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Savannah reached up and pulled the roller door down, closing the gym off from the rest of the world for the night. Barbells and power racks gleamed dully in the moonlight filtering through the high windows of the warehouse building turned gym, illuminating the traces of chalk dust that still hung in the air from the final class. After the rattle of the door the silence settled slowly as she started to make her way toward the light of the office at the end of the rectangular building. Movement caught her attention and she paused, her eyes straining to make out the shape of the figure in the dark. Suddenly light flashed dully off a line of medals and Matti was there in front of her.

“Sav.” Her voice was low, ragged. And demanding. Savannah’s mind raced.

A car started up outside and Matti tensed, relaxing only as the sound of the engine faded. Savannah felt her lip tremble as Matti’s eyes returned to her face; she could see Matti’s features now her eyes had adjusted to the darkness and it was a face that still held tension. Piercing raw copper eyes stared back, shielded behind a strong square jawline and cheekbones thrown into prominence by a hint of gauntness. Slightly arched eyebrows. An expressive mouth, the bottom lip slightly thicker than the top, the skin ragged from sun exposure and, despite the tension, the feint traces of an upward curve at the corners lingered playfully. Still the kid. Matti, my Matts.

Savannah’s eyes dropped to the uniform. All crisp lines intersecting each other at precise angles. A name, a rank and a row of accomplishments written in metal and ribbon. It was not a language she spoke or understood. Did those medals tell of stories that she could never believe of Matti, her little Matts? She looked up at Matti’s face as a slow smile spread across it, not the cheeky grin that had masqueraded across her features as a kid but rather a subdued smile, a pained gash of bravery across her face that told a story she already knew.

*

“It’s time to go I think.”

Savannah’s heart sunk, the moment she had been dreading was creeping up and she couldn’t ignore it anymore, “Okay kid.” She picked up her car keys and they silently stood and started making their way out to the car park. Matti staggered slightly and Savannah wrapped an arm around her.

“Better not do that when I get you home or your parents will kill me.” she berated half heartedly, not sure that she could tell someone who had signed their life over to the military in a time of war, not to drink under age.

Matti leaned over and brushed her lips drunkenly against Savannah’s forehead, “No they won’t. I’m an Army brat, dad would be damn angry, but a little proud that I have the type of friends who got me drunk before I was even eighteen.”

Savannah smiled as the lithe teenager slipped from her arms and took up her usual position in the passenger seat, as if she were catching a ride home from someone else’s farewell party.

The rest of the trip passed in silence. The drive was long and the night air cool. Matti changed the radio station and she flipped it back in an argument that had lasted so long they didn’t bother to verbalise it anymore. Matti didn’t change it back; she was staring out the window, her thoughts obviously far away and Savannah didn’t know what to say. Even if she had words for the occasion she doubted she would get too far without breaking down in tears. So she changed the station back to Matti’s choice and stared at the pools of road passing by under her headlights.

When they finally pulled up outside Matti’s house Savannah walked around the car and pulled Matti into a hug. She held on for as long as she could, trying to remember the way it felt, trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, and failing at both. Matti gripped her in a powerful squeeze for a moment then released and held her gently. She gave one more squeeze then squirmed and pulled away.

“Thanks Sav. I’ll see you sometime.” She smiled. Not her usual ear to ear grin that paraded across her face day and night but a slow, subdued smile. A brave gash in a face full of pain.

Savannah stuttered, trying to fill the silence, to draw out the moment just a minute longer, then her tongue found the very words she didn’t want to say, “See ya kid. Be safe…Come back sometime.”

With that Matti turned and walked into the house.

*

Savannah shook her head, realizing her thoughts had drifted. So many years ago. But that smile… like a nightmare déjà vu.

“Are you thirsty?” It was awkward but it was the clearest thought she had managed to grab a hold on since Matti walked into the gym in the middle of her last class.

Her visions of dropping her stopwatch and racing across to launch herself at the returned soldier were eroded by thoughts of how fast the news would reach her girlfriend. So she had smiled. Waved. And pointed toward her office. Matti had ignored her gesture casino siteleri and stood to one side of the class, unmoving, until it had ended and Savannah had ushered her last client out.

Matti nodded and followed as Savannah made her way toward the glass front refrigerators behind the reception desk. She pulled a coconut water from the fridge and Matti smiled for the first time since she had walked in.

“You know this is what bought me home.” She took the bottle from Savannah’s outstretched hand as it was offered to her.

Savannah frowned, “What?”

Mattie took a swig. “Coconut water silly. On those long hot fighting days in Afghan I’d think of standing here, drinking a cold coconut water.” She smiled but this time it was the impish grin that had charmed Savannah from the day they had first met.

Savannah picked at the label on her bottle. “How was it?”

Matti shrugged. “Hot. And distinctly lacking in cold coconut water. War truly is hell.”

This time they both smiled, only Savannah smiled with relief as her eyes flicked over the row of medals on Matti’s chest. Thoughts of moments spent skipping between the news channels when word came that soldiers had been killed filled her with the familiar coat of goose bumps even as Matti stood here. Safe. Alive. That momentary joy when the photograph of Matti in uniform before the flag didn’t appear amongst the pictures of young men and women paraded across the screen. But it would only be a tiny release before the sickening crash into a haze of guilt and pain at knowing that someone else had lost their someone. That someone else now had to mourn. But for today, and today only, it would not be her. The oncoming night still held endless possibilities, as did the days and nights that would follow. Alive for now. For today.

“I’m sorry Sav…”

Savannah looked up sharply as Matti spoke, cutting her off, “Sorry for what?” She almost added kid to the end of the sentence but there was no way that word fitted the uniformed woman in front of her anymore.

“For everything you haven’t told me about. The waiting, the worrying, the fear.”

Matti’s deep eyes explored hers and she felt them beginning to prick with tears.

She swallowed hard. “It’s ok. You were the one out there.”

Matti smiled. “Savvy, that’s the easy place to be. Where you have the weapon and some control over what happens. Back here where you just have to wait, pray and hope, that’s where it’s hardest.”

Savannah nodded, tears beginning to arc down her face, turning her eyes into a glittering blue ocean under the moonlight in the gym. Finally someone understood. Someone caught up in the same mess, thinking the same thoughts. She swiped at them furiously. It didn’t seem to be right to cry in front of a soldier.

Some of the same thoughts at least. There was that other mess. She couldn’t tell Matti the whole truth: the hardest part was the fear of showing a tiny smile when she spoke of Matti in front of Nikki, the fear of dropping her eyes and blushing just enough to let her girlfriend know. The silent prayers to keep Matti’s photograph hidden as Nikki rifled through her wallet searching for change for the bus. The stolen moments spent hunched over the letters at her desk, pretending to work, instead pouring her heart out to a woman half way across the world.

She could never explain the guilt at feeling Nikki take her hand and wishing it was Matti. How she would lie to herself to justify it, ignoring the lump of excitement that filled her at the thought of the soldier’s touch. Only because it would mean she is safe. Here with me. And safe. Nothing more. But safe was the problem. Nikki was safe. Blindly loyal to Savannah. Everything a normal life was supposed to be surrounded Nikki – cuddles in bed, nagging over chores, thoughtful surprises and shared bills. A safe place. Matti on the other hand…

She watched Matti stand in front of her. Her weight was always in the balls of her feet. Hands half clenched. Always ready to move. Violence of action: gaining the upper hand through physical and psychological momentum. She had explained it once, putting words to the thrilling intensity Savannah felt around the woman. It was a definition meant for war, but now it applied to everything – a walk on the beach, a trivial argument, a friendly smile, a late visit…the touch of her hand. The explanation had been an attempt to soothe Savannah, instead it just made her uneasily giddy whenever Matti was around. In a cruel paradox it made her long for what was safe, until Matti was gone and then Savannah longed for that intensity again, would do anything for the thrill of being the focus of those copper eyes. She closed her eyes.

*

“Really? The news again? When did you become so interested in world affairs huh? Nothing but nastiness, commercialism and violence. Not my cup of tea.” Nikki dropped down onto the couch beside her and Savannah slot oyna fumbled with the remote as she tried to flick to a different channel. Nikki grabbed it from her hand and laughed, “Butterfingers. I’m missing my show.”

Savannah looked away as tears began to prick at the corners of her eyes. There had been another IED blast in Afghanistan and two soldiers had been killed and three injured. Stable but critical condition. Families were being notified. She could only hope that Matti’s mother would call her if something happened. Matti had taken Savannah to dinner with her mother just before she left and had not objected to the comments the older woman made about the chemistry between the two of them.

Savannah asked her about it afterwards as they walked along a beach, the silver moonlit surf breaking over their bare feet, splashing the rolled up bottoms of their pants. Matti shrugged, said it was better that way, said she didn’t want Savannah finding out from the news, you know, if something happened. This way her mother would know to call…

Savannah had turned away then too, tears piercing her eyes. But Matti had sensed it, had stopped walking and waited for Savannah to turn back. Had taken her into her arms and just held her, resting her chin over Savannah’s bent head, cradling her into the curve of her neck, safe and warm. Never speaking, but just waiting for the small shivers of sobs to subside.

Nikki grabbed Savannah’s shoulder and pulled her round to face her. “What’s wrong hun?” Her concern showed on her face, honest and open but obviously slightly distracted by the start of her show on the TV.

Savannah swiped at her eyes, “Nothing Niks, I’m just exhausted, you know, work and…stuff.” She swallowed hard hoping Nikki would buy it but she need not have worried as Nikki squeezed her shoulder and turned back to the TV.

Savannah stole a subtle glance to check her phone again.

*

There was one question that was tearing her apart but it did not seem to be the time to ask it. She swallowed harder and started to walk toward the light of her office, hoping to have composed herself by the time they reached it. As she moved she realized Matti had not followed her, so she stopped and turned.

Matti stood in front of the roller door, the half empty coconut water in her hand, watching Savannah walk away.

“Do you want me to go Sav?” Her words were soft but so clear in the cooling night air. Simple words that insinuated so much more. The tone suggested it would be the final time they parted. That Savannah could return to the life she had before Matti suddenly appeared in the weeks before her deployment. That Savannah could forget it all and try to fix her relationship with Nikki that had floundered in the year she had spent flicking through news channels. A part of her wished that Matti’s tone had been different. Don’t make me choose Matti. You know that Nikki would never win that fight. You know and you’re forcing the hand. Fuck you. Fuck you and your violence of action. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut.

Savannah’s resolve dissipated and the question spilled as soon as her eyes opened, “First tell me, are you going back?”

Matti stood with a stillness that could only be exhibited by a drilled soldier. Her pupils bore a thrill, twisting her left eye into a slight squint, pulling the left side of her face into a tiny curling grimace of a smile. She’s going. She’s going and she wants to go. Savannah felt her legs weaken. It would have been easier to take if Matti had looked down at the floor as she did when she was unsure, or had fidgeted like she did when she was waiting for Savannah to pass her opinion on something. If Matti had exhibited any of those little tells she had known so well then Savannah could hold onto that little sliver of hope.

But that slow definite movement of suppressed excitement told Savannah that she could not talk Matti out of this. It spoke of a fate already sealed for a soldier, of another year in the dust and the heat doing things Savannah feared to know about.

“When?”

“I have three months to get myself fit again. For pre-deployment training with my new unit. We’ll be gone two months after that” She paused, “Tell me Sav, do you want me to go now?”

*

That pained smile was back. The airport bustled around them but that smile remained the only thing Savannah could truly focus on. She shivered as her pants pressed against her legs, still damp from the beach the night before. Matti saw the movement and put her coffee down, stood and pulled her jacket off before draping it over her shoulders as she slid into the booth seat beside her. Savannah squirmed in protest but Matti’s hand held the jacket firmly against her shoulders until she settled and huddled into the residual warmth it still held.

Her hands stayed and for a moment Savannah hoped that Matti would slip her arm around her shoulders canlı casino siteleri one last time. Instead she rubbed her back gently and unconsciously shifted the jacket on Savannah’s shoulders to account for the awkward fit, and then let go, returning her hands to her steaming cup of coffee. Savannah looked up at her, suddenly aware that Matti was somewhere else.

Her eyes were turned up to the large flat screen in the corner where soldiers in multicam dashed across sand and rocks with a stretcher to a waiting helicopter, rifles bumping against their legs as they made a frantic dash to try and save their friend.

“Matti.” Savannah grabbed her hand and Matti turned to look at her, the faraway stare dissipating as she smiled that pained grin at Savannah.

“Yeah, Savs. Sorry I just got distracted.”

Savannah reached out and squeezed her hand. “Matti, I need you to come home. Please promise me you will come back home. We could be…”

Matti smiled ruefully and cut off her sentence before she said something she would later regret, “Home Savs?” her voice piqued slightly at the end of the question. “I don’t think we have the same definition of where home is for me.” She paused, a hint of iron gilding the copper tone of her eyes as she sat a little taller in the seat, shifting away from the closeness she had slipped into beside Savannah.

“Dad was a fourth generation soldier. He never came home really. He was there in body, but his mind…that was always with his unit, wherever he had left them. War was his love. Family was his duty.” Her eyes flicked up to the images on the TV and Savannah saw how her uniform looked a little crisper and how her posture seemed a little sharper. As she spoke Matti had melted away and now a soldier sat beside her “We’re not so different him and I. As much as I hate him for never being there I have become just like him. My saving grace might just be that I won’t curse a lover or a family with my absence.”

The soldier looked down and spread her hands out on the table, examining them in deep thought. “When I was sixteen these hands signed a contract that broke my mother’s heart. Then they were given a weapon. They have cleaned this weapon until she shines beautifully and they are black with carbon, grit and oil. They have fired that rifle, carried it, killed with it and caressed it. They have fixed her when she was broken and cradled her at night when I sleep. They know the rifle by feel in the dark; maybe in another life they may have known a lover the same way. Who knows?”

She turned her hands over and stared at the lines mapping the backs, seeing something that wasn’t there anymore, something that had been scrubbed away before coming home from the last tour. Dirt, oil, blood.

She sucked in a breath and her eyes focused again before continuing, “Four years and two tours later and these hands have now also staunched bleeding and when that doesn’t work they have held the hands of the dying. Or unfolded a flag over the dead in the back of a vibrating noisy-as-fuck helicopter flying over some place most people couldn’t even find on a map. They have carried letters from the dead to the family that mourn. Letters that were written ‘just in case’ but now need to be delivered. But these hands, they have never had someone to write their own letter to.”

She looked up. “So tell me Savs, where is home? Because as far as I can tell my home is anywhere I carry a rifle or tighten a tourniquet.”

*

“So soon?” Savannah blurted.

Matti nodded, still staring coolly at Savannah, “I volunteered to go. They need medics.”

Savannah’s head spun. The icy coldness of the bottle in her hand crept up her arm and into her chest seeming to suck the oxygen from her lungs as she tried to scream an answer. She dropped the bottle, “No. No… You can’t come back and then leave me so soon. Not again.” Anger began to swell through her and she strode toward Matti, “Why did you come back here just to leave again? Why didn’t you just stay there? Seeing as you love it so much why don’t you just stay away?”

She closed the space between them finally pausing as she came face to face with Matti. Studying her face Savannah could see a small conflict of emotion for just a moment, then the corners of Matti’s mouth turned up slightly to form a thin straight line and her eyes set with a slight narrowing. There you go again. Amazing how you just turn that emotion off. Pretending you don’t really care about me because you might just have to choose between somebody else’s war and me.

Her silence grated at Savannah. Her blankness elicited an overwhelming rage in Savannah that drove away the fear and filled her with…with what?…hate…contempt…fury…terror…helplessness… Madness, a maddening desire to break this soldier down and find the human beneath. To bring back that Matti who had once been young enough, trusting enough and weak enough to let undisguised love show in her eyes when she looked at Savannah. This is your fault. You ignored that look. You ignored it and let her go to a place that would only take her to war…you are as much to blame for this as she is.

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