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Merciful Impulses

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***

She wakes up.

It's a hospital, and she's in it. She recognises the smell of disinfectant and disease from the last time, when she--

She frowns.

Someone says, "You're awake."

Someone says, "I'll just get the doctor."

Someone says, "Can you tell us what happened to you?"

She tries to say no. She doesn't know why she's here. She shakes her head, expecting it to hurt, but no. There's no pain. There's nothing. There's more nothing when she opens her mouth to say--

"Don't try to talk."

The person who said that makes her nervous, makes her itch inside her skin. She doesn't know why, and then she does: he's a cop. He hasn't said so and he's not in uniform, but there's something about the set of his jaw, the shoddy cut of his suit. The shoulders are too wide, the sleeves too short, the lapels too narrow.

Why does she know that? Why doesn't she know why she knows that?

He hands her a small whiteboard, like kids put on their doors at university.

University, she thinks. Did I--?

She writes, "Who am I?"

*

Strangulation. Anoxia. Brain damage.

"Quite often the condition is temporary," the doctors say. Older memories are more likely to return than recent ones.

They don't.

***

Five years. Five years, and she's never run into anyone who knew her. Five years of long slow walks, head up and eyes open, waiting. Five years of jerking round whenever someone called out a name -- any name, but never hers. Five years of people-watching in cafés, bars, parks, shops, waiting for that spark of recognition.

When it comes, it's only ever in the between time, the liminal spaces of her mind. It happens when she's groggy in the morning and about to look in the mirror; she expects to see a younger woman, softer-faced, blue flowers in her hair. It happens when she's worked another double shift and zones out in front of the refrigerator; she expects someone to come and snap her out of it with a hand on her hip, a mouth at her ear whispering, come to bed.

She knows she was married, once. There'd been a divot on her ring finger, a slight discolouration of the skin. But there'd been no sign of the ring itself, and no husband had come forward.

At first, she'd been in counselling. She asked the shrink, what sort of man lets his wife wake up alone in hospital with only a necklace of bruises?

In five years, she's given it a lot of thought.

She hopes her husband is dead.

*

Someone's watching her. It's not the kind of staring she's used to, either.

It's not someone who wants to fuck her. It's not another obnoxious American who thinks loudly clearing his throat will make his food arrive faster. It's not a doctor, frowning between her and her charts.

It's not a cop. She can spot a cop at fifty paces, and they make her nervous; a good cop can sense nerves. They do a lot of staring. She does a lot of smiling -- and why not? She's respectable, now. As far as she knows, she's never been anything else.

No, this is different. This is heat on the back of her neck, a slow wave of warmth washing over her. She lifts her head and turns, looking for the source. It's no one in the cramped café, but outside is a group of soldiers, four legionnaires still in uniform crowding round one of the small sidewalk tables. Three of them are, anyway. The fourth--

The fourth is standing stricken, his mouth parted and his eyes wide. They're grey, blue in certain light, and she's too far away to see his eyes so she must know-- she must know.

The cafetière in her hands crashes to the floor.

He runs.

*

"Getting careless, legionnaire," she says, when she takes his sidearm off him in the alley.

He's drunk. He's so drunk, he's falling-down drunk but he doesn't fall down. He slumps. He slouches. He staggers away from her until his back hits the wall. His head lolls against the grimy brick as he stares at her, wide-eyed. Not once does he look at the gun she has shoved up under his chin. It may as well not even be there.

"Who are you?" she asks.

He doesn't answer. His breath is fast, shallow.

She tries again. "You've been following me for a week. Why?"

Still no answer.

Fine. She moves closer, scant space between them now, and he shrinks into the wall. He's obviously hoping it will open up and swallow him.

"No, you don't," she says, staring at the chest hair revealed by the open collar of his shirt. There's something compelling about it, but it's not half so compelling as the two silver chains she can see round his neck. She reaches for the first, pulls.

The man says nothing. His plaque d'identité, on the other hand, says ATHOS. B-negative.

"Athos," she murmurs.

His chest heaves.

"The Legion really lets you pick a new name?" She's curious in spite of herself.

He nods.

"I have a new name, too," she says.

His eyes sharpen. He sways closer. Now he's close enough to feel, and suddenly it's all she can do, his bare skin burning her fingers, the smell of him an overwhelming rush of memories she can't place. Laundry soap, sweat, a woman's shampoo. Her head swims. Her breasts ache. Against her stomach, he's hard.

Maybe, she thinks, her fingers curling around the chain and into his chest -- maybe he isn't the one who's drunk.

"Who are you?" she whispers, not intending to sound as breathless as she does. Her heart is doing an off-kilter three-step, bouncing off her ribs. She asks again, because the third time's the charm. "Who are you?"

"Sometimes," he says, his voice a lower growl than she'd expected but somehow not surprising, "I ask myself that same question."

The gun clatters to the ground. Their lips meet.

*

"I don't fuck strangers in alleys," she says, smoothing her skirt down with one trembling hand. Her thighs are shaking, still wet with come.

His eyebrows climb.

"No," she says, "I mean--"

She means: they'd come together with none of the awkward fumbling of two people having sex for the first time, let alone standing up and three sheets gone. It should have been sloppy. Bad, even.

Instead, his cock had fit inside her like she was made for it, and he'd known very precisely how to fuck her. The angles, the pressure, the timing: he knew it all. When to slide his hand between their bodies, how hard to press against the side of her clit, where to put his mouth on her neck, when to give her some teeth, how far to twist her nipple.

"I mean," she says, "maybe you fuck strangers in alleys all the time, but--"

He looks so startled by the idea that she has to stop and laugh. She starts over. "I mean," she says, swallowing, certain, "you know me."

"I thought I did."

"And now?"

"Now--" He closes his eyes and breathes. At least he's as shaken as she is. That's something, she thinks, but what?

He says, "Now I'd like to."

*

He stops by her flat and says he'd like to buy her dinner. He brings flowers. Blue ones.

"Forget-me-nots," he says, staring awkwardly at the floor, a shy half-smile on his face.

"I know," she says. "My favourite."

He nods. He looks up through his lashes. He's beautiful, she thinks. And scared.

They don't make it to dinner. They don't even make it to the bed.

*

The sight of her left hand on his chest is familiar, the way the sunlight streaming through the window catches on the hair curling through her fingers. A ring, she thinks. Would it be more familiar if she were wearing one?

She moves against him, presses her lips to the rough skin of his jaw.

"Do you believe in reincarnation?" she asks.

"No."

"Destiny?"

"No."

"Love at first sight?"

"...no."

She rolls away.

He reaches for the bottle he's taken to keeping by the side of the bed.

*

Once, she asks him who he was before he joined the Legion.

"No one," he says, and walks out. They live together, but it's a week before she sees him again.

He comes home drunk and falls to his knees. He's between her legs for hours.

*

It should be easy to rationalise.

She tells herself: It's exciting, being with someone whose past is as blank a slate as her own. A mutual journey of discovery.

She tells herself: It's comforting. He doesn't ask her any awkward questions. He's endlessly patient. Five years of living with one foot lost in the haze of time hadn't been living at all, and whatever he's been doing hadn't qualified as living, either. Together, they're remembering how to do it.

She tells herself: The sex is very, very good.

It's all true.

*

But whatever haunts him, haunts him still.

The drinking gets worse, along with the nightmares. In his sleep, he fights with someone, he cries, he runs, he sweats, he screams.

She doesn't hear the screaming. She feels him twitching, hears some muttering, and then there's a low, hollow croak as his body goes rigid. It sounds like he's choking on a ghost.

When she wakes him up, he reaches for the bottle.

"Who's Anne?" she asks.

The bottle crashes to the floor.

*

She's not stupid. There are things she knows.

He was rich. He probably still is, for all he never mentions money. That's clue enough right there.

He was married. He wears the ring around his neck, along with his legionnaire's tags. It's too small to be his; it must have belonged to his wife.

Jealous one day, and hurt, she takes it from him. When she puts it on, she expects anger in return, a flash of his quicksilver temper. But he says nothing, and she's too caught by how perfectly it fits on her finger to look for his reaction.

"I'm sorry," he says.

She never sees the ring again.

*

Another nightmare. A bad one, from the way he's thrashing around. If she doesn't wake him, he's going to hit her, and god knows he'll never forgive himself for that.

"Athos," she says, stretching out next to him, throwing a leg over his. She puts a hand on his forehead. "Athos, wake up. It's just a dream."

His eyes snap open. His hands close around her throat.

"Anne," he gasps.

She wakes up.

***

"Were you ever going to tell me?"

He reaches for the photograph in her hand. It's a wedding photo. More to the point, it's their wedding photo. She found it in their house, the one they don't live in anymore.

"It isn't you," he says, tossing it to the floor like it's nothing.

"Stop lying to me, Olivier."

He flinches. "You remember."

"You said my name and tried to strangle me." Every organ is a bruise inside her cage of skin. "I guess it brought back a few memories."

He reaches for the bottle on the table but she smashes it to the floor before he gets his hands on it. Her hands are on it instead, the jagged neck of it pressed hard against his bared throat as he sprawls across her lap.

"Do it," he says, pressing into the glass, one drop of blood and then another rolling down the side of his neck.

"First you tell me why," she says, but he doesn't. He lies mute as she rails against him: how dare you, I loved you -- again -- I asked you and you never said a word, is this your idea of revenge, some sick fucking joke you're--

"No," he finally says, pleading, his eyes wet. "It wasn't-- what was I going to say? Yes, I know you, and you're a murderer? Because I didn't. I thought I did but I didn't, but I do now, and you're not, and I-- fuck, I don't know."

"A murderer," she says. She presses harder on the glass, watches in horrified fascination as the skin of his neck dents, splits. "Tell me you love me."

"I love you," he says. He strains up, impaling himself on the glass as he tries to bury his face in the curve of her neck. "Do it," he whispers. "Please."

Her own face is wet, but she can't tell if it's tears or blood. "I really will be a murderer."

"Please," he says again, breath weak against her neck.

She bends over him, gathers him close to breathe in his smell. An eternity passes as she tries to find the strength to tell him no, but she didn't have it then, and she doesn't have it now.

Do it, he begs, and she does.

-FIN-