the back of the room abruptly gets up and pushes his way out the door, one hand over his mouth. "The initial injury in this case is a multiple compound fracture of the right tibia and fibula; plainly put, his leg was so badly crushed, with bone protruding through the skin, that medical repair would have been impossible; even if this wolf had been found immediately, the only choices would have been euthanasia or amputation and life in captivity." She pauses for a moment, the words bitter in her mouth. "While immobilized by the trap, this wolf was attacked by, and somehow managed to fight off, a large predator, perhaps a bear, more likely a wolverine. Note the puncture wounds to the neck. Note also the abdominal wound. The edges are dry and inflamed, indicating the onset of infection. As in the case of the badger, exposure would have resulted in pneumonia. Again, we are speaking of days."
Speaking past the rage that threatens to choke her, she continues. "There was also a den within a hundred feet of this trap. Because of the death of this wolf, his mate, who had given birth out of season, was forced to leave her pups to forage. She was shot, though not fatally, at the gates of Ellsworth Air Force Base. Between the trap and the shooting, three out of four of the litter died, a net current loss of four to a still-recovering population. The loss over time, of course, is much greater.
"Finally, she says, "we have a young female bobcat, caught within less than an hour of being found by Lieutenant Rivers and Lieutenant Andrews." She keys up the slide of the cat backing away from her rescuers, ears flat against her head, nose wrinkled in a snarl. "The injury had not had time to become infected, and no bones were broken. As you may know, lack of fractures is atypical. As it was, several tendons were severed and required sutures."
"Doctor Rivers?" Another member of the jury, a woman whose long blonde hair is caught into a thick braid down her back and whose hands show the calluses of months of rough work, glances toward Harcourt for permission to speak. When he nods, she asks, "What is the prognosis of the coyote and the bobcat?"
Koda smiles, the knots in her shoulders beginning to loosen. "Very good, in both cases. In fact, both will be released within a week or two."
"And to what do you attribute their recovery?"
"I attribute their recovery to their rescue by Lieutenants Rivers and Andrews, and to prompt emergency treatment by Sergeant Tacoma Rivers. Had they not been found and treated, both would certainly have died."
"Da-yum," someone in the audience drawls. "How many vets you got on that Base? You make house calls, Doc?"
"Oh Doc, I got a pain, real bad," a young man in the back wails. "Please help!"
Relieved laughter suddenly fills the room, and the Judge raps once, sharply, with his gavel. Abrupt silence decends. Harcourt fixes the speaker with a gaze sharp and bright as a diamond behind his glasses. "Indeed you do, Marc Beauchamp. And if you don’t quiet down and maintain order in this proceeding, I’ll put you and this court both out of it." Turning to Koda, he asks, "Doctor Rivers, have you anything further to add?"
"No, Your Honor."
"Thank you. Sergeant Tacoma Rivers to the stand, please."
Tacoma stands and takes an uncertain step toward the stand, then accepts his crutches from Manny with obvious reluctance. "Good human," Koda says softly as she passes him on her way back to her own seat.
As she turns to sit, movement at the courtroom door catches her eye. The door opens to admit Kirsten, who pauses for a moment to survey the audience and the panel, her eyes finally settling on Koda with a smile. She steps to one side, and a tall man in a buckskin jacket, greying hair caught back in a ponytail, enters behind her. His eyes, shadowed under dark brows, are blue as jay’s wing. With a glance back at Tacoma, who is taking the oath propped up on one crutch, Dakota deposits the laptop in her chair and makes her way up the side aisle as fast as she can without breaking into a run. As a grin spreads across her father’s face and she returns the smile, her suddenly pounding heart slows to normal. Whatever brings Wanblee Wapka to Rapid City, it is not bad news at home.
As she approaches, he holds the door for her and Kirsten once more and lets it fall shut behind them. Without a word, he opens his arms, and she clings to him silently for a long moment, no words necessary. Then he says, "I’m sorry, chunksi. Kirsten told me what happened to Wa Uspewikakiyape."
Dakota loosens her hold just enough to take a step back and meet his eyes. "I found him still alive. I couldn’t help him." She hears the catch in her own voice, half-grief, half-anger. "I couldn’t help him."
He does not attempt to contradict her. "You are helping his mate and his cub. Not to mention his whole species. He would consider that a fair bargain, I think."
"It’s all I could do." The words are bitter on her tongue, like gall.
"It is much. No." He cuts her off as she opens her mouth to contradict him. "I know you don’t think it’s enough. But it is justice, and you have fought hard for it." He nods toward Kirsten. "So have others."
"You’ve met?" With a small shock, it occurs to Koda that her father and Kirsten did not arrive together by chance.
"I went to the Base first, looking for you and Tacoma." He smiles at Kirsten. "We got acquainted on the way into town."
"Oh." To her chagrin, Dakota feels the flush spread across her face, her skin growing warm. "That’s—nice."
His eyes are sparkling now, with the warmth of a summer sky. "Yes, it is."
Gods, is it written on my forehead? "Mother--?"
"Not without a fight."
"Probably not. Meantime—"
Manny pushes through the door, using good shoulder. Wanblee Wapka’s gaze shifts, taking in his bandaged hands, but he says only, "Tonskaya?"
"Leksi. Sorry. Koda, the jury isn’t going to go out at all. They say they don’t need to deliberate."
The jury, which has been huddled in a tight knot with Harcourt at its center, is just making its way back to the table when Koda, Kirsten, her father and cousin file back into the courtroom. Silently, they range themselves along the wall at the back, and Kirsten slips her hand lightly, unobtrusively, into Dakota’s. Koda gives her fingers a squeeze—thank you—and waits for the verdict.
"Mister Chairperson," intones the Judge. "Have you made a determination of the cause and manner of death of William E. Dietrich, deceased, of Rapid City, County of Pennington, in the State of South Dakota?"
The Chairperson rises. Louie Wang is a youngish man whose eyes are dark behind bottle-bottom glasses; even after Armageddon, his shirt pocket sports a plastic protector for a couple pens and a marker. Before meeting Kirsten, Koda would instantly have labeled him a typical computer geek. "We have, Your Honor."
"Your findings, Mr. Chairperson, on the cause of death?"
"As determined previously, cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head, Your Honor."
"Manner of death?"
"Homicide, Your Honor."
Koda’s fingers tighten convulsively around Kirsten’s. Kirsten squeezes back, hard, a puzzled look on her face counterpart to the alarm on Manny’s. Only Wanblee Wapka seems unruffled, standing relaxed with one hand holding his hat, the other a jacket pocket.
"Are there any further findings, Mr. Wang?"
"Two others, Your Honor."
"Your first supplementary finding, please."
Referring to a yellow notepad on the table, Wang says, "Our first supplementary finding, in the absence of a civilian criminal court and a properly constituted grand jury, is that while a homicide—the killing of a human being—was committed, there is no finding of murder. From evidence given, it is the verdict of this jury that Lieutenant Manuel Rivers acted in defense of his own life and the life of Lieutenant Andrews when he returned shots fired at them by William Everett Dietrich, deceased. The jury calls to the attention of the court the circumstance that the said William Everett Dietrich was in process of commission of a felony when he shot at the Lieutenants with intent to kill, and thereby attempted capital murder, an offense which carries the death penalty in this state."
Koda feels her breath go out of her in a rush, notes the relief as every muscle in Manny’s body suddenly seems to relax, held up only by the pressure of his shoulders against the wall. A glance at her father tells her that he has never doubted the verdict. It is not, she realizes, so much that he trusts the law as that he trusts her, and Tacoma, and Manny himself. Trusts them to act in honor, trusts their ability to defend those actions.
"And your second finding, Mr. Chairperson?" asks Harcourt.
"Our second supplementary finding," Wang replies, still referring to the notepad, "is as follows. In the absence of any duly constituted legislative body of the State of South Dakota, this panel affirms the present laws which protect species determined to be either threatened or endangered, and the laws which prohibit the use of the leghold trap or any other device legally defined as cruel."
"So say you one, so say you all?"
One by one the jurors confirm their votes, and the Judge adjourns the court sine die. As the audience begins to file out, all but a few who form a tight knot about Dietrich’s family, Tacoma makes his way to the back of the room. He walks unsteadily, both crutches held in one hand, their rubber feet stumping against the floor tiles like a freeform walking staff.
Wanblee Wapka looks from his eldest son to his nephew and back again. "You two are a mess," he says equably. "What does the other guy look like?"
"Little metal slivers," Tacoma answers, grinning. "Lots of ‘em."
Koda smiles at Kirsten as Wanblee Wapka embraces Tacoma. This is your family, too. But that is not something to be said with strangers crowding past them, and so she only holds the tighter to Kirsten’s hand, not caring who may notice.
Fifteen minutes later, they pile into Wanblee Wapka’s big double-cab pickup, Koda’s own truck entrusted to one of the enlisted men. When they are settled, Manny looks back through the slide window into the camper-topped truckbed and frowns. "What are all those boxes back there? You moving in with us, Leksi?"
"Afraid not," Wanblee Wapka says, maneuvering the heavy truck expertly out of the narrow space and out onto the street. "Those are just a few things your aunt sent: some home-canned peaches, corn, beans, frybread, and such."
"There’s a couple chickens and some roasts at the house, too," Kirsten adds. "And a side of beef at the mess--everyone’s going to have a full stomach tonight."
"Thanks, Até," Koda says quietly, and receives a smile in return.
It is nothing, however, to the beatific expression on Manny’s face, framed in the rear-view mirror. "Good bread, good meat," he says reverently. "Good God, let’s eat."
Koda stands in a white fog of condensate billowing out of the refrigerator, the blast of air chilling her face. "You call that a couple chickens and a roast or two?"
"I admit I wasn’t as—precise--as I might have been." Kirsten’s voice is dryly factual, but Koda has known her long enough now to recognize the hint of laughter running underneath.
"How unscientific of you," Dakota murmurs, taking in the packed space before her. There are chickens and roasts, to be sure. There is also a ham, a slab of bacon, a couple gallons of fresh milk, butter, several dozen eggs, and an assortment of parcels tantalizingly shaped like porkchops and T-bones. Above them, the freezer compartment bulges with more of the same. A string bag of potatoes leans against the door of the under-counter cabinets, accompanied by a second of large golden onions and yet another of carrots.
"Your mother," says Wanblee Wapka with a self-deprecating shrug, "is convinced you’re on the brink of starvation."
"Oh, we are!" Manny chimes in from his seat at the kitchen table. "Don’t let her tell you otherwise!"
"Well, not quite." Dakota closes the fridge door and gives her father a brief but fierce hug, then leans back to smile at him. "We’re down to ‘nourishing but unappetizing,’ though."
"Rubber cheese," says Kirsten, with a wrinkle of her nose.
Wanblee Wapka motions toward the driveway with a tilt of his head. "I’ll bring in the rest."
"The rest" is two boxes of home canned fruits and vegetables, everything from wild grape jam to pickled okra. Koda unpacks the Mason jars while a pair of chickens soak in salt water in the sink. "Até?" she says hesitantly, a quart of stewed tomatoes still in her hand. "You’re sure you can spare all this?"
The sudden fall of Manny’s face is almost comical, "Leksi, we can’t take things you and Themunga might need."
Wanblee Wapka sets down a third box, larger but lighter, and studies Dakota and her cousin for a long moment. Finally he says, "We’re not just a family ranch anymore. We’ve turned into a village. These last weeks we’ve plowed an extra five hundred acres for garden vegetables and an extra thousand for hay and feed corn. The Goetzes have brought their sheep down and settled on the Hurley place. Brenda Eagle Bear has set up her spinning wheel and loom in one of their outbuildings, and her husband Jack is making hoes and mending bent harrows, not just shoeing horses. Barring a miracle, next spring we’ll be plowing behind some of those horses. The world has changed, Dakota. We have to change with it."
Koda sets the jar on a shelf with a rueful smile. "I know. It’s just that I never expected home to change, too." Wanblee Wapka gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze, then goes out for more of Themunga’s ample care package.
Half an hour later, dinner preparations are in full swing. Maggie, returned home in the midst of stowing the new supplies, dragoons Kirsten into helping her wrestle the unused middle leaf of her table down from the cramped attic storage space while Wanblee Wapka coaxes the recalcitrant ends apart. His uniform tie and jacket hung on the hall tree, Tacoma peels potatoes into a large earthenware bowl set between his feet. Manny, odd man out because of his injured hands, offers encouragement to all and sundry. "Hey, cuz," he observes as Koda sets to cutting up the chickens, "I didn’t know you were a domestic goddess."
Deftly Koda severs a thigh from a drumstick.. "I’m not. I’m a surgeon."
‘Watch your mouth there, bro," Tacoma says with a grin. "She’s good with that thing."
As they sit down to a dinner of fried chicken and gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits, Koda glances around the table. Nostalgia runs along the edges of her consciousness, memory of a thousand evenings like this one, her father or grandfather at one end of the table, her mother at the other, the ever-increasing Rivers clan ranged in between. The family has long since outgrown the dinner table of her childhood; at Solstice this past December, they had added a pair of card tables at the end, and a third, separate, where the youngest cousins could mash their peas into their potatoes to their hearts’ content. Glancing at the woman at her side, it comes to Dakota that she may never bring Kirsten home to her mother, may never again return to a family untouched by loss. They have escaped the odds so far; but the attack that has injured Manny and Tacoma only emphasizes how tenuous their position is.
A chill passes down her spine, a shadow of premonition. There is a finality to this meal; it lies, somehow, on a point dividing past and future. Something said, something done, this night will alter the course of all their lives to come. Over the circulating dishes, she meets her father’s eyes and knows that he feels it, too.
Everything happens precisely as it should. Precisely.
It is the second time this day that the thought has come to her. Foresight is familiar to her; so is dream; so is prophecy. This is none of those things. It is a sense of pattern, of a path marked out to be trodden again and again, life after death after life through endless cycles.
It fades, gradually, and her attention returns to those at the table about her. Her father, her brother and cousin; Maggie, who is her friend; Kirsten, who is her heart.
And death sits at the table with them, bone-faced and inexorable.
With an effort she pulls herself back to the present. Warnings, she reminds herself, come precisely because they can be heeded, because evil can be averted. She forces her to eat her supper, while the conversation flows past her—her father and Maggie now in earnest discussion of a trade agreement between the Base and the Rivers settlement, Manny and Tacoma answering questions about the relative benefits of reclaiming a half-dozen more windmills versus attempting to reconnect the grid to serve both the Base and Rapid City. Kirsten, beside her, touches her arm briefly. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, sure, I just—"
"Weren’t there for a bit," Kirsten completes her sentence for her, softly.
"It happens. I’m fine." Koda smiles at Kirsten, and at her father, meeting his concerned gaze again, letting him see that she is with them again.
His eyes promise a later talk, but for the moment the world slips back into normality around her. Kirsten’s hand brushes hers under the table, deliberately, and Koda looks up to catch the faint blush suffusing the other woman’s face. Like her father’s, the green eyes say later.
And there will be a later. I swear it.
Deliberately, Koda’s fingers close about Kirsten’s, holding fast for all their lives and future.
The hall clock chimes nine as Dakota slips quietly through the door. Her patients are all settled for the night, meds given, dressings changed as needed. The kitchen and the rooms she can see beyond stand dark; a sense of solitude, comfortable after the crowding of the evening, lies over the house. Wanblee Wapka has gone to bunk with Manny and Tacoma in the BOQ, and to have a look at how his son and nephew are healing. Maggie, as she has done almost every night for the last couple weeks, has announced her intention of working late. In the last few weeks, Hart has grown increasingly remote, and almost all of the day-to-day running of the Base has fallen to the Colonel and one or two junior field officers. Lately she has been home only to eat, to shower and change, returning to her office after supper to coordinate supplies, assign personnel, worry about the android forces still lurking beyond their perimeter and eventually catch a few hours’ sleep on a field cot set up in the narrow space between desk and window. Part of the change is the weight of command; another, equal, part, Dakota suspects, is tact. With Maggie out for the night, Koda has a room and a bed that she need not share. Or that she can share, if she chooses, without intrusion. That has not become an issue yet; Kirsten still sleeps and works in the small guest room, sorting through endless strings of code in search of the sequence that will, finally and permanently, incapacitate the droids. She is there now, her presence and Asi’s small eddies in Koda’s awareness.
The air has grown chill, and Koda moves to close the window over the sink. The breeze stirs the curtains against her face as she reaches for the sash, and on it comes the sound of frogs singing by the stream that flows through the woods, point counterpoint to the soft whinnying of a screech owl. Stars spill across the sky, undimmed by the customary glare of the city or the Base, a white blaze that, were it not for those few lamps burning in windows and the occasional sweep of headlights, might cast shadows across the back yard. Sweet and familiar, the night air carries the smell of water and wet earth and green things growing.
Normal. Since the uprising began, this is the closest an evening has come to normal.
There is a restlessness in her tonight, born of the premonition of impending loss; born, too, of this night poised on the edge of spring. If she were home, she would take Wakinyan Luta away from his mares for an hour and ride until she tired. But she is not home, has no idea when she will ever be home again. Slowly she pulls the window down, shutting out the night and its voices that call to her. There is work to be done here and now.
Flicking on the light, she opens the large box Wanblee Wapka has left standing by the hall door. On top lie several layers of clothes: underwear, socks, shirts, jeans, all pressed and neatly folded. Below them are half a dozen books, obviously chosen carefully from the shelves of her own home: Paz’ biography of Sor Juana de la Cruz, in translation; a copy of the Iliad whose front cover buckles loosely where it joins the spine; a slim book of poetry in German. Kneeling by the box, her clothes set neatly on the dining chairs, she lets the last book fall open in her hand, to the introductory poem. Its sparse language evokes the vast spaces of the Central European plain, the figures of an Ice Age tribe huddled around the fire against the unseen things of the night, a teller of tales lingering at the edge, making the magic of words only to fade again into the darkness and the empty land.
Am rande hockt
der Maerchenerzaehler. . ..
Her eyes skim the page to the end:
Heiss willkommen den Fremden.
Du wirst ein Fremder sein.
Warmly welcome the stranger.
You will be a stranger.
The sound of soft footsteps comes to her from the corridor. "Dakota? Is that you?"
"I’m here. In the kitchen." She closes the book and sets it on the stack of clothing to be carried to what is now her room.
Kirsten appears in the doorway, her glasses shoved up onto the top of her head, her eyes weary. Koda glances up at her, taking in the slump of her shoulders, the small lines at the corners of her mouth. To Dakota, it is one of the sweetest sights she’s ever seen. Even dog-tired, Kirsten has an aura of strength and vitality about her that speaks deeply to Koda’s soul. A powerful, intense intelligence, honed to a razor’s edge, blazes even from tired eyes. The innate goodness within, and the beauty without, shine rose and gold, like the setting sun on a warm summer’s day. She wonders, briefly, why it has taken her so long to truly see this—or if not to see, then to admit. "You need a break," she says aloud, shrugging mental shoulders over questions she might not ever be able to answer.
"I feel like my damned neck’s already broken." Kirsten scrubs her knuckles over the tight muscles running from her shoulders up to the back of her head. "Those techs Maggie lent me are worth their weight in microchips, but looking for a micron sized needle in a planet sized haystack is what headaches are made of. When it gets like this I’m afraid I’m going to look straight at the smoking gun and not recognize it. And the whole world will slip back to living in caves and hunting with bone spears because I’m too tired to know what I’m looking at." She smiles, then, a sparkle of life coming to beautiful jade eyes. "I’m optimistic, though. We’re making damn good progress. If we’re lucky, and the creek don’t rise, as my dad used to say, we might have some preliminary data within the next couple of days."
"Good news for sure. How about the search for the mole? Any progress?"
Kirsten’s smile fades. "No. Maggie’s up in arms, professionally, of course, but her job’s even harder than mine, I’m afraid. We’re keeping this on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. She hasn’t even let Hart in on it."
"Trust no one."
"Except for me and thee," Kirsten jokes, smiling again. Then she winces as a bolt of pain shoots up her neck and takes up residence in the back of her head.
Rising to her feet, Koda slides her hand along Kirsten’s shoulder and up her neck. "Oh yeah," she says. "You could bounce tennis balls off that and never feel it. How about some chamomile tea?"
Kirsten’s mouth purses in distaste. "How about a shot of Johnnie Walker?"
"If we had any." Koda grins. "How about some horse liniment?"
"You don’t—you’re kidding me, aren’t you?"
"Compromise?" Koda holds up the box of herbal tea and begins to fill a small saucepan with water. "Ina sent some honey. You won’t have to drink it plain."
"Your mom’s an amazing woman. Food, clothes, books. . .." Koda follows Kirsten’s gaze as she takes in the unexpected bounty. "What’s this in the bottom? It looks like bedding."
"It probably is. And a snakebite kit, and a needle and thread, and a roadside flare, and—"
"—a partridge in a pear tree." Kirsten finishes.
"Nah. The partridge is already in the freezer." While the water boils, Koda moves the books her mother has sent into the living room, leaving some on the low chest that serves as a coffee table, shelving others. The clothes she hangs in the half of the closet of Maggie’s room that has become hers. If she is honest, the room is hers, too, and possibly the house; if Hart breaks entirely, Maggie will probably move into the commandant’s quarters. Koda returns to the kitchen to find Kirsten scooping the herbal mixture into the warmed pot, with cups and honey set on the counter. "Ready?"
"Almost," Kirsten answers, turning to take the water off the burner and pour it over the chamomile. "Let me help you with that large bundle while this steeps."
"I’ve got it. It’s just some—" Koda breaks off abruptly as she runs her hands down the sides of the box to lift the parcel out. It does not feel like sheets and towels at all. "No, it isn’t. It’s a blanket or a quilt, I think." Wedged tight at the bottom, the bundle comes free suddenly, its muslin wrapper falling away to reveal a blazing spectrum of reds and oranges and golden yellow, highlighted here and there by deep peacock shades of blue and violet.
"Well, that would have been handy back in February— " Kirsten, turning toward the stove, stops as if rooted to the floor, her hand halfway to the handle of the saucpan. "God, that’s beautiful!"
Koda runs her hand gently over the myriad small lozenges that make up the pattern, letting the folds of the quilt fall open to reveal the full design. "It’s a star quilt," she says quietly.
"It looks almost like a Maltese cross," Kirsten says. Carefully, she turns off the burner and pours the hot water into the teapot. "May I?"
Koda nods, and together they maneuver the half-open quilt out of the kitchen and into the living room, spreading it over the back of the couch in front of the fire burning low in the grate. Kirsten gasps as the design comes into full view, the eight-pointed star covering almost the entire field of the quilt, worked all in the colors of fire, from its blue heart to its white edges. Kneeling in front of the couch, running her hands gently over the fabric, she says, "It means something, doesn’t it? I mean, you don’t just sleep under this, do you?"
"You can, but no, not usually." Koda moves a couple books and sits on the chest. Her fingers trace the gradual shading from electric blue at the heart of the star, through yellow and flame orange and red and yellow again. Almost she can feel heat rising from it, the blaze at the heart of the star searing her skin. "A quilt like this is given at times of change in a person’s life. A marriage, a promotion, a coming of age. Sometimes it’s the commemoration of a death."
"Your wolf," Kirsten says softly.
"Wa Uspewikakiyape. Yes." Again Koda runs her hand over the quilt’s surface, tracing the impossibly small, even stitches. "Mother had this one on the frame when I left home back in December."
"Why a star?"
Koda pauses a moment, studying Kirsten’s face. Love is there, in the softly parted lips; pain in the shadowed eyes. The other woman is a scientist, though, finding her truth in numbers and measurements, in electrons streaming down the tidy paths cut by mathematical formulae. How much of the unquantifiable shaman’s way can she tolerate? How far be willing to follow? "In Lakota tradition," Koda says, slowly, choosing her words carefully, "there are two roads. One, the Red Road, begins in the east with the dawn, and moves toward the west. This is our life on Ina Maka, our Mother Earth."
"From sunrise to sunset."
"Yes, but also from Morning Star to Evening Star. They have their counterparts in North Star and Southern Star, and the Blue Road of spirit runs between them. One who leaves the earth goes to walk the Wanaghi Tacanku, the Ghost Road, guided by Wohpe, whom we also call White Buffalo Calf Woman. At some point along that road, she makes a decision about each soul."
"Like a last judgement? Heaven and Hell?"
Kirsten’s brow draws into a frown, and Koda reaches out a hand to smooth it away. "It depends. Some of our great teachers, like Wanblee Mato, Frank Fools Crow, say that the spirit goes on to be with Wakan Tanka for eternity. But they have been influenced by the missionaries the government sent to ‘civilize’ us." Koda makes no effort to keep the bitterness from her voice. "A soul that is not worthy of Great Mystery is turned loose to wander forever, and I suppose that would qualify as hell."
"Do you believe that?" The frown is back; it comes to Koda suddenly that Kirsten is struggling with something, something she is—not afraid, because Koda has seldom known a person of such courage, but perhaps—embarrassed? to speak of.
"There is another belief," she says softly. "Older, from the time of the beginning. When Inyan created the universe, he gave a part of himself to every living thing. When the part of us that is ourselves comes to match that part the Creator has given us, then we may go on to join with him forever. If our selves do not match that divine part, or if we choose for some other reason, they we are sent back to Ina Maka, to receive a portion of her essence and be born again." Koda slips from her seat to kneel beside Kirsten, taking her hands in her own. She says gently, "What troubles you about this?"
For a long moment it appears that Kirsten will not answer, looking down at their joined hands. Then she says, "I had a dream. In it I was—someone else, a tall woman with black hair, and an axe and shield. You were there, too, but with red hair, and a spear." Kirsten’s voice fades almost to soundlessness, breath only. "And we loved."
The firelight shimmers red-gold over Kirsten’s hair, limns the high planes of her cheekbones and the hollow of her throat, touches her mouth with crimson. Her eyes are lost in shadow. Silence fills the space between them.
Carefully, Koda frees one hand and raises it to trace the outline of Kirsten’s face, her fingers running along the margin between soft skin and softer hair. They trace the angle of her jaw, trail down the column of her neck where the vein pulses in a thready, staccato beat. "Kirsten," she says, her own voice husky, a drift of smoke along the air. "Kirsten, I love you now."
Kirsten raises her face, her eyes searching Koda’s. For a long moment she remains still, then looses her hands to run them up Koda’s shoulders and behind her neck, drawing her mouth down. The first touch of her lips brushes feather-soft against Koda’s own, a fleeting warmth like a summer breeze. Kirsten’s hands draw her closer still, and Koda opens her mouth, inviting, to the gentle brush of the other woman’s tongue. I had been hungry all the years. The thought whispers in her mind, but it is not her own. Vaguely Koda recognizes it as a line of poetry, but Kirsten’s mouth, demanding, is the reality of desire, the firm body pressed more and more insistently against her, its truth.
"I love you," Kirsten murmurs against her lips. "I want you."
"We mitawa ile." Fire flows through Dakota’s veins, slipping like silk along her flesh, stealing her breath. "We ile," she says again. "My blood burns for you."
Kirsten’s eyes are pools of molten emerald. "Love me, then. Love me now."
Koda rises to her feet, drawing Kirsten with her. Carefully she lays the quilt on the rug before the hearth, its orange and crimson struck to flame in the low light of the fire. Setting aside her shoes, she turns to find Kirsten standing at the center of the star, her clothes discarded on the couch. The firelight washes her pale skin all to gold, glints off the fall of her hair. It casts shadows in the cleft of her breasts, in the valley between her thighs. "Lila wiya waste," Koda breathes. "Beautiful woman."
Her eyes never leaving Kirsten, she shrugs out of her own shirt, draws off her jeans and underthings In a moment’s disorientation, she sees herself as Kirsten must, tall and lithe, shaped of copper and bronze and dusky rose, her loosened hair spilling about her like the night sky, glinting blue and silver in the light of the flames. Then she is wholly in her own mind again as Kirsten steps toward her, smiling. "Nun lila hopa," she says. "Nun lila hopa."
Koda closes the small space between them, bending to kiss the upturned mouth, running her hands over the smooth skin of Kirsten’s back, feeling the taut muscles beneath, the firm breasts with their hard nipples pressed against her own. "Lie down with me, wiyo winan, woman made of sunlight."
Sinking down onto the quilt, she draws Kirsten with her to lie beside the fire. The other woman’s eyes are wide and dark, pools of shadow. For an instant her features shift, and Koda’s own face is reflected back to her, her own eyes the deep blue of autumn skies. that face fades and reforms, and the woman lying half beneath her is leaner, wirier, her skin swirled with patterns in a blue more vivid still, her hair falling in sharp waves loosed from a myriad of tight braids. Koda traces the line of Kirsten’s throat with a feathery touch, trailing a finger down to circle one breast. "You were right," she says softly. "We have done this before, in other lives."
Koda’s touch spirals upward, circling first the areola, then the nipple, lingering, circling again. Her lips follow, tracing the same slow helix as her hand drifts down Kirsten’s flank, brushing the lines of her body from breast to belly, over the curve of her hip, down her thigh. Under her hand, fire springs along the other woman’s nerves, a woven net of flame that meshes with the intricate pattern of her own veins. The shock of the sudden connection ripples through Koda, waves propagating from beneath her breastbone, shaking all her frame to magma. Kirsten’s breath goes out of her with the heat of it, and her shoulders arch upward to meet Dakota’s mouth. Koda grazes the nipple with her teeth, suckling now lightly, now more insistently as Kirsten’s fingers thread through her hair, holding her mouth to the tender flesh.
After a time, Koda raises her head and shifts slightly. Kirsten lies with eyes half-closed, her hair spilled across the bronze and crimson of the quilt like tongues of flame licking the incandescent gold at the far reaches of its fire. "Wastela ke mitawa," she murmurs. "Ohinni."
Kirsten’s eyes find her, still dark with arousal. "I will love you forever," she says. "Life to life. From death through death again."
For an instant, Koda sees herself as Kirsten must, her own eyes languid with desire, her hair cascading over her shoulders to lie silken over Kirsten’s flank. The urgency of the taut body beneath her runs tingling through her own nerves, tightening her nipples to hardness, beating a slow rhythm in her loins. She bends to kiss Kirsten’s mouth again, then, slipping lower, the hollow of her throat where the pulse hammers against her lips, her breasts. Gently Koda trails a hand down the center of her body, circling her navel, drawing fire in the wake of her touch. She feels it all along her own nerves, building, flame drawing in upon itself, grown white-hot in the crucible of her flesh.
Turning then, she slips a hand between Kirsten’s legs, urging them gently apart. Firelight glints off the wetness beading along the cleft of the pale curls, making faint crescents on her inner thighs. Gently Koda cups Kirsten’s sex in her hand, feeling the spasm that runs through the other woman’s body and her own, pressing against her palm. Drawing her fingers upward, she parts the folds of flesh, and the scent of musk comes to her. Kirsten gasps, reaching blindly for Dakota’s other hand against her hip, tangling their fingers together. In her own body, Koda feels her mouth descend to lay a kiss on the red pearl of the clitoris. She circles with her tongue, stoking, probing, stroking again, the wet rasp of her tongue striking fat white sparks of pleasure that swirl and grow and take heady life of their own.
Kirsten’s body goes rigid under her, her hips arching as lightning runs along her veins, down her legs, up from nexus low in her belly. Her breath has gone ragged, and Koda is not certain that she, herself, is breathing at all, her whole body caught up in the fire that strikes through her, crown to sole, as Kirsten cries out, her head thrashing as her limbs shudder and spasm and Koda is lost, lost, spun between the poles of Kirsten’s pleasure and her own.
And it is not just her body, no. Something far in the secret depths of her mind breaks free of its tether, gone nova as the fire on the hearth and the star on the quilt beneath them blaze together, one heart of flame, crimson, copper, incandescent gold, and it is her own heart burning there as years, eons, whole universes wheel by and are lost in space around her. A cry is ripped from her, like the wind at the heart of the sun, and blackness descends about her.
When the curtain of darkness parts, she has returned to herself, feeling the pleasant weight of Kirsten’s fingers still tangled in her hair. Kirsten’s body, sheened with sweat, still quakes, minute tremors that flow from the center and back again. Her breathing, though labored, is settling slowly, along with the beat of heart.
Pressing a kiss to the belly she rests her head upon, Koda gently disentangles herself from Kirsten’s limbs and stretches her length along her lover’s side, her head propped up in one large hand.
"What a fool I’ve been," she murmurs, gently wiping the tears that sparkle like fire-kissed diamonds upon Kirsten’s thick lashes, "to think my heart my own when I’d already given it up to you the moment our eyes first met." Kirsten’s smile is radiance itself, and in that moment, her sheer beauty far surpasses anything that Dakota has ever known. "You shine so brightly, wiyo winan." My heart. My soul. My joy.
The image before her doubles, then trebles, fracturing into multi-hued prisms by the spark of her own sudden, stinging tears. She feels more than sees her hand taken into Kirsten’s, feels the cool touch of her lips on her fingers, each kiss a benediction. When a tongue traces the lines of her roughened palm, she moans and allows herself to be turned onto her back by Kirsten’s gentle strength.
Kirsten moves with her, draping over the left side of her body like a living blanket. Lips descend again, brushing against her cheek, past the heavy fall of sweat-soaked hair at her temple, suckling briefly the sensitive lobe of her ear. Her lover’s voice, when it sounds, is husky and low. "Let me love you."
She can only groan out her acceptance as Kirsten’s lips leave her ear and a toned thigh slips between her own, seating itself against her with a whisper of silken flesh. Her hips surge and Kirsten cries out as the molten heat of Dakota’s passion paints itself against her skin.
"Oh…sweetheart," Kirsten whispers breathlessly. "So beautiful…."
Lips mesh and tangle, tongues battle sweetly for dominance, bodies writhe, snake-like, on a sheen of sweat. Kirsten’s hand trails down to cup the weight of a small firm breast, dragging her palm across a nipple so hot and tight that it seems to cut into her flesh.
Dakota’s moans are constant things, fractured with short gasps and snatches of words Kirsten can barely decipher. Her large hands bear the heat of the sun as they trail over shoulders and back, down past the sweet curve of Kirsten’s hip, and settle, pressing her deep and close and tight.
With a labored grunt, Kirsten lifts her head, knowing she cannot bear this incendiary touch much longer without succumbing fully to its whispered promises.
"Slow," she gasps out, looking down into eyes as black as a moonless night. "Slow…."
"Hiya," Koda groans. "Hiya, iyokipi. Please."
With regret, Kirsten slides away from temptation and gentles Koda with firm strokes to her belly and ribs. "Slow," she whispers. "Let me love you."
Her head lowers slowly and she nuzzles Koda’s breast, drawing her cheek and nose over the silken skin, taking in her lover’s, musky, exotic scent. Koda’s hips surge again as a warm, wet mouth engulfs her and a cool, darting tongue teases the flames licking at her soul. Her eyes close tightly as the world within fractures and spins, filling her with the heat and the power of a thousand suns.
Her cries are loud as bold fingers comb through the bone-straight hair at her center, then dip lower, bathing themselves in the evidence of her great need. She is so full and swollen with passion that the first touch is pain entwined with pleasure, and when those fingers tease her entrance, she gives them no chance for retreat. Her hips thrust hard and she shouts in triumph as she is suddenly, blessedly, filled.
Kirsten smiles around the breast at her lips, then moans with pleasure as she is gripped and held in slick, velvet heat. Deliberately keeping her fingers still, she draws her body away and up, pressing a deep, heady kiss to Koda’s swollen lips, then soothing her way down to her lover’s flushed ear. "You feel so good, lover," she breathes, feeling Dakota’s body respond to her murmured endearments. She’s not sure where these words are coming from. She’s not a very experienced lover, and certainly not a vocal one, but here, and now, and with this magnificent woman beneath her, they seem right, and needed, and very much desired.
"So smooth. So open. So ready for my touch." She begins to gently thrust in rhythm to her phrases, using the very tips of her fingers to stroke the velvet lining as she advances and retreats with slowly building speed.
Koda’s head is tipped back, lips parted and glistening, hair fanned around her like the corona of a jet black star. Her hands grip and release the quilt and her chest heaves as she takes in giant gulps of air. Her body is as tight as a drum, skin flushed and shining rose and gold and shadow by the light of the fire.
"Iyokipi. Lila waste. Mahe tuya. Iyokipi. Hau!"
Pressing down with the heel of her palm, Kirsten rubs against the engorged flesh as her fingers increase the force and speed of each thrust, enraptured by the feel of the slippery heat against her fingers and beneath her palm. The quilt pulls taut as Koda grinds desperately against it. "Now, my love," she whispers, tasting the sweat of desire on Koda’s skin. "Let go. I love you. Come to me. I love you, Dakota."
And she feels the incredible strength in the body beneath her as it surges up around her. Arms pin her tight and hold her close against a body that thrums like a live wire. Wetness, molten hot, floods her hand and drains between her fingers.
The grip around her finally loosens and falls away as Koda lays back, limp and motionless except for her ribs, which expand and contract with the force of her panting breaths.
With a tenderness she never knew she possessed, Kirsten eases out of Dakota’s spent and trembling body, gently cupping her lover’s mound she shifts slightly into a more comfortable position. Her free hand comes up and strokes the sweaty bangs from Koda’s forehead.
After a moment, Dakota’s eyes flutter open. They are a peaceful, sleepy blue, and the love that shines forth from them is brighter than any star. Kirsten can feel that look upon her skin, settling over her like a warm, soft blanket, and she closes her eyes for a moment, reveling in the sensation. They open again as she feels long fingers trace down the center of her chest. Dakota is smiling at her.
"Lie with me, cante mitawa. Let us walk the dreaming paths together."
With a smile, Kirsten curls her body into her lover’s. Murmuring, Dakota gathers her within the warm folds of the quilt. She sinks into sleep with Kirsten’s head on her shoulder, Kirsten’s arm over her body. On the edge of sleep comes Kirsten’s soft voice, "Wastelake. Ohinni."
And darkness takes her.
And that, dear reader, takes us to the end of another—and, we hope, enjoyable—episode in The Growing. Interestingly enough, from the time you started reading until the time of the first love scene is exactly, to the day (I believe) the amount of time it takes from a love scene until the birth of a full-term human infant. <G> No, the symbolism wasn’t intentional, but it’s a pretty funny coincidence, no?
Alas, however, real life has seen fit to intrude, and between computer viruses, birthdays, and the odd convention or two, we have the need to take a TWO EPISODE break. We will see you again on Thursday, September 25 for another episode. Until then, be well, and if you feel the desire, drop a line at email@example.com.
Continued - Chapter 31
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