Chapter Six

December, Final Exams
 
 

"Go! Go! Go! Scumbags! You´re a disgrace to look at! If you don´t hurry, I´ll shoot you myself!"

The instructor´s voice cut through the deafening noise of gunfire and shouted commands, reaching every single cadet on the field. Jo launched herself forward and down under the barbed wire, grimacing slightly when the cold mud drenched her uniform already damp from sweat. She scrambled along the ground, crawling on hands and knees, keeping as low as she could. The continuing sound of bullets flying closely over her head spurred her on, and she hardly noticed when at sharp stone hidden in the mud cut deeply into her palm.

Jo heard a groan to her right and without slowing down, she glanced over and saw Basil crawling in the enclosure beside her. Their eyes met briefly and he gave her a pained grin before resuming the frantic crawl towards the end. Sweat stung her eyes and dark strands of hair obscured her vision, but finally Jo could make out the end of the barbed wire and further ahead, she dimly saw the walls waiting to be conquered.

Eagerly she rose to her feet when a sudden pain made her drop back down to her knees, tears filling her eyes as the rock in her palm ground itself deeper into her flesh. She didn´t need to look to know that she had risen too early and her back and shirt had been torn by the wire.

Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!

"Cadet 338-O5!" A voice made unrecognizable by a megaphone blasted over the field. "Do you want to give up?" When Jo didn´t answer, but instead started to run slowly towards the first wall, the speaker continued. "I know you´re in pain, cadet! Why don´t you just give up? We got nice dry clothes here, bandages, food! All you have to do is say the word and it´ll all be over! No more pain, no more tests!"

"Fuck you," Jo whispered between gritted teeth, ignoring the loud rumble her stomach had produced by the mentioning of food. "I can do this! I can do this!"

She reached the wall and grabbed one of the ropes hanging down from above and started to pull herself up.

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts! The mantra repeated itself inside Jo´s mind and she let all other thoughts fly, concentrating only on the steady rhythm of her hands pulling her up, and the loud pants she was unable to control, escaping her throat. She was tired, she was so tired…

The SIT tryout had being going on for three days now and Jo wasn´t sure she´d be able to take much more. They had been deprived of sleep, nutrition and their bodies weren´t allowed time to heal and recuperate. And all the time there was the constant and never ceasing shouting and cursing of their instructors, goading them, telling them to give up and quit. That they´d never make it.

Shortly before the last exercise, Jo had noticed that several of the cadets who´s started out on the SIT test together with her, weren´t there anymore and those who were, stood around, their bodies practically shaking from exhaustion and their teeth chattering from the cold, pain and depression written on their faces. Some had been stupid enough to pull off their boots to inspect their bloody feet, and now they were having problems getting them back on, the red and swelled flesh making them a size or two too small.

Jo hadn´t made that mistake, she hadn´t had her boots off for three days, and a small, detached part of her mind wondered if she´d ever be able to without having to cut the leather into pieces. She hoped not. It was the only pair of boots she had.

More falling, than crawling down the last wall, Jo staggered a few steps before regaining her balance and ran as fast as she could, which she sadly noticed wasn´t very fast, towards the finish line. A few slumped dark grey forms, covered in mud were already scattered around on the ground and the moment she saw the instructor nod, Jo simply stopped moving and collapsed to the ground beside them, gasping for air.

For a few panicked moments, it felt like she wasn´t able to breathe and dark spots began to appear before her eyes, but then she felt a hand on her arm and a gentle voice said, "Slow down. Stop hyperventilating. You have to slow down or you´ll suffocate." Draining the last of her resources, Jo ignored her lungs´ desperate cry for air and closed her eyes, forcing herself to slow her breathing.

"That´s right," the low voice murmured. "Just relax, you´ll be fine."

The frantic pounding of Jo´s heart slowed down to a more healthy pace and for a few moments she remained motionless, taking stock of the various aches and pains her body was currently wallowing in. Aside from the scratches on her back from the barbed wire, the agonizing, but bearable pain from the cut in her quickly numbing palm and the bone-deep exhaustion which she hadn´t been able to shed for the last few days, she felt… fine.

Slowly, almost reluctant to disturb the relative peace she was feeling, Jo opened her eyes to see the face of her helper and gazed directly into stunning blue eyes, matched only by the ones she saw in the mirror every day. "Hi there," a faintly amused smile showed on the blond woman´s face. "You feeling okay?"

"Uh," Jo groaned as she tried to sit up. "I´m not sure I remember how okay feels."

This time a genuine smile appeared and the woman swiftly put an arm around the cadet, helping her to sit up straight. "Does your body ache all over, your feet hurt like hell and every single muscle feels like it´s been pulled ten times?" Jo nodded warily. "Then you´re okay."

Jo gave her a small grin which faded slowly as she took in the sight of the woman kneeling beside her. Dressed in a dark camouflage uniform and a black beret, the woman looked like any other member of the military part of the Organisation Jo had ever seen, but as her gaze travelled over the discrete, but nonetheless visible markings of her rank, back up to her eyes and down again to the long pale scar beginning just below her throat and disappearing beneath the fabric of her shirt, Jo realized this wasn´t just any other soldier and she swallowed involuntarily, painfully aware that she was staring and that she was unable to stop herself from doing so.

The blond woman smiled then rose. "Good luck with the test, cadet." she said, a hint of authority in her voice. She looked around and for a moment, her brilliant blue eyes rested on the other cadets slowing gaining their momentum on the ground, then with a small nod at the instructor she turned and strode away. Jo stared after her slack-jawed. She´d just had her first encounter with Iris Messina.

***************
 
 

"You got three hours. What you do with them is your own business, but if any of you are just one second late for the final test, you have failed and everything you´ve been going through for the last four days will have been for nothing. Is that clear!?"

Vivien stared at the pathetic bunch before her, some one them covered by so much mud and dirt they only vaguely resembled anything human. A few of them seemed to be sleeping standing up.

"Is that clear!"

"Yes, ma´am!" Hoarse voices shouted in unison.

"Okay then. You´re dismissed."

Vivien turned and briskly walked away, anxious herself to get a hot shower and a bite to eat before heading out again. For a few moments nobody moved, then the first cadet started to walk towards his house and one by one the rest followed.

Of the twenty-seven who´d begun the SIT test, only eight were left.

In a haze, Jo made her way to her room. She wasn´t even sure how she got there until she found herself staring at her bed, trying to decide what to do. She desperately wanted to sleep, to seek refuge from her hurting body and exhausted mind.

I should change…maybe…, she thought absently, still staring indecisively at the bed. I should get something to eat or take a shower or… Her thoughts slowly trailed off as she sat down on the firm surface, eyeing her boots wearily. The leather was soaked and covered in mud and she´d stopped feeling her feet days ago.

"Jo?"

It took a few seconds before Jo realized someone had actually spoken, and it wasn´t her rambling thoughts she heard. She raised her head, slowly focusing glassy eyes on the person standing in the door.

"Mickey?"

The blonde smiled and stepped into the room. "Yeah, it´s me." Her smile turned into an expression of concern, "You look like hell."

"I feel like hell," Jo answered, managing a weak smile, then her brows furrowed as if trying to remember something. "You… Have you, I mean, are you done? The exams…?"

Mickey walked over to the bed and started to unbutton Jo´s shirt. "Let´s get this off you. You won´t manage the catacombs suffering from a pneumonia."

The cadet dutifully allowed the blonde to remove her stained shirt, too tired to argue even if she´d wanted to. Trying to distract herself from the task at hand, Mickey continued conversationally. "I´m almost done. All the academic subjects have been taken care of, and of the physical tests I´ve only shooting left which shouldn´t cause me any problems."

She looked around briefly before slipping Jo´s t-shirt over the dark head, "Where´s Basil?"

Jo felt her eyelids grow heavy. "I think he went straight to the mess hall," she answered sleepily. "He´s been complaining about food for the last twenty hours." Mickey chuckled quietly, her hands resting uncertainly on Jo´s belt buckle, "I could imagine." Then she suddenly moved away.

"Uh, do you have any dry clothes to change into?" No answer. "Jo?" Lashes fluttered and the cadet blinked a few times. "Sorry, I think I kinda drifted off there for a second." The blonde smiled, "Yeah, I think so too." Then she repeated her question and the Jo shook her head, "I think I´ll just stay the way I am. We´re not allowed to keep the dry clothes on anyway for the last test, so I might as well save those couple of minutes to sleep."

She leaned back on the bed, oblivious to her own partial nakedness and the furtive glances from her friend. "Uh," Mickey swallowed, relieved to see Jo´s eyes close. "What about your trousers? They´re drenched." "Know…" Came the murmured answer. "Can´t get them off without removing the boots."

The blonde nodded to herself. She knew why Jo couldn´t take off her boots, but that didn´t stop her from wincing by the thought of the dark cadet spending the next hours clad only in cold and damp trousers. However, this was a tryout for SIT and only the toughest and disciplined cadets were considered, and inwardly Mickey was glad she hadn´t applied, knowing full well she wouldn´t have succeeded. Sighing, she gathered the clothes Jo had been able to shed and walked out into the bathroom, hanging them up to dry on the showerhead.

When she returned, Jo had somehow found the energy to crawl under the covers, the only thing visible being a few inches of dark hair and her boots. She walked over to check the alarm to make sure it was set, then spent a few moments watching the soundly sleeping cadet before leaving the room quietly.

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

The door slammed shut behind Jo, the loud sound echoing down the dark and narrow corridor. She looked at her watch, barely able to distinguish the numbers. Fifteen minutes. She had fifteen minutes to escape the catacombs. Gritting her teeth to stop them from chattering she started to make her way down the corridor, shivering involuntarily in the cold draught which instantly caused goosebumps to appear on her arms.

She rounded the first corner and stared directly into the masked face of a tall man blocking the passage. Without thinking , Jo delivered a precise kick to the man´s abdomen and as he bent over, brought her elbow forcefully down on his head. He sank to the floor and Jo easily jumped over the slumped figure, a small satisfied smirk on her face. That had been easy.

She turned a few corners without anything happening when suddenly she stopped and cocked her head listening. The faint, but distinct sound of water reached her ears and blue eyes widened in surprise. She hadn´t expected that. Only a few meters further ahead, she saw the cause of the sound. The corridor was flooded. Black, dirty water lay before her as far as she could see, the surface rippling slightly in the draught.

Jo glanced back down the corridor then she sighed and slowly waded out into the ice cold water. She froze momentarily the few seconds it took for the water to soak her uniform and for her body to adjust to the change. At first the water only went to her knees, but as she moved forward it began to deepen rapidly and soon she was making her way forward in pitch black darkness with water stopping just below her navel.

For how long she moved through the cold water she didn´t know, but it didn´t take long before she felt the last remains of her strength beginning to drain away, and her movements became slow and uncoordinated.

I have to get of out the water. I´ll freeze to dead if I don´t.

Ratatatata! Ratatatata!

The moment Jo heard the bullets hit the water behind her, she dived, inwardly cursing herself for not having paid more attention to what happened behind her. For a few panicked seconds it felt like she wasn´t going anywhere, her uniform and boots obstructing her movements, but finally she felt the corridor turn and she headed for the surface – only to find there wasn´t any.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit!

This time she couldn´t control her panic as she frantically searched the hard concrete above her for an opening. Her mind went into a loop, suggesting and discarding one solution after the other.

I could swim back, but what about the shooter and I might lose my sense of direction or I could continue, but what if there isn´t air further ahead, I won´t have the time to go back. Maybe I should search the walls or maybe I should check the floor or maybe…maybe I…maybe…

Jo´s lungs supplied the answer. She didn´t have enough air to go back or to begin a thorough search of her surroundings. Her only other option was to continue forward, hoping for the best. And she did. Her hands brushing against the coarse walls of the corridor as she swam through the inky darkness, feeling oddly detached from her body, the numbness spreading quickly from head to toe. Suddenly her hand touched air instead of concrete.

Yes!

With a loud gasp she broke the water´s surface, gulping huge portions of cold air into her lungs. For a few minutes, she remained absolutely still, breathing deeply then she began to swim down the corridor and was greatly relieved when she soon felt solid ground under her feet again, the water slowly giving way to dry concrete. Water sloshed inside her boots and the cold and wet uniform clung uncomfortably to her body as Jo on unsteady legs continued her way forward, blowing air on her hands to bring a bit of feeling back.

"Get her!"

The shouted command caused Jo to abruptly raise her head, but her body wasn´t up to its usual speed and agility and a fist slammed into her face before she had any time to react. A red fog seemed to obscure her vision as Jo desperately tried to clear her head and back away, but a heavy boot connecting with her right kneecap caused her to stagger and she fell down on her hands and knees, her head still spinning from the first blow. Instinctively, she curled up, protecting her head and chest, barely managing to prevent a kick from connecting with her throat. The next one aimed for her stomach and all the air was knocked out of the cadet.

A thick and dark fury started to run through her veins and she cried out in anger and pain when a boot hit her square in the groin.

No…

Blindly she reached out and grabbed onto a muscled leg. She heard a startled cry from the man which was immediately replaced by one of pain as Jo´s teeth sank deeply into his flesh, breaking skin.

Kicks and punches started to rain down over her body and Jo dimly noticed that the pain seemed to lessen little by little, and she realized she was beginning to lose consciousness. She refused to let go of the soldier´s leg, but suddenly her head was forced back as a hand grabbed her hair and pulled violently. A dangerous growl sounded from the cadet´s throat and she managed to get halfway to her feet, then used her entire body weight to slam the man still holding her hair into the wall.

They both fell to the ground, Jo landing heavily on top of the soldier. She knew she should get up, that she should move away and take stock of the remainder of her opponents, but all rational thought left her when she saw the look in the man´s eyes beneath her. It was a mixture of surprise and the beginning of fear. She snarled and grabbed both sides of the man´s face, banging his head repeatedly against the floor.

"Jo! Stop! Stop it right now! That´s an order!"

Somewhere deep inside, Jo recognized Pilot´s voice, but she ignored it, instead concentrating on the now unconscious soldier below her.

"That´s enough, Jo!" An arm suddenly appeared from behind her, hooking itself around her throat and forcefully pulling back, yanking her away from the motionless man´s body. Jo found herself suspended in the air a few inches above the ground by a very controlled and very calm Pilot, the only indication that he was feeling anything being the unusual paleness of his eyes.

Furious, she tried to knee him in the stomach and Pilot´s eyes narrowed dangerously. She was hurled hard against the nearest wall and while still dazed from the impact, the instructor kneeled down before her, his usual friendly face emotionless.

"Don´t you ever try that with me again, Jo," he growled. "The test is over." He rose to his feet then looked down at the slumped girl. "Can you walk?"

"I don´t think so," she whispered, suddenly feeling very, very tired.

"I´ll get someone to help you back," Pilot answered then walked over to check on the man on the floor. He searched for the soldier´s pulse then pulled the man´s eyelids back to look into his eyes. He rose and started to walk away, but after a few steps he paused and glanced back at the cadet who was looking at him apprehensively.

"Congratulations, Jo. You´ve just killed your first man."

Jo just stared at him blankly, her foggy mind trying to comprehend what had just happened. For a long time, they regarded each other in silence, none of them moving a muscle.

"You weren´t supposed to fight back like that," Pilot then said after a few moments, his voice uncharacteristically thick. "You were supposed to avoid us, not fight us. You should´ve found an opening and run past us and you´d have found another corridor which would´ve led you to the exit." He looked at his watch, then let his arm fall back down.

"You failed, Jo. You exceeded your time limit."

Jo closed her eyes against the sting of tears and leaned her head back against the cold concrete.

***************
 
 

Chapter Seven
 
 

Pain. A deep, all present overwhelming pain drove Jo out of her semi-unconscious state, and her mind slowly began to register her surroundings. She was lying on her back in her bed and for a few minutes she was afraid something was wrong with her vision, until she realized the dim light in the room came from the tiny crack between the curtains where the low afternoon sun was faintly visible, and wasn´t the result of some injury to her head.

Muffled sounds of laughter and conversation drifted through the open window together with the sounds of people moving back and forth, closing doors and water running in the pipes inside the walls around her. Jo tried to sit up, but instantly abandoned the idea as a wave of nausea together with an attack of dizziness washed over her body, causing her to sink back on the bed, groaning quietly.

As the events of the last days began to catch up with her, she closed her eyes again, almost wishing she hadn´t regained consciousness just yet.

She had failed. She had come so far, overcome and defeated everything thrown in her way only to have it all come crashing down around her because she couldn´t control herself. She had lost it. The moment the blows had started coming, she had lost her temper, her mind, and the old, primitive survival instinct, cultivated on the streets of Neo Roma and perfected in Vega 3, had taken control of her body leaving a man dead in its wake.

She was too exhausted and too drugged to feel any real surprise that the thought of killing a man didn´t move her much. She felt sorry for him and wished it hadn´t happened, but that was all she was capable of right now. She suspected she might have a reaction later, but for the time being the only thing she felt was a resigned despair that she had failed to even be considered for SIT. The one thing she´d ever wanted, the one goal she´d been working relentlessly towards for years was now out of reach, and there was nothing she could do to change it.

An uncontrolled sob escaped her throat and she impotently punched the madras with her fists, relishing the physical pain that shot through her body, making the emotional one just a little easier to bear. Soon, however, the rage left her and she lay motionless on the bed, staring blankly at the ceiling.

Footsteps approached and Jo turned her head listlessly to see Dane standing in the doorway, an uncertain and sad expression on his face. Their eyes met and held each other for a minute then he smiled nervously and walked quickly to his dresser. He opened a drawer and picked out a jacket. Jo watched in silence as he turned and walked back to the door where he lingered for a moment.

"We´re not supposed to talk to you," he said quietly, still with his back towards her, "not until they´ve decided what to do about the soldier you killed."

Jo nodded although he couldn´t see it. "I figured that much."

"Some of them want to have you transferred to another camp," Dane continued as if she hadn´t spoken. "Others think you should be punished while the rest think that what happened was an understandable and acceptable accident, that you only did what you´d been trained to do…" He trailed off, his left hand idly touching the wall next to the door.

Jo´s head was aching and she had difficulties thinking clearly, but she couldn´t stop herself from asking the next question, although she wasn´t sure she´d like the answer.

"And you, Dane? What do you think?"

The blond boy turned around to face her, pain evident in his eyes. "I don´t know, Jo. We´ve been trained to kill for as long as I can remember…" He paused, "But that doesn´t mean I have to like it… or agree with it."

Then he sighed and gave her a pale smile, "I hope everything turns out okay for you."

She returned his smile, feeling strangely relived by his last words. Dane began to leave, but Jo called him back.

"Yes?" He looked hesitantly at her.

Jo squirmed uncomfortably, her gaze darting restlessly around the room, "Uh, I was wondering if… if Christa had… asked about me…?"

Dane was silent for a few seconds then he shook his head, "No…" He exhaled slowly, "But we´ve all been really busy with the exams, I´m sure now they´re over…" He faltered.

"Okay…" Jo said casually, still avoiding eye contact . "If you see her… Tell her that…that I´d like…" She stopped herself then turned to look at him. "Just tell her I said hi, okay?"

"Okay."

He gave her a slightly warmer smile then left Jo alone to deal with her own thoughts.

***************
 
 

Iris Messina sat alone in the back of the room on the last row of chairs, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, knowing full well that she wasn´t succeeding. She found herself to be the centre of everyone´s attention, cadets and instructors alike shooting more or less furtive glances back at her. She didn´t mind the prying eyes and whispered comments, having become accustomed to them a long time ago, but secretly she wished they´d at least not be so blatant about it.

For an outsider it looked like the blond woman was lounging casually in her seat, creating strange visions of a relaxed tiger to appear in the minds of her curious audience, but inside, her mind was working full speed, constantly noticing and categorizing everything from the location of the exits, and the few and subtle, but obviously hostile expressions on the faces of some of her onlookers.

Iris knew that not everybody was happy about the change of leadership and consequently she rarely let her guard down in public, not even when she was among her own. Treason had brought on the downfall of more than one of her predecessors and Messina had no intention of joining that list if she could avoid it.

As the woman currently speaking from the rostrum finished and was replaced by another, Iris let her mind wander, her thoughts drifting back to the events earlier that day.

The sight of the young cadet being transported on a stretcher from the catacombs across the compound after failing her test had intrigued her and she wasn´t sure why. It wasn´t the first time a cadet had killed a soldier during the tryouts for SIT, and it most certainly wouldn´t be the last.

It was an unfortunate, but unavoidable risk caused by the constant strain and adrenaline rush the aspirants were caught up in from the moment the test began till it ended four days later. And sometimes the soldiers involved tended to underestimate the risk and the cadets, relying too much on their greater strength and experience, forgetting what emotional exhaustion and pure animal instinct could do to a person close to breaking point.

Iris sighed, too many of the soldiers within the Organisation were getting soft, neglecting their training and preservation of their skills. She´d have to do something about that and soon. The Council was getting far too restless for her liking.

After the small detour, her thoughts returned to the cadet on the stretcher. She´d vaguely recognized the girl as the one she´d helped after the obstacle course, but she hadn´t speculated more about it and had been about to move on, when their gazes had briefly met.

It was the eyes, Iris acknowledged silently to herself, politely clapping as yet another speaker approached the rostrum. There had been something in those blue depths which had halted her walk and she had stopped to watch the men as they disappeared into the building used as a makeshift hospital.

She´d been captivated, drawn in, suddenly wanting to know what lay hidden behind the veiled gaze and the stoic and impenetrable expression showing so clearly on the bruised and dirty, but still beautiful face. When Messina had inquired about the cadet, she´d been told that the girl´s name was Jo and that she´d arrived at V3 almost ten years ago when she´d been only eight. Apparently, she had travelled the distance from Neo Roma to the forest alone until she´d been discovered by the patrols and brought to the camp.

She had excelled at almost any physical event and her academic results which had been the cause of some concern, had also improved greatly over the last couple of weeks. She had been predicted a bright and promising future, practically certain to rise high in the ranks within the Organisation when this had happened.

As Iris heard her name being announced and she rose to the sound of applause, making her way forward, she wondered idly if there wasn´t something she could do. The result of the SIT test was final and couldn´t be disputed, but she felt it would be a great waste not to take full advantage of the possibilities this cadet so clearly possessed.

By the time she´d reached the rostrum, she had made a decision. Smiling ever so slightly, she regarded the many expectant faces below her and started to speak.

***************
 
 

Jo was growing restless and edgy. She´d been confined to her room by the camp authorities and to her bed by her injuries, and the immobility and second guessing of her future was driving her crazy. Two days had passed since the test and the only person she had seen since Dane dropped by was V3´s medic, a silent and absentminded man who´d hardly spoken two words to her except to ask if this or that hurt, which it had.

Dane and Basil had been temporarily moved to a another house and for the first time in her life, Jo actually felt alone. Usually she´d never minded being on her own, often preferring her own company to others, but as boredom and loneliness took their toll, the cadet realized she missed her friends…desperately. The only bright point was that Basil had completed the SIT test among the top three, and she was sure he´d be chosen. He deserved it.

If only we could´ve undergone the training together, Jo thought, feeling slightly surprised when the usually sting of bitterness she´d experienced every time she thought about the test the past forty-eight hours, didn´t occur. Maybe I just don´t care anymore, or maybe I´ve truly gone mad and isn´t even aware of it.

A weary smile was bestowed upon the dark room and Jo shifted on the bed, trying to make herself more comfortable. She felt reasonable sure she´d be informed of what they´d decided for her the following morning, and she came to the conclusion that she might as well enjoy not knowing anything until then. Maybe ignorance was bliss, after all.

She closed her eyes and started to drift off when the sound of quiet footsteps coming nearer prompted her to open her eyes again, blinking a few times to make sure she wasn´t hallucinating. A slightly hesitant smile showed and she was filled with nervous anticipation as she watched Christa enter the room and carefully close the door behind her, before tiptoeing over to the bed, a definite mischievous twinkle in the brunette´s eyes.

"Hey," Jo said softly, clearing her throat a few times. "You´re not supposed to be here."

"Ah," Christa said offhandedly, reaching out to take Jo´s hand into hers. "See if they can stop me." She played with the dark cadet´s fingers for a moment, then looked back at Jo. "I´ve missed you, you know…"

Jo wasn´t able to stop the faint blush on her cheeks or the sudden flutter in her stomach, "Really?"

"Yes, really." The brunette reached out to trace a cheekbone with her free hand. "Are you hurt very badly?"

The cadet shrugged, ignoring the pain the small movement brought on. "Not too bad, I´ll live."

"Good," Christa whispered and began to lean down, "because I very much want you alive and well."

Their lips met and for a while Jo managed to forget about her aching body as their mouths reacquainted themselves with each other, slowly exploring and tasting. All to soon, she felt Christa begin to move away and she sat up on the bed, desperately reaching out to grasp the brunette´s hand.

"Don´t go! I want…" She abruptly stopped herself, shocked by her own neediness and she released Christa´s hand, dropping her gaze to the bed.

Christa regarded her curiously then smiled a little, "Jo, I have to go. The graduation party is tonight and I promised Bruno, I´d help him move things out of the way." When she didn´t get a response, she gently put her hand under the cadet´s chin, raising the dark head to look into hooded blue eyes. "I´ll come see you tomorrow, okay? By then you´re probably allowed to have visitors and I won´t have to sneak in here like some thief." She brushed an errant lock of hair behind Jo´s ear. "You don´t want me to get caught talking to you, do you?"

Jo shook her head mutely, angry with herself for feeling so helpless and out of control, feelings that seemed to arise whenever she was together with the beautiful brunette. Christa smiled again then brushed her lips gently against Jo´s before rising from the bed. "Get some rest, you look tired."

She left and Jo sank back down on the bed, somehow feeling worse than before. However, before she had time to contemplate her situation, she heard a person approach and she sat up eagerly, hoping that Christa had changed her mind. The door opened to reveal a strikingly beautiful blond woman dressed in faded grey trousers and a white t-shirt, but even without the uniform, Jo had no difficulties recognizing Iris Messina, and she involuntarily straightened up, trying to get to her feet.

"Hey! Hey! None of that," Messina exclaimed and quickly walked over to the bed to push the cadet back down. "You´re not well enough to stand just yet."

"But…but," Jo managed to get out. "You´re…"

"At ease, cadet," the blond laughed. "What kind of leader would I be if allowed my people to injure themselves just so they could salute me, besides…" She winked at the girl and had to stop herself from laughing again at the astonished expression that appeared on the dark face, "I don´t care much for salutes anyway, never have."

When she was sure that Jo wouldn´t attempt to get up again, she looked down at the bed, silently asking for permission to sit. Jo nodded quickly, her mind still trying to get around the concept that Iris Messina was standing in her room, talking to her.

"So…" Messina made herself as comfortable she could without shifting the bed too much. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine, ma´am."

The blonde arched an eyebrow, "Really?"

Her tone told Jo that she wanted the truth and the cadet added meekly, "Well, I´ve been better, but it´s okay. I brought in on myself and besides, it´s only pain."

"It´s only pain…" Iris repeated thoughtfully and she studied Jo closely, then a smile slowly spread, making her features even more breathtaking. "I guess you´ve got a point there."

She was silent for a moment as her eyes took in her surroundings, apparently lost in thought before returning her gaze to the quietly waiting cadet, blue meeting blue.

"I´ve got a proposition for you, Jo. I want you to come with me when I leave. I want you to follow me to HQ as my assistant or aide or whatever it´s called, and if you serve me well, I´ll teach you everything I know."

It took Jo a considerably amount of time before she regained enough control of her tongue to answer.

***************
 
 

Chapter Eight
 
 

"No! I won´t allow it."

"Look, Pilot…wasn´t it?" Messina sighed as she was getting increasingly tired of the confrontation. "It´s not like you´ve got any say in this at all. The girl´s eighteen years old, she has no relatives and she´s already agreed to come with me." She crossed her arms and icy blue met steely grey, "As far as I´m concerned the matter is closed."

The huge man´s jaw clenched and he took a deep breath to calm himself down. He wouldn´t achieve anything by losing his temper in front of the most powerful person in the Organisation.

"Ma´am, I understand why you´d want to take her with you. She´s a bright kid and as you said, there are a lot of possibilities in her, I´m just not sure she´s ready. Jo´s…" He paused, not quite sure how to phrase the next sentence. "Jo´s very… immature in some ways. She´s still like a child. It took me the better half of a year to get her to trust me enough to let me touch her when she was hurt, and even longer before she would sleep with her back to someone, and I don´t want to see her lose that trust again… to anyone."

The thinly veiled threat didn´t go unnoticed by the blonde who gave the instructor a reassuring smile.

"Pilot, I understand your concern and I admire you for it, but…" She gestured to the chair in front of his desk and he nodded for her to sit down before he himself sat back down in his chair from which he´d jumped up earlier. "But if you think about it, what´s left for Jo here? She won´t be able to get into SIT now and she isn´t allowed to try again for the next three years, and we both know then she´ll be too old."

Messina leaned forward and her voice became soothing and persuasive, and Pilot suddenly knew how this woman was capable of rising to power without bloodshed.

"If she stays here, she´ll either be transferred or go into the regular army and unfortunately, as the situation is now, that´s hardly more than being cannon-fodder. You don´t want that for her, do you?"

The instructor knew he was beaten, but he wasn´t about to go down without a fight. Jo was too important for that.

"And what if she goes with you? What exactly do you want her to do? What are her future prospects?"

The blonde laughed out loud, "Pilot! Are you asking me what my intentions are?"

The bearded man shrugged uncomfortably, unsure of what to say, but sure that he wanted an answer. Messina regarded him for a few moments, a gentle smile on her face. "She means a lot to you, doesn´t she?"

Pilot shrugged again, but then thought better of it and nodded. "I won´t let anybody hurt her."

Iris smiled sadly, "Unfortunately, that´s not really up for you to decide either." She reached out and patted his clenched fist, "I´m going to take good care of her, I promise, and if she is as promising as we both think she is and proves herself worthy, I´ll make sure she gets into the Command Corps eventually."

He studied her closely, "You can do that?"

The blonde grinned and leaned back in the chair, planting her feet solidly on the instructor´s desk, "I´m the boss, remember?"

***************
 
 

Basil stared at her slack-jawed, "Wow."

"I believe you´ve said that once already," Jo smirked, enjoying the look of surprise and envy on her friend´s face. "But you´re right, it is kinda wow."

"I still don´t see why it has to be you," Christa said sullenly. "Why can´t she pick someone else?"

"Christa," Mickey interjected quietly, looking anywhere but at her friend who had an arm possessively placed around Jo. "It´s a great honour to be chosen and it´s a wonderful opportunity for Jo. She´ll learn from the best, you should be happy for her."

"That may be…" Christa turned big brown eyes to Jo. "But I don´t want you to go."

The cadet squirmed uncomfortably, glancing at the other people in the room. She felt a sudden need to get off the bed and sprint for the nearest exit, but somehow imagined it wouldn´t improve her girlfriend´s mood.

"It won´t be forever," Jo began, slowly losing herself in the brunette´s beautiful eyes, "and I´ll… I´ll write you… a lot," she concluded helpfully.

This brought out a reluctant smile on Christa´s face and she shook her head in exasperation, "Yeah, that´ll be the day, miss-I-won´t-say-more-than-ten-words-per-day-or-I-might-dislocate-my-tongue." She used her free hand to caress Jo´s cheek. "I´ll miss you," she whispered softly, then leaned up to kiss the full lips.

Dane and Basil who were sitting on the blond boy´s bed, grinned openly at each other while Mickey who´d taken to sit on the floor next to the bathroom door, stared at her left hand, idly tracing a scratch with her finger.

Just before Christa´s tongue succeed in driving the last coherent thoughts from her mind, Jo remembered they weren´t alone and gently, but firmly pulled away. She caught Basil and Dane staring at her, grins plastered all over their faces and she blushed involuntarily, cursing herself for not being able to control it. As the brunette sighed and made herself comfortably in Jo´s arms, the cadet´s eyes fell on Mickey who was looking directly at her. The look in the green eyes puzzled her, but before she had time to study it closer, the blonde girl dropped her gaze to the floor.

"So…" Dane said, breaking the silence. "When are you leaving?"

"In…uh…in a couple of days," Jo replied, momentarily distracted as Christa slipped a hand under her t-shirt and began to caress her stomach lightly. "Apparently, she wants to know how the camp works and stuff like that before we head out."

"Where are you going?"

Blue eyes met green, "I don´t know. She hasn´t told me and I probably won´t know till I get there." The cadet smiled slightly, a distant expression in her eyes. "No matter what, it´ll be great to get out. I´ve always wanted to see more, to…" She trailed off and Mickey returned her smile and said softly, "I know what you mean."

The room fell silent again for a few minutes, then Basil jumped to his feet, "Okay, let´s get to it! We don´t have much time."

"Time? Time for what?" Dane exclaimed as he was roughly pulled off the bed by the redhead. "The exams are over. No more studying, no more training… At least for a week," he added with a rueful grin.

"Time to plan Jo´s going away party of course," Basil said with enthusiasm as he looked at the dark cadet´s mortified expression. "We´re going to have the biggest, noisiest and most decadent party this camp has ever seen."

"Oh, uh…" Jo raised her hands deprecatorily. "That´s quite all right, I don´t-."

"You have no choice, cadet," Basil interrupted, dismissing Jo´s protests with a casual wave. "The graduation party was no fun without you, and who knows when we´ll have the time to celebrate together again." His grey eyes grew serious, "Christa´s not the only one who´ll miss you, you know…"

Surprised, but warm blue eyes looked back at him for a moment, then Jo nodded slowly, "Okay, if you insist, but I doubt you´ll get permission. We´ve already had two festive events this semester, and I´m sure they don´t want us to think they´re getting soft."

"Ah, that won´t be a problem. The instructors and camp leaders are having some kind of banquet the night before Messina´s departure. We´ll just uh…borrow what we need from the kitchen that day, and do our own celebrating here while they bore each other to death with speeches." He looked at the people in the room, "Come on, it´ll be fun!"

Jo just stared at him then smiled, "Whatever you say, Basil. Whatever you say."

***************
 
 

"Hey, Jo," Pilot said quietly as he watched the cadet unceremoniously stuff clothes into her duffel-bag. "You getting ready to leave tomorrow?"

Jo turned around to watch the instructor stand in the door, leaning heavily against the frame and she nodded, "Yeah, I´m almost done."

The looked at each other for a moment, neither moving an inch then Pilot let out an almost inaudible sigh and stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. He sat down on Dane´s bed causing the springs to cry out in complaint from the extra weight. He continued to watch in silence as Jo finished her packing and dumped her bag on the bed, before looking back at him, a slightly uncertain expression on her face.

"Sit down, Jo," the instructor ordered gently and the cadet obeyed and sat down cross-legged on her own bed, fingering absently with the blanket.

"So…" He began and Jo smiled hesitantly as he didn´t proceed. Pilot studied the beautiful face before him, remembering how many times he and Jo had sat like this, whether because he had to explain her something or because he felt she needed guidance. A subject he´d quickly learned should be approached with caution, since the cadet sitting so motionless in front of him did not like to be told the error of her ways. He smiled involuntarily as he recalled some of their more heated discussions, and as he refocused on Jo, he saw his smile mirrored in distant blue eyes.

"So," Pilot said again, "are you excited about leaving?"

She shook her head imperceptibly, clearing her mind of old memories then nodded, "Yes…" She paused, her gaze darting away, "But that… that doesn´t mean I wasn´t happy here, you know. I mean… everybody here has been very good to me."

He grinned, "Everybody?"

"Well," Jo scratched her cheek and smiled, her eyes still studying the wall, "some more than others."

"Jo," Pilot reached out to touch her knee, surprised and saddened by the small tensing he felt. He´d thought they were past that. "I want you to promise me something," he continued seriously and waited until the dark head slowly turned towards him. "Promise me you´ll take good care of yourself. Don´t take any unnecessary risks or take on more than you can handle, you don´t have to prove yourself to them."

She looked at him for a long time, then said slowly, "Yes, I do. Messina didn´t decide to bring me along just so she´d someone to water her plants while she´s out." The cadet shrugged and looked away again, "Apparently, she thinks that I´m not totally messed up, that I´m actually good for something and that… that I deserve a chance, and that´s what she´s given me." Blue eyes returned to stare into grey, "And I´m not going to screw this up… At least I´ll try not to," she added, almost under her breath.

"Jo…" Pilot sighed, suddenly wishing they had more time. "I thought we´d come to an understanding about that, you´re not messed up and you don´t screw up everything you´re involved in."

She regarded him coldly, "Tell me, sir. Who has the worst disciplinary record in V3? Who broke a ten-year-old´s arms because he said the wrong thing, and who stole a gun and tried to leave the camp by taking a-."

"Whoa! Waitaminute!" The instructor interrupted forcefully, "That´s a very, very long time ago. You were hardly more than a kid yourself and had just arrived here after spending your childhood in the Slums. How were you supposed to react, not to say, know better?"

"-And who killed a soldier during an exercise less than a week ago, just because she couldn´t control herself or her temper," Jo continued tonelessly as if Pilot hadn´t spoken. She looked at him sadly, "I think we both know the answers to that."

"Is that really how you see yourself? As some kind of violent misfit, incapable of doing anything good?" Pilot asked earnestly, studying the dark cadet closely as she shifted uncomfortably on the bed.

"No, I… I mean, I know that…" She trailed off, staring at her fingers. "Maybe… sometimes… a little."

"I´ve never thought of you as that."

When Jo wouldn´t look at him, the instructor rose and sat down on the bed beside her. "You´ve done stupid things, but haven´t we all? The thing about mistakes is…" He reached out to turn her face towards him, "We learn from them. That doesn´t mean we´ll never make one again, of course we will, but if we´re lucky we won´t do the same mistake twice, and maybe we´ll even be capable of preventing something from happening again. Do you understand?"

She still didn´t answer and Pilot raised his hands in defeat, "Okay, then I´ll have to bring out the heavy artillery." Before Jo had time react, she was effectively pinned beneath the huge man who was tickling her mercilessly. She immediately started to struggle violently, but was practically unable to move.

"Stop! Stop! Please, Pilot stop!" She cried out as tears of laughter began to run down her cheeks. "You´re killing me!"

"Say you understand!" The instructor grinned wickedly, ignoring the cadet´s desperate pleas. "Say you understand or I´ll do this until you wet yourself."

"It´s not fair!" Jo laughed in spite of herself, "Please stop!"

"Nope. Not until you do as I say," came the amused reply as Pilot continued his relentless assault. "It´s up to you, Jo. What´ll it be?"

"Okay, okay!" The cadet shouted out in resignation. "I understand! I understand! Will you please stop now!"

The instructor delivered one final tickle then stood up, reaching down to pull the indignant and slightly flustered girl to her feet.

"You play dirty, you know that?" Jo said, giving him her best ominous look, all the while unable to stop a smile from creeping onto her face. "You should apply for interrogation service, I´m sure you´d be very successful."

Pilot just grinned, satisfied with a job well done.

***************
 
 

Jo groaned quietly and reluctantly opened her eyes. She blinked a few times against the harsh light then pushed herself up into a sitting position on the bed, ignoring her hurting head and body. She grinned inwardly as she saw Basil and Dane lying in a heap on the floor, their drunken snores breaking the silence of the otherwise quiet room. Several other cadets were sprawled out on the floor and up against the walls, sharing the space on the ground with countless bottles and cans.

Basil had made good of his promise to make this a night to remember, although Jo doubted that the redhead himself would be capable of remembering much.

She glanced at the clock and frowned slightly when she read the numbers. Four am. She´d have to get ready to leave in less than two hours. A movement beside her caught her attention and she turned her head to see Christa lying on the bed behind her, sound asleep.

With a gentleness that would have surprised anyone who´d been awake to witness it, Jo leaned down and placed a soft kiss on the brunette´s cheek before rising from the bed. Her head was throbbing and she desperately needed some fresh air. Quietly, she stepped over the drunken teens on the floor and slipped out of the door, down the short corridor which led past the other rooms in the house and then outside.

She paused outside the door and closed her eyes, letting the cool breeze soothe her aching head. Finally, feeling more like a human being, she opened her eyes and was surprised to see light shining out from between the curtains in the main building. Apparently, the banquet hadn´t ended yet or maybe the people there just used the opportunity to do a bit of celebrating of their own.

They´re probably glad to be rid of me, Jo chuckled quietly, absently wondering whether Iris Messina was good at handling a hangover or not.

A soft sound interrupted her musings and she looked towards a small gathering of bushes next to the house. She stepped closer and an eyebrow rose dramatically. Mickey was lying curled up on the ground, a few bottles scattered around her.

Jo vaguely recalled the blonde leaving earlier in the evening, saying something about wanting to get some sleep, but from the look of it, she hadn´t made it very far. With a low sigh, Jo kneeled down and started to shake the girl awake. December was not exactly the ideal time of the year to be roughing it outside, dressed in nothing but camouflage trousers and a thin t-shirt.

"G´away," Mickey slurred as she finally began to respond to Jo´s insistent hands. "I´m sleeping."

"Not out here, you aren´t," Jo replied, roughly pulling the blonde to her feet. "Let´s get you into a real bed."

"Oh, that sounds nice…" Mickey reached out to touch the cadet´s face, her fingers running curiously over the sharp planes. "But I hardly know you…"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," came the flat reply as Jo started to tow Mickey towards her house while preventing the blonde from keeling over in the process. "Jesus, you´re heavy!"

"Well, you didn´t think that the last time," the girl objected, too drunk to feel any real offence and focusing more on the strong arms holding her upright. "I think your exact words were, and I quote, `Just let me worry about your weight, okay´." Mickey started to giggle helplessly as she suddenly grabbed onto Jo´s neck, almost causing them both to fall. "I´m right, aren´t I? That´s what you said."

"Mmm…" The cadet replied distractedly, trying to open the door to Mickey´s room with her shoulder while holding onto the blonde with her hands. After a few seconds of fumbling with the handle, the door finally swung open and they stumbled inside. "Okay, let´s get this over with."

She got Mickey to sit down on the floor while she removed the covers from her bed.

"Where´s Christa?" A slurred voice asked as Jo stepped over to help the blonde to her feet. "Have you hidden her away somewhere?"

"No, I´ll bring her over as soon as I´ve gotten you settled. It won´t do that someone comes and find her sleeping in my bed." She put her hands under Mickey´s shoulders, trying to pull her up. "You know, this would be a lot easier if you´d help a little."

"Okay," the blonde replied cheerfully and abruptly rose to her feet. The sudden movement took Jo by surprise and they staggered a few steps backward, before crashing down heavily on the bed. Mickey´s elbow nudged itself forcefully into the cadet´s abdomen and Jo felt all air leave her lungs.

"Oof! Mickey, get off me!"

The blonde stared down at the exasperated face below her, almost hidden in the darkness. Slowly her mind took in the advantages of this new and unexpected development, and a wicked smile spread on her face as she felt the warm, firm body shifting beneath her.

"Mickey, what are…?" Jo began as the blonde didn´t respond, but she trailed off as she found herself caught up in an intense green gaze. She blinked a few times, then tried to ease herself out from under the girl, but surprisingly strong hands held her fast. "Mickey…? I can´t move if you-."

Her words were cut short as a warm mouth descended upon hers and Jo froze, her mind going blank. She hadn´t expected this.

She started to speak, but Mickey used the opportunity to push a very persistent tongue into her mouth, and Jo instinctively closed her eyes. She felt how nimble fingers reached for her left breast, caressing her skin through her shirt while the other hand started to tug the offending garment free from her trousers. Mickey´s heart was pounding furiously against her chest as the blonde´s excitement continued to build, and Jo´s eyes snapped open when she felt a leg try to separate her own. She fought down her imminent panic, knowing that if she didn´t, she would end up hurting the blond girl severely in her attempt to get away.

"Mickey!" She gasped as warm lips trailed down her neck. "Stop!"

Something in the dark cadet´s voice penetrated the alcohol induced haze in Mickey´s mind and she raised her head to look into shocked blue eyes. For a frozen moment they stared at each other then Mickey abruptly moved away. Jo bolted from the bed and backed away until she found herself with her back against the wall. Neither looked at each other as their ragged breathing slowly returned to normal, and for several minutes a thick and tense silence lingered between them.

"I´m sorry, Jo," Mickey then spoke quietly, unable to look at the cadet.

Jo raised a hand hesitantly then let it fall back down, "Why… Why did you do that?"

The blonde felt a heavy weight settle around her heart as she heard the confused, hurt and slightly accusing tone. Reluctantly, she met the dark cadet´s eyes. Jo looked very much like a trapped animal and Mickey desperately wished she could undo everything that had happened within the last couple of minutes. Everything she had done.

"I´m sorry," she repeated helplessly. "I never meant to… I´d never do anything to hurt you."

They stared at each other, both knowing that she just had.

"I… I care about you, Jo, a lot."

"You have a funny way of showing it," came the muttered reply and Mickey was unable to hide a smile.

"Oh? Well, to a lot of people this would be the exact way of showing it."

She released a breath she didn´t know she´d been holding when her words were met by a small smile, then Jo moved a few inches away from the wall. "So… you… care about me…?"

"Yes," Mickey replied seriously, wanting to reach out and touch the cadet, to reassure her, but painfully aware that it wouldn´t be welcomed.

"That´s okay," Jo said thoughtfully as if speaking to herself. "I can live with that." She grinned uncertainly then started to move towards the door. "I should get going. I need to wake Christa and get her over here."

"Jo…"

The blonde´s voice halted the cadet and she turned around and Mickey´s heart cringed by the guarded expression in her eyes. "Yes?"

"About Christa…"

Jo arched an eyebrow, silently waiting for the blond girl to continue. "I… I think you should know…" She suddenly stopped herself and straightened up. "Nothing, it´s nothing."

"Are you sure?" Jo looked at her curiously and a little concerned. "Is everything all right?"

"Yes," Mickey replied weakly, her head starting to hurt terribly. "Everything´s fine." She gestured at the door, "You should go."

Blue eyes studied her for a moment, then Jo nodded and walked outside. The second Mickey saw the door close she fell back on her bed, burying her face in her hands.

***************
 
 

Chapter Nine
 
 

According to her watch it was morning, but the time was the only thing that indicated that it wasn´t night anymore. Vega 3 was engulfed in cold, impenetrable December darkness and Jo´s teeth were chattering uncontrollably as she jumped up and down outside her house, trying to get a bit of warmth into her freezing body. Messina was standing a couple of meters away, talking quietly to Pilot and Stanicki, the man who was in charge of camp security.

Jo´s thoughts began to wander as she absently studied the unmarked van they´d be leaving V3 in. She wondered whether they´d be driving in it the entire way, and where it was they were going in the first place. She sighed and pulled her jacket tighter around her, inwardly hoping that Messina would hurry up so they could get going.

Her gaze shifted away from the van and slowly studied the buildings and fences around her which had been her home for the last ten years. As excited as she was about leaving, she knew she´d miss the place. Not all of it, there were most certainly things she didn´t care to remember, but a lot of the stuff here had been good. Like her friends.

She felt a tightening in her throat as she thought about how it had been to say goodbye to Basil and Dane, none of them knowing when they´d meet again. Basil had not known what to say and had simply given her a big hug, crushing her against his body and Jo had returned the gesture in the same fashion, drawing strength from the silent declaration of friendship. Dane had been a little more talkative, but not much and had mainly said that he´d miss her and that she had to promise to take care of herself, and that if she wasn´t happy or Messina turned out to be impossible to work with, she should come back immediately and if Messina put up a fight, he´d come and kick her arse.

Jo had swallowed hard and tried to smile, not knowing herself what to say. It wasn´t the first time she´d left everything behind to face an unknown future, but this was the first time where someone actually cared what might happen to her.

"Jo?" A sleepy voice brought her back to the present and Jo turned to see Christa stand in the doorway to her house, a thick grey blanket over her shoulders to ward off the cold. "Can you come over here for a moment?"

Jo glanced back at the people further away, but they were still talking and nobody noticed as she walked over to the brunette. They stood silently in front of each other for a few seconds, then Christa opened the blanket and Jo stepped into the waiting embrace, burying her face in soft brown hair.

"I´m sorry that I passed out last night," Christa mumbled into Jo´s shoulder. "I wanted to say goodbye to you properly."

"That´s okay," Jo smiled and pulled away a little so she could see the brunette´s face. "I´m just glad you´re here now. I…" She faltered then continued shyly, "I wasn´t sure you´d come, I mean it got pretty late last night and all…"

Christa placed a warm hand on a cold bronze cheek, "Of course, I´d be here. I´m your girlfriend, remember? Where else would I want to be?"

Jo blinked a few times, then smiled as Christa´s words seemed to enter her veins and heat up her blood, bringing back warmth to her cold body.

"My girlfriend, huh?" She repeated slowly, tasting the word and finding that she liked it.

She looked into bright brown eyes and wanted to say so much more, but couldn´t find the words. She struggled for a few moments then just gave up and leaned down to kiss the waiting lips.

Jo felt herself melt into the kiss, desperately trying to remember every sensation from the feel of Christa´s hands in her hair to the taste of her mouth and the give and take of their tongues. She wanted to be able to bring out the moment later to savour it in all its wonder and glory.

"Okay, you two, that´s enough! Jo, we need to get going."

Iris Messina´s voice ended the moment and they reluctantly broke apart, both breathing heavily. Jo shot a glance back at Messina who was loading bags into the van, and decided she had a little more time before the final goodbye. She rested her forehead against Christa´s and whispered softly, "I´ll wait for you, you know."

She felt a slight tensing from the girl in her arms and Christa shifted uneasily, bringing a bit of distance between them. "What do you mean?"

"I mean… I mean that…" Jo stopped as she saw the look in the brown eyes and suddenly wished she hadn´t said anything. "I´m not… I´m not going to…" She continued hesitantly, "I´m not going to be with anyone else… while… while I´m gone."

Christa´s eyes softened and she tenderly caressed the cadet´s cheek, "Jo… That´s probably one of the sweetest things anybody has ever said to me, but…"

Jo heard the dreaded word, but was too late to steel her heart against it as the brunette continued and suddenly all the warm, cosy feelings from before were gone and she felt just emptiness. Emptiness and confusion.

"-But, Jo… we don´t know if we´ll ever see each other again, and even if we do, it won´t be for a very long time. It could be years, you know that." Christa felt the rising tension in the dark cadet´s body and she reached up to touch Jo´s cheek again, only to have her flinch away from her hand. The brunette sighed quietly, stepping further out of the embrace. "A lot of things can happen when you´re apart, Jo… It wouldn´t be fair… to either of us. Don´t you understand…?"

And Jo understood. She had been ready to wait for Christa until the brunette had completed her education and training, and then she´d have tried to get herself stationed in the same camp, or at least a camp nearby so they could be together and then maybe one day…

She´d thought, no hoped, that Christa would want that too, but apparently she had other plans for her future.

It´s okay, Jo, a tiny voice in her head whispered. It´s no big deal… You should´ve expected it. Someone like Christa doesn´t want to spend the rest of her life with someone like you. You should´ve known better.

Jo took a few steps back, distancing herself from the girl before her. "I understand, Christa… And I´m sorry, I didn´t mean to-."

"Jo! Get over here or I´m leaving without you!"

They both turned to look at Messina who was waiting impatiently beside the van.

"Jo…?" Christa reached out to touch her arm, but stopped halfway when she saw the slight tightening of the cadet´s jaw. For a second they looked into each others eyes then Jo briskly turned around and strode away.

Jo climbed into the driver´s seat beside Messina and after a few attempts the van started and the blonde glanced at the silent cadet.

"You all set to go?"

Jo nodded mutely, staring out of the window. Iris turned the van and as they passed Christa´s house again, Jo was unable to stop herself from looking for the brunette. There was no sight of her and Jo concluded that she must have gone back inside. Not that she could blame her, it was, after all, very cold outside.

With a casualness she didn´t feel, her gaze searched out a certain window, and she looked directly into gentle green eyes. Mickey tentatively raised a hand and just before they lost sight of each other, Jo raised her hand in return, giving the blonde a half-hearted wave and then the van drove through the gates, leaving silence to once again settle over Vega 3.

***************
 
 

Iris glanced at the brooding cadet out of the corner of her eye and sighed inwardly. This could turn out to be a very long ride.

"Don´t talk much, do ya?"

Jo looked away from her feet and lifted her head to briefly stare at Messina, then she shook her head, "No."

The blonde fought hard to suppress a smile. She was beginning to like this girl already. "Don´t you want to know where we´re going?"

Jo shrugged, "I didn´t think you´d tell me." She turned her head to look out at the deserted rural country flying past them, and suddenly she found herself wishing they´d get some snow. At least that would make the land look beautiful and not so empty and gloomy. "But since we´re going north, I assume we´re heading for the former German areas…"

It sounded more like Jo was thinking out loud, and less like a question, but Messina decided to answer anyway.

"You´re right. We´ll be spending a few days in a camp there before moving on." She considered whether she should tell Jo about their final destination, but decided it could wait. It wasn´t really something the dark cadet needed to know right now, and Iris was nothing if not careful. One should always be careful.

Silence settled between them and just as the blonde had started to assume that that was all the conversation they´d have that day, the girl beside her, shifted almost imperceptibly in her seat and blue eyes surreptitiously studied her profile.

Ah… Progress, Messina smirked inwardly, I knew curiosity would get the better of her eventually.

She was surprised, however, and not a little impressed by how long it took before Jo finally cleared her throat and began to speak.

"You were at Lyonne?"

They both knew she had been and that the question was only meant as a conversation opener, but Iris nodded solemnly, "Yes, I was." For a second her thoughts wandered and she felt very far away, then she shook her head slightly and returned her attention to the road and the present. She didn´t like to think about Lyonne.

"I have a… a friend who´s from Lyonne…" Jo said slowly and again it sounded more like she was thinking out loud.

Messina was expecting the cadet to continue, but nothing came forward and she realized she´d have to be the one to move this conversation, or monologue as it was now, along.

"How old is your friend?"

Jo frowned a little, surprised that she didn´t exactly know how old Mickey was. "Sixteen, I think… younger than me anyway."

"Then she can´t have been very old when it started…" The blonde said carefully, trying to coax the girl into saying more. Their gazes met and Iris found that she was becoming increasingly fascinated by the restless blue eyes which never seemed to fully relax, but kept darting around, creating such a sharp contrast to the motionless and still body. She didn´t feel any real tension from Jo, but the dark cadet was most certainly alert to the things around her, and Iris smiled inwardly. That was a something Jo would benefit from later.

"No… She can´t have been…" Jo trailed off then continued, and this time Messina noticed a small edge to the cadet´s tone, "But that doesn´t mean she doesn´t remember. Just because you´re a kid, it doesn´t mean you don´t know what´s happening around you"

"I never said it did."

Jo acknowledged her words with a small gesture and they fell silent again. Iris sighed, debating with herself how much she should say to keep the conversation going, how much she wanted to say, or if she should just let it be and endure ten hours of uninterrupted silence. Somehow that prospect wasn´t so appealing.

"I was twenty-three when the troops moved in."

"I know," Jo answered, grinning a little when she saw the blonde´s raised eyebrow. "It´s in the history books."

"Oh," Messina frowned slightly, then shook her head and grinned. "Yeah, I guess it must be."

Jo studied the woman beside her. She still had difficulties believing that she was really sitting next to Iris Messina, the absolute and unquestionable leader of the Organisation. She kept expecting to be woken up by Dane, only to be told that she had been dreaming again and that she was late for class. Something like this, simply wasn´t supposed to happen to someone like her. Jo sighed then pushed the thought away. She might as well enjoy the moment and stop thinking about when it would end. There´d be time enough for that later.

"Were you afraid?"

Iris blinked, surprised by the sudden question then let out a long breath, "Terrified."

"Really?" Somehow Jo found that hard to believe.

"Really."

"But you managed, you survived…"

"I had to." The blonde turned to look at Jo while keeping one eye on the road. "People were depending on me, their lives were at stake." She looked ahead again. "I had no choice."

"You did good," Jo said quietly.

"Not as good as I wanted to."

There was a palpable sadness and remorse to Messina´s voice and Jo suddenly felt the need to reach out and reassure the woman.

"You saved a lot of lives," she began hesitantly. "If it hadn´t been for you and your men, nobody would have left the city alive. If… if it hadn´t been for you my friend wouldn´t have been alive today." She smiled tentatively, "I´m very… grateful for… for that."

Iris stared at her in surprise and was silent for a long time, then she gave a small smile in return, "You´re welcome." She glanced briefly at the road then back at Jo. "Your friend… Was that the one you said goodbye to this morning?"

"No," Jo shook her head and Messina had no problems detecting the sudden tension in the cadet´s body. "That´s was not my friend… That… that was…" She faltered and shifted her body away a little, turning more towards the window.

Iris knew she shouldn´t push it, but was unable to stop herself, "Your girlfriend, then?"

Jo shrugged noncommittally and the blonde knew she was on to something. She didn´t really know why, maybe it was the tedious and boring ride which was affecting her, but suddenly she found herself wanting to know more about the little display she´d absently witnessed that morning.

You need to get a life, Iris, a small voice said in her head and she smiled ruefully. There´s more to life than sabotage, planning and fighting. When was the last time you held someone in your arms or woke up next to a warm body? Iris frowned, realizing that she couldn´t remember then returned her attention back to Jo.

"She´s beautiful."

The cadet didn´t answer right away, then nodded slowly, "Yes… She is."

And that, in spite of several attempts, was the last thing Messina managed to get Jo to say about that subject.

***************
 
 

"Please, Jo… I need my pills." Jo stares at the contorted face. Even from a few feet away she can smell her mother. Smell the decay. "Please… Jo. I´m in pain, I need them…Why won´t you help me?"

Jo drops to her knees, ignoring the cold and dirty water on the street which slowly soaks her jeans, "I´m sorry, mum. They wouldn´t give me any. They said you wouldn´t get more pills before you pay off your debt."

Her mother just stares at her, like she doesn´t understand what Jo´s saying, like she doesn´t know who Jo is.

"Why won´t you help me?," She repeats. "Why won´t you help me?"

Jo feels tears starting to run down her cheeks an she wipes them away angrily. She´s not a little girl anymore, she´s seven and seven- year-olds don´t cry. "Don´t worry, mum. I´ll get you the pills." She rises to her feet. "I´ll get the money."

She spends a few minutes searching the alley for something to cover her mother with. She finds a bundle of news papers, they´re damp and smell of urine, but they´ll protect her mother from the cold until she gets back.

"I won´t be long, mum. I´ll go find Enrique, he´ll give me some money. Don´t worry, I´ll be back soon."

Her mother doesn´t answer, but just mutters something to himself. Her body has begun to tremble and Jo knows it won´t be long before the spasms begin.

"I´ll hurry."

Jo runs out of the alley and turns right down the street. She knows she should be more careful, stick to the shadows and keep away from the street lights, but she doesn´t have the time. Her mother doesn´t have the time, and she trusts herself to be able of dealing with whatever or whoever might happen. Her sneakers don´t make much noise on the pavement, but to Jo it feels like every step is echoing loudly in the night, accompanying the never ending sound of sirens

Her eyes dart from left to right, back and forth always on the lookout for trouble, or people who might cause trouble. As she approaches a tall, shabby looking building, she slows down until she comes to a halt in front of the sealed door. A small sign announces the building is about to be demolished and that all access is forbidden, but Jo knows better. That sign has been there for the last two years, and she doubts that the building will ever be torn down. It´s more of a way for the Council to remind people that they could, if they wanted to.

She knocks the agreed signal on the door, but nothing happens. She shivers in the cold and looks around nervously, she hadn´t thought about what she would do if Enrique wasn´t there. She knocks again, this time harder and more desperate. He has to be there, he has to.

After what feels like an eternity, the door opens just an inch and a pale brown eye stares out from the darkness.

"What!?"

"Enrique, it´s me, Jo. I need your help."

The door cracks open one more inch and the single eyes is replaced by two.

"Jo?" The door is pushed further open and a bald and very thin man pokes his head out, quickly looking up and down the road before looking back at the shivering girl. "What do you want?"

"I need money, Enrique. I need money to buy pills. You said you knew a way I could earn some."

"No," he shakes his head vehemently. "I won´t let you do that." He starts to close the door, but Jo wedges a foot inside and stops him.

"Please, Enrique. It´s my mum, she needs them."

He stares at her blankly, "I know she needs them, Jo, but I´m not changing my mind. Your mother wouldn´t want you to do this if she knew."

He knows that in the state Jo´s mother is, she doesn´t give a damn about anything, not even her daughter, but Jo doesn´t need to hear that from him. Besides, he sighs quietly as he looks into pleading blue eyes, she probably knows already.

"Enrique… Please. If you don´t help me, I´ll have to go somewhere else, and I told mum I´d be back soon."

Enrique stares at her and makes his decision. At least here he´d be able to look out for her, make sure she won´t be forced into more than she can handle. He steps aside and allows the girl to come inside. As he watches her rush up the stairs, he feels like the biggest arsehole on earth.

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

To Be Contined….
Part 3


Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse