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in bitter safety

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Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
'Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.'
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
-- Sick Leave, Siegfried Sassoon.


Kyle woke her, like Kyle had woken her every night this week.

Sarah opened her eyes to darkness, her heart already sinking in her chest as she turned her head on the pillow, trying to see if she could make him out in the moonlight spilling through the windows from outside.

He let out another sound, soft and low, and she sighed, scrubbing her hands across her face, pressing the heels of her palms against her eyes as though that would help keep the exhaustion at bay. It didn't help. It never helped; the pair of them were running on fumes and the longer they ran, the harder they ran, the worse it got.

And the worse Kyle's dreams got.

She should wake him. Or not. The jury was still out on that one. She was never quite sure which was better for him, and in the long term she wasn't sure it mattered. She only knew what happened in the short term, and in her darkest hours she wondered if the short term would be all they would ever have.

If she woke him, he came up swinging or - worse - he shrank away from her, eyes wide and fearful, his lungs working overtime until the world became real again, until he knew it was her and his breathing finally evened out.

If she didn't wake him, then eventually he'd wake himself, flung into consciousness by whatever stalked his dreams, still gasping for breath, his hands shaking. At least, that was what usually happened. Usually, but not always; Kyle was a contradiction in so many ways, a surrogate son to the man he'd fathered, the fiercest fighter she'd ever known and the gentlest man she'd ever met. It figured that even in the dead of night he'd contradict himself.

Some nights it was only the change in his breathing that gave him away - he didn't move a muscle, the need to keep still, keep silent so deeply ingrained into him that it carried through even to those first few disorientated moments after he woke. Those nights were almost as frequent as the ones where he woke and lunged for his weapon, pointing it at the phantoms who haunted his dreams, but never at Sarah, never ever at Sarah, no matter how bad his dreams had been.

But the worst were the nights like these, the nights he woke up crying, and Sarah stayed still and quiet in her bed, trying to pretend that he hadn't woken her, that she didn't hear him breaking his heart over his past, her future. Trying to pretend he wasn't breaking her heart, too.

She never asked him what he dreamed about those nights; things between them were still too fragile, and there were some burdens he wasn't yet ready to share.

There were some burdens she didn't think she could bear.

Kyle was awake now; she could hear the scratch of his feet against the sheets as he shifted in position, the hitch in his breath as he tried to keep quiet, to keep it from her. It wasn't even pride that kept him silent - pride she could understand, but this, this went deeper, bone deep, sinking its claws into him until he could barely breathe through the pain.

She grieved for her parents, for the son she'd never know. Some nights she thought that maybe Kyle grieved for the whole world.

She had a choice - she always had a choice, and Kyle never begrudged her the ones she made: roll over and pretend she hadn't heard him, or...

Tonight she went with the 'or', sliding out of her bed and padding on bare feet across a cold floor until she was standing by his bedside. His eyes were closed, but the moonlight through the window caught the silver trails on his cheeks, the wetness clinging to the long lashes that curved against the dark shadows underneath his eyes.

She could let him pretend, let him pretend the way he let her, both of them closing their eyes, trying not to see because sometimes seeing was just too damned painful. Instead she reached out, stroking her thumb along his hairline, curling her palm until it fit the shape of his head.

His hair was short at the moment, shorter than she'd ever seen it and so soft against her skin. Pops had left it longer by his ears, less by design she thought than the need for speed, and it was already curling upwards, guiding her fingers until they smoothed along the curve of his ear.

Kyle opened his eyes, dark and fathomless in the dimness, something so old in their depths that it made her shiver. Her lips parted, but she couldn't find the words, just like she could never find the words. She wasn't made for comfort; she was made for fire and fury, for raging against the dying of the light and the rising of the machine.

Kyle, though... Kyle was comfort, soft touches with hard, callused hands and a smile that was as beautiful as it was broken.

Her beautiful, broken man.

She let gravity guide her down, not a falling and more a folding, until she was sitting on the edge of the bed, her hip nudging his shoulder. He shifted automatically, the look in his eyes still lost, too far gone for hope just yet, and she fitted into the space he left, curling her arm around him as though she could shield him from the world.

She wished she could. Wished it with everything in her too fierce heart, but if Kyle was a dreamer then she was a realist, as hard and unyielding as the world that had made her.

But not as cold. Not when Kyle was warm and solid next to her.

Kyle curled into her, still shaking, his face hot and wet where it pressed against her skin, his hands just short of clutching. She slid her fingers over his hair, gently tracing the contour of his skull, the achingly vulnerable curve of his jaw, the tense line of his shoulders. Over and over again, each touch lighter than the last until the tension finally eased from his body and he slid, once again, into a fitful slumber.

She couldn't keep the world at bay, but maybe tonight she could keep the dreams from him just long enough to let him sleep.