Passing In The Night
by SpikeDru

She sat coiled into the corner of the sofa, with the lights off and the news channel nearly muted. When she heard the key in the lock, she smiled to herself and looked around. He stood in the doorway, rucksack on one shoulder and dark marks around his eyes.

"Hey," Neela said quietly, her voice husky.

"Hey, roomie."


In the trauma room, Ray had focussed on the rhythm keeping Adrian alive and with each beat of his fists, he'd thought of another thing that he might have lost with Neela. If she never came back alive he'd miss being snapped at for leaving beer bottles everywhere...punched in the arm then smiled at...a bathroom that smelt of olive and bergamot shampoo...slapping the steering wheel of the van to a bhangra being opened to let in freezing Chicago phone arguments in punjabi...the face she pulled when he had a dinner of cereal...the scowl when the band was round...home-cooked curries stocked in the fridge for reheating...snacks of roti and mango chutney...her affectionate long-suffering look...her books, places marked with band flyers...her arched eyebrow when he got something wrong...painting each other's nails...her quiet smile...

When he saw her, unaware of him, dealing with two kids in the next room, he had smiled and with each beat he thought she's alive...she's alive...she's alive. At the end of his shift, tired and drained, all he wanted was to go home. He wanted to wake in his own messy bed and lie in it awake, listening to her moving around the apartment, revelling in his private joy. His face ached, his arms ached, his heart ached.

Climbing the stairs was an effort, every step dragging. The door seemed different somehow, even though it had only been a few days. Because everything had changed. He had changed and Neela must have changed and how he felt was changing in ways he didn't want to study yet. He opened the door quietly, expecting her to have gone to sleep some hours ago, and was surprised to see the living room lit with the pale lights of the television. It was tuned to a news channel, where burning buildings almost whited out the screen. She was curled up in the corner of the sofa, feet tucked up beneath her, and she turned massive dark eyes on him.

"Hey," Neela said quietly, her voice husky.


They'd fallen into the apartment, scattering belongings in their desperate urge to touch one another. They'd not even made her room, falling backwards onto the sofa and clinging to each other. They'd whispered hasty words and promises, wasting no time because both of them had come from wars where there may not be much more time ever.

After the first frantic passion, Neela had pulled an old sweatshirt over her bare breasts and made them food, reheating some home cooked curry from the fridge. Michael had asked about her day and she had shook her head. Not yet. She couldn't talk about it yet: it would require so much context and explanation. Michael treated her like an innocent, for all that he had seen her in the trauma rooms in the past, and she felt like her brain was burnt with the horror. His image of her had supported him in Iraq and she couldn't tarnish it now. Not so soon.

The meal had turned slowly into seduction, and this time Neela led him to her room. This was slow, gentle, loving. Michael had fallen asleep on his full stomach and sated desire, but Neela lay still waking and restless. So much adrenaline in her system, making her muscles tremble and her brain fizz. She'd slipped from beneath Michael's possessive arm, pulled on her pyjama bottoms and the old sweatshirt, and slipped into the living room. She put the news channel on, and reduced the volume.

It looked different on television. Home movie images of fire and destruction. The emergency services reduced to silhouettes in the flames. Ambulance rigs that looked like toys. The reporters turned the chaos into a narrative, fit all the pieces together to make sense of it. She didn't recognise it as what she had been in. It seemed alien and she couldn't stop watching the replaying images. It was better than replaying the images in her head. She had curled herself up, huddled around a hot mug of chai, and tried to make this cleaned up version of events fit with her experience.

Hearing the key in the lock, she remembered that this morning - whole lifetimes ago - Ray had asked to come home and, for all her griping and insults, she had looked forward to the mess and the aftershave and the laughter being back in the apartment. She let herself smile briefly as she looked around to see him.

"Hey," she said, her voice surprising her with its roughness.

"Hey, roomie," he said and there was something in his eyes which spoke of understanding.


Ray dropped his eyes, then shrugged off his bag. He set it on the floor, rather than break the late night peace in the room by dropping it.

"Didn't expect you to be back tonight," she said, but she uncoiled a little from the ball she had been in.

"Abby said you had smoke inhalation and trouble breathing. She was pretty mad about you leaving County instead of submitting to her care."

"Yeah, I got that."

"So I thought I'd better be here to keep an eye on you. If you died in your sleep, she'd never forgive me." And he'd never forgive himself, either, he thought. If she'd died...if she'd died...

"Er..." she said, biting at her bottom lip, her eyes sliding away.

Finally, he looked around the room more. Her tight grey top, smudged with ash, was on the floor by the sofa. There was a large military holdall on the floor and a dress uniform jacket slung over a chair. Oh.

"Michael's back, then?"

"Yes. He's asleep. His body clock is still on Iraqi time and..."

"Yeah, I get it. I'll..."


He was picking up his bag, shrugging back into his coat, and she suddenly couldn't bear it.

"Ray, wait."

"Nah, look, you..." he gestured towards the bedrooms.

"Yes. But stop for a beer. I need a beer. I need..." She didn't know what she needed, but Michael was asleep, and she was awake and Ray was good company when he wasn't been a total idiot. He left his stuff by the door and brought two beers from the fridge. He flopped down next to her on the sofa, one arm along the back, took a long pull from his bottle and watched the television for a long moment.

"Rough shift?" he asked, still watching the news scrolling across the screen, and suddenly she had her arms around his neck. Her smoke-roughened breath was burning his skin as she gasped out her confusion. A confession of what she had seen, what she had felt, how it had exhilarated her.

She felt his free arm curl around her shoulders, rub rough circles between her shoulder-blades, and kept whispering. This was what she needed, someone who already knew what she had been through in the last twenty four hours without her having to explain. Someone who knew how ambitious she was, how scared she was, how far out of her comfort zone she'd stepped. How she was frightened she'd upset Michael if she talked about things. When her ragged breath ran out and she couldn't speak any longer, Ray bent his head close and she felt his lips briefly press against her hair.

Her hair smelt of burning buildings and felt like rough silk against his lips. She was wearing nothing beneath the old sweatshirt she had stolen from him two months before, and her body was pressed up against his side. Her hands had fallen from around his neck and were curled into tiny fists against his chest. He didn't want to ever move. Wanted to fall asleep right here, with her safely next to him.

"I thought I'd lost you," he murmured into her hair.

"I thought I was lost," she whispered into his neck.

Ray's gaze drifted around the dimly lit room, across the mute images on the television and fell on the abandoned kit bag. Feeling his arm tighten about her, Neela pushed herself up, her hand pressing against his bruised ribs and making him wince. She sat back and looked at him, half-smiling, then followed his gaze.

"I should get going," he said, without moving.


They looked at each other for a long moment. Ray leaned over to put his empty bottle on the coffee table. Turning back, he briefly touched her arm.

"You OK?"

"Yeah. I'm going to be able to sleep now."

"That," he said, rising from the sofa, "is most definitely my cue. Night, roomie."

She rose, too, and he smiled as he saw her automatically tidy away the empty bottles. As he had his hand on the door, Ray heard her rough voice clearly in the quiet room.

"Thanks, Ray."

Slipping back into her bed, Neela heard the front door click closed. Michael mumbled in his sleep and resettled his arm about her. She closed her eyes and found that her head no longer ran with fragments of bodies and flashes of fire. The adrenaline that had fizzed in her bloodstream had dissipated safely and she let out a soft sigh. She drifted into sleep, her mind free and clean again.


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