Kneeling stiffly, I eased the fabric from the wooden chest secured to the foot of my bunk. Soft cream striped over gold slink. I stood almost without realizing it, feeling the corners of my lips curve up as my eyes softened, drinking in the dress as I held it out before me.
“You remember how you wanted a slinky dress?” His voice had come from behind me.
I smiled and lifted my eyes to catch his reflection in the mirror. “I do,” I replied, adding a touch of heat to my tone as I locked eyes with him, ignoring how he held the dress to himself in exactly the same manner a teenager going to their first school dance would show off their new formalwear. I remembered how his eyes had glowed with mischief as he pulled me to him, pinning the gown between us.
“Inspection in five minutes, soldier,” he barked. He had shoved the silky garment into my hands with a chaste kiss, giddy, and skipped out of the room.
When I eased out from behind the hatch to present myself wearing his gift, heart fluttering in much the same way it does before a battle, the look on his face was one I will never forget. I had never felt so completely—and oddly respectfully—desired before that moment, standing before him in this very dress. Not that I had it on for very long that time.
“Remember that fancy job on Persephone?” I mused, engaging him in an imaginary conversation. “Where we had to mingle with the well-to-do, acting all proper-like? You insisted we go to the party just so you could show me off in this dress. I’m pretty sure I saw the captain smile before muttering something about a curfew and heading back to the ship. We barely heard as we twirled around the dance floor, eyes only on each other. I never wanted that night to end.”
But it had ended. As all things do eventually.
I began to step into the garment but paused as a wave of sorrow swept over me, through me. I reached out blindly to brace myself, fearing a fall that would shatter me completely if I dared to move.
After a moment, I deliberately ground my teeth together, inhaling sharply through them before firmly and slowly releasing the air from my lungs. I needed to steel myself for the ceremony to come, even as I wondered how in the ‘verse I was going to get through it.
A cold numbness seeped into my body, calming my mind, and I began to dress again. I slid the smooth fabric past my hips and snaked my arms into position, then felt along my backside for the fastener. A memory of him slowly raising the zipper, trailing his lips up my bare spine, brushing aside my hair, kissing the nape of my neck, pulsed through me, and I staggered with the sudden weight of it.
Somehow, strong hands caught me, supported me, and helped me to rise again. My crewmates. My family. I did not hear them enter, but gratefully allowed them to finish securing me into my gown and guiding me to the hold, but no further. I would leave the ship with a military bearing despite my attire for this final inspection. I owed it to him to be strong. I owed it to us.
The fabric swished and trailed elegantly as I trudged down the swell of land toward waves rushing through a rocky gap in the cliffs, my silent companions a respectful distance behind me. My emotions mimicked the rise and fall of the water: cresting rage followed by a frothy, simmering grief, endless repeating. I noticed the matte greyness of the sky, softer and calmer than the sea, and willed myself to follow suit, to be just as flat and all-encompassing.
The water was cold. I knew that it would be, but the shock of it splashing over my ankles as I waded toward the breach took my breath away. I stumbled and quickly caught myself, holding a hand out to the others to keep them back. I could do this. I had to do this. It was the only thing he ever asked of me and I could not deny him his peace.
The water was knee deep as I stepped through the opening in the rock, my shoes long since pulled off by the rocky sand, the base of my gown growing heavy with brine wicking up my thighs.
Can you feel me here? the wind asked in his voice.
I closed my eyes and filled my lungs with the sea air. “Yes, my love, I can,” I whispered back. “But you knew that I would.”
Uncapping the urn in my hands, I dutifully spilled his remains into the churning water. The wind gusted, gathering bits and carrying them upward. I smiled and wiped the dampness from my eyes to more clearly watch him soar high above me.
My leaf on the wind.
He was home.