Veteran

"Do you like animals?"

It was a strange question, blurted out without thinking. He shoved away the slick motel sheets that clung to the layer of coppery-smelling sweat that drenched him.

"What?" She blinked, certain she hadn't heard right. Her heart still racing, she flopped back onto the soaked sheets, wondering what this sleazy motel would look like under the purple glow of a blacklight. They'd probably just added to the stains, protection or no. Her innumerable dreadlocks spread out in damp tangles; even they looked exhausted.

"Animals," came the soft repetition. He spoke slowly, like he was worried what would happen if she said no.

"Like them?" she repeated, nose wrinkling. "Man, there's not enough money in the world. Now, don't get me wrong, I'll do most of the kinky shit. Cost you extra, though. But animals? Jesus, you really -"

"Never mind. That's not what I meant."

He fell silent, and she didn't break it.

Somewhere outside, a siren wailed amid the white noise of the highway. From just next door came the soft sound of someone quietly crying. The young woman – and she was, too, too young for a life like this. Just like all of them had been.

She shifted to look at him better in the dim light. Her dark skin shone a midnight blue-purple in the muted glow from the hot neon behind the lowered shade.

"Hey," she said suddenly. "I know where I've seen you before, it's been bugging me all night." She rested her chin on her fist and grinned up at him. He couldn't look at her, God, she looked too much like –

"You look just like him, you know. The hero. All over the news a few years back, saved us all from the Yeerks. Ja -"

"It's not me!" he barked, more roughly than he'd intended. "I mean… I'm not him." He got up and slid back into his pants, picked up his shirt from the floor. He never once met her eyes. "How much do I owe you?" he asked in a monotone.

"…Nothing." She said quietly, pulling the damp sheets tighter around herself. She was suddenly shivering at the look in his eyes.

He looked up at her, raising one eyebrow in a cynical question mark. And now he did look her in the eye, and there was something else in them, under the premature hardness and scars. Something scared and sad that begged her to stay quiet, just let him leave this place and disappear. Then he turned away and started buttoning up his shirt, fumbling a little in the dark.

"You saved us…" she said in almost a whisper. "All of us, you saved everyone -"

"I didn't save everyone." He said in a rough, beaten voice. He strode across the room and put his hand on the metal doorknob, quietly pulling the door open. His eyes flicked all around outside before he put his foot over the threshold, measuring directions and distances and escape routes. Old habits died very hard. He started to step out, when a soft noise behind him made him stop.

"Thank you…" she said softly, putting a tentative hand on his shoulder, feeling him shudder through his shirt. And, God, but that small, faint touch was so much more risky, more intimate than anything hot and slippery they'd done that evening.

He stayed there for a few long breaths, then slipped away from her hand. She watched him silently disappear around a corner. Then she stepped back into the motel room and quietly shut the door.