The Secret Word Is Home

by Meris

I know he will come for me. That bond is deeper than the more recent layer added between us. Whether Napoleon is my lover or not, he is my partner first, and he can no more leave me in the clutches of the bad guys than I him.

It's just taking him a long time to get here and my arms are tired.

In fact, I am fairly sure that when he finally gets here I will be too tired to talk him out of running me through Medical. Which will delay going home.

Which will delay finding out whether it has been a fluke or whether Napoleon has been serious. It may just have been a month-long flirtation.

I am surprised at how ambivalent I feel about it. I have always known the attraction was there; there's nothing that Napoleon can't seduce if he decides he wants it badly enough. Although I think he draws the line at livestock.


And nobody gets into Section Two without being willing to play both sides of the field if necessary, or even if just inclined. Of course, it's better if you've actually done so beforehand, out of desire or curiosity or duty. There's no place for a reluctant agent when it comes to sex. Preferences are one thing, refusals just get you killed in the field or quietly transferred to a less demanding section.

But nobody talks about it, officially. It's tidier not to deal with it. Both this country and my homeland engage in a great deal of double-think to not even admit that it can exist, although they're just as eager as everyone else to use it as one more weapon in the endless war of attrition.

Maybe the last month really has been a fluke.

I wish Napoleon would hurry up. They're learning. No manacles this time. They've used 4-inch long flat metal cuffs that taper down to the wrist . Even if I could bring my hands together, there's not a fingernail's width to spare to squirm them off over the bones at the base of my hands.

I wonder sometimes what it'll be like if I survive the field. So many injuries. So little time to heal. So many of us are left with some kind of diminished capacity. What a stupid concept. Why not just say crippled? Double-speak. Double-think. As though not saying it out loud or straight will hide it or change it.

Which is of course what I'm doing about last month.

My nose itches. So does the sole of my right foot—at least I can still feel it—the left one's numb again. Metal must be too tight there. Maybe I can get Napoleon to massage it. Just massage, nothing else. Massages you give yourself don't work. You can't relax and get any benefit out of it if you're working to provide it in the first place. On the other hand, I don't get any benefit out of Napoleon's massages either, lately. They've all—heated up—rather quickly. Not that I've been complaining. But sometimes a massage is just a massage.

And sometimes it's not. Right now, I'd like to get one of those massages. One of the really nice ones, that starts out with warm oil and candles, and nice little bites to eat, where Napoleon starts by rubbing all the things that hurt. My palms. The middle of my wrists. The muscles in my forearms near the elbow. The muscles right over the shoulder blades. Those are tough. It's hard to relax them. But Napoleon does a very good job. And then he moves on to rubbing all the things that make me feel good. Really good. And then we move on to the things that make us both feel good.

If I think hard, I can almost feel it. If I close my eyes—ow. The room just went round. And round. I'll keep my eyes open for now. I can still dream with them open. I did that for a long time before this.

Sometimes every day. Looking at Napoleon as he made sure some innocent was all right after crossing our path, or as he crinkled that smile at some secretary who'd already gone the extra mile for him, I'd look and wonder what it would be like to have caring like that be centered around me. What it would be like to go home, and know that it was home. To know that someone cared that I existed, rather than just exist as the instrument of a just cause in the service of good. Not that that's a bad thing, but it's only enough sometimes.

There's a really bad pain in my back. Maybe a cramp. Or maybe they broke something with that last punch. And it feels a little wet. I don't think shifting will help. No. It didn't.

I don't know when home became Napoleon. All I know is that I dreamed more and more with my eyes open. I knew that all the partner things he did were just partner things. But I kept thinking about them. All the little things.

Some of them were funny. The time when I wouldn't cut my hair and he told Waverly I couldn't cut it because he needed me to impersonate a beatnik. The time I needed a handkerchief and he said, "Take mine," and I pulled and a whole string of them came out, like a conjuring trick. The time we were watching television and he couldn't believe I'd never seen You Bet Your Life. We watched Mr. Marx try to get people to say the secret word and make the duck come down.

And there was kindness too, the things he didn't need to do. I think it was the kind things that caught me.

Like making sure that we go to lunch together in the commissary if I'm in the lab and not minding if I eat half of his. Like making sure that he has tea and jam for the tea when he invites me over to dinner. Like inviting me over to dinner, if it comes to that. Often enough that I know where to put things away in his kitchen after washing up. Like making sure I have time off when Monk or Powell play in town. Like making space in his stereo rack for some of my jazz records and telling me I can play them any time, when I know he prefers Sinatra and the big bands. Like making sure that the oil and sharpening stones for my knife are always stocked in the armory. Like stopping for ice cream on the way back from Medical. Like giving me the day off after I've been released or rescued from THRUSH, then coming round to check that I am all right.

Like holding me. Well, actually, I think that one was more than kindness.

When I could not sleep after a THRUSH interlude—THRUSH had tried a new serum, it didn't work well, and the lingering effect was depression—I sat in my apartment and couldn't find a reason to move. Napoleon showed up and swept me out of my apartment into his, telling me a change of scenery would do me good. I sat on the big sofa and he puttered around making toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

I know I was rude that evening. The sandwiches tasted like cardboard. I don't know why Americans like soup out of cans. Napoleon kept making conversation and I kept snapping at him. Everything felt gray.

In the middle of the night I woke up in Napoleon's guest bedroom and didn't know who I was. The longer I lay in the warm sheets trying to sleep, the more hollow I felt, like I was curled around an empty hole in the air. Finally I got up and took a blanket and retreated to the corner of the sofa, looking at all the familiar things in the unfamiliar night, and could not find myself, even inside me when I looked. I felt gray and invisible, unreal. If THRUSH knew the effect their serum had, they could bottle it and sell it to secret torture organizations the world over.

It was worse out here. I suspect it would have been bad no matter where I was. The noises of the night street floated up from below, short random events. A cat knocking over a trash can. Somebody yelling disconnected, drunken words before they fell over. Somewhere, a radio blared briefly and was turned down. The city's nighttime illumination hung scattershot on its skylines. It was all going past me, didn't involve me, because I wasn't really there. I sat wedged into the corner because the pressure almost reminded me that I was real, that I existed. But the gentle tick of the carriage clock would have gone on whether I was there or not. All the sounds and lights would continue. I didn't really exist.

At some point I looked up and Napoleon was crouched by the sofa corner, looking at me so—I don't know what it was. Patiently. Or attentively. Or something. I couldn't define it. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't describe what was going on, I didn't know what was going on.

"Am I real?" I asked him.

"You're very real, especially to me," Napoleon said and he reached out and touched my arms lightly. "See? Real," he said. He slid his hands up my arms to my back, wrapped his arms around me, tightening them into a firm hold. "See? Real," he said again. And I wrapped my own around him, grateful for his solidity—it told me I at least had a body.

Napoleon said, "That's OK, you're OK," something like that, over and over again. He felt—warm and hard and alive and real under my hands.

So I kissed him. Either I was not real and it wouldn't matter, or I was real and it would matter one way or the other. I don't know what I hoped. Or feared. Sex can make you feel real all the way through. Or confirm that you don't exist.

He didn't turn away, he kissed me back. This first encounter, there was no contact other than that, just kissing, just the hunger of mouth on mouth, the curiosity of exploration, the fulfillment of all the wondering. It felt just as wonderful, as welcoming as I'd thought it could. Twice as good, actually, because of the grayness that had gone before.

He finally said, "Come on in, you shouldn't be alone just now. Be with me." We stood up and went into his room. He said, "Just lie down." I don't usually do what people tell me to do, but this was Napoleon and Napoleon's apartment and so I humored him and lay down. He tucked me in then he got into the bed on his side. He put his arms around me again and said, "Where were we?"

His voice was smiling and deep and caring and his mouth came down on mine and we kissed, endlessly, fervently, like teenagers, then slowly, like long-time lovers, and he leaned his head against mine and sighed and we fell asleep.

And during this month, we've walked the other side with each other, and I have been living at Napoleon's apartment.

But I don't know if it's real. I don't know if it can be real. I don't know if I want it to be real.

My arms are very tired. Something's wrong with my back where it was hurting, now it's quite numb and it feels wet all the way down to my foot. I want to go home. But is home still at Napoleon's?

I thought it was just a flirtation at first. Just Napoleon being kind to a disoriented partner, playing both sides of his field with the ease that comes naturally to him in matters of the body. I was ready to accept him being kind, but in bed he is not kind. He is as hungry and demanding as l am. Together, we can cause chaos in bed. But also love.

That's the part that is dumbfounding. It scares me. Kindness and casual sex is one thing, and I'd be content with that. But we have found ourselves knotted together, drawn to each other on too many levels. Good sex is only a part of it. There is—happiness—when we are together, no matter what we are doing. And my happiness depends on—him.

And I am starting to suspect that his depends on me. Little things tell me this, which I have not wanted to see or hear.

The joyous twinkle over very small things: I found him a captain's mirror for the Pursang and he glowed for two days. When he told me to bring up some of my clothes so I wouldn't always be running down to my apartment, he joked that they'd never move again as he hung them up. The content of just sitting, reading, on opposite ends of the couch, legs entwined. The way he sparkles when I laugh at his jokes. The way that his hands trembled on my arms, eyes flashing dark with fear, when I came back from a courier run with a badly dressed slash after an unexpected ambush. And the way he holds me, completely wrapped around me, when we sleep, even if it's just sleep.

I saw him drop the little black book into the trash when he thought I wasn't looking.

I'm hungry now. And a little nauseous. My wrists are starting to hurt a lot where they catch on the edge of the metal. My back is numb all the way down to my knee. And I can't feel my feet at all. But my mind is still clear, and now I know.

This is more than a flirtation. I have been using the same double-think I accuse my countries of. I've been ambivalent because I'm not sure I want to be a permanent part of anything. I don't want to let myself depend that strongly on anything. It's bad enough that I depend on Napoleon for my life, without depending on him for my heart. But waiting for him now, I know.

Napoleon is home. And I want to go home.

I want to watch Groucho Marx make people say the secret word and see the duck come down with the hundred dollars. I want to lie in bed and watch Napoleon read the paper. I want to steal the last piece of bacon and all the hot water and tell him to go take a running jump and have him laugh out loud and kiss me. I want to make love in the morning and go out and shoot the bad guys in the afternoon. I want to go out and save the world and do it with the person who helps it all make sense.

The secret word is home.

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