Zugzwang (19.1)

This story segment contains mild sexual content.

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso – Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

As far as the eye could see clouds over Bada Aso had become a continuous grey sheet, so still and unbroken they perfectly supplanted the sky. In the morning even the drizzling rains had subsided. Through the office window Parinita saw the breakfast line forming across the street. It was a scene as if from a gentler time.

People passing around metal platters down the line, singing songs while waiting for their lentils and flatbread, for their curry and fresh fruit juice.

Then a tank drove down the street and everyone in the line waved at the commander half-out of his turret, and he waved half-heartedly back as he headed out on armed patrol.

Work had commenced on sandbag redoubts to block out the road south of the FOB. Parinita saw a light staff car towing a 45mm gun into place behind a half-circle sandbag wall, and several volunteers in jackets and overalls, and even a few women in dresses, at work heaving bags and piling them up, pulling machine guns out of the buildings where they had been hidden and rolling them out, bringing ammunition from concealed stocks.

For moment, Parinita could just look at the breakfast line and ignore the war. She could focus on cheerful volunteers until her eyes seemed to cross and her vision became blurry.

She pulled down the window shutters and returned to the desk, licking the tip of her finger before opening a folder of reconnaissance reports, including aerial photographs taken by a biplane early in the morning. Due to their relatively silent engines, the obsolete Anka still found a use in Bada Aso – they had performed some limited late night bombing and early morning photography, surprising the enemy and avoiding engagements.

They had to plan these flights ahead of time, because the airport at Bada Aso was unusable, and because the overwhelming majority of the Ox air force and air bases had been destroyed, abandoned or evacuated since the first days of the war.

Battlegroup Ram in Tambwe had graciously allowed them to use its border air fields to land and scramble planes, but was redeploying its own planes farther north.

Still, they did their best with what few planes and what little runway they could get.

In her hands she held photos of Umaiha’s streets, still waterlogged, the river itself choked with debris swept into the water from the streets, and from buildings overtaken by the growing ferocity of the stormy waters.

They were still gauging the extent of the destruction there.

By current counts, the 28th, in its various and deadly ways, had caused at least 8,000 casualties for the Ayvartans, the overwhelming majority incurred in Umaiha. Not only did they lose the defensive lines, they lost peripheral patrols, mobile reserve groups, civilian volunteer laborers, logistics personnel, and rescue workers and crisis assessment troops.

So wide-ranging, sudden, and devastating had been the flooding, the rain, the lightning, the storm winds, that it seemed as though the entire southeast was smashed off the map.

Parinita put down the photos and read the early reports and turned over in her head what her own conclusive report on them would say. Her Commander would certainly desire a full account of the weather and its effects, as well as losses across the actions of the 28th.

She could say definitively that the 1st and 2nd Line Corps were no more.

Anyone who could still fight joined the 3rd and 4th Line Corps in preparing for the coming assault on the central district. Luckily for them, Nocht had been caught up in the weather themselves, and suffered losses of materiel in Penance that would surely give them some pause. She hoped they would have a day or two to reorganize before the next operation. That was the situation she saw looking over the documents in her hand.

She would have to wait for the Commander’s word before thinking over it anymore.

Thankfully, the Major was safe and relatively unhurt for what she had suffered.

On the floor of the office, Madiha slept soundly on a mattress, dug out from the ruins of a nearby apartment building. She was covered in curtains and towels in lieu of blankets – they were running low on warm blankets, an item often unnecessary in the Adjar dominance that was therefore not often kept in good supply. Madiha had a medical patch on her forehead, under her black, uneven bags. She slept, eerily peaceful.

Parinita had thrown herself in her arms the moment she saw her last night.

It became clear to her then she wanted to be closer to Madiha.

She was special to her. She wanted to properly know her as more than just a comrade in arms. These desires had slowly built and it was time to recognize them.

But still, she felt awkward about it. She couldn’t act on it. But it was fine.

For now it was enough to be in this office. It gave her purpose.

She could wait for the rest.

There was a knocking on wood that brought her out of her contemplation.

She looked over.

Behind her the door opened, and Bhishma, head of her staff, stepped through the door with a plate of food and a mug of tea. He had brought her a steel mug full of lentils, a stack of flatbreads, and sweet Halva made from semolina and tinged red with berries.

“What a pleasant surprise!” Parinita said, clapping her hands. “Thank you, Bhishma.”

He smiled. Bhishma was a dark-skinned young man with frizzy hair and an orderly appearance. They had worked together for years now; normally he was quiet and diligent, but today he looked energized.  “It’s nothin’ ma’am. I thought of how hard you’ve been working and I figured you wouldn’t be going to join the line, so I got a little extra for you.”

“Nothing for the Commander, though? She has also been working quite hard also.”

Bhishma had no answer to this.

His cheeks turned a little pink, and he scratched his hair.

Parinita smiled and waved her hand as though trying to fan away his concerns with the air. “It’s ok, don’t worry about it! I’ll share with her. We can have a proper meal at lunch.”

Bhishma bowed his head and retreated uneasily out the door. Parinita sighed a little.

As the door closed, she heard a yawn and a sleepy muttering. “What was that about?”

Madiha sat slowly up against the office wall and stretched her arms overhead.

“I may be wrong but I think Bhishma was trying to curry favor.” Parinita said amicably.

“Was he successful?” Madiha said through another yawn, having fully stretched.

“Nope.” Parinita smiled. “Are you feeling alright, Madiha? Our medics are worried.”

“I feel like I’ve been tied in a knot, and my forehead feels split open.” She paused, and then sneezed. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “And I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Judging by your conversational tone, you don’t seem too concerned.” Parinita replied.

“I’m not concerned, to be honest.” Madiha said. “I’m just glad to be back at my house.”

“I am glad you are well.” Parinita said.

She held back her emotions – she almost felt like crying, she was so happy to see the Commander again. Madiha would not have minded. She had already cried on her shoulder last night. But she wanted to give the Commander some peace and a chance to relax. She deserved warmth and ease. “We should take it slow today. You’re still recovering. I wouldn’t want you to become ill. We can go over the current events at our leisure.”

“I do want to rest a little, but I have a few orders to give.” Madiha said. She lay back against the wall with her arms behind her head. “First; Parinita, I wanted to thank you.”

“I don’t believe I’ve done anything worthy of much thanks.” Parinita demurely replied.

After all, she was just herself; what could she possibly do or add?

“No, you have; you’ve stayed by my side. I’ve been acting foolish. I lost sight of so much, both about myself, and you and our comrades. I should have listened. Despite everything that has happened you are here again, as warmly as you have always treated me. I want you to know that my eyes are open now, and that I have regained my resolve.”

Parinita felt blood rushing up to her face and ears.

“I am very happy to hear that, Madiha.” She stammered.

“I have treated you poorly; and I took in vain the courage of our comrades who are fighting. From now on, I want to be the Commander you and them deserve.”

Madiha stood up from the ground and patted off the fibers from the curtains and towels that had collected on her jacket and pants. She had been given a fresh uniform when they brought her into the HQ last night, and thankfully she had not been wearing her pins and medals, or they would have gotten wet or lost. Parinita kept them in a case in their desk.

“In my eyes you have always been more than worthy, Madiha; but I’m glad for you nonetheless. I hope to continue to serve you in the same capacity as before.”

Parinita was cloaking it professionally, but she wanted to bolt up and embrace her.

“I won’t have it any other way, Parinita. I want us to face this together.” Madiha said.

Now that Madiha was wider awake, Parinita spotted a few small wisps of the old flame trailing from her eyes, like a lamplight through fleshy glass. She was surprised. The burning was not as bad as it had been yesterday. Had she shed it? If so, her soul was safe for now. But her earthly condition was definitely deteriorated. She looked tense and exhausted, and she was definitely shaking a little. Hours out in the cold, and physical wounds left open and bleeding throughout. It was a wonder she was walking around at all right now.

“You should reconsider it if you’re keen on running around.” Parinita cautioned her.

Madiha nodded. She rubbed a hand along her back. “I feel a little stiff, but I’ll be fine.”

Seeing her like that, Parinita summoned up her courage. She knew she could do more.

“Then let me help you with your pain, please sit,” Parinita said, pointing to a chair across the desk. She raised her hands and curled the fingers to demonstrate. “I know a little trick that might help you stand up straighter than before, if you’ll indulge me.”

It was a little embarrassing to say, but she managed to retain her composure.

Without question, the slightly bleary-eyed Madiha pulled up the chair and sat down. She was compliant, and perhaps she knew what Parinita meant by the gestures she made.

“My grandmother and mother were healers, and they taught me a lot of things.”

Smiling and cheerful, Parinita stood up from behind the desk and walked over to her.

“Face away,” Parinita said, tapping with the tips of her fingers on Madiha’s shoulder.

Nodding, the Commander turned the seat around, turning her back to Parinita.

Parinita reached around Madiha’s chest, slowly unbuttoning her jacket.

She felt Madiha tense up at first, but whispered in her ear to relax. She pulled the woman’s jacket off, and then the dress shirt and tie under it after that. Beneath the uniform the Major wore a banian, a tanktop style undershirt tight against the skin.

Parinita looked her over. Madiha had great shoulders, fairly broad and lean with some definition. Her arms and back drew her attention too. She was slender, somewhat flat-hipped, with a small bust, but tall and lean and smooth. Parinita felt a twinge of attraction.

Blood rushed to her face as she realized where her thoughts led her.

She almost felt guilty for ogling; that was part of what turned her off the practice at first. To massage, one had to touch, and it felt too intimate an experience.

And yet, though she had not performed the arts in years, Parinita felt surprisingly confident in her ability. She felt the muscle memory returning. Her grandmother had taught her, showing her drawings of the chakras, charts of muscle groups, demonstrating the pliability of skin and flesh on the clients who came in. When her mother deigned to be around, she took shared some casual insights, though hers were much more lascivious.

Parinita, when she was a child and then a teenager, felt theirs was an indecent practice overall. Now she felt excited, felt a brimming in her hands, as if discovering magic.  Her hands felt as if they were meant to soothe, to ease pain, to disperse those agonizing flames.

She patted across Madiha’s shoulder, touching the muscle, and felt girlish and giddy.

“Major, what kind of military planning gets a girl shoulders like this?” She said.

Madiha laughed. “All the hours I spent exercising. I was bored out of my skull while nothing was happening. I spent most of my tours doing pull-ups off the low roof of a clay hut out behind the FOB. I used to be a little bit bigger; I do not exercise as much anymore.”

“I do prefer you this way; you have a great balance of elegance and strength. I guess in comparison I’m a bit sedentary,” Parinita chuckled, “but I do like to run. I used to run a lot. But that has made me nowhere near as gallant as you are, if I might venture to say.”

“I think you look perfectly proportional.” Madiha said. Her breathing quickened as Parinita’s hands settled upon her, and began to prod and press across the bare flesh.

“Perfectly proportional? I suppose that’s a compliment.” Parinita giggled.

Her fingers rose up to Madiha’s slender neck, and she felt the Major’s pulse, quickening with a rush of warm blood. Her hands glided up, lifting tufts of dark hair. It was soft, straight and mostly symmetrical; it framed her face well. She guided her fingers over the woman’s smooth forehead, covered by a thin medical patch to help her heal; she slid her palms across Madiha’s gentle cheeks and jaw, just feeling the warm brown skin; the smooth, gentle bridge and thin nose; the soft lips, breathing irregularly from the touch.

She closed her eyes, and she felt like Madiha’s warmth was entering through her hands, that their pulse was becoming one, echoing across flesh. It was a blueprint for Madiha’s body. Textures and contours and sinews, carrying a picture, as if Parinita had her own form of radar. From what she touched, she felt like she knew everything about Madiha’s body.

She opened her eyes and briefly lifted her hands from Madiha to feel empty air again.

All of the flame vanished; the metaphysical pain gone, Parinita could focus on the rest.

“You’re really tense, Major.” Parinita said, giggling. “I should have done this sooner.”

Madiha nodded. “I think I know what this is. It’s called Maalish, right? Healing hands.”

“I would view the healing part with suspicion.” Parinita said. “It’s a source of relief.

She pulled Madiha’s banian up from over her back and pressed her hands against the woman’s skin bare skin. Carefully and gently she glided the soft tips of her fingers down the Major’s smooth, baked brown shoulder-blades. Madiha made a little noise.

“Oh, is it rough?” Parinita asked.

“No,” Madiha said. Her voice stammered. “It’s softer than I’ve ever felt.”

Exhilarated by the answer, Parinita applied pressure to the tissues, finding areas that were hard and tense and working them, kneading them, pulling and prodding them like clay. She felt the flesh budge under her fingers. She received feedback from Madiha’s body, gentle shivers and soft moans and the pulse just beneath the skin, and she accounted for it.

Parinita gave herself up to these sensations, intrigued by the subtle drumbeat that was punctuating the moment. Slowly the motion of her wrists, of the heel of her hand and the base of her thumb, the grasping of fingers, all of it quickened.

Madiha started to rock a little in her seat in response.

Parinita started to work down from the shoulder, slipping her fingers underneath Madiha’s arms, gripping her upper flanks, the side of the breasts, and working the ribs and scapula with her fingers and thumbs at once. Her hands were moving to a rhythm set by Madiha’s breathing and pulse and the pliability of the skin and the knots of muscle. It was like a dance between them, and it brought Parinita a surge of reassuring, powerful emotion.

Smiling, she leaned her head on Madiha’s shoulder. “Is it working, do you think?” She squeezed on Madiha’s flesh a little more, and saw her jaw loosen, and her lips curl with a little gasp. Heat from her body transferred delectably to the tips of Parinita’s fingers.

“It’s doing something.” Madiha said, her eyes closed, her mouth hanging a little open.

Parinita lifted her head, and raised her hands up over Madiha’s shoulders, kneading the woman’s trapezius with the base of her thumb. Madiha let out a little groan. To see someone’s body respond to touch, to feel their flesh relax, to hear them grow content; it was a primal communication so different than the bitter, clinical things Parinita had been taught.

“Spirits praise,” Madiha said, gasping, “this is far different than I ever imagined.”

Almost with a snap, Parinita put sudden, final pressure on Madiha with all of her fingers, pressing on her neck and shoulder until she heard a subtle crack. Madiha arched her back. She was loose, relaxed; as if all of her flesh had gone limp in Parinita’s hands.

Under her touch, Madiha lay back against the chair, panting, contented.

She raised her head, staring up at Parinita. She smiled, breathing in short gasps.

Madiha caught her breath.

“I never believed in this sort of thing, but I’m a convert now.”

She gripped her own shoulder and moved her arm. She stood and walked around the office for a moment. Her movements were a lot more fluid and energetic, more liberated.

“It’s not magic or anything,” Parinita said modestly, “it just takes some dexterity.”

“I feel so much better; it’s amazing.” Madiha said. She was giggling like a girl.

Parinita blushed. “Now, now; you’re not just faking it to make me feel good, are you?”

“Of course not Parinita; you have a gift with those hands of yours.” Madiha said.

She took Parinita’s hands into her own with almost childish enthusiasm and pressed against her palms with the tips of her own fingers. Parinita grew redder. Her face was almost the same flushed color of her hair, and her lips hung open without words to say.

Perhaps recognizing her sudden gregarious turn, Madiha awkwardly released her.

“Ah, sorry, that was a little untoward. But it’s been a long time since I felt so refreshed.”

“I’m glad.” Parinita said. “My mother used to say that Maalish also soothes the soul.”

“I know.” Madiha said. She smiled softly. “You have been doing a lot of that lately.”

Parinita’s eyes spread wide open. Did she know about the flames, about her eyes?

“I’m sorry.” Parinita said sheepishly. “Madiha, there’s something we should discuss–”

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for. I have my own confessions to make too. We’ll talk about that later. For now, let us focus on the material, and don’t worry about the rest.”

Madiha’s eyes glinted with a hint of fire, and a sharp red ring glowed around her iris.

Parinita saw it – and it was a different fire. Madiha was making sure she could see it.

Nonchalantly the Major dressed again in her shirt and jacket. She walked around, patting Parinita jovially in the back, and sat behind her own desk, adjusting the office chair for her height. She brought out her pins and medals and began to attach them to her uniform in their places. Finally, she collected a stack of papers, looked at them and dropped them.

“I don’t know what any of these are about, goodness; also, I’ll be needing a new pistol.”

Any tension in the room suddenly diffused. Back to work; Parinita grinned and nodded.

“I’ll get you a new pistol, but you need to promise to take good care of this one.”

Madiha raised her arm as if to swear an oath, and held her fist over her breast.

Parinita laughed girlishly at the gesture. Thank everything; Madiha was still alive.

“Say, do you want some halva, Major Madiha Nakar? They put berries in it today.”

Madiha looked at the plate on her desk. “I’d be delighted, C.W.O. Parinita Maharani.”

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