(11-1) Returning bloodied and bruised

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Sunlight caressed Samuel's face, and gently teased him out of a sleep he was reluctant to leave. He opened his eyes to a field of warm, gleaming brown hair that twisted like the gentle ripples on the surface of the river, and all he could smell was a mixture of pine needles, soap, and motor oil.

"She found me broken and weak, crushed beneath horror and grief. She held me and showed me joy, and laid me down to sleep. She is my joy and shame, and my mistress' greatest bane," Samuel recited, slowly drawing his hand out of the heavy blankets. With his fingertips, he traced her bare shoulder.

"She smiles like a spring morning, her embrace warms to the bone. To love her is to live, and hear her sigh and moan. You make vows in the heights of joy, and your days pass in heady bliss. You think yourself faithful, but you've forgotten another's kiss," Samuel continued, his fingers trailing down the smooth skin of her back.

"Who's this mistress of yours, Sam?" Angela asked, without moving.

"Ah, sorry," Samuel said, his fingers stopping on her shoulder. "I thought you were sleeping."

"I don't think I'll ever sleep that well again," Angela said, as she rolled over and faced him. "But I'm starting to feel a little jealous, Sam. Who is this mistress you're singing of?"

Samuel chuckled. "It's just a song. My training partner when I made Inspector, Arnold Effran. He used to sing that song with some of his friends when they drank."

"Keep going," Angela murmured, sinking her head back into her pillow.

"Old grief melts for her love and respite. But the grim lady beckons, and deeply does her caress bite. Yet you vapid fool, you stand and follow this unkind lady without a single thought. A lie of a kiss to that warm lady fair, for whom you'd have fought the word."

"And what does that harsh mistress ask, for her caresses of cold steel? You wear her tokens and her touch drinks heat from your bones. She calls on you to shutter that melting heart, resents you for what you feel. One  day soon she'll be done with you, and cast you to the stone."

"All of this you know, yet you cast off that warm bliss? For cold wrapped in steel and duty's loveless kiss?"

Samuel looked down at Angela, but she had turned her head away, and her face was buried under her hair.

"Let me go make breakfast," Samuel said, turning away and glancing down the side of the bed for his clothes. "You can shower if you like."

Samuel had slipped into his small clothes and was beginning to pull up his trousers before Angela moved again. She pushed herself up on her knees and her hand, and slid her knees forward until she was sitting upright.

She turned to him and smiled. And that smile was a deeper mystery than anything Samuel had seen before.

"I'd like that," Angela said, sliding out of bed.

Samuel couldn't help himself. His eyes followed her, graceful and lithe, as she moved across the room and opened a small door. Smells and sensations rose up in his memories, of sighs and moans in a room that still smelled of sweat and more. Longing twinged at his heart, and Samuel found himself deeply regretting getting out of bed.

Samuel was both relieved and disappointed when she stepped through the doorway and shut it behind her.

"I have a loaf of sourdough in one of the cupboards," Angela called out from the other side of the door. "I paid a lottery token for it, so you had better be grateful I'm sharing it with you. Make us some tea!"

Samuel let out a slow sigh of relief, though he couldn't quite say why. He finished buttoning his shirt as he walked, leaving it untucked as he stepped into her small kitchen.

Asides from a small metal table with four chairs, nearly a third of the kitchen was taken up by an impressive larder. Samuel found the light brown loaf, lightly dusted with flour, and set it down on the counter beside the stove.

Samuel set a pan down on the stove, along with a kettle, and got to work.

By the time Angela came out of the shower, Samuel had managed to pan roast tomatoes and lightly sear the bread, along with the tea and some other fruit he found in her larder.

"Okay," Angela said, sitting down at one of the plates Samuel had set. "I'm impressed. Not sure if this is just you being you, or if you're showing off. And frankly, I'm not sure which I want it to be."

"You're overthinking it," Samuel replied, sitting down and pouring himself a cup of tea. "That's my shtick."

Angela took a bite of the bread and shook her head. "No," she said, gesticulating with the sourdough in her hand. "This should be your shtick, Sam."

"Cooking breakfast for you after a night in?" Samuel asked. He smiled, closed his eyes, and took a deep and very satisfied breath. "I could think of worse fates."

"Could you, Sam?" Angela asked.

Samuel paused, caught between being baffled and terrified. Her eyes were impossible to read, and her expression was tense enough that it looked as if she were about to either laugh or cry.

Carefully, Samuel nodded. "Yeah, I could. Of course I can. Ang, I can't say I remember a night where I lived life so well. And I really didn't want to get out of bed."

Angela's expression was disturbingly impassive. "Then why did you?"

"Ang," Samuel began to say.

"Oh drown it all in ash, Sam. I don't mean it like that. Just..." Angela trailed off, and she hung her head forward.

When Angela raised her head again, there were tears in her eyes. She reached out with her hand and took his. "We nearly died last night."

Her thumb traced around the burn on the back of his hand. "You nearly died, last night. I didn't know what that meant to me, until I saw that stupid smile on your face when you pushed me out the door."

Samuel smiled. "Neither did I. Doing that felt good. And I'm not sorry you were on the other side of that door, Ang. You saved our lives by keeping some eager Lieutenant from storming in there."

"Was that really it, Sam?" Angela asked.

Samuel shook his head. "Of course it isn't. At that moment, I picked you. It's not that complicated. You're my partner, and part of watching your back is making sure at least one of us makes it out."

Angela smiled and blinked back her tears. "I'm a soldier, Sam. At least I was. And I'm not supposed to be pushed out of danger. But as long as you're not thinking of this as some sort of misguided knight errant nonsense, I'm okay with it."

Samuel chuckled, and took a sip of tea. He could see the insecurity that pushing her out of danger could leave her with. Being less than whole, less than fully capable, was a resentment that would likely live with her forever.  "Ang. I have your back. I expect you to have mine when things blow up again. And they will."

"Could I talk you into staying here?" Angela asked.

Samuel scoffed. "While you go out into danger?"

"No. Stay here with me, Sam," Angela said, pointing at the burn on his hand. "That could easily have been worse. And this case of ours, it's insane. Things are serious enough that Captain burning Raeth has come down from his mile-high perch twice. That kind of danger will smoke us both without even slowing down."

Angela shuddered and held his hand in hers. "Stay with me, and let some other poor burning fool pick up the slack. Let's stay home. Drink, love, eat this witchcraft you call food. Let's tell the captain she can stick her head in a pit of ash until she stops kicking. I don't want to share you with that mistress of yours."

"Mistress?" Samuel asked before he recalled what he had been singing in bed.

"Duty. I've already lost enough to her, haven't I?" Angela asked as she tried to shrug with her missing arm.

Samuel held her hand, wishing he knew what word could help.

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