The building shook around them and she watched as dust and debris rained down with a steady ping of concrete on metal. Every time a bit of wall or ceiling hit her helmet, Marcelina flinched. It was clear to everyone but their captain the enemy had their position locked in. Unfortunately for everyone, the captain had demanded they hold. In the end, she supposed, dying here or across the street wouldn’t matter.
For three days they’d been trying to push across the ruined city. The captain claimed the enemy had bombed it years ago, but Marcelina didn’t believe him. Oh, she didn’t doubt the enemy might have, but it was as likely their own president dictator had bombed the poor souls who lived here. Likely on a whim.
Footsteps thudded under the sound of guns and Marcelina swiveled on her knees and lifted her rifle.
“Friendly. Friendly! Don’t shoot.”
Only training beaten into her head kept Marcelina from dropping her rifle. She did break rank and race across the broken ground. He was the first one through the door and Marcelina felt her heart beat for the first time in two days. The weeping gash in her arm from a stray bullet, fired from one side or the other, didn’t matter. Neither did the bruises running down the left side of her body where she’d fallen when a floor collapsed under her. Marcelina threw her arms around Jory.
“I thought you were died. They said- your platoon.”
He wrapped his arms around her and they stood that way as her captain shouted orders. So close. They’d been so close, but it had been made clear they would never serve together. They could die alone. One at a time. She’d known he was in the city. Because the president dictator had also been sure to keep her appraised. The bastard.
“We’re all that’s left,” Jory murmured against her ear. “I knew you would be here.”
His voice was the only noise she heard despite the battle outside. What he said, she barely comprehended, but that was ok. Jory would know she only needed to hear him.
“Mrs. Couch,” he whispered at last and kissed her. A few soldiers hooted, but neither of them cared. It had been almost a year since they’d done more than see one another. Marcelina would shoot the first person who tried to pull her from his arms.
The radio crackled and she stiffened in his embrace. Jory shook his head and kept his arms around her as they turned to see what was going on. The radio never sent good news.
“New orders, sir,” the radio operator said as he tugged the goggled helmet from his head. “We’re to go up three streets. They have prisoners.”
If anyone heard Jory’s whimper other than Marcelina they didn’t speak. She’d seen prisoners handled as well. Their arms unwound from each other, but their hands stayed linked. The captain smirked, but said nothing. He knew. He would hurt them soon enough. Her commanding officers knew her time was up. It had been since the day she’d stepped into the government van outside Jory’s house.
No resistance met them as they moved forward. Shells exploded overhead, but they knew by now to keep their helmets on and their heads down. The building they’d been in moments before exploded in a shower of metal and concrete.
“If only,” she muttered.
“Idiot,” he muttered back with a grin.
Her heart, only recently beating again, nearly stopped once more at his grin. His face was a mess of cuts and dried blood, but his eyes still shone when he looked at her. As they moved she tried to see if he was injured. No limp, no odd hanging arms, and his fingers seemed to be working fine. Of course, if he had internal injuries they could have dosed him with enough combat cocktail to keep him on his feet until his insides exploded.
“No, you’re crazy.”
“I got it from you.”
In the middle of a war zone was not the place to have the sorts of thoughts she had now. Marcelina wished they could have five minutes alone. Well, hours, but she’d settle for five minutes.
Instead, they hurried into a makeshift command building. It had been some kind of store before, she thought. In the last year she’d gotten quite good at figuring out what a ruined building used to house.
“In here,” a sergeant said. The captain led them to the back. A receiving area, Marcelina suspected.
Then she saw the prisoners.
Jory heard her whisper and squeezed her hand harder. She moved forward and he didn’t let go. They shoved through the small group gathered.
“Those are not enemy combatants, sir,” she said.
“Shut up, private.”
“Sir, those are children!”
A dozen children knelt together. Their clothes were no more than rags and skeletal limbs covered in new and old wounds shook. None of them could have been older than ten.
“This is it,” she whispered to Jory.
She would die here. He only squeezed her hand before he dropped it. They both stepped forward and stood between the children and the other soldiers.
“Stand down, private.”
“Fuck you, sir. These are not enemy combatants.”
“I say they are.”
“They can barely hold their heads up, captain. There’s no way they held a weapon.”
“Stand down, private!”
“Fuck you, sir.”
“You said that already.”
Hysteria threatened her. Marcelina couldn’t stop a mad laugh. Jory still grinned, but he’d raised his gun. Hers, she realized, was already up and pointed at the captain.
“You’re dead, private.”
“So are you, captain.”
Marcelina shot him in the chest. He stumbled back and before she heard the sound of gunfire erupt in the room she heard the whistle of an incoming missile. Gun held with one hand, she reached for Jory with the other and she didn’t know what hit her first, the falling ceiling or the bullets from the other soldiers.
Hands grabbed her arms and she screamed. It felt like she was being pulled through a tube half her size by metal claws. No, that wasn’t dramatic enough. After she woke up from passing out she’d think of something better. Or let Jory. He had a better way with words.
Whispered voices drew her from the cocoon of unconsciousness. She hated them. Marcelina opened one eye, but couldn’t see anything.
The croak of her voice silenced the others.
“Jory?” she tried again.
“Yes,” an almost familiar voice said. “Find him. We need to move.”
A spark of light made Marcelina blink and when her vision almost worked she recognized the woman crouched beside her. Well, she recognized the scars covering half of her. The woman from Herbert’s funeral. Why was she here?
“Jory is here. Somewhere. We’re attempting to find him.” Her voice expressed doubt without words.
Ignoring the pain, Marcelina sat up. If Jory were here, here being the ruins of the building they’d almost died in, she would be the one to find him. The unknown woman watched as Marcelina tried to stand. Her legs were too unsteady and she gave out a cry as she fell down.
“Yes, you are going to be a big help.”
Then she heard it. Barely a whisper. Maybe no one else did, but she did.
“You said that.”
Marcelina wanted to scream. Not only because she heard him, but because she was becoming aware of how much she hurt. Her entire back burned and they’d left something on it. Had a piece of the ceiling fused with her armor? No, she wasn’t wearing armor.
“Jory!” She’d wanted to yell, but had barely managed a whisper. On her hands and knees she crawled over debris to begin digging for him. He would be alive. They would be fine. The same two sentences were on repeat in her mind as two others, unknowns, joined her quest.
As much as she wanted to tell them to go away, she didn’t. Their help would be needed. Otherwise, she would send them all away. Jory would either be ok and they would leave together or he’d be too hurt and she would sit here with him until they both died.
“The kids?” Jory whispered as soon as they’d moved enough of the collapsed building to see him.
Marcelina felt guilty for not thinking of them first.
“We managed to save four of them.”
“Jory? Are you ok? What’s wrong?”
“Please, let us see to him. We are trained.”
A growl vibrated in her chest. The weight of her knife at her hip told her she was not unarmed. Except, Jory had freed a hand and brushed his fingers across her thigh. It was bad. She knew and, hating herself for being a coward, retreated.
The scarred woman hadn’t moved. Marcelina worked her way over to her and noticed the itching on her back. Better than the burning, she supposed. Had there been a chemical weapon in the missile? Were they all dead anyway?
Marcelina shrieked when she felt something on her back. Her head whipped from one side to the other. What? No.
This time she whimpered for herself.
What had happened to her?
Jory screamed again. It was too much and she dodged around the scarred woman’s hand to hurry as best she could back to her husband’s side. Husband, despite what had been done. They’d not been allowed to legally marry as it would have given them the right to serve together. They only had their own vows.
“Jory?” she whimpered.
His eyes unfocused and she saw the needle in his arm. Combat cocktail, she thought. To keep his body from crashing. He lifted his hand and she heard feathers ruffle. As his fingers stroked scarlet feathers she realized they were hers.
“Do you have claws?” he wheezed.
Marcelina looked down at her hands. They looked normal. So, she shook her head.
“A shame. Then- then-”
She felt them now, feathers in her hair and down from there to her shoulders and back. Where her wings were. Wings. Marcelina wondered if she’d been drugged.
“We need to cut him out.”
“He has to live.”
Funny. She should have said that, but it was the other woman. With the scars. Why would she care if Jory lived?
Oh. Because of Marcelina.
Wait. How did she know?
Her head spun so she clutched it as warm, damp feathers closed around her. Jory screamed so she did as well. The scarred woman was right. He had to live.
No one else would be able to stop the visions of blood she saw in her head from coming true.