”I think it’s time for the next number”, I heard Ava murmur to Emmy.
The three of us had been cornered and her words broke the silence that always came with horrifying realizations. By now I’d fought with them long enough to know the meaning of their numbers, but I remembered how curious I’d been before I learnt of it.
The first time I overheard them talk about it was when I had just found out they were a couple. I’d been placed in the same platoon but had kept to myself, as was my style. The benefits of such behavior being that it doesn’t take long to get to know the people around you, or map out the informal hierarchies that shape any group, without them talking to you and telling you different. I could see that there was something special with the two of them, and how they at times held rank over every commanding officer that set foot on our base, without ever carrying the necessary insignia. They earned my respect long before I went into the field with them, and it only grew when I did.
The dynamics between the two took longer to understand, fluid as it was. At first glance, Ava seemed the authoritarian one, but once we’d been fired upon together enough times for them to relax around me, there was a playfulness they let show that told me differently. In such times, Emmy was the leader of the two, Ava glad to follow. Not that they flaunted any of it, but my unobtrusive manners gave me an insight to more than others would ever notice.
Still, many were they that looked. The two women were remarkably good looking, in ways that they themselves seemed uncaring about. Ava dark and compact, muscles moving like those on a panther, not leaving anyone in doubt what that body could do to you in close combat. Emmy in ways her antithesis, slim and tall, a light cheetah to Ava’s black panther. But having seen her move, no one would underestimate her either.
Initially I was surprised they didn’t receive rude propositions, or crude jokes, like so many other beautiful people suffered in surroundings such as ours, but with time I understood that their skills and their experience earned them more than enough respect. And also I witnessed the result of such commentary that one time a new guy tried it. They set the bar high for the whole compound, I saw my fellow soldiers rise to it, and enjoyed living with a more respectful congregation than I had ever participated in before. But you couldn’t stop people looking, nor speculating by camp fires what their numbers meant.
Many of us had by then been in situations where panic and agony were close at hand, maybe pressed into a corner with fewer bullets left than enemies. I remember that being in one such situation with both Ava and Emmy was the first time I heard them mention the numbers. We had been under fire but had found a shelter good enough to breathe in momentarily. Emmy was pacing the room, distraught, and I could see her edging close to breaking apart. I didn’t blame her cause I was close behind. Suddenly Ava called out.
“Emmy”, her voice ordered, somewhere between a soldier and a lover, eyes not moving from targets yet not hit. “What’s number eight?”
I was crouching behind a door, clinging to my weapon for comfort, able to look at them both. I could see Emmy glare at Ava, but also how the question stopped her pacing. She was thinking, looking unwilling to answer, but attempting to anyway.
“Number eight”, she said, closing her eyes. “Is the forests outside Tunisia.”
“Correct”, Ava smiled, and fired a shot, which turned out to be the game changing one.
At another time, an uncharacteristically relaxed evening by the fire, I heard them whisper a similar question, but that time it was Emmy asking Ava for number twelve. Which turned out to be the Eiffel tower. Speculation was constant in regards to the numbers, and the most popular theory was that it was the most effective kills, or most dramatic attacks they had survived. No one dared ask, since no one dared confess to having listened in so closely.
The moment I learnt the meaning was on yet another mission. The three of us had been ambushed, wounded to various degrees, but had retaliated with enough force to clear an undisturbed path back to base. Halfway home however, Ava collapsed from blood loss, having underestimated the distance to walk combined with the effect of a bullet to the thigh. We stayed the night outdoors, having patched her up best we could and let her sleep. Emmy confided in me that it was not the first time it had happened.
“She tends to downplay her bullet wounds if I also have one”, she muttered, subconsciously clutching her left arm where she also had taken a shot. “It’s the only time I know her to be stupid.”
I could see the worry, and how she overrode it with the authority of being in charge of getting the three of us home. I tried to argue for her to get some sleep, promising I would wake her if Ava’s condition worsened, but she wouldn’t have it. And in the morning, I woke to them whispering, but remained motionless so as not to interrupt them.
“Don’t do that ever again”, Emmy was scolding Ava.
“I survived, didn’t I?” was the weak but teasing answer.
“Only just, you idiot.”
A silence fell, but just as I was about to move and showcase that I was awake, I heard Ava continue.
“Do you think this is the time for number seventeen?”
“Only if you promise not to do that again.”
Ava must have nodded her reply, because I heard none, and when I opened my eyes to look they were kissing. That in itself was not unusual, I had seen them kiss many times before, since even though they didn’t flaunt their relationship they certainly didn’t hide it either, but there was something about this one that was different. When they moved apart I pressed my eyes shut again, pretending their privacy hadn’t been intruded upon.
“So will you remember this one?” Ava whispered.
“Number seventeen”, Emmy replied. “On your near death bed in the jungle.”
So when Ava broke the silence with that suggestion I wasn’t surprised that it caused Emmy to shout at her, to back away from Ava, pushing at the arms that tried to reach around her. I would’ve have offered to stay behind to hold the oncoming off, but one of my eyes had been rendered useless with a cut and I could no longer fire with any accuracy. And we all knew who the best shooter was, who would give the remaining two the biggest head start. I looked the other way, but couldn’t give them any more privacy than that as I heard Emmy cry. Ava spoke with a calm strength, the decision was already made, unavoidable as it was. I knew she was trying to keep the urgency from her voice, since we didn’t have long. I was amazed at how well she managed.
“Emmy. Please. Let me hold you.”
The frantic sound of Emmy resisting quieted at that plea, and after a while I heard her broken voice, muffled in an embrace.
“But you promised me we’d get to a hundred.”