Disclaimers: Well, nothing new here. This is an uber story and you might just find yourself slightly familiar with the physical appearances of some of the characters. (Now that surprised you, didn´it? *grin*) That aside, I´m totally to blame for this story and I take full responsibility.

Sex: Yup.

Violence: That too.

Angst: Probably.

This story is going to be slightly long, but I promise it´ll be updated frequently. (There´s nothing worse than having to wait, is there?) Okay, since all that´s been taken care of, I´ll just shut up and let the tale begin. Comments are welcome at: dayze11@hotmail.com
 
 



When the Land Is Dark

Copyright Ó 1999 by Day


 






"The worst, the least curable hatred is that which has superseded deep love."

Euripides, c.485-406 bc
 
 

Chapter One
 
 

September, 2041 AD. Region of Former Austria

Jo pressed her back against the cold concrete wall and closed her eyes. She could feel the blood pounding in her ears and hear her own ragged breathing. She clenched her fists tightly and forced herself to calm down, it wouldn´t do to be discovered, not when she was so close. If only… She opened her eyes again and edged her body along the wall, her back never out of contact with the concrete. Slowly she reached the end of the wall and after a few deep breaths, she carefully peeked around the corner.

The dim, flickering light did nothing to illuminate the gloomy corridor before her, and again she wished she´d been allowed to bring a flashlight. Pale blue eyes studied the grey walls of the corridor and although Jo felt certain there had to be traps, or at least infrared alarms, she wasn´t capable of detecting them.

She glanced at her watch and cursed silently, she had only three minutes left before the light would be switched off and the catacombs would be sealed off for the night. Having no intention of spending the night in this cold and damp place, Jo made a quick decision and blowing all caution to the wind, began to sprint down the corridor, inwardly praying she wouldn´t set off any alarms.

The long, narrow corridor seemed to go on for ever, but suddenly in a particular dark area it turned sharply to the right and Jo barely managed to brace herself before crashing into the wall. Her hands and wrists, which had taken most of the impact, hurt terribly and she wondered briefly whether she had sprained one of them or both, but all thoughts of discomfort left her mind the moment she saw a faint light at the end of the new corridor. Blue eyes narrowed determinedly and Jo set off again, running as fast as possible towards the light. Her feet rang loudly on the stone floor, but she didn´t care and increased her speed.

Ha! I´m gonna make it!

Ratatata! Ratatata! Ratatata!

She felt the impact of the bullets almost before she heard the gunfire, and her body was abruptly halted and shoved backwards.

Damn, was Jo´s last thought just before her head connected with the floor. This is gonna hurt in the morning.

"Halt fire!"

The gunfire stopped immediately and only a few seconds later, the light at the end of the tunnel brightened and was then obscured as a dark figure appeared, and started to walk towards the slumped form on the floor. The figure, a huge bearded man, knelt down on the floor and swiftly let his gaze run over the body.

"Is she all right?" A female voice from behind the light called out and the man nodded.

"Yeah, she´ll be awfully sore for awhile, but otherwise she´s fine."

"Do you want to leave her?"

"Nah," the man put his arms under Jo and lifted her up without problems. "She hurt her head when she went down. I want to make sure nothing serious happened."

"Well, if this hadn´t been an exercise she would´ve been killed." A woman´s form stepped in front of the light and cast a long shadow on the man walking towards her. "I think you should leave her in the catacombs for the night. Teach her a lesson."

"That may be, Vivien, but I think she´s learned her lesson already. She´s gonna be all bruises tomorrow, not to mention her ego which has probably been bruised the most."

He chuckled quietly to himself as he stepped out of the catacombs and out into the dark night.

"You´re too soft, Pilot," the redheaded woman named Vivien commented as she pushed the door to the catacombs closed and entered the code to seal the door. "They have to learn they can´t make mistakes like that. If it had been anywhere else, she would´ve been dead."

"I know," Pilot replied softly and began to walk down the narrow path between the trees, still carrying Jo in his arms, "but if we don´t allow them to learn from their mistakes, nobody will ever survive into adulthood."

He shot a glance back at the woman who was walking behind him, green eyes constantly searching the dense forest around them, her finger never leaving the trigger of her riffle.

"Besides, I seem to remember a time where we weren´t perfect either… Sparky."

She snorted at the use of her much hated nickname, but decided to comment on his words instead. "That´s true, we weren´t perfect, but we learned and we learned fast. These kids seem to take forever just to learn the most simple basics, even cleaning a gun seems to be an impossible task for them."

"That´s because we had to learn fast," Pilot said quietly and to no one in particular. "If we hadn´t, we wouldn´t be having this conversation today."

Vivien didn´t answer and they walked the rest of the way to the heavily guarded and enclosed camp in silence.

**************
 
 

"Hey, Jo! Feeling better?"

Jo bumped up and down slightly as a heavy weight settled on her bed and she swallowed a groan of pain.

"Go away, Basil." She tried to roll onto her side, but the movement brought on a fresh wave of pain and this time she wasn´t able to suppress the groan.

"Hurts, doesn´t it?"

Jo tentatively opened a single eye and looked at the smiling, but nonetheless concerned face of her roommate, and she nodded, a movement she instantly regretted.

"Like hell."

The young man grinned, "I bet you´re full of black and blue bruises after the rubber bullets." He started to pull the blanket covering Jo´s body down, and she slapped his hands away good-naturedly.

"Ah, come on, Jo." He grinned again. "It´s not like it´s something I haven´t seen before."

"Yeah, well," Jo took a deep breath and slowly, very slowly sat up. "I do believe we were slightly younger then."

As she closed her eyes briefly, hoping the room would stop spinning, Basil continued cheerfully, "Oh, what´s a bit of nudity between friends?"

I´m naked?

Jo immediately lifted the blanket and glanced down at her body which was sufficiently dressed in a t-shirt and shorts.

"Got you worried for a second, didn´t I?" Basil smirked at the black-haired girl´s scowling expression. "Gee, Jo. We have to work on your sense of humour."

She ignored him and looked around for her watch, but couldn´t find it, "What´s the time?"

"It´s 6:48am and if you don´t hurry you´ll be late for class."

They both looked up to see a young blond man dressed in a green camouflage uniform standing in the doorway to their bathroom, his hair still damp from the shower.

"Uh, you can´t be serious, Dane," Jo complained as she leaned back down onto the bed. "Don´t say they really expect me to come to class today? I feel like shit."

"It´s true, they do," Basil answered for the young man and rose from Jo´s bed. "Vivien explicitly told us to inform you that your presence is very much required today.

Jo rolled her eyes at her roommates, "That bitch… Is she going to be there as well?"

"I think so," Dane began and pulled on his boots. "I think she and Pilot want to go through the exercise we did yesterday."

"Oh great," Jo murmured. "This just keeps on getting better."

"Are you coming?"

The two young men looked at her patiently and suddenly Jo had to smile, "Yeah, sure. Just go ahead, I´ll be right there."

Basil nodded and disappeared out of the door, but Dane lingered for a moment, watching how Jo slowly got to her feet, swaying lightly.

"You´ll be okay?"

"Yeah, I´ll be fine. Go ahead, I don´t want you to be late."

"Okay, see ya."

Dane left and Jo walked out into the bathroom, cursing silently every time her aching body cried out in complaint. She put both her hands on the sink and leaned heavily against the wall, resting her throbbing head on the cold tiles. After a few deep breaths and a bit of cold water in her face, she felt comparatively better and raised her head to look into the mirror.

The usual intense blue eyes stared back at her and except from the fact that her tanned skin was much paler than usual and that her shoulder length hair was a mess, she didn´t look any different, but then again, she hadn´t been hit in the face.

She took a step back and gingerly pulled up her t-shirt to get a look at her chest and stomach. She grimaced when she saw the complex pattern of black, blue and even yellow bruises covering most of her torso, and as she looked down, most of her thighs as well,

Jesus! It seems like someone was really trigger happy last night.

She sighed and suddenly remembering the time, she quickly finished washing and walked to the dresser beside her bed which contained her clothes. She picked a shirt in the usual grey-greenish colour which seemed to be the only material people around here deemed acceptable, and a pair of camouflage trousers worn thin at the knees. Without looking in a mirror she let a brush run through her thick black hair and just as she was about to leave, she noticed her watch lying on the floor under her bed. She looked at the time.

6:58am. Great, I´ll just make it. Won´t do to keep Vivien waiting.

Pleased that she had found the watch, Pilot had given it to her on her eighteen birthday three months ago, her only possession that was worth anything, she left the small house she shared with Basil and Dane and walked outside.

***************
 
 

Jo squinted against the early morning sun and stretched, almost believing she could hear all her bones creaking.

"Hi, Jo."

Jo´s arms immediately fell down and she turned to look at a quite beautiful brunette standing next to a young blond girl. "Hey, Christa," Jo smiled nervously before nodding briefly to the blonde. "Mickey."

"I heard you were hit pretty bad last night," the blond girl said, her brilliant green eyes lingering for a moment on Jo´s face. "Bruno told us Pilot carried you all the way back from the catacombs."

"Yeah, well," Jo glanced at the girl standing beside Mickey, but Christa was looking at something behind her and wasn´t paying any attention. "It was my own fault. I shouldn´t have-."

Before she could finish the sentence, Christa grabbed Mickey´s arm, "We gotta hurry, I just saw Vivien go inside."

"Oh shit!" Jo and Mickey exclaimed simultaneously and the three of them started running across the compound toward the grey concrete building placed beside the barracks where the younger children in the camp lived.

The camp situated in the midst of a dense and hostile forest was called Vega 3 and was one of the largest in the Organisation. It was home to more than four hundred adults and children, and almost every third or fourth month refugees from the slums or the Reuma factories would arrive together with the border guards, before they would either travel on to another, lower profile camp, or if they had any military training or skill, they would stay at Vega 3 and be integrated into the community.

Children in V3 lived with their parents until they turned fifteen where after they moved into small houses divided up into sections with five rooms, each fit to house three or four teenagers and there they´d stay until they had either married, turned twenty-five or in some way earned the right to have a place of their own.

The many orphaned children lived in barracks till they too were old enough to move into a shared house.

Of all the children in Jo´s class, Omicron I, only Basil had experienced how it was to live in one of the family houses, the rest had all spent their childhood in the barracks. Basil had joined them shortly after his thirteenth birthday when his father had left on a mission and never returned.

That night in the barrack was the first time Jo had ever seen the strong and muscular boy cry. Jo had been sleeping in the bed next to his, and the nine year old girl had been at a loss as what to do when she was woken up by the sound of his muffled sobbing, When Basil had realized she was awake, he had instantly stiffened and stared at her with big, teary grey eyes. "It´s okay," Jo had whispered. "I won´t tell." And ever since, the strong, heavyset boy and the slender young girl had been the best of friends.

They made an odd couple, but didn´t care and later when Jo became old enough to move into a house, Basil managed to get himself transferred to the same room together with Dane, a rather frail, but very intelligent kid who worshipped the ground on which Basil, and soon also Jo, stood. Although Dane was only a year younger than Jo, she regarded him as somewhat of a younger brother who needed protection and guidance, which of course didn´t stop either her or Basil from teasing him mercilessly sometimes, but God help anybody else who tried to take a shot at the blond boy, and they would experience why exactly it was that Basil had gotten the highest grades in wrestling and Jo in martial arts.

The children in V3 were divided into three categories, III which was for the 5-10 years-old, II which was for the 10-15 years-old and I which was for those from 15 and up. Each new class was given a letter from the Greek alphabet which followed them all the way through the system. That way it was easier to keep track of the different classes without having to write too much down, something the Organisation always avoided if possible.

As Jo, Christa and Mickey reached the house used as a school, the last children from Rho III where just leaving, and a small freckled boy stuck out his tongue when he walked past them.

"Ha, Vivien´s in there and she´s really pissed!" He looked back at them gleefully, "You´re in sooo much trouble!"

They ignored him, it was one of the kids from the family houses and they were always too cocky for their own good, and stepped inside the classroom.

***************
 
 

Twenty-five pairs of eyes turned to the doorway and Christa paused briefly, giving the class one of her most charming smiles before walking over to take her seat. Mickey followed and took the seat beside her while Jo let her eyes search the room for an available chair. The only vacant seat was the one closest to the huge blackboard covering the entire wall next to the door.

Great, just great. There´s no way, I´ll be able to hide there, Jo complained inwardly, but as she made her way over to the chair, she realized that it probably didn´t matter where she sat. Vivien was leaning against the wall at the back of the room with her arms crossed, her eyes never leaving Jo. The tall girl sat down and stared straight ahead, trying to ignore the eyes at her back. Silence fell as everybody waited for the redheaded woman to make her move.

Minutes ticked by with nothing happening and soon a few impatient whispers where heard around the room, and a few stolen glances were thrown back at the instructor who still hadn´t moved. Dane leaned towards Jo and whispered quietly, "Maybe she´s just waiting for Pilot and then she´ll lea-."

"Silence!"

Vivien´s sharp voice cut through Dane´s words and he immediately straightened up, his gaze shifting to the blackboard. Jo let out a low breath as she heard the instructor move away from the wall, and walk up the aisle between the two rows of chairs.

As Vivien reached the blackboard she turned around and without looking at Jo spoke in a firm and detached tone, "I´m pleased to inform you that of the ten people who went through the catacomb exercise yesterday, nine of them made it." She paused briefly, giving the cadets time to absorb her words. "However," she emphasized in a slightly higher tone, "one of them did not only fail to complete the exercise, she also disregarded every single thing Pilot and I have been trying to teach you these last couple of months."

For the first time, Vivien looked at Jo and cold green eyes met blue a second before Jo´s gaze darted away.

"338-O5?" Jo looked up as her serial number was mentioned. "I want you to come up here."

Jo hesitated, not sure if she had understood correctly.

"Jo…" Vivien´s voice was neither lower or higher than it had been before, but still Jo knew she better stand. She rose from the chair and walked up to stand beside the instructor.

"Take off your shirt."

"What?" She stared at Vivien in disbelief. "What do you mean?"

The redhead´s face remained impassive, "Which part didn´t you understand, Jo? I want you to take off your shirt."

"But why?" She protested weakly. "I don´t see-."

"Now!"

The entire class held its breath as Jo´s jaw clenched and blue eyes narrowed drastically, then without a word the dark cadet unbuttoned the shirt and let it fall to the floor.

"Your t-shirt and whatever clothing you have on underneath."

A few gasps were heard at the last command and Mickey looked imploringly at Dane who avoided her eyes.

"Look," the blond girl spoke, her voice sounding so much louder due to the stillness of the room. "I´m sure this isn´t necessa-."

"334-O7, did I tell you to speak?" Vivien´s voice was low and controlled.

"No but-."

"So shut up or I´ll make do two hundred push-ups right here in the class."

Mickey stared at the instructor defiantly, but before she could decide whether to reply, she caught Jo´s eyes and saw the dark-haired girl shake her head lightly, then Jo pulled the t-shirt and a torn tank top over her head and let them fall to the floor next to the shirt.

A faint blush showed on Jo´s cheeks as she tried to ignore the eyes staring at her, some of them more openly than others. She noticed that Basil was having at hard time looking away and she had to stop herself from covering herself with her arms. Dane was staring intensely down at his desk whereas the rest of the boys and several of the girls were looking directly at her, some of them blushing as well. She tried not to glance at Christa, but her gaze found its way to the brunette anyway and Jo´s face turned even redder when she noticed the appreciative look in the brown eyes. Her eyes darted away and came to rest on Mickey and the blonde gave her a sad little smile, before turning her eyes to Vivien who had started to speak again.

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you look when you´ve been hit by one hundred and thirty-seven rubber bullets." Several of the cadets grimaced by the thought. "Can any of you tell me, what would´ve happened if that had been real bullets?"

Not knowing if it was a rhetorical question, the class remained silent until a raised eyebrow from the instructor told them she wanted an answer.

"Yes, Bruno?"

"She would have been dead, ma´am," the black-haired boy answered readily, his eyes still focused on Jo´s upper torso.

"Exactly," Vivien replied. "Now," she walked over to stand at Jo´s other side. "Who can tell me how many of these hits would have been lethal thus killing cadet 338-O5 instantly?"

Jo bit her lip and closed her eyes. She could practically feel their eyes on her body, categorizing the width and the location of the bruises.

"Yes?"

"Seventeen, ma´am" She heard Christa answer, "and another twenty-two would have killed her within the next few minutes."

"Excellent." Jo could her the praise in the instructor´s voice and she clenched her hands, trying to remember the things Pilot had told her about calming one´s breathing and focusing on a single thing when faced with a difficult situation. However, it didn´t work and Jo was pretty sure, Pilot had pictured a situation where she´d be facing one of the Council´s clean out teams rather than a class of gawking teenagers.

I´d take the clean out team any day.

The dark-haired girl sighed quietly as she vaguely heard Vivien going over all the mistakes the cadets, and especially Jo, had committed last night. It was going to be a long day.

***************
 



 
 

Chapter Two
 
 

"I´m sorry about that."

Jo looked up as Dane sat down on the bench beside her, placing his tray with food on the long table.

"Why? It wasn´t your fault."

"I know, but…" He shrugged, "I´m still sorry."

"Don´t be." Jo stuffed a piece of bread into her mouth and tried to appear nonchalant as she let her eyes roam the mess hall. Although, she knew it couldn´t be, it felt like every single person in there, from the youngest child to the oldest soldier were staring at her, grinning knowingly. Her view was suddenly obscured by a short muscular body as Basil slumped down on the opposite bench, his eyes carefully avoiding Jo´s.

"Basil?"

He looked at her reluctantly.

"What´s a bit of nudity between friends?"

He smiled and blushed a little then to change the subject, leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially, "Let´s get back at her."

"Vivien?" Jo shook her head. "I don´t think so. I don´t need more trouble from her, she´s always hated me." She shrugged, "It´s okay, I´m used to it."

Dane and Basil exchanged a glance. It was true. For some reason ever since Jo had arrived at V3, the redheaded instructor had taken a strong dislike to the tall girl, and had on more than one occasion gone out of her way to make things difficult for her. Jo had never bothered to ask Vivien why she disliked her so much, but simply accepted it and tried to stay out of the instructor´s face as much as possible. It wasn´t like she gave a damn anyway, although she´d have to admit that she´d wish Christa hadn´t been there to see it.

But then again, Christa didn´t seem to…mind. Maybe…

As on cue, the brunette stepped into the mess hall followed by Mickey. They went over to the table with the trays and then joined the line of people waiting to be served. Jo absently chewed on another piece of bread as her eyes took in the sight of the slim, athletic body moving forward in the line, Christa constantly delivering smiles and small touches to the people stopping to talk to her, and not for the first time Jo wished she was a little better at…the social stuff.

"Earth to Jo? Are you there?"

Jo slapped the hand Dane had been waving in front of her face away and cursed silently as she felt a blush rise to her cheeks. Her two friends grinned knowingly. They could both read Jo like an open book and that she´d had a crush on the pretty brunette for almost a year was no secret to them, and usually they behaved, but sometimes it was just too tempting to tease her about it.

"Well now, " Basil spoke in a smug, and after Jo´s opinion, much too loud voice, "I do believe that something good might have come out of this after all. If I remember correctly, I seem to recall that a certain pretty chick, and of course I´m not going to mention any names."

"Of course," Dane added with a smirk.

"That this girl," Basil continued. "Who shall remain nameless was rather taken by the physical…uh qualities of a certain friend of ours. Maybe finally something will happen after all this time of silent-."

"Shut up!" Jo kicked out after Basil´s legs under the table, but the redhead had anticipated the move and his legs where nowhere within her reach.

"It´s not funny, guys," she said menacingly, but couldn´t quite keep a smile from tugging at the corner of her mouth. "And to your information, I couldn´t care less whether a certain pretty chick was interested in-."

The look on Basil´s face caused her to stop and she turned around to see Christa and Mickey standing behind her.

"Is this seat taken?" Christa gestured to the vacant seat beside Jo and the dark-haired girl shook her head while moving closer to Dane to give the brunette some more room. Mickey moved around the table and sat down beside Basil before raising gentle green eyes to look at Jo.

"I´ve told Pilot about it. He promised he´d talk to Vivien."

Jo grimaced uncomfortably, "You shouldn´t have done that, Mickey. I don´t need you to fight my battles, I can handle Vivien just fine on my own."

"I told you so." Christa said as she casually brushed Jo´s arm while reacing out to get the salt. "I told you, Jo wouldn´t want you to interfere."

The blonde glanced briefly at her friend, then looked back to Jo. "I just wanted to help. There was no need for Vivien to treat you the way she did."

"I can deal with Vivien. I don´t need your help!" The words came out harsher than she´d intended and for the briefest of seconds, Jo thought she detected a sign of hurt in Mickey´s eyes, then it was gone.

"I´m sorry, Jo," she spoke quietly. "It won´t happen again."

For a moment an uncomfortable silence lingered in the air, then Basil cleared his throat, "So… Is anybody doing the rock climbing exercise this afternoon? I hear the winner gets twenty points."

***************
 
 

Jo tightened the harness around her chest and between her legs, then pulled on the ropes, testing their strength. She had no intention of falling one hundred meters to a certain death just because her equipment wasn´t functional.

She sighed as she looked up at the tall, black, practically vertical cliff hovering over her. It was an all too common problem within the Organisation. All their equipment, whether it was weapons, vehicles or just basic data machines were ancient leftovers from the Realm, most of it bought on the black market in Neo Roma, and that more than anything, Jo suspected, was the reason why the Council was always one step ahead of the Organisation.

No matter how many Reuma shipments they stole, or how many factories they destroyed, they would never have enough money to buy the necessary equipment to throw over the Council´s rule. No, Jo had quickly learned during her first years in V3 that sheer force wasn´t enough to survive, it took brains as well. Something that the old leaders of the Organisation had been far too slow to realize, but now… Jo smiled to herself, her eyes staring right through the cliff before her.

Now things were different. Iris Messina´s faction had finally gained the upper hand and made the charismatic and proud woman the new leader, and Jo was certain that one day the soldier would lead their army to victory. The black-haired girl´s eyes took on a faraway expression. She would very much like to be part of that army.

"Hey, Jo?" Jo´s thoughts were interrupted by Christa who had come to stand beside her, a small, inviting smile on her lips. "Could you help me get this on?"

Leaning against a tree, hands casually in his pockets was Pilot. He had a clear view of the cadets standing at the foot of the cliff, preparing themselves for the climb, but even if the young people had known he was there, they wouldn´t have been able to find the big, bearded man hiding in the shadows. Nobody spotted Pilot if he didnt´want to be found. His camouflage shirt was straining around his biceps and chest, but it was the largest size available, and Pilot didn´t really mind. He knew from experience that a lot of women found his tight clothes somewhat…appealing. He grinned to himself, then pushed the thought away. He was here to observe his students, not daydream.

Grey, piercing eyes took in the sight of each of the persons out there. Silently contemplating their behaviour, skill and attitude. The third and second last evaluation of the year was coming up fast, and he still hadn´t made up his mind which of the cadets would be among the lucky ten to undergo Special Intensive Training, and then one day, if they proved worthy or… He bit his lip ruefully, if they were still alive, they would belong to the Organisation´s Command Corps, the unit everybody both admired and feared. The unit everybody wanted to be a part of.

A low chuckle escaped his throat and interrupted his brooding thoughts as he watched Basil grab Dane and lift the slim boy over his head, both of them grinning wildly. The blond boy was struggling violently and the redhead soon lost his balance and they both crashed to the ground. Pilot noted approvingly that Basil made sure he took most of the impact, twisting his body around to protect Dane from the hard and stony ground.

The muscular boy soon had the smaller one pinned beneath him and started to tickle him mercilessly. A small circle of laughing teens gathered around them, and for a second the instructor allowed himself to savour the sight of the kids enjoying themselves without a care in the world, and unconsciously he clenched his hands into fists.

That was what made all the suffering and pain worth it. That was what he was fighting for. Every time he thought he couldn´t take it anymore, he thought about the sparkling eyes of his young niece and compared it to the empty and lifeless stares of the Reuma victims and the haunted looks on the faces of the refugees from Lyonne and Berlin. These kids, not just the ones before him, but the kids in every camp, in every factory and those living in the Slums. They made it all worth it. The Organisation would prevail… It had to.

"Why don´t you try someone on your own size?"

Pilot recognized the low drawling voice and smiled involuntarily as Jo playfully tackled Basil away from Dane, and the two cadets started to roll around on the ground, both trying to pin the other.

Ah, Jo…

The smile remained on the instructor´s face as he listened to the cheering cries of the teenagers.

Jo was his pride and joy. She had barely been alive when she first arrived at V3, all skin and bones and those wonderful blue eyes had been cautious and wild, almost like an animal. But with care and patience, lots of patience, Pilot had managed to reach the girl and had made it his personal responsibility to turn the frightened child into to a strong and capable young woman.

It hadn´t been easy. Especially during her early teens when Jo had been taller than most of the boys without the bulk to accommodate it, the shy lanky girl had been so unsure of herself that it had pained Pilot to see it. The two of them had spent endless hours in the gym and on the practice field, building up Jo´s muscles and co-ordinating her movements to make all her body parts move with each other and not against each other.

And it had helped. It had cost a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears, hateful words and hurting retorts, but neither had given up and now, looking at the dark and beautiful cadet as she swiftly avoided being caught in a wrestler´s hold by Basil, the instructor knew that that too, had been worth all the time and effort. Jo´s body was as lethal and efficient as a weapon, hell, it was a weapon. A weapon Pilot himself had moulded and perfected over the years, and if strength, speed and brains were all that mattered, Jo would be sure to be picked for SIT, but it took more than that.

She now had the muscles to go with her height and when they went through the material arts drills, she was one of the most graceful sights he had ever seen, but she still lacked one thing and he didn´t know what to do about it. How did you teach someone confidence? How did you teach someone self-assurance?

Oh sure, Jo had every faith in her abilities as a fighter and as an athlete. She was good and she knew it, but when it came to other aspects she was less confident. If she were ever to rise in the ranks within the Organisation, she´d have to work undercover sooner or later, and for that she needed to be fully in control and have her wits about her all the time, and right now she could still be reduced to stutters when a certain brunette smiled at her.

He could still remember the almost painful self-conscious blush on her cheeks, the first and last time, he´d ever complimented her on her beauty. She simply hadn´t known what to do with herself and to save her further embarrassment, Pilot hadn´t mentioned it again.

He´d suspected she was still too young to appreciate a compliment, but even now, eighteen years old, Jo didn´t seem to handle that kind of attention much better, and still turned quiet and guarded whenever she found herself in a situation she wasn´t sure how to handle.

"Gotcha!" The object of the instructor´s thoughts suddenly cried out in triumph as she pressed Basil facedown in the ground, his arms painfully caught behind him. The redhead was so much stronger than Jo, but her speed and endurance had bested his strength just as Pilot knew they would.

"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Basil complained good-humouredly. "I give up, Jo! I give up. Let go of my arms!"

Smirking, the dark-haired cadet released her friend and extended a hand to help him to his feet. They dusted each other off and as Christa complimented Jo on her victory, the instructor saw the well-known blush grace Jo´s cheeks, and he shook his head, suppressing a smile. Then he stepped out from his hideout among the trees.

"Okay, people! We´ve got some climbing to do!"

***************
 
 

Mickey pressed her fingers into the small crevice and used her free hand to removed a lock of blond hair from her eyes.

Damn, how I hate rock climbing!

She glanced down briefly.

Damn, damn! How I hate rock climbing!

Her arms were aching and her fingers felt like they were about to fall off. Her t-shirt was drenched with sweat and her shoes kept slipping on the sleek surface. Pilot had said they could either go alone or pair up two and two, and right now Mickey wished she´d taken Bruno up on his offer. She wasn´t sure how much longer she could do this. It wasn´t so much the strength it required, although that was hard enough in itself, it was more the fact that Mickey had always considered herself a person who very much preferred to have both feet solidly planted on the ground.

A nice even, flat ground.

She rested her cheek against the coarse surface for a moment, then looked up. Christa was climbing a couple of meters further up, apparently engaged into some kind of conversation with Jo who was dividing her attention between the brunette and Dane, who was climbing right below her. Further up she saw that Basil had almost reached the top closely followed by Bruno who was obviously trying to beat the redhead to it. Several other cadets were spread out all over the steep cliff, some of them literally hanging onto the rock with their nails while others had given up and were slowly easing themselves down.

At least we got ropes.

Mickey strained to reach a small overhang she´d spotted. When the final exams arrived, they were supposed to this without any safety measures. She felt her fingers connect, tested her hold and then managed to climb up another feet.

Every year cadets were killed during the final exams.

She studied the distance to the next available crevice and sighed, she was stuck. She´d chosen the wrong route and knew it wouldn´t look good in her evaluation if she was forced to give up, particularly since she hadn´t been able to complete the exercise the last time either. She was doing fine in most of the other events, but was aware that her results still weren´t good enough to get her into SIT.

Maybe it´s time I think of something else.


She looked up at Christa again and felt a stab of annoyance. If only her supposedly best friend wasn´t so damn busy flirting with Jo, she´d might notice that she could use a little help.

"Mickey!"

She swallowed then looked down at Pilot who was standing at the foot of the cliff, barely visible in the fading light and the looming shadows from the trees behind him. She swallowed again. From that height even the huge instructor seemed small. "Yeah?"

"If you don´t move up another meter within the next two minutes you´ll have exceeded your time limit."

You don´t say, the blonde scowled inwardly, but managed to keep her voice even, "I know."

"There´s a small ledge to your right."

Mickey raised her head to see Jo look down at her. "Where? I can´t see it."

"It´s…" Jo paused as she tightened her hold on the cliff with her left hand, before pointing to a spot a couple of feet above Mickey´s head with her right. "There. If you move a little to your right, you should be able to reach it."

"Where?" Mickey answered, frustration and hopelessness evident in her voice. "I can´t see a fucking thing from here!"

"It´s…hold on a sec."

Mickey watched Jo push herself away from the cliff, muscles rippling under bronze skin as she lowered herself down until she was level with Dane. They exchanged a few words, then the blond boy nodded and they swiftly changed places so Dane was now climbing ahead of Jo. The dark cadet lingered for a moment behind him, watching him climb then she lowered herself until she was only a meter or two above Mickey.

"There. You can see the rock´s a little darker that place."

"One minute, Mickey!"

They both looked down at Pilot who was helping a girl who´d climbed back down out of the harness. He gave the disappointed girl a pat on the shoulder then looked up at the two cadets again. "And you, Jo. You don´t have all the time in the world either. Perhaps you should just give up."

A sudden determined look showed on the dark-haired girl´s face and Pilot hid a smile. Sometimes, Jo was almost too easy.

"You see it?" Jo´s eyes met Mickey´s and the blonde nodded.

"Yes, but I can´t reach it. I´m not as tall as you, remember?" She sighed and resigned herself to her fate, "Maybe I should just call it a day, I don´t want you to exceed your time on my behalf."

Jo stared at her for a moment then she looked up, then back at Mickey. Without a word she lowered herself down until she was right next to the blonde.

"Climb onto my back."

"What?"

"Climb onto my back. I´ll get up you to where it´s easier."

Mickey stared at Jo in disbelief. "You gotta be kidding:" She eyed the distance to the top. "I´m too heavy for you."

Piercing blue eyes ran slowly over Mickey´s body and the blond girl was grateful for the rapidly gaining darkness that hid her blush.

"Thirty seconds, Mickey!"

The cadets hardly gave the instructor a second glance and continued to stared at each other.

"You just let me worry about your weight, okay?" Jo then spoke arching an eyebrow, but Mickey still hesitated. "Come on, we don´t got all day."

Mickey shook her head, "Okay, if you´re sure…" She let the words falter as she reached out to put an arm around Jo.

"Not so close to my neck. I´d like to be able to breathe."

"Oh, sorry." She removed her hand to a more acceptable distance, took a deep breath then let go of the crevice with the other, only to feel Jo guide it around her ribcage.

"Hold on tight," the dark-haired girl spoke between gritted teeth as she started to slowly climb back up.

Oh, I am. I am.

Mickey closed her eyes, trying not to think about the hard and hostile ground beneath them. She knew the ropes would hold them if they should fall, but still…

Man, I don´t like heights.

She felt how Jo stretched out her body and heard her grunt with satisfaction the moment she got a hold on the ledge.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," Jo answered breathlessly. "You just keep hanging."

"Oh, I´m not going anywhere."

For a moment, Mickey thought she heard the dark cadet chuckle, then it faded. Still with her eyes closed, Mickey rested her head against Jo´s damp t-shirt, inhaling a mixture of sweat, cotton and something she couldn´t quite define, but no matter what it was, she found that it wasn´t uncomfortable at all, it was actually...

She shook her head lightly to clear her thoughts and sighed quietly. Her arms were numb from the effort of holding onto Jo, but she was determined that if Jo was capable of climbing with her on her back, then she would be damned if she wasn´t capable of hanging on. She tried to relax without loosening her grip, concentrating on the feel of Jo´s muscles moving against her cheek every time the cadet reached up for another crevice, another ledge.

As she adjusted her hold again, she felt her right hand brush Jo´s breast.

"Uh, sorry."

"S´okay," was the rasped reply, but Mickey still felt the heat rise to her cheeks and she was surprised by the sudden dryness in her mouth.

"We´re…almost…there."

The blonde looked up and noticed they were indeed close to the top. "Jo, you only had to help me to somewhe-."

"I thought," Jo interrupted before Mickey could continue her objections, "that I…might as well…" She didn´t finish the sentence, deciding that saving her breath for the last meters was more important than arguing with Mickey.

"I really think that-."

"Mickey!" The dark cadet gasped. "Will you just shut up, okay? There´s…nothing wrong with…ungh…accepting a helping hand…once in a…while."

The blonde heard the words clearly and was silent for a minute of two before speaking, "That goes either way, Jo…"

For a few moment only Jo´s laboured breathing was heard then so low that Mickey almost didn´t hear the words, the dark-haired girl answered, "I´ll remember that."

And then they´d reached the top.

***************
 
 

Chapter Three
 
 

The darkness of night had arrived hours ago, bathing Vega 3 in blackness. Only a few faint glimpses of light were seen shining through the thick and heavy curtains, designed to absorb as much light as possible. It was unlikely that the Council would sent out a team to a camp placed so deep into a forest, but it never hurt to be cautious. It had saved lives before.

The compound was deserted and silenced ruled, faintly accompanied by the steady singing of cicadas and the occasionally sound of a gently closing door. Then suddenly, three shadows slowly edged their way along the back wall of the children´s barracks.

"Why was it again, I agreed to do this?"

"Shhh!" Came the answering hiss from the two young men on either side of Jo.

"It´s because you want to get back at Vivien," Dane then supplied helpfully from behind her, turning his head a little to look back at the small cluster of houses they´d come from.

"Oh, that´s why."

"Shhh!"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah…"

They dropped to their knees and continued around a corner, crawling under the windows and freezing every time they heard voices on the other side of the wall.

"I thought they were supposed to be sleeping now," Basil muttered to himself. "When we stayed there it was lights out at nine and straight to bed."

"Hm," Jo chuckled quietly. "I don´t think we recall the same childhood, Basil."

"Yeah well," Basil answered noncommittally. "That may be… We´re here."

The rose to their feet and leaned against the back of the barrack, straining to see through the darkness. About forty meters ahead of them, past a wide open area where most of the grass had been reduced to hard earth due to the heavy traffic of hundreds of feet day after day, were the houses that accommodated the instructors and the soldiers.

"You got the stink bomb?" Basil asked over his shoulder and Dane grinned and patted his bulging jacket pocket.

"Yup."

"Okay, let´s get to it."

They glanced at the nearest guard tower then all three of them sprinted over the ground, covering the distance to the houses in no time.

"You know," Jo whispered as they sank down against the wall of the first house waiting to catch their breaths. "Vivien won´t have any difficulties in figuring out who did it."

"I know," Basil raised his head and grey mischievous eyes looked at her. "Does it matter?"

Jo shook her head good-naturedly and grinned a little. "Nah, guess not. I might as well get punished for something I´ve actually done instead of something I haven´t."

"That´s the right attitude, cadet," the redhead answered absently as he slowly got to his feet and peeked over the window sill. A tiny light was shining out into the darkness where the curtains hadn´t been closed completely, and Basil tilted his head, trying to make out what was going on inside the room.

"I can see her."

"Oh," Jo started to get up, but was pushed down again.

"Wait, it´s not your turn yet."

"Voyeur," she grumbled quietly and got an answering grin from Dane who´d removed the small hand grenade looking device from his pocket, and was tossing it casually from hand to hand.

"She´s sitting on the bed," Basil observed in a whisper and the two other rolled their eyes. How exciting. "I think, she might be talking to somebody, or maybe she´s just gone totally wacko."

Jo scratched her cheek. That statement sounded quite likely to her.

"Wait, I… I…yes, she´s talking to somebody. I can see his shadow." He turned his head and looked down at his impatient friends, "Maybe, she´s got some…company…if you know what I mean?" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, causing Dane to make a soundless, but good imitation of throwing up.

"That´s enough," Jo whispered firmly. "Let´s just get this baby inside and get out of here."

"Oh, all right. The other window´s open, we should be able to squeeze it through there. Jo, let us know if she moves. Dane?"

The two boys edged their way further along the house while Jo remained at the window. She slowly straightened up and squinted against the light for a few seconds before her eyes adjusted to the difference, and she was able to see inside.

The room was sparsely furnished with just the basic necessities and reminded Jo of all the other rooms, she´d seen in camp. The redhead was sitting on her bed with her back to the window dressed in her usual grey uniform. She was apparently engaged in some kind of animated discussion with the other unseen occupant of the room, and no matter how much Jo tried, the tiny space between the curtains didn´t allow her to see more of the room. Then suddenly Vivien raised her hands as if ending the discussion and rose from the bed. Blue eyes widened as the instructor slowly began to unbutton her shirt, her entire body swaying seductively.

What the…?

She tried to see past the undressing woman and focus on the opposite window.

You gotta be kidding!

Both Dane´s and Basil´s eyes were locked on the instructor, their mouths hanging slightly open and clearly the stink bomb had been totally forgotten. As Vivien´s bra fell to the floor, Jo was certain she saw them both swallow and she closed her own eyes.

I wonder if I´ll go blind from this.

She hesitantly opened one eye and peered back inside. If wasn´t that the instructor wasn´t a beautiful woman, she was. Just the way fine muscles moved and flexed under pale skin was enough to get anyone´s attention, but… Jo grimaced.

It´s Vivien for crying out loud! This is gross…

She contemplated going over and tear her friends away from the window, when a movement inside the room caught her eye. A man suddenly appeared in Jo´s field of vision and the by now naked woman opened her arms to embrace him. Jo´s jaw hit the ground as her brain slowly registered the person carrying Vivien to the bed, and gently placing her on the covers.

Pilot…?

She closed her eyes abruptly as the muscular man started to kiss the woman beneath him.

Pilot and…

Pilot and… Vivien?

Without really thinking, she ran around the corner and pulled the grenade out of Dane´s hands.

"Jo? Jo, what are you doing? You can´t throw it in now, not when Pilot´s there."

She ignored her friend´s protests and swiftly removed the pin.

"Jo!"

Basil and Dane stared at her in confusion, but she just grinned devilishly, counted to three and with a small tilt of her wrist, dropped the grenade inside. Seconds later a thick smoke together with a foul smell filled the room. Disregarding the boys nonplussed expressions and the shouts inside, Jo made her way back to their room.

***************
 
 

"I can´t believe you did that," Dane said quietly as he exited the bathroom. "You know that smoke´s pretty nasty." He glanced at Jo who was lying on her back in her bed, hands behind her head, staring at the ceiling. "Pilot´s eyes will be itching for days."

"That´s his own damn fault."

"What?"

"Nothing, just switch off the lights."

Dane sighed and did as the girl asked. Their beds were placed side by side with only a few feet between them, and he hand no problems hearing Jo´s quiet breathing on his right, and Basil´s badly muffled laughter on his left.

"Shot up, Basil!"

"Ah, come on, Jo." The bed creaked under the heavy weight as the redhead sat up. "You gotta admit that was quite a show Vivien put on. Who should´ve thought…" He grinned again. "And I who thought the only thing that turned her on was a well executed attack."

Jo smiled in spite of herself, "It´s not funny, Basil. I don´t think I´ll be able to sleep tonight with those images branded-."

"Well, it could´ve been worse," Dane interrupted, sensing that Jo´s mood was improving. "We could´ve gotten there later."

"Dane!"

They continued to talk quietly for the next couple of minutes, then Basil´s slow and regular breathing indicated that he´d fallen asleep. Dane rolled onto his side and looked at Jo who was almost hidden under the covers.

"You okay?"

"Why wouldn´t I be?" Came the low reply. "It´s not like I´m his wife or anything."

"I know," Dane continued. "It´s just that…well, I thought you might have some difficulties with it, I mean, Pilot´s always been there for you… More than he has for anybody else and Vivien´s always be after you, so I thought…" he trailed off, not really certain of what he wanted to say.

There was silence for a long time then Jo turned around to face him.

"Maybe he was bribing her to be nicer to me?"

They both grinned at that.

"What a sacrifice that would be," she added thoughtfully.

"Oh, I don´t know about that," Dane smiled. " I wouldn´t mind-."

"Dane!"

"Sorry."

Silence then.

"Goodnight, Jo."

"Night."

Christa smiles invitingly and opens up her arms as she approaches. "Hey, Jo. I´ve been waiting for you."

Jo smiles in return, "I know."

The brunette reaches out and takes her hand, leading her to the conveniently placed bed. She sits down and pulls Jo down beside her. Jo vaguely notices the candles surrounding the bed and the sweet, exotic scent in the air before Christa takes a bronze hand in hers and brings it to her lips. She slowly runs her tongue down the length of Jo´s fingers a few times then she looks up, her brown eyes dark with desire.

"Touch me, Jo."

Without hesitation she leans forward and captures Christa´s lips with her own. As their tongues begin to battle and explore, the brunette is pushed back down on the bed. Christa moans softly into Jo´s mouth when she feels warm, calloused hands going under her shirt, reaching for her breasts. The hands make contact with the smooth, sensitive flesh and they both moan in unison. Jo breaks away from their kiss to look into Christa´s eyes.

The eyes are glassy and still. Dead. The tiny vessels in the eyeballs have ruptured and blood are obscuring the white.

"Christa?"

Jo scrambles off the bed and away from the reclining girl.

"Christa…?"

But it isn´t Christa anymore and she shrinks further away as the room and the bed disappears and are replaced with a dark and damp alley. Tall skyscrapers are towering over her, obstructing the view of the stars and the black sky. Sirens penetrate the night and Jo instinctively seeks cover in the shadows. Her heart is pounding in her chest as she looks around, inhaling the familiar smell of garbage, smoke and human waste.

Neo Roma, I´m back in Neo Roma. The Slums…

She returns her eyes to the slumped figure on the ground next to a brick wall, half hidden behind a couple of cardboard boxes.

"Jo…" A weak and hoarse voice whispers. "Please Jo, I need my pills."

Jo steps closer, pauses for a second then kneels down in the dirt beside the woman. Suddenly, a hand shoots out and grasps her wrist in a vice like grip. Mad, desperate eyes stares at her out of the darkness.

"My pills, Jo! I need my pills!"

"Let go, you´re hurting me!" Jo screams, but she can´t even hear her own voice. "I don´t got your pills! They wouldn´t give me any."

Immediately the grip on her wrist loosens and the woman falls back against the wall. The eyes close. Jo leans forward, tentatively reaching out to touch a grey and cold cheek.

"Mum…?"

Jo´s eyes snapped open and she stared disorientated at the peacefully sleeping boy lying on the bed beside hers. She didn´t dare close her eyes again right away, and used the next couple of minutes to get her breathing under control. The clock on Dane´s bedside desk read 3 am and with a sigh she turned around and rested her forehead against the cool wall. It was going to be another long night.

***************
 
 

The practice field was surrounded by laughing and talking Omicron I cadets waiting for their turn at hand to hand combat with Pilot.

"Okay, Bruno. You´re next!"

A tall young man with a small moustache and already thinning black hair rose confidently from his place on the grass beside Mickey and Christa. He gave the blonde a small wink and flexed his muscles a little. Mickey gave him a polite smile in return and exhaled slowly as he turned around and walked out to meet Pilot. Christa nudged her gently in the ribs with her elbow.

"I think, you´ve gotten an admirer." The blonde glared at her. "Hey, don´t look at me like that. I think he´s kinda cute, that is, if you go for that type."

Green eyes strayed to the action on the field and widened a little as Pilot effortlessly lifted Bruno up over his head and threw him down on the ground. To his credit, Bruno didn´t stay down for long and although he seemed rather dazed, he got to his feet and flung himself at the instructor, only to be floored once again.

Christa shook her head amiably, "Well, he´s got endurance that´s for sure." She gave Mickey a look, "I´m sure that could come in handy at some time."

Mickey couldn´t help but smile at the brunette, "Yeah? Well, if you´re so into him why don´t you go for it? I´m sure he wouldn´t mind."

"Nah," Christa smiled and leaned closer, whispering conspiratorially into her friend´s ear. "I´ve got my eyes set on some one else."

Mickey experienced an unexpected feeling of annoyance and glanced back at the fighting men for a moment. "Oh… And who might that be?"

The brunette smiled broadly, "Well, that´d be Jo of course."

"And does Jo know that?" The words sounded more harsh than Mickey had intended, but her friend didn´t notice. "If she doesn´t," Christa stood up and dusted herself off before looking back down at her friend, "then she will soon."

And with a small parting wave, she walked around the field and without hesitation sat down beside Jo who was sitting next to Dane, both fully engrossed in the activities before them. Soon, however, the brunette had the dark cadet engaged in conversation, and Mickey noticed that her friend managed to touch Jo´s knee at least four times within three minutes.

"Dane?"

The blonde boy looked up when Pilot called his name and after a small supportive pat from Jo, he walked out on the field to face the instructor. Mickey´s gaze darted back to Christa and Jo, but before she´d any time to study them closer, a shadow fell over her and Bruno slumped down on the grass beside her. He was breathing hard and his skin was covered by a light sheen of sweat, but he looked awfully pleased with himself and looked at her expectantly.

"Did you see that?"

Uh, what?

"Yes, yes of course," Mickey said while giving him a smile she hoped was friendly yet reserved. "It was great."

He ran a bruised hand through his damp hair, "So which one of them did you think worked the best?"

Which one what?

"Uh, the…first?"

Bruno smiled, "I thought so too."

She returned his smile a little hesitantly then turned her head away, locking her gaze on Dane and Pilot, hoping Bruno would be discouraged from asking further questions about his technique. She could feel his eyes on her and had a hard time not getting up and excuse herself.

The thought surprised her a little. It wasn´t like it came as a total shock that Bruno was interested in her, and usual she hadn´t minded his more or less elegant attempts to impress her, but know she felt nothing but discomfort and a little annoyance at the whole thing. Subconsciously, her eyes came to rest on Christa who was listening to Jo explaining something, the brown eyes full of innocent admiration.

"Oh, look at her go," Bruno chuckled next to her. "Poor Jo, she´ll never know what hit her."

Mickey straightened up, "I´m sure Jo´s not going to get into anything. Everybody knows how big a flirt Christa is." "Ah, I wouldn´t be so sure about that," the black-haired man commented, still watching Christa at work with open fascination. "Jo´s been having a thing for Christa for quite a while now. Not that I blame her."

He glanced at the blonde to see if his words had cause any reaction on her part, but was disappointed to see that she wasn´t paying attention and was watching Jo instead.

"Not that Jo isn´t quite a catch herself, perhaps too much attitude for my taste, though. I prefer them more…mild-mannered," he tried again, but still there was no reaction from Mickey and he sighed inwardly. Usually, Mickey was a little more responsive, but maybe she was having her period or something. He knew that could make girls behave differently. He decided instead to use her preoccupation with the people across the lawn to study the blonde closely.

She was really pretty, he decided. Beautiful actually. A friendly and honest face, framed by tousled short blonde hair. A cute little nose and pink lips he was just dying to taste. Bruno sighed. And then of course there were her eyes.

Those sparkling green eyes who showed almost any emotion going through her. He sighed again, wondering if he´d have better luck at the small party they were going to have after their evaluation next week.

Oblivious to Bruno´s thoughts, Mickey continued to watch the interaction between Jo and her best friend. A small frown on her face.

***************
 
 

Chapter Four
 
 

"Come in, Jo."

Jo arched a dark eyebrow in surprise, her hand pausing in the air inches away from the door.

How does he do that?

She shrugged and let her hand fall down, reaching for the handle instead. The door opened up to a dimly lit office, the only light being the few rays of sunlight that escaped through the blinds. Pilot was sitting behind a desk with his back to the window and Vivien was leaning against the wall next to the door.

"Sit down." Pilot gestured to the chair in front of the desk and after glancing briefly at Viviven who didn´t seem inclined to move, Jo sat down, folding her hands in her lap. Pilot sighed to himself and opened of one the many folders that occupied practically all the space on the desk.

He flipped through the papers and Jo caught a glimpse of a black and white photo before he placed his hands on the folder, spreading out his fingers. Then he looked up at her. For a few seconds he studied the carefully controlled face in front of him, noting how the rays of the sun seemed to centre on the dark face, causing shadows to shift over the beautifully chiselled features every time Jo moved. Then he glanced at Vivien and then back at the patiently waiting girl.

"Before we start with your evaluating, cadet 338-O5, I´d like to hear what you yourself think the last three months have given you. Whether you have achieved the goals we set out for you at our last meeting, or if there´s something you´re dissatisfied with and want to discuss."

Jo stared at him for about a minute, then she shrugged. Pilot´s expression didn´t change.

"I take it, you have nothing to say?"

"I think my results pretty much speak for themselves, sir," the cadet answered confidently. "I´ve got the highest scores in martial arts, long distance running, hand to hand combat and nobody has beaten me on the shooting range for the last fifteen weeks." She didn´t add that she also had the fastest time on the obstacle course, although she was tempted to with Vivien standing so close behind her.

"I know you excel in all the physical events, 338-O5 and you´re right, your results do speak for themselves, but that wasn´t what we talked about the last time, was it?"

Pilot could see Jo´s jaw clench a little then she shook her head, "No, sir. It wasn´t."

"We´re worried about your academic results, cadet," came Viven´s cold voice from behind. "Even in the most basic subjects, you´re far behind the rest of the class."

The redhead walked around the desk to stand in front of the window, practically blocking out all the light. "At the last evaluation, we agreed that if you didn´t improve your academic results with twenty percent, you would be put on probation."

Jo stared defiantly down at the desk. Probation meant that you had one semester to improve and if you didnt… Well, not only would she be transferred to a lower class, she would also lose all the points she´d gathered, and her chance at getting into SIT would be gone.

"Have you improved your score with twenty percent?"

Jo glared at her then bit down the impulse to say something she knew she´d regret, "No, ma´am. I haven´t."

Green eyes locked onto blue and they stared at each other for a few moments before Vivien straightened up. "Consider yourself on probation, cadet 338-O5." Then she nodded at the silent man behind the desk and left the office, closing the door quietly behind her.

For minutes, nobody spoke and Jo refused to meet Pilot´s gaze. The large man sighed then rose from the chair and stepped around the desk to lean against it a few feet away from Jo.

"Jo?" He reached out and put a hand under her chin, raising her head. Reluctantly she met his gentle grey eyes. "Jo, why do you insist on making it so hard on yourself?"

"I guess, I´m just stupid," she answered sullenly, glancing away.

The instructor cursed inwardly. Apparently, it was going to be one of those conversations.

"Jo… You´re not stupid and don´t give me that petulant act of yours, you´re not a little girl anymore."

That got her attention and she looked directly at him. "I just don´t get it. Why do I have to know all that stuff? It´s not like it´s something I can use against the Council´s soldiers, is it? Or do you think giving them a pop quiz about economic theories and structures of the 20th century in the heat of battle will make them go away?"

The instructor had to look away for a few seconds, hiding a smile. "No, probably not." He looked at her again and was glad to see a softening of her features, although she was doing her best to hide it.

"Okay, I admit that some of the stuff seems useless at the moment, and it´s quite likely that you´ll never have to use it, but, Jo… Some of the things are important. In order to fight the Council, you need to understand it. You need to know its history, how it developed, why it developed and how it gained its power. To do that you´ll have to study history, political theories, sociology and psychology. To anticipate people´s reactions, you have to understand them. To understand them, you´ll have to know them and when you know them…"

He looked at her inquiringly and Jo dutifully completed the sentence she´d heard repeated everyday in class for the last ten years.

"…When you know them, you´ll know how to fight them, defeat them and ultimately destroy them."

Pilot nodded solemnly, "Exactly. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah, I guess," the cadet admitted slowly, "but I still think it´s stupid."

"I know, Jo, but instead of just neglecting your studies because you think it´s senseless, why don´t you consider it a challenge. Something you´ll have to overcome in order to reach your goals."

He smiled at her, "You know, you´re not gonna like all the assignments you´ll be handed in the future so you might as well get used to it."

"What future?" The sullen tone had returned. "I´m on probation, remember?"

"Yes, you are and that´s your own damn fault." He walked back around the desk and with an elegance one wouldn´t have expected from such a heavy man sat down in the chair. "And that´s why I´ve assigned you a tutor."

He immediately raised his hand to forestall the outraged protests he knew would come from the dark-haired girl. "Every day after class and before physical training, you and your tutor will meet and study for two hours, and then another two after dinner." His face became serious, "This is your last chance, Jo. Don´t blow it. You got the rest of the year to improve you score, exactly three months and if you don´t, you´ll be transferred. Is that clear?"

She nodded, "Yes, sir. Perfectly clear."

"Good." He closed the folder then gave the scowling girl a grin. "Come on, it won´t be that bad."

She just stared at him, waiting for permission to leave. He waved his hand, indicating she could go and she rose and walked over to the door.

"Oh, Jo?"

She turned around, "Yeah?"

"See you in the gym later?"

The scowl was replaced by a reluctant smile, "Yeah, if my tutor doesn´t give me too much homework." She paused, her brows furrowed. "Who is it by the way?"

"Oh," Pilot had already opened up the next folder and wasn´t paying much attention. "It´s Mickey. She volunteered."

***************
 
 

The only sound in the room was the sound of a pen rhythmically tapping against the table. After another minute dark grey eyes rose and took their time studying the three other people in the room.

"When?"

Vivien glanced briefly at the small monitor in front of her, "December. Apparently she wants to supervise the exams."

"Why?" Pilot asked wearily and brought up a hand to massage his right temple. "It´s no secret that the Council´s been unusually active lately, even going after the smallest groups and fringe organisations. Why would HQ take a risk like that just so she can come and witness the exams."

"It seems, "Vivien answered without lifting her gaze from the monitor, "that our new Leader has taken a personal interest in the future soldiers of the Organisation. She wants to be there in person, meet the cadets, get to know them or something like that." The redhead shrugged like she didn´t quite understand the concept. "Apparently, she thinks it´s good for the morale."

"It won´t be good for the morale if Iris Messina is captured within five months of her gaining leadership," a painfully thin Asian man commented sarcastically, cracking his knuckles which made him the recipient of several annoyed stares. "HQ knows how dangerous travelling has been lately. The control posts along the main roads have been doubled and the number of the guards increased, and it´s not ordinary patrolmen as usual." He looked around to make sure everybody was paying attention. "They´ve started to post soldiers there instead. Class B soldiers."

"We´re all aware of that, Choi," Pilot answered, eyeing the Asian coldly.

Choi shrugged, returning the instructor´s stare without difficulties and after a few seconds the huge man had to look away.

"There´s no need to get into an argument about this," the last occupant of the room, a dark, tanned man with pitch black hair spoke. "Messina has her heart set on going and it´s up to HQ to make sure she gets here, and then up to us to guaranty her safety while she´s here." He ran a tired hand through his sleek hair, "Is she bringing an escort?"

Vivien shrugged, "The message doesn´t say, but I assume she´ll be bringing at least five CC soldiers, I can´t imagine HQ would let her go without."

"Well, from what I´ve heard, she can be rather self-sufficient and pigheaded and prefers to do things her way," Pilot said slowly, grey eyes absentmindedly staring at the wall. "I mean, that´s how she rose to power in the first place."

They were all silent for a moment. Each of them thinking about the brief, but surprisingly smooth change of leadership which had taken place less than six months ago.

"I still wonder how she did it," Vivien speculated out loud. "I´ll grant that the old leadership was ancient and outdated, but they still had a lot of support from the conservative factions."

"Iris has a way of getting what she wants," Alexandros smiled, subconsciously smoothing a black lock of hair. "You´ll understand that when she gets here."

"Well then," Pilot said after a few minutes of silence. "I´ll see to that safety is increased and is ready when she gets here." He looked at Vivien, "Inform HQ that we´re looking forward to her visit and hope she´ll be pleased with what we have to show."

"Hmph," the redhead snorted. "Now we just have to make sure the cadets are up to their best behaviour."

"Oh," the instructor smiled at no one in particular, "I´m sure they will be."

***************
 
 

"Jo, this would be so much easier if you´d at least try!" Mickey exasperated, doing her best not to let her frustration show. "It´s not like it´s that difficult!"

"That´s easy for you to say," came the terse answer. "This is the fucking most boring thing, I´ve had to do to date!" She dropped the book on the bed and moved back to lean against the wall, crossing her arms over her chest.
 
 

The sight caused the blond girl to smile in spite of the tension in the room, "Somehow, I find that hard to believe." The scowl on the dark cadet´s face softened a little and she shrugged not quite willing to let her anger go. Mickey took a deep breath and picked the book up again, browsing through it until she found the right page. She looked back up into slightly challenging blue eyes and sighed, "Okay, if you get the next couple of answers right, I´ll let you off the hook for today." She glanced at her watch, "That´s twenty-five minutes early, but then you´ll have promise that you finish the next three chapters till tomorrow."

Jo brightened considerably by the prospect of ending the tedious session before time and nodded vigorously, "Sure, I promise."

Mickey eyed her for a moment then nodded as well, "Okay, but you better keep that promise or I´ll get into trouble with Pilot and your next tutor might not be so understanding."

"Deal," the dark-haired girl said simply then closed her eyes, mentally bracing herself for the questioning.

The blonde watched the muscles in Jo´s jaw clench slightly then made herself more comfortable on the cadet´s bed.

"Okay… In which year did the Silent Revolution take place and who was the driving force behind?"

Jo smiled to herself, even she knew that.

"The Silent Revolution started in spring 07 and was considered to be fully accomplished by the end of 11. The main instigator was Jefferson Lingstrom."

"Who…?"

"Who was also the first presiding President of the new Council," Jo continued, a slightly triumph smile playing on her lips. Mickey was unable to stop a smile of her own. It seemed like Jo had been paying attention after all, maybe this wasn´t going to be so bad. "That´s correct." She scanned the page to find a new question. "How many presidents have there been since?"

"Six!"

"No."

A frown, "Seven?"

"Nope. Jo, remember they tend to last for a long time."

Lashes fluttered and blue eyes studied Mickey thoughtfully, "Five?"

"Was that a lucky guess or did you figure it out by yourself?" The blonde asked in a slightly amused tone.

"Well, it wasn´t like there were that many numbers left to choose from," Jo muttered in reply, but nonetheless gave Mickey a satisfied grin before closing her eyes again. "Next."

"When was the first cases of Reuma reported?"

Jo was silent for a few moments before answering, then spoke in a detached and clinical tone like she was reading from a book, "21, Neo Roma. Seven cases were reported. Two years later 675 persons had been infected. By the year 26, Reuma cases were discovered in almost all of the major cities."

She opened her eyes and for a while they regarded each other then Mickey spoke softly, "You´re from Neo Roma, right?" The cadet nodded, emotionless blue eyes searching the face before her. "And you´re from… Lyonne?"

Mickey looked down at the coarse grey blanket on Jo´s bed, her index finger tracing a small tear in the fabric, then she nodded.

"Yeah, I´m from Lyonne."

Jo followed the movement of the blonde´s finger, "I´m sorry…" Her voice was surprisingly gentle and Mickey raised her head to met her gaze.

"It´s okay… It´s a long time ago…"

They stared at each other for several minutes, their slow breathing being the only sound in the room.

"Do you…" Jo said suddenly, her fingers twitching a little and she looked away. "Do you still…dream about it?"

Unbidden images washed over the blond girl and she swallowed a few times. "Yes. Not…not so often anymore, but…" She faltered and Jo nodded slowly. They looked at each other in quiet understanding then the cadet pushed herself off the bed. "Come on, let´s go practice some climbing."

Mickey groaned in protest, but was secretly relieved by the change of subject.

"No objections," the dark-haired girl smirked. "You need to get better at climbing just as bad as I need to study. This way we can do both. I´ll help you find the footholds and you can question me about the presidents on the way."

"Great, like I´ll be able to concentrate on that fifty meters above the ground."

Jo smiled and reached down to pull her to her feet, "That´s what I´m counting on."

As their hands made contact and Mickey felt strong fingers curl around hers, she smiled inwardly. Maybe climbing wasn´t such a bad thing, after all.

***************
 
 

Chapter Five
 
 

With October the much anticipated post-evaluation party arrived. The children in V3 and especially the teenagers had very few diversions in their lives, so every change from the usual routine of physical training, specialized training and classes were eagerly embraced.

During the day, games and competitions were held for the younger children, enthusiastically cheered on by parents, instructors and soldiers alike while the older cadets spent their time stuffing themselves with the, in honour of the day, for once eatable food waiting for the hours to pass until night where their fun would start. It was one of the few days a year where the instructors and supervisors would, if not leave them totally alone, then cut them enough slack and be lenient enough for the cadets to enjoy themselves.

A scent of anticipation and excitement filled the air and even Vivien had been spotted smiling a few times which was a testament to the unusual atmosphere. On days like that, everybody from child to adult allowed themselves to forget the dangers and complications of their existence, and even the most hardcore veterans from the streets of Berlin, happily engaged in the activities, standing side by side with five year-olds, chatting amiably.

Leisurely crossing the compound, Mickey paused to watch a cluster of young boys chasing a football around with a vigour that brought a smile to her face. Instead of following some kind of tactic or method, the boys sprinted around, kicking the ball left and right, obviously not caring whether they won or lost as long as they got to kick the ball the hardest. Sensing a presence at her side, Mickey turned and found Dane, happily munching on an apple. He took a bite, chewed a couple of times and then swallowed before smiling slightly. "Energetic, huh?"

"You could say that again," she replied, absently smoothing her uniform. "They´ll make good soldiers once."

Dane looked at her strangely then shrugged, "I suppose." He was silent for a minute, "Are you going to the party tonight?"

"Of course. Who isn´t?" He acknowledged her words with a small smile and began to draw small patterns in the sand with his boot.

"Have you heard that Iris Messina is coming here?"

Mickey turned her head sharply and looked at him with interest, "Really? I was sure it was just a rumour."

"No, no," Dane assured her, pleased by the interest his words had sparked. "I heard Pilot and Vivien talk about it the other day. It should be quite certain that she´ll be here when the exams begin."

"Great, as if I wasn´t nervous enough already," she answered, but her green eyes shone with excitement. "Imagine… The Leader of the entire Organisation coming here. I can´t believe it."

"Jo totally freaked when I told her," the blond boy said with a smile. "Messina is her big idol and she´ll do anything to impress her."

"Ah, that explains why she´s been studying so hard lately," Mickey replied with a grin. "And I who thought it was my excellent tutoring skills and charming personality that brought it along."

"Well, I´m sure it´s that too, "Dane said with a crooked grin. "We all know how much Jo loves studying." He was about to continue when Mickey interrupted him, "Speaking of Jo, do you know where she is?"

His brow furrowed slightly, "Err, she´s not in our room?"

"No, I checked there five minutes ago. She isn´t with Pilot in the gym either."

"Well…" He looked around, scanning the crowd. "Then I don´t know. She didn´t say anything about wanting to watch the games or something like that." He shrugged, "She´s probably out for a walk now she´s got the chance… Brooding about something," he added with a grin and got an answering one from Mickey.

He straightened up a little and licked his lips a few times, "Listen, I was wondering if you´d…"

"Yes?" She looked at him inquiringly. "You were wondering…?"

"Oh well, " he blushed a little. "I was wondering if you´d perhaps… I mean, since we´re both…" He avoided her eyes then finished hurriedly, "Since we´re both using the same book in military tactics if I could borrow yours since I´ve…lost…mine. The book, I mean."

Mickey was quite aware of what it was Dane had intended to ask her, but hadn´t managed and although she really liked him, she was relieved he hadn´t succeeded asking her to the party. She would have hated to turn him down and she knew she would have since there was a certain blue eyed, tall and gorgeous cadet she had intended to ask herself. That is, if she could find her.

"Sure, you can borrow my book," she replied, giving him a friendly smile while trying to appear ignorant of his crestfallen expression. "I´ll get it right away."

Dane gave her a weak smile and she couldn´t stop herself from reaching out and gently squeeze his shoulder, before turning and heading towards the room she shared with Christa and, until recently, another girl called Sila who´d left for a lower security camp after failing her exams and hadn´t been replaced yet.

Humming quietly to herself, Mickey opened the door to her room and stopped dead in her tracks, her disbelieving mind slow to take in the sight before her. Jo was lying on top of her Christa, her hands hidden somewhere under the brunette´s t-shirt, their mouths eagerly exploring each other. Frozen to the ground, she caught a glimpse of a tanned muscular back as her roommate´s hand slipped under Jo´s shirt while the other entangled itself into thick black hair, pressing them closer together. Totally oblivious to their surroundings, they started to move against each other, soft sighs and moans escaping their throats.

Both shocked and fascinated, Mickey continued to watch for a few seconds, then she abruptly spun around and closed the door behind her. Outside the house she leaned against the wall, surprised to feel tears in her eyes. She angrily wiped them away then started to walk towards the forest, ignoring the curious looks that followed her.

They weren´t exactly allowed to leave the compound without permission or alone, but like all the cadets, Mickey knew a place where it was possible to get out and with the already relaxed atmosphere in the camp, she doubted anybody would try to stop her. Without hindrance, she left the festivities behind her and was engulfed by the dense and eerily quiet forest, walking along unmarked paths until she reached the small clearing before the climbing wall.

As she sat down on the rock Pilot used to sit on when he was supervising their efforts, the scene she´d just witnessed kept playing over and over in her mind, and to her horror and shame she felt herself becoming aroused by it.

Just great! I feel like my heart´s been broken and I´m being fucking turned on by it in the process!

She clenched her fists and stared blankly at the black cliff before her. She knew she was being stupid, that she had no reason whatsoever to feel the sting of betrayal she was experiencing. Jo had never indicated that she wanted more than friendship. She had never promised or suggested anything, and Mickey doubted that the thought that she herself was interested in more had ever crossed the dark cadet´s mind.

Just like I never thought Christa was really going to pursue her. I always thought she was only playing and having a little fun.

The thought that that was exactly what her friend was doing did occur to Mickey, but even though it hurt, she hoped for Jo´s sake it wasn´t the case. She had gotten to know Jo fairly well during their sessions together and had even started to consider them friends, good friends to be exact and she knew that Jo wouldn´t take being toyed with very well. She wondered briefly whether she should, if not warn Jo, then perhaps mention the fact that Christa was known for having a new crush every other week, and liked to keep her options open.

Is that the jealousy or the concerned friend speaking? Her mind interjected and Mickey let out a long breath while examining her motives.

Probably a little of both. And really…It´s not my place and Christa´s my best friend no matter how…thoughtless she can be at times, and Jo… Jo´s old enough to look out for herself. It´s…it´s none of my business really.

She stared down at her fists, remembering how Jo had helped her improve her climbing, guiding their hands together from crevice to crevice while trying to come up with amusing stories to distract her from the heights. She hadn´t been a very successful storyteller, tending to start with the middle, go on to the end and then jump back to the beginning when she´d remembered how the tale started, but Mickey had appreciated her efforts nonetheless, just enjoying the low rumble of Jo´s voice and not really caring what the story was about.

It hadn´t come as a shock when she realized that she was actually looking forward to their time together, hanging several meters above the ground or having their noses in old and battered books, and first she had thought her infatuation with the dark cadet was just a bit of, in lack of a better word, hero worship and later, when she began to dream about rough hands touching her and strong arms holding her close, she had written it off as an innocent crush. Probably brought on by the fact that Christa seemed to interested in Jo as well and they had always had a bit of friendly rivalry between them, whether it was who had the highest score or who looked the best in khaki or, as it appeared now, who first got their hands on Jo.

Well, obviously I lost there. And that´s okay. It´s just a crush, it´ll pass. It´s no big deal.

The image of Jo and Christa together flashed through her mind.

But if it´s not big deal, then why does it hurt so much?

 ***************
 
 

Not a sound was heard in the room as Choi walked over to turn on the light. The cadets blinked at the sharp pale light before their eyes slowly went back to their instructor. One by one they looked away again as the thin man stared back at them, a small satisfied smirk on his face. Then he walked back to the desk where he switched off the projector and sat down on the desk beside it.

"Well?"

Eyes strangely pale studied the classroom before him. "Any questions? Anything you´d like me to elaborate on? Was there something you didn´t understand?"

"I didn´t know…" A quiet voice whispered and Choi´s gaze immediately settled on the speaker. "Yes, Dane? What didn´t you know?" The blond boy looked up, his face white as a sheet. "I didn´t think… I mean I´ve heard the stories just like anybody else, but I always thought…"

"Yes?"

"I always thought that it was out of proportions that it was…" He faltered, "I guess, I was wrong." The instructor looked at him for a moment, an unreadable expression on his face then he returned his attention to the rest of the room.

"There´s is a reason why this film is only shown to the older cadets, and I´m sure you don´t need to ask why or wonder how this knowledge would affect the younger children. However, you need to know. The exams are coming up and you need to make choices for your future. I know you´ve already given it some though as to which direction you wish to proceed, but please be realistic… There are approximately eighty-five cadets graduating this year in our area only, and although ten to fifteen percent are sure to fail, there still won´t be more than ten of you from each camp who have a shot at getting into SIT."

He cracked his knuckles and a couple of the cadets winced visibly. "So if your score isn´t above four hundred points by now, you might as well forget it and concentrate on something else, something within your reach and capabilities."

Choi smiled coldly, "There´s no shame in not making it to SIT or not belong to the Command Corps. The Organisation needs more than soldiers. We need technicians, instructors, craftsmen, administrative workers, medical and biological researchers and as yours truly," he gestured at the projector, "teachers."

"So think about it and if you already know now that you won´t be able to pass the SIT test then don´t waste your or our time trying. Concentrate on the regular exams and forget about everything else." He paused, a sudden spark of interest in his otherwise lifeless eyes. "How many of you are considering applying for SIT?"

At first nobody moved then hesitantly a few hands rose, followed shortly by a few more. "Hmm, one third of you," the look in his eyes turned decisively contemptuous. "Well, well. It´ll be fun to see who of you, if any, manage."

He looked around, "And the rest of you? What are your plans? 334-O7, what do you want to do?" Mickey looked up, "I intend to apply for medical service, sir." "Ah good, we can always use more researchers." Choi nodded approvingly, "That´s a good choice."

"I don´t intend to go into research, sir. In my opinion we have all the biological weapons we need. I plan on actually using my knowledge to help the wounded from the riots and the infected people living in the Slums." "

Oh, I see," the instructor said mockingly, "a crusader. Don´t you think it´s a waste of time and resources to treat Reuma patients when we all know they can´t be cured. Besides, it´s not like it´s a big problem anyway, as long as they get their daily little blue pill they live happily ever after."

"To say Reuma victims live happily ever after is a bit far fetched, wouldn´t you say so, sir? And I think 334-O7 is right, we don´t need anymore bio weapons. They weren´t the key to victory at the battle of Berlin twelve years ago and they aren´t the key now."

Choi slowly turned his head and stared at Jo. "And I suppose, you´d know everything about that, cadet 338-O5?" He stepped closer until he was towering above her. "I´m disappointed in you, Jo. I´d think that you of all people would recognize the need for biological and chemical weapons. Don´t you want the Council to pay for what they did to Neo Roma? For what they did to the people living there?"

Jo looked him straight in the eye, her features hardening, "Of course, I do, sir."

"And don´t you think that using those weapons are the fastest way to do it?"

The dark cadet´s gaze darted away for a moment, then hesitantly returned to the instructor´s face, "I don´t know, sir. I mean, I think that-."

"That exactly is your problem, 338-O5" Choi interrupted and stared at each cadet in the room until they looked down. "You all have that problem, you think too much! You question too much! That´s what´s been this movement´s problem from the day it was born. Every time a decision is made, it´s being questioned and argued till everybody´s blue in the face, and whatever advantage we might have had at the time it was made, is long gone when people have finally reached an agreement."

He took a deep breath, obviously warming up to his subject. "We didn´t succeed in Berlin because halfway through, one of our then leaders decided he wasn´t going to use the recommended dose which inevitably led to our forces being put under much more pressure then they were ready to handle."

Choi started to pace around the room, apparently oblivious to the slightly apprehensive glances from his students. "And then, when they finally realized they screwed up, what do you think they do?!" He abruptly turned to face them and although every single of the cadets knew the answer from their history books, they remained silent, watching their instructor with wary fascination.

"They think they can just go back to the original plan like this!" He snapped his fingers to emphasize his point. "And do you think that any of them has bothered to check out something as simple as the weather forecast? Do you think anybody has noticed that the wind has shifted and all the damn stuff they´ve been pumping out into the air for the last hour, is heading right back at them?"

Choi suddenly became aware of his agitated state and made a conscious effort to calm himself down. His eyes locked on Jo and he smiled sickly. "How many of our troops died that day?"

Jo was silent for a few seconds then said slowly, "I…I don´t know, sir. I don´t think I´ve ever heard the number."

"That´s right, 338-O5, you haven´t heard the number because it´s never been written down anywhere." He glanced at his watch and said tonelessly, "Class´s dismissed."

The cadets looked at each other, then quickly walked out of the room.

***************
 
 

In a bunker hidden among dunes, twisted bushes and white rocks scorched by the sun, a tall, blonde and beautiful woman silently studied the monitor placed on her crowded desk. Eyes bloodshot from too little sleep ran over the displayed images and text, memorizing each detail and every information. After another hour of reading, she sighed and switched off the monitor, causing the screen to briefly flicker before going black. She rose from her chair and stretched her back which was aching from too much inactivity.

"Ma´am?"

She turned around to see her aide-de-camp stand in the door, an inquiring question on the young man´s face. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

She gave him a tired smile, "No, Vladimir. I´m done for tonight. I´ll try to get some rest before we have to leave tomorrow morning."

The young man gave her a mildly disapproving look, "It is already morning, ma´am, and it has been for the last three hours." Iris glanced at her watch in surprise. "Well, well, it seems like you´re right. Then I guess, I might as well get ready for our departure."

"I can take care of that, ma´am," Vladimir spoke and looked at a door in the opposite wall. "There´s just time enough for you to sleep an hour." He saw she was about to protest and he resolutely closed the distance between them, and started to usher her towards her bedroom.

"Really, Vlad, it´s just a waste of time. Whether I get one hour of sleep or none doesn´t really make much of a difference." "Well, it does to me," he answered vehemently and pulled the covers off the bed. "No objections. Even the legendary veteran from the battle of Lyonne and the evacuation of Neo Roma needs to sleep once in awhile."

He tugged on her arm, knowing that just the fact that Iris had allowed him to lead her into the bedroom in the first place, showed how exhausted she was, and that most likely she didn´t need much conviction, but still he kept up the appearance of being the one who persuaded her. It was an old routine they were both aware of, but never commented on. Sometimes, it took more persuasion than others, but in the end it made her feel less guilty to take time out to rest and that was all that mattered to Vladimir.

"You´re spoiling me, Vlad," an already sleepy voice mumbled as the absolute leader of the biggest and most feared resistance movement on the northern hemisphere, and the most wanted person in the Realm, man or woman, snuggled into her blankets. "I don´t deserve this."

Her aide just smiled at her standard reply and tucked the blankets around her, then stood back and watched her for a few moments. She was already fast asleep and satisfied with a job well done, he walked out of the room, closing the door silently behind him.

***************

 To be continued…


Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse