Ash

by Murakami Kasumi (村上かすみ)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/50165.html)

The sun wasn’t even fully up yet, and already the early summer day promised to be a scorcher. Sango stretched as she stood up from the milking, and promised herself that she’d get to those weeds in the far patch before the sun got too high. She gave the cow’s brown side an affectionate pat but ignored the calf in the next stall. No sense in getting attached to it anyway, she reasoned to herself as she grabbed the pail and left the small shed.

The wind that came from over the hill caught the door, and the milk nearly spilt as she wrestled it closed. She looked at the clustered windmills (on the hill that powered the town below) and watched them spin. As the early rays of sunlight shone off the white turbines, she thought of the people in the town waking up and starting their day, just as she was, and smiled. Sango looked to her own windmill spinning overhead. It was about time she had it serviced, she thought, and hoped that Jameson would be willing to take a look at it for a promise of potatoes once they were ready.

A deep sense of calm and peace settled over her as she watched the sun rise further into the sky, but that peace was shattered as a strange sound drifted over the hill from near the town. Sango strained her ears to catch the new noise. It took a long time before she was able to place the sound, and she dropped the pail of milk from her surprised fingers when she did.

She’d only ever heard the sound of a gasoline-powered engine two other times in her life.

One thing was for sure, she thought as she ran to the house to turn off the burner underneath her porridge, grab her bike and the long staff she’d trained with to defend herself in a pinch. She certainly wouldn’t be getting the far patch weeded today.

The sun was good and up by the time Sango made it to the outskirts of town. The sound of the gasoline-powered engine had quit about two minutes earlier, (so finding the source without being seen would be difficult). She had expected the streets to be empty, but the silence was eerie. Thankfully someone was watching for her; a hand in one of the Mastersons’ darkened windows beckoned her over. She snuck along the edges of houses until she could slip in the door. She winced at the loud creak.

“San, it’s here, in town,” Jesse, the Mastersons’ oldest, whispered fiercely.

“I know,” Sango replied. She was pretty sure that none of them had ever heard a gasoline-powered engine. She watched the three Masterson children huddle together, shivering, in a dark corner of the main room.

“It’ll be all right,” Sango said softly. “Where is it at?”

“It sounded like it stopped over on the south side of town,” Jesse replied. “Ma and Pa are already over there with all the grown-ups.”

Sango nodded her thanks and snuck out the door. She crouched as she ran through the spaces between the houses. When she got to the south side of town there was another hand in a window, this one open. She looked around quickly and ran towards the window; her staff held in a low ready position.

Slipping through the window silently wasn’t all that tricky, particularly not when Jesse’s dad, Eric, was there with a helping hand to keep her balanced. He put a finger to his lips immediately, as though she needed a reminder to be silent, and led her over to the window in the front of the house. Four of the townspeople, including Eric’s wife Emily, were gathered around the window, staring out at the stranger who had dared invade their peaceful community.

The figure was clearly female, dressed in a sleeveless shirt of what appeared to be leather, and form-fitting black shorts that didn’t quite meet the shirt at the waist. Two shoulder holsters tucked a pair of revolvers neatly under her arms and there was a knife sheath strapped to her thigh. Sango didn’t doubt that there were more weapons where she couldn’t see, but even the pair of firearms and the leather patch around her right eye didn’t alarm Sango nearly as much as the thing she was sitting on.

Sango supposed it bore some basic resemblance to her bicycle, abandoned on the other side of town — one wheel in front and one in back, handles and a seat between them — but everything else about the shining black-and-chrome metal monstrosity was foreign to her.

In her entire lifetime, Sango had only ever seen two machines that had gasoline-powered engines. Only two that she remembered anyway: most things with engines had been destroyed instantly during The Crash, when the network plague fried their inner systems and the mechanical components had been summarily scavenged. The ones that remained were relics, still relying on gasoline and without diagnostic software, like the chainsaw she saw when she was eight and the lawnmower from just a few years ago. These smaller machines were rare enough, but some of the older people in the town — the ones that remembered the events of seventeen years ago — theorized that somewhere, full-sized gasoline powered vehicles survived.

Sango had no doubt that she was looking at one such surviving vehicle, and it inspired no small amounts of fear and awe. While Sango was taking all this in, the stranger was simply sitting there; knowing quite well that she was being watched, Sango guessed. It was several minutes before she finally moved, flinging one leg up and over the enormous gasoline-powered bicycle in a practiced motion. Everyone at the window tensed as they prepared for action

The stranger simply stretched for a long moment, then reached around and slowly pulled something from the pack on the back of her gasoline-powered bicycle. She then turned to face the center of town and held the object from her pack aloft.

“This is a 12 volt kinetic battery,” the stranger said, loud enough to be heard clearly in every nearby house. Sango felt pierced by the smooth sharpness of her voice. From Eric’s little jump that she felt against her shoulder, she wasn’t the only one affected by the sound. “I’ll trade this to anyone who can give me food, a place to rest, and guide services.”

Sango’s eyes went wide. A kinetically recharging battery was worth many months’ food and board, and one that big that was still in working condition and not already being used for something critical was almost impossible to find. There had to be a catch somewhere, but Sango found herself itching to take the offer, consequences be damned.

The stranger looked around to each house. It was clear that she was aware of the eyes on her, even though she couldn’t see through the darkened windows. “I’ll wait for five minutes,” she stated forcefully, “after that I’m coming to find a volunteer.”

There was a lot of nervous shuffling in the house, and Sango looked around at the people gathered. The other nearby houses also had people in them, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that the one to greet the stranger would have to be her. It was too dangerous, still too uncertain. Of all the people in the village, Sango was the only one who didn’t have children to take care of, or parents who would mourn her.

With much more determination than she felt, Sango stood up, shrugging Eric’s concerned hand from her shoulder and pulling the edge of her shirt from Emily’s grip.

None of the others even made a token effort to stop her.

Sango opened the door, blinked back stinging tears from the bright sunlight, and strode purposefully to the center of the gravel path into town. She turned to face the stranger, standing directly between her and the center of town. A deep breath calmed her nerves; Sango slowly moved her feet into a defensive stance and her staff to a ready position.

“You are not welcome here,” Sango told the stranger. “Please leave.”

A smirk spread across the stranger’s face. “Spooking the locals, am I?” she asked.

Sango scowled, but said nothing. She wasn’t sure that she had any words to respond with.

“Let’s make a deal, missy,” the stranger said. Her voice was low and dangerous. “You do what I ask you to do, I move on within a day or two and life in the middle of bumfuck nowhere goes back to normal.”

She leaned back against her gasoline-powered bicycle as she continued speaking, like she wasn’t the least bit concerned with the staff in Sango’s hands. “Otherwise, I’ll just stay here and generally disrupt everyone’s peace and quite for as long as I damn well feel like it.”

Sango gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on her staff. There really was nothing she could do, she realized. She sighed heavily and tried to divert the adrenaline running through her blood. The staff in her hand lowered slowly as she calmed herself.

“I’ll fill your request,” Sango said. “Food, a place to stay, and guide services, but only if you promise to leave the village in peace.”

The stranger smiled and said, “You have my word as an honest scavenger,” as though everything was suddenly right as rain in the world. The stranger flung one leg back over the black-and-silver machine, then patted the seat behind her.

“Hop on,” she said with a wink.

Sango frowned. It was disconcerting to see someone with an eye patch wink, but she moved forward anyway in slow measured steps. She tried to imitate the stranger’s move to get onto the machine, but her legs were shorter and her jeans didn’t have that much give. It was awkward and she slipped a bit, jabbing her elbow into the stranger’s side.

“Sorry,” she muttered nervously, and slid into place.

“No worries,” the stranger replied. Sango jumped as her hand was grabbed, but the stranger just pressed it to her stomach. “Hold on.”

Sango slipped her other hand around and tried to blame her rapidly beating heart on nerves, not the soft strip of skin she could feel beneath her hands.

“You live on the small house up the hill,” the stranger said. Sango tensed and nodded slowly, wondering why she should be surprised by anything this woman knew.

She let out an undignified yelp as the gasoline-powered engine roared to life beneath her and sent vibrations up through her whole body. Her grip tightened instinctively around the stranger’s waist. She thought she felt the woman in front of her chuckle at her response, but with the vibrations from the engine she couldn’t be sure.

The pathway up to Sango’s home flew past beneath the tires of the gasoline-powered bicycle, and in less than no time the most terrifying and exhilarating ride of Sango’s life was over. She wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved when the stranger slipped out of her grip and helped her off the machine.

The world tilted sharply beneath Sango’s feet, and she fell with an undignified whump into the arms of the strange woman.

“Sorry,” she said as she tried to regain her footing. Her legs felt strange and disconnected from the ground.

She added some water to the cold porridge on the stove and turned the burner back on. The strange woman sat at the small table in her kitchen, watching Sango move around. The forced silence mutated into something a bit more genuine when Sango set the table with the bowls of porridge, flavored with honey and covered in cream, along with two more dishes of early summer raspberries with still yet more cream.

“This is good,” the stranger said in between bites.

Sango replied with a cautious ‘thank you.’ She still didn’t trust the strange woman, but felt strangely pleased that she liked the food Sango offered anyway.

They ate quickly, too quickly really, because Sango’s tongue was a little burnt from the hot porridge. The stranger walked outside, obviously eager to move on to wherever it was she wanted to be guided to, but Sango wouldn’t leave until the kitchen was picked up and the dishes were done.

She joined the stranger outside once she was finished. The woman was crouching against the stone foundation with a rolled tobacco cigarette. Sango frowned. Tobacco couldn’t grow in her area, and was tremendously expensive even where it was available.

“I want you to show me to the industrial complex,” the stranger said, simply, when she’d finished the cigarette down to the very end.

Sango tensed next to her. Why the complex, she thought, it wasn’t far from here or over unfamiliar terrain. It wasn’t even all that much of a secret. She thought about it again for a second. It was between a forest and a tall ridge. It would be difficult to see until you were on top of it. Sango narrowed her eyes at the woman. Even if she were careful, the townsfolk would have found her eventually. If she’d been found sneaking around suspiciously there would have been a fight for sure.

Sango started to reevaluate this strange woman despite herself.

“We’ll walk,” Sango said simply. She grabbed her staff from the back of the gasoline-powered bicycle and the stranger grabbed a bag from the back as well. Sango didn’t want to know what was inside.

Sango walked the stranger to the abandoned complex in wary silence. She didn’t trust this woman, and watched her out of the corner of her eye. Even on the stranger’s blind side, the one with the black leather patch, Sango didn’t doubt for one moment that the other was fully aware of her every move.

It was only about ten minutes before they reached a steep drop-off. The complex wasn’t far from Sango’s house. She’d passed by it a few times before but never dared approach it. The rectangular, dead-gray structure rose barely seven feet above ground. Its humble surface belied the enormous, primarily subterranean complex. At least that’s how it was according to Auntie Nasser, who claimed she once knew someone who worked there. They stopped on top of the ridge looking over the complex.

“That’s it,” Sango said distantly. “Most of it is underground. I’ve been told.”

The stranger, however, only nodded as though she had already known this to be the case. “Wait here for me,” she said, her voice low and dangerous sounding.

As she watched the stranger disappear down the near vertical slope, Sango inched backwards. Once she was certain she would no longer be seen or heard, she darted away down and around the drop off. There was another place to scale down the ridge, and Sango was determined to follow the stranger.

Sango had no real clue what the stranger was looking for, but it had to be worth a fortune. She was able to keep herself in ammo for two pistols and enough food to make her body pleasantly curvy over well-trained muscles, not to mention the precious gasoline that she poured into that strange bicycle of hers or the tobacco she smoked simply for the pleasure of it.

Something about the strange woman had rubbed her the wrong way. Their town was small, and it was enough work for all of them just to survive from year to year. If she got to whatever the stranger was looking for first, she could bring some more resources into the town. Maybe she could even get something as frivolously luxurious as tobacco. Emily had mentioned that she used to smoke when she’d been young, before The Crash seventeen years ago, and Sango could just picture how happy she’d be to have tobacco again for old times’ sake.

Sango hid just within the forest, where the shadows would hide her until the coast was clear. She watched as the stranger pried open the door of the complex with a crowbar. Sango could hear her grunts and the squeal of protesting metal from where she stood, and was grateful that she wasn’t forging the way.

She waited five minutes after the door had finally yielded to the stranger before following carefully into the dark doorway. There was a reason no one ever came out here. At one time, dozens of the top minds in the world had worked here.

‘At one time.’ What a euphemistic phrase, Sango thought. It didn’t mean last month or last year or even something so far back as ancient history. ‘At one time’ meant the day before The Crash, everything before March fourth, seventeen years ago.

At one time, there had been dozens of people working here. After The Crash, no one ever heard from any of them again.

It was thought that when every computer system failed in the cyber-plague, all the wires shorted the security system and the complex went into full lockdown. With the systems unable to be fixed, and most of the wiring fused by the incredible heat the cyber-plague had generated, the doors would have been useless. The only real question was, well, whether the ventilation system went down and they suffocated within hours, or if they lingered for months before starving to death.

That was the reason no one ever ventured there. It was a tomb.

Sango shivered at her own morbid thoughts as she walked down what appeared to be the emergency stairwell. The door had been pried off its hinges. She shivered as she thought about what she might come upon. The idea of a seventeen-year-old corpse wasn’t appealing.

There was a closed door at the bottom of the stairwell. She didn’t really want to open it, but she thought of the valuable objects to salvage here and what they would mean for the town, and pushed forward anyway.

It was brilliantly bright behind that door and Sango had to squint against the light to make out anything, but there was nothing to see. There were no corpses, no signs of a horrible tragedy, nothing but a brightly lit corridor.

Sango had never seen such strong electric lights in her life. The two small bulbs she had in her house were no comparison to the rows and rows of bright, tube-shaped lights. They distracted her, and Sango almost didn’t see the movement of the white half sphere embedded in the ceiling.

It whirred with the sound of tiny servos, rotating until a shiny black lens stopped and focused on her. Sango tilted her head and studied the strange lens and tried to work out what in the world such a thing could possibly be doing. The hairs on the back of her neck started to rise and she was suddenly gripped by panic. She couldn’t move, even as the strange lens rotated and buzzed with a strange sound.

“Look out!”

Blood was roaring in her ears so loudly, Sango almost didn’t hear the shout. She felt herself shoved backwards, though, back into the stairwell. An ear-splitting crack and the sharp scent of lightning filled the air. She heard screaming.

She was back in the dark stairwell, her head aching and probably trickling blood where it had snapped back against the cement steps. The stranger was on top of her, screaming and cursing in English, Spanish and another language Sango didn’t recognize.

Sango had a feeling that most of it was directed at her.

“What the fuck were you doing!?”

Sango winced and opened her mouth to give some type of excuse. She was cut short when the sound of approaching metal clanging against metal cut through the stairwell door.

The stranger swore vehemently as she pulled herself up off the floor. As the sound of whatever monstrous thing was behind that door approached, the stranger took a deep, calming breath and lifted the patch over her eye.

A blue light filled the darkness, originating from the stranger’s right eye. Sango’s breath caught in her throat as that light ran across the stranger’s shoulders and down her arms in a complex pattern of lines, to the very tips of her fingers.

The stranger stared at the door, moving her arms strangely while her fingers twitched. The motion was frantic, faster and faster while the noise of the approaching thing grew louder and louder.

The stranger cut her movements and flipped down her patch an instant before the something crashed heavily into the door.

“Come on,” the stranger shouted. She grabbed Sango’s hand and lifted her up off the steps. They ran.

By the time they reached the top of the stairs and burst out into the open air, Sango thought her heart would burst from the panic and exertion. Even the stranger, who seemed in near perfect shape, had a hard time catching her breath.

Sango had been expecting the backhand across her face, but that didn’t mean it stung any less.

“You could have been killed, you damn fool,” the stranger panted in between breaths.

The concern in the stranger’s visible eye surprised Sango, but her attention was quickly diverted elsewhere.

“You’re hurt,” Sango said as she looked at the limp hang at the stranger’s right arm. She reached with careful fingers to touch the wound that seemed to be on the woman’s shoulder, but the stranger backed away from her touch and growled.

Sango frowned as she felt her frustration rise. “I’m sorry for what I did, okay,” she said, “but I’m trying to help you to make up for it as best I can, and you’re acting like an animal that wants to run away and lick its own wounds.”

It wasn’t really even an apology, but the stranger nodded and turned to let Sango look at her shoulder. A small hole had been burned through the leather, and there was scorched flesh beneath it. It wasn’t bleeding — the heat had taken care of that — but it clearly hurt terribly and could become infected if not cleaned and treated.

“We need to get back to my home,” Sango said as she brushed over the leather shirt. She couldn’t risk taking it off to get a better look here, in case the stranger’s skin had melted to the leather and could start the wound bleeding if it were disturbed.

The stranger nodded and pulled a small bottle from her bag. She took two white tablets from inside and crunched them on her molars before swallowing them with a grimace.

It was slow going getting back to Sango’s home with both their injuries. They made their way in silence, neither of them sure what to say. It was getting dark by the time they made it back. Despite the summer heat, Sango started a fire, out of her need for light, and gave the stranger some dried beef to chew on.

The stranger’s shirt had a zipper in the front and. She shrugged it off carefully exposing the long line of her back. Her skin glowed with sweat from the heat of the fire, and Sango felt herself flush.

The stranger wasn’t wearing anything underneath.

Sango gulped and shook her head. She’d been very much alone for most of her life, and managed to convince herself that her nervousness was from the strange newness of human contact and nothing more.

The wound looked very clean, and there seemed to be surprisingly little damage to the muscle beneath the skin. She’d have to clean away the damaged tissue, though, which would make the wound bleed.

It would also hurt like hell.

“Bite this,” she said as she handed the stranger one of the rags she’d brought. She poured some of the Mastersons’ moonshine on the wound, and started to clean away the bits of charred and cooked-looking flesh. The stranger grunted and screamed around the rag in her mouth, but never once moved away from Sango’s ministrations.

When she’d finished, Sango smeared the stranger’s injury with a thick salve, aloe with willow to heal the burn and take away the pain. Sango had begun to wrap the breathable cloth bandage around her chest, blushing every time her hands brushed against the stranger’s breasts, when the injured woman finally spoke.

“I’m sorry for hitting you,” she said. Her words were small but heartfelt.

Sango smiled. “I’m sorry for getting you injured,” she replied.

“What’s your name?” the stranger asked.

Sango took a deep breath, paused her bandaging and slowly traced a 3 then a 5 on the stranger’s back.

“But that’s…” the stranger started to say before Sango cut in.

“Two numbers? I know,” Sango replied. “I was born on March fifth, seventeen years ago.”

The other woman didn’t respond, but then Sango hadn’t expected her to anyway. “So soon after The Crash, everything was still in chaos,” she continued, “and my mother had me without any help. I think that she went a little crazy then.”

Sango looked into the fire for a moment before she continued, her voice heavy. “It was the apocalypse,” she told the stranger. “No one bothered to tell her she couldn’t name a child two numbers. So I went around being called ‘Threefive’ and hating my name, until some traveler who came through town when I was seven told me that in Japanese, my name would be ‘Sango.’ I liked that a lot better, so ever since I’ve gone by Sango.”

She finished tying off the bandage and smiled at her handiwork. “You can call me San though,” she said with a bit of cheer back in her voice, “everyone else does.”

“Ash,” the stranger said.

“What?” Sango replied, not following.

“My name,” the woman, Ash, said. “It’s short for Ashley. My grandmother’s name, I think.”

Sango smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Ash,” she said happily, then frowned. “I’m sorry I was acted stupidly and got you injured.” Sango studied the floor. “I’ll find some way to make it up to you, I swear.”

Sango gasped as she looked up into Ash’s suddenly too-close face. It wasn’t a face that would be considered pretty by any standards, but Ash was certainly handsome. Her grin at the moment was positively rakish.

“You could pay me back with your body, pretty San,” she said, her voice a husky whisper.

Sango sputtered and backed away from the other woman, but Ash only laughed.

“Just a joke,” she said obviously amused by Sango’s reaction. Sango knew, though, that it wasn’t entirely a joke, not if Ash’s body was tingling the way hers was after the day’s excitement.

“It’s late,” Sango said, still blushing fiercely. “We should get some rest.”

“Wait,” Ash said suddenly as she grabbed Sango’s wrist and spun her around. She looked into Sango’s eyes, her expression troubled. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d hit your head?” Ash asked, and rubbed Sango’s cheek.

“It’s just a headache,” Sango replied, frowning at Ash’s worry.

“I can’t let you go to sleep now.”

“But why not?” Sango cried out. Her head throbbed and her body was more exhausted than she could ever remember being.

“Because you have a concussion, you jerk! You can’t sleep with a concussion,” Ash said, her voice rising.

“How am I supposed to stay awake,” Sango muttered.

“Tell me about this town,” Ash replied.

“Huh?”

“Just tell me whatever comes into your head,” Ash said, making her tone low and reassuring. “I’m sure you know everything about everyone in a town this small.” Ash smiled infectiously, and Sango had to return it.

She talked about the town and the people in it for hours. Then she talked about herself, her life, her dreams, her plans. She told this woman she’d known for less than a day personal things that she’d never told anyone. It wasn’t until the sun had nearly risen that she realized just how much she was saying, but she couldn’t be bothered to care. Ash wouldn’t hold it against her. She was exhausted with a head injury.

Ash finally let her get some sleep in the early morning hours, and she woke to find her mouth dry and her head still aching at about nine. She jumped out of bed and ran to the barn, but she couldn’t find her milk pail where she’d dropped it yesterday. She poked her head in the door to find Ash mucking out the cow stalls, not minding her injury at all. There was a pail of fresh milk just outside the barn door.

Three days went by between them in relative ease. Sango tried to make sure Ash took it easy on her shoulder, but Ash insisted that she needed the motion to keep her limber.

“It’ll be no good if I get all stiff and can’t move,” she’d said.

Sango had accepted Ash’s explanation, and the activity seemed to be working. On the evening of the third day Sango had seen her practicing drawing her guns; first one, then the other, then both at the same time. It was beautiful to watch, and Sango felt her breath catch in her throat. Ash wasn’t actually shooting anything, but Sango didn’t doubt for one moment that she could have expertly picked off any target she chose to.

On the fourth day, Ash spent the whole morning and the afternoon after lunch cursing in the front yard. She walked back and forth, tracing diagrams and calculations into the dirt with a long stick, only to erase them again in a frustrated howl.

Sango took the better part of the afternoon off, made her favorite food — thin pancakes with honey and cream — and brought out a plate to Ash. They sat and ate together in silence. Both of them had grown accustomed to the easy comfort of each other’s presence. They watched the windmills spin silently in the distance, making electricity for the town below.

“It’s not about scavenging parts, is it,” Sango asked as she wrapped her arms around her knees.

“No, it’s not,” Ash replied.

“Is it about your eye?” she asked, needing to press forward.

They sat in silence for a long time before Ash broke the silence. “In a way, I guess. I’m looking for my mother,” she said.

“…then your eye?” Sango asked.

“I guess you could call it a gift from my mother.”

Ash’s words sounded so final that Sango let it drop; at least for the moment. With a sigh, she finally broached the topic that she’d come here to discuss. “I could help you, you know. I know what you’re trying to do,” she said, her voice hardly carrying.

“No, San. It’s too dangerous,” Ash replied. “I don’t want to get you hurt.”

“Couldn’t I do something that wasn’t so dangerous?” she asked. “I know you’re trying to figure out how you can cut the power to the generator and get what you need before the backup power kicks in. I could…”

“It would still be dangerous!” Ash’s voice was tense and angry.

Sango sighed. “I don’t want you to be angry,” she replied, making her voice low and soothing. “I just couldn’t stand it if something were to happen to you!”

Sango turned to the other woman, who’d come to mean so much to her in such a short time, and kissed her.

It was surprised and chaste, but for all of its smooth, dry innocence it burned.

Sango pulled away first, her cheeks flaming red. “I’ll cut the power after you’re in position,” she said. “Then I’ll stand back and wait for you to come back to me.”

“San, I…” Ash began to say, but Sango cut her off as she stood, brushing dirt from her jeans.

“I’ll go start supper,” she said. “We’ll go to bed early and start out the first thing in the morning.” Then she walked away.

Morning came much more quickly than either of them had expected, and they walked to the still-running complex together, with forced laughter and tall tales. Sango loved to see just how much she could convince Ash to believe, and sometimes it was hard to remember that the other woman was nearly nine years older.

Ash hadn’t made her turn, so Sango assumed that Ash had agreed to her plan. The ventilation to the generator was around on the forest side, right underneath the windmill for the complex. It would be a tight squeeze, but if she got in, Sango knew enough about generators that she was sure she could make it stop.

There was a grate over the vent and it took both of them to peel the metal back, but once they’d made a hole wide enough for Sango to slip through, there was nothing to it but the doing. They stopped and looked into each other’s eyes.

“San, I…” Ash started to say, but stopped to pull the other woman into her arms and tilt her head up to claim her lips.

The kiss was slow and deep, but calm. Sango felt disconnected from herself and the situation. If they just kissed for long enough, she thought, they could forget about how dangerous this whole thing really was.

They broke the kiss reluctantly, but with smiles. Then Ash pressed her spare knife into Sango’s hand and reality came rushing back to her.

“It’s ceramic,” Ash told her. “But don’t touch the wires once you’ve cut them, San.”

Sango stuck her tongue out at the other woman.

Ash chucked and asked, “Wait five minutes?”

Sango just shook her head. “We only get one shot at this,” she replied. “I’ll wait ten minutes so you can get exactly where you need to be.” She swallowed a lump in her throat and pressed a quick kiss to Ash’s lips. “Come back to me?” she asked.

Ash nodded, turned, and walked away. Sango’s eyes followed her steps until she turned the corner and was out of sight.

It was tight going in, and being headfirst in a small, dark, enclosed space made her insanely nervous. High anxiety was not a state that one could maintain for ten minutes, so she busied herself by feeling around in the dark trying to figure out just what to do.

She quickly found a bundle of wires that would end the main power flow from the windmill itself, and with the knife she could just cut right through them. Her fingers continued to distract her, finding and identifying all the parts she could.

Ten minutes seemed to stretch on forever, but when she thought about Ash, alone and fighting for her life in the complex below, she shuddered. Then she heard a sound come up through the vents.

Gunshots.

Sango’s blood turned to ice in her veins, and she hacked violently at the wire bundle until she felt it snap. The low hum of the generator sputtered and died.

It was hard to shimmy out of the vent backwards, but she knew that she needed to get away from the complex quickly. She ran around the building to the door, ready to watch for Ash’s return.

The minutes could not have gone by more slowly. Every breath was labored and slow. How had she not known how hard waiting would be? With every second that went by, despair threatened to consume her, and Sango could do nothing but slowly fail.

She’d been too late.

That was the only thing running through her head. She’d wanted to be sure Ash was in position. She’d convinced the other woman to wait ten minutes. She’d killed her.

The air was so still she heard the sound of the backup generator sputtering to life, and Sango fell to her knees and wept.

She didn’t notice the steps coming towards her or the hand on her shoulder.

She heard her name though.

Ash fell to the ground beside her and wrapped the smaller woman up in her arms.

“Oh God,” Sango cried out between sobs. “Thank God! I thought you were dead!”

Ash hushed her, rocking her back and forth. “Shhh. It’s okay, San,” she whispered. “I said I’d come back to you. So I came back to you.”

“I was so scared,” San whispered back, her sobs quieting.

“I’m not going to leave you,” Ash replied, pressing quick kisses to San’s eyes and cheeks and lips.

Sango leaned forward into the kiss when she felt Ash’s lips flutter past hers. She opened her mouth and slid her tongue forward, teasing along the edge of Ash’s mouth.

Ash opened her mouth with a sigh and let their tongues slide together, content with that contact.

Sango felt ready to crawl out of her skin if it meant they could be pressed more closely together. Her body felt alive, tingling with joy so quickly on the heels of sadness. Her head was spinning and she didn’t want it to stop. She climbed atop the other woman, undulating urgently against Ash’s beautiful body, because she needed to do something or she’d go crazy with wanting.

Ash groaned at the voraciousness of the younger woman, and moved her grip from Sango’s lower back to the beautiful ass she kept wrapped in skin-tight jeans all day. The tingling in Sango’s body grew worse, concentrated when Ash’s hands rubbed and squeezed.

“Please,” Sango begged, her voice nearly giving out. “I need you so badly.”

Ash kissed that pretty mouth that begged so nicely, pulled off Sango’s t-shirt, and unwrapped the simple binding she kept around her breasts. Ash stared, her visible eye darting back and forth to try and take in everything.

Sango blushed under that intense gaze. She was skinny and lean and not much to look at, truth be told. She had small breasts, yes, that’s why she had to keep them wrapped, but if she leaned to one side or the other you could nearly count her ribs.

Ash looked at her like she was beautiful. Her touch was so reverent when she cupped San’s small breasts that Sango was left gasping from the pleasure of it. Thumbs moved in simultaneous tight little circles around her nipples, and Sango squeaked embarrassingly at the tight shuddery sensation that pooled between her legs.

She unzipped Ash’s leather shirt and pushed it down her shoulders until Ash was forced to move her hands to slip it off. Ash pressed full-lipped kisses to Sango’s mouth, feasting on her as she pushed the younger woman over. They had to rearrange their legs to be comfortable, but once Sango was lying back against the thick grass and Ash was leaning over her, they could press their skin together that much more easily.

It felt good just to rub languidly against each other, skin catching just a little, while Ash nibbled and kissed at Sango’s neck and ear and shoulders. The fire low in Sango’s belly was fading to a more manageable heat, until Ash’s lips began to trail downwards. The flick of tongue against her nipple made Sango gasp and arch.

“Please, please!” The words slipped from Sango’s mouth as she watched Ash’s lips hover just over her skin. She watched Ash grin.

“No one’s ever touched you like this before.”

It wasn’t a question, but Sango worried her lip between her teeth and shook her head anyway.

“Good,” Ash replied before dropping her mouth to Sango’s breast. She licked in little circles around her nipple, then flicked her tongue against the peak before she kissed it — too softly, then not so softly. Sango was panting and crying out with each pull of Ash’s lips. She writhed against the ground, getting just a bit of friction against her jeans.

When she felt like she couldn’t take anymore, that the pleasure couldn’t wind up any higher, Ash moved to her other breast.

Sango was screaming and begging when Ash moved further down. She kissed Sango’s belly button as she unfastened her jeans, and Sango groaned in relief and frustration when they were slipped off. Sango lay there panting, nude in front of someone for the first time she could remember, and realized that she was past embarrassment now. She just needed Ash’s touch.

There was no shame in her when she spread her legs at Ash’s request, or flung them over the other woman’s shoulders so she could lie comfortably between them, or when Ash just simply stayed there, looking.

“I could look at you like this all day, San,” Ash purred, and started to lay kisses on Sango’s thighs and the crease of her hip. She never touched Sango where she needed that touch the most, not until she was moaning and begging for it.

“Please, Ash! Please touch me!” Sango pleaded and screamed when Ash complied.

Ash’s mouth repeated the motions it had made on San’s nipple on that most sensitive point of her sex. Sango screamed and cursed and pleaded. Her stomach tensed and she was so close she couldn’t breathe.

“Just let go,” Ash whispered, breath teasing before she busied her mouth once more.

Sango felt herself shatter into bright colors and her body shuddered violently.

She slowly came back to herself as the sensations subsided and her vision started to clear. She threw lazy arms around Ash as she pulled her up for a kiss. She licked the salty taste of herself from Ash’s mouth. Ash rolled to the side and groaned as she flopped on her back.

“I’m to old to do this on the ground,” she complained. Sango turned over on her side to study the face of her lover.

“Don’t you want me to do that to you?” she asked, a devilish smirk stealing across her face. Ash groaned.

“You have no idea how much I want you, but right now my back is killing me.”

“Old bag,” Sango whispered, just loud enough to be head.

“Old bag!” Ash squawked. “I’ll show you old.” And the two of them dissolved into wrestling and giggles.

Once Sango conceded Ash’s total victory, they lay next to each other, catching their breath.

“I’m going with you.”

It was a statement of fact and not a wish that passed Sango’s lips.

Ash rolled up on her side and brushed her thumb across San’s mouth.

“I can’t promise not to make you cry again,” she said.

“I know,” Sango replied, “but if you leave me here I’ll be sure to cry for you every day.”

“Well I can’t have that,” Ash whispered back with a grin. “You’ll just have to come so I can comfort you in your tears.”

“… Pervert,” San muttered.

“But I’m your pervert.”

They both laughed and held hands as they lay on their backs and watched the clouds roll by.

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