Chapter Ten
 
 

15 May 2042
 
 

Dear Dane,

I hope you´ll get this letter within reasonable time and not twelve weeks like last time. However, as you know communication has proven to be quite difficult lately, and there´s no telling when that might change. Messina says it´ll improve in a couple of months when it gets warmer and the soldiers at the roadblocks become lazier, but until then I suppose we´ll have to settle for a letter once every third month. And yes, I know I don´t write very often. I´ll try to do better.

So how are things in the administrative business? Aren´t you bored to death? I´d never have thought numbers and statistics were something for you, but then again, you never did like to get down and dirty, did you?

Have you heard anything from Basil? Do you know if he´s doing well at SIT? It´s practically impossible to get any messages through to him, and those CC people keep moving the cadets from one place to another, so I have no idea where he might be right now. If you hear anything let me know.

Guess what? I´ve gotten a surname. I´ve never had that before. Messina came in the other day and announced that we were going to… oh, I can´t tell you that, but anyway, we were going somewhere and for that I needed a proper identity, a name. She said I could choose any name I liked, as long as it wasn´t too exotic or unusual and then she´d have the papers made. She did say, however, that she didn´t want any more Müllers, Smiths or Jones since the Organisation has way too many of those already. Yeah right, Jo Jones, that would´ve been lovely, wouldn´t it?

Anyway, I couldn´t make up my mind. I mean, choosing a name like that, that´s kinda important, isn´t it? In some way it feels like choosing an identity. Messina said I shouldn´t take it too seriously, and just pick one I could spell. (That´s her way of joking in case you didn´t know) But what if you end up hating it one day, wishing you´d picked something else? Oh well, Messina got tired of waiting and picked up a book written by a guy name Delaine, and announced that my name now was Jo Delaine. Well, I guess it could´ve been worse. It could´ve been Pasternak, Coward or Wollstonecraft or something like that, and that would´ve been a bit much, I think. How about you? You´re eighteen now, so you´ll have to pick a surname, too. I think Basil got one the normal way, didn´t he? I think his father gave him one.

I know you wrote in your last letter that you´d like to hear a bit more about what I´m doing, but I can´t really tell you that much except that we move around a lot. We seldom stay somewhere for more than three or four weeks. Messina says it´s a safety precaution and I´m sure it is, but I´ve also gotten the impression that she´s a very restless person who likes to be on the move constantly. It drives Vlad crazy since he´s the one who has to do all the packing.

I´d wish you´d stop worrying so much about me, Dane. I´m perfectly all right. Of course there are times when everything isn´t so much fun, but that´s hardly different from Vega. I´ve never regretted coming with Messina. She´s shown me so much and I´ll never be able to repay her. So just relax, enjoy your numbers and try to stay out of trouble, okay?

Jo

P.S.

Just wondering if you´d heard anything from Mickey?

***************
 
 

The door opened and Iris Messina stepped inside, water dripping from her clothes and hair.

"Still raining?"

"Oh that´s funny, Delaine. We´ll have to work on your sense of humour." The blonde took off her coat and threw it carelessly onto a chair before kicking off her boots. "Christ! I never thought that guy would stop talking."

"Who?" Jo asked absently while arranging the piles of paper on the desk into some semblance of order. "The camp leader?"

"Yup," Iris sighed heavily and sat down on the bed, wringing excess moisture from her hair. "Like I haven´t seen a standby camp in operation a hundred times before."

Jo turned in her chair and looked at the drenched woman on the bed. "What´s the difference between a standby camp and a camp like Vega 3?"

"A standby camp is for soldiers and CC officers only," Messina began and rose from the bed. "There are no children, no cadets, no families like V3." She walked over to the corner of the small room and started to rummage through a bag. "People living in SB camps have to be ready to move out with a moment´s notice, and they have to be ready to fight with a moment´s notice as well. These camps are also located closer to the cities, and are less hidden away and more accessible for the Council´s troops than the V3 variety which of course makes living here more dangerous. Damn!" She looked at Jo in exasperation. "I can´t find any dry clothes."

Jo shook her head good-naturedly, "That´s because you´re looking in the wrong bag. It´s the grey one."

"Oh…" Iris grinned sheepishly and found the bag in question. She quickly pulled out a dry pair of trousers and a t-shirt and began to change. Jo turned away, blushing faintly. She still hadn´t become accustomed to the blonde´s lack of modesty when it came to nudity. She still remembered the first time she´d walked in on a totally naked Messina, and Iris´ roaring laughter that had followed her as she made a hasty exit out of the room. It had taken her a week before she could look her in the eye again, and to make matters worse, Messina had thought the entire thing hilarious.

"So… you got the paperwork done?"

"Yeah," Jo answered as Iris stepped up behind her and peered over her shoulder. "It was just a lot of reports, nothing serious."

"Anything I should take a look at?" Messina asked without enthusiasm and Jo chuckled quietly. If there was anything Iris hated more in this world than the Council then it was paperwork.

"Nothing that can´t wait till tomorrow."

"Wonderful!" The blonde exclaimed, relief evident in her voice. "I really wasn´t in the mood to go through tons of lengthy and tedious reports tonight."

"When are you ever…"

"Hey!" Iris slapped Jo gently on the shoulder. "Haven´t we become mighty cocky lately?"

Jo grinned and turned around, "I´ve learned from the best."

Messina crossed her arms and regarded her sternly for about two seconds before a smile broke out on her face, and she shook her head slowly. "I suppose you have…" She walked over to sit down on the bed again, her gaze still focused on Jo. "But I must say I´m glad about that. For awhile there I was afraid you didn´t know how to talk at all or smile for that matter."

Jo didn´t know what to say to that or if she was expected to reply at all, so she just smiled instead, shifting slightly on the chair.

"How long is it again you´ve been with me?"

"About six months," Jo answered, growing a little restless under the blonde´s close scrutiny. "We left V3 at the middle of December last year."

"Right…" Iris sighed and lay down on the bed, raising one knee to rest her other leg on. "Doesn´t time fly when you´re having fun?"

Jo gave the reclining woman a small grin then rose from the chair. "Well, unless there´s something else you want me to do for you, I´ll go get some sleep. I didn´t sleep much on the road last night."

"Neither did I," Messina replied before stifling a yawn. "I hate sleeping in a car. It´s pure torture for my neck and my back isn´t too thrilled about it either."

"I know what you mean…" Jo shifted her weight from one foot to the other, studying the blonde on the bed nervously. "Do you… Do you want me to… I mean, I could…" She trailed off uncertainly and Iris sat up on the bed, an unreadable expression on her face.

"Do I want you to…?"

"To… To… to get the medic for you? Maybe there´s something he… he can do?"

Messina looked at the flustered girl for a long time then sighed inwardly. Jo still had a long way to go when it came to some aspects of life. Casual physical contact being one of them.

"Nah, that´s okay." She smiled reassuringly. "I´ll be fine, you just go get some sleep."

As Jo nodded and walked out of the door, Messina could swear she saw something close to disappointment on the cadet´s face. After awhile she lay back down on the bed and studied the ceiling thoughtfully, a small smile playing on her lips.

***************
 
 

Three rapid explosions startled Jo out of her deep sleep. More asleep than awake she got out of bed, quickly pulling on a pair of trousers and a shirt. She was just about to reach for her boots when the gunfire started. For a second she froze then she grabbed the semi-automatic lying on the small desk next to her bed. The gun had been a present from Messina a couple of weeks ago, and the blonde had been quite stunned when she learned that Jo had never possessed a firearm before in her life. All the weapons in V3 had been old and for loan only, meant for practice and nothing else.

As Jo opened the door to peek outside into the night, all blood left her face and she turned deadly pale. Where the thick barbed wire fence had been less than an hour ago was now an enormous torn gap, and one truck after another was driving through the hole, unloading uniformed soldiers on the way.

Jo had never seen the Council´s Class A troops in action before, but she didn´t need to be told that that was what she was witnessing now. Like a huge, grey swarm of bees, the soldiers spread out and engulfed the small camp in their deadly darkness. Black choppers hovered above her, spraying dead and destruction wherever their rain of bullets washed over the ground, and Jo instinctively took a step back inside her room.

Where are our soldiers? Where is the Command Corps?, Jo´s disbelieving shouted. Why aren´t they fighting back?

A truck suddenly came to a halt right in front of her and a group of ten to fifteen soldiers jumped out. They rushed past her without looking her way, and headed directly for the small cluster of houses at the other end of the camp.

Messina…

For a few more seconds, Jo stood as paralyzed, unable of going either back of forth, then with a low curse she turned on her heels and went back into her room. She ran directly towards the small window at the back of the room, this time swearing out loud when she saw it couldn´t be opened. Without hesitation she smashed the glass with the gun, then quickly removed most of the shards before crawling outside. Too late she realized she should´ve taken the time to put on her boots as a few pieces lying outside on the ground cut into her bare feet, but she gritted her teeth and slowly ran along the back of the house towards Messina´s quarters.

She moved as quickly as she dared along the back of the houses, only pausing briefly to look around when she had to run the few meters separating the buildings, feeling terribly exposed as she crossed the open space, and each time expecting that this would be the moment when one of the soldiers in the centre of the camp would glance to his right and spot her. But nothing happened and suddenly there were no more houses to hide behind and Jo stopped uncertainly, peering ahead of her through the darkness.

A dozen of soldiers seeking cover behind an overturned jeep were engaged in a heavy exchange of fire, shooting in through the windows of the last building, directly into Iris Messina´s room. Every time they fired a round of bullets at the house, an equal measure of gunfire was directed back at them, and Jo saw to her satisfaction two men fall victims to Messina´s precise shooting.

Suddenly five soldiers detached themselves from the group and spread out, obviously intending on surrounding the building and move in on Messina from behind. The roar of the choppers still sweeping through the camp and the distant shouting and explosions slowly seemed to lessen and fade away as Jo became aware of the gun she was clutching painfully in her right hand. Through a haze she regarded the remaining soldiers kneeling behind the jeep less than four meters away from her, and feeling strangely detached from her surroundings, she felt her right arm move up and take aim, then she quickly pulled the trigger five times.

The first two men didn´t have the time to find out what was happening and the third only just managed to turn around before he fell to the ground, blood gushing from the hole in his side. The next soldier stared directly into her eyes and had begun to aim his machinegun at her when Jo pulled the trigger for the fourth time, sending the man flying backwards against the jeep, painting the green metal in a dark red. The fifth man fired two shots at her, narrowly missing her right shoulder and Jo inwardly heard Vivien´s voice chastising her for not being focused enough as she stayed absolutely still, and instead of taking cover behind the house simply pulled the trigger one more time. The bullet tore a hole in the man´s chest and for a second their eyes locked, then the soldier stared down at his chest in disbelief before he fell sideways, his head coming to rest on his dead comrade´s boots.

She didn´t stay to admire her handiwork, but continued forward on unsteady legs, running through cold puddles of mud towards the building before her, painfully aware that she hadn´t heard any gunfire from the house for a couple of minutes.

She reached the house without any incident and used a few seconds to regain her breath before she moved determinedly towards the wooden door which was hanging on its hinges, almost shot to pieces. From her position she had an open view of the entire camp and she swallowed hard when she saw the dark shadows moving purposely around further away.

Occasionally a few explosions lit up the sky, but those short glimpses of light were nothing compared to the merciless spotlights from the choppers in the air, bathing everything and everybody in a bright and blinding light.

Jo watched mesmerized as a chopper suddenly made an abrupt dive, firing bullets at a darkened house only to be met halfway by a golden beam cutting through the air and tearing the chopper into a thousand little pieces. A small part of Jo´s mind was glad that somebody was fighting the Council´s troops, while another part wondered what had happened to all the CC soldiers who had paraded proudly past Messina when they had arrived two days ago. Pushing the thought away, she took a deep breath, raised her gun and threw herself headlong through the splintered door.

***************
 
 

Messina was lying in a bloody heap on the floor, dead soldiers scattered all over the room. The blond head turned slowly towards the sound from the door, and a powerless arm tried to raise a gun, but when blue eyes met blue, Iris´s arm dropped back down and she gave the cadet a pained and weak grin. She tried to speak, but started to cough instead and her entire body shook with the effort to breathe.

"Easy now," Jo spoke quickly and kneeled down beside her, her gaze running over the blonde´s body to determine where she´d been hit and how seriously. "Don´t talk."

Her eyes found the dark patch covering most of Messina´s left side and she gingerly reached out to pull the bloodied fabric away, but before she could take a good look at the wound, she heard running footsteps coming their way. Their gazes met for the briefest of seconds then Jo´s eyes fell on an oil lamp lying on the floor. The glass was cracked but hadn´t shattered and Jo picked it up and hurled it against the wall. Flames immediately broke out and spread out over the floor, trying to reach for something to feed on.

Jo watched the fire engulf Iris´ bed and the curtains then she stuck the gun down the back of her trousers and reached down underneath the blonde, lifting her up. She staggered a little from the weight in her arms, muttering a low apology as she heard Messina´s sharp intake of breath when her wound was pressed against Jo´s abdomen in the process.

With Iris in her arms, Jo made her way towards the backdoor, trying to see through the thick smoke, now suddenly understanding why it was Messina always insisted on a room with two exits. With watering eyes she stepped over the bodies on the floor then past the door which had been forcefully kicked in by the soldiers. Outside she almost stumbled over two more bodies, but quickly regained her balance and walked as fast as she could towards the fence surrounding the camp. She had to get Iris out of there before the Council´s soldiers could get their hands on her, something Jo knew for certain the blonde wouldn´t survive, or if she did, she´d wish she hadn´t. If only she could somehow get far enough away from the camp, and then hide inside the forest then maybe everything would be okay, then maybe they would both survive.

Her eyes frantically ran up and down the fence before she found a small opening a couple of meters further up. Shouted commands reached her ears as she carefully placed Messina on the ground before crawling through the small gap in the fence. She turned around and reached back to pull Iris through. The blonde barely managed to stop herself from crying out in pain when she was roughly pulled through the fence, the barbed wire tearing her clothes and biting into her flesh.

"I´m sorry," Jo apologized again, wishing she didn´t have to be so harsh, but she didn´t have time to be gentle. She awkwardly gathered Messina up into her arms again and with blood pounding in her ears staggered towards the gloomy forest.

All the Organisation´s camps were either located inside a forest or in the mountains and although Jo sometimes had been sick and tired of never seeing anything but trees around her for the last ten years of her life, she now welcomed the moist, green darkness like a long lost friend as she dived under a branch and into the waiting safety. At least she hoped they would be safe. If the soldiers thought Messina had died in the fire then maybe they wouldn´t make a thorough search of the area surrounding the camp, and even when they found out that the blonde´s body wasn´t among the scorched corpses then Jo would have had enough time to get them to a relative safe distance. At least… she hoped so.

***************
 
 

Chapter Eleven
 
 

Message to all ***** stop. Last night camp ***** was attacked and seized stop. No survivors stop. ***** MIA stop. Code Blue applies stop. Await further instructions stop.

Vivien read the brief message one more time, an uncertain frown on her face. Then she read the message again, stared at the monitor for a few seconds then erased every trace of it.

Code Blue… MIA…

It felt so unreal, but the redhead was not concerned about reality right now, the only thing she was concerned about was to see to that the right precautions were taken. Immediately. Her hand reached for the phone on the desk, but paused inches above it. The less that was said through electrical appliances, the less chance there was that some of it would be recorded and traced.

She rose from the desk and exited her office heading for the door at the other end of the house. "Stanicki!" She barged in without knocking. "My office now!" Without waiting for the security chief´s reply she turned around and hurried down the corridor, inwardly making a list of all the places Pilot could be at this time of the night.

The gym… With one of his annoying cadets…

She crossed the compound in no time, ignoring the curious looks from the people enjoying the first warm night of the year and entered the gym, unconsciously wrinkling her nose at the smell of old sweat and rubber mats.

"Pilot! I need to see you in my office. Now!" She added forcefully when the big man didn´t take away his attention from the boy going through a complicated series of moves. "Can´t it wait?" he asked, still with his back to her. "I´m pretty busy right now."

"Code Blue," Vivien said simply, surprised by the small pleasure she got from saying the phrase and the stiffening of Pilot´s back. "My office." She turned and left the gym, knowing that the instructor would be right behind her.

She opened the door and saw Stanicki nervously pacing the floor. She left the door open and stepped around the desk just in time to see Pilot enter her office, closing the door quickly behind him.

"Code Blue?" The bearded man repeated questioningly as Vivien sat down in her chair. "Are you sure?"

The redhead gave him a look then turned to Stanicki, "Are we prepared for an emergency?"

The safety chief visibly squirmed, reluctant to meet the woman´s gaze, "Uh well, in theory, but…"

"But?" Vivien said coldly. "Are we or aren´t we?"

"It´s never been a real concern, I mean V3 is so far away that it´s highly unlikely that-."

"Highly unlikely is not good enough!" The redhead´s eyes practically pinned the man to the wall. "An entire SB camp has been destroyed and Messina is missing in action and you say it´s never been a real concern?"

Stanicki paled considerably when the seriousness of the situation began to dawn upon him, and he realized that this wasn´t just a test of Vega 3´s emergency procedures. "Get out and prepare for an evacuation and a possible attack," Vivien continued, her face a study of control. "Shut down all unsecured lines of communication except those we´ll need for further instructions and then come back here."

Stanicki nodded eagerly, obviously relieved by the prospect of getting out of the redhead´s office and stormed out of the door leaving Vivien and Pilot alone.

"MIA?" Pilot said quietly, speaking to himself then his eyes focused on the woman in the chair. "How accurate do you judge the information to be? I mean, the Council´s succeeded in sending false messages to us before and this is exactly the kind they´d orchestrate."

"I know," Vivien replied sighing heavily as she contemplated different scenarios in her head, "but it came directly from HQ and unless they´ve been infiltrated it should be correct." She looked at him meaningfully, "You and I both know that we wouldn´t be here to have this conversation if HQ had been taken."

"Hmm," the instructor responded noncommittally, grey eyes distant and thoughtful then suddenly he blinked and stared at Vivien, "Jo! What about Jo? Was she with her? Was she in the camp when it was attacked?"

The redhead shrugged," I don´t know. The message didn´t say. All it said that Messina was MIA, meaning that they´ve no idea whether she´s been killed or captured and otherwise it said there were no survivors." Her features mellowed a little when she saw the instructor´s suddenly pale face and she spoke almost gently, "It must have been Class A soldiers… you know how efficient they are. If Jo was there she wouldn´t… she wouldn´t have… I mean, it would all have happened very fast."

Silence hung heavily in the air and Pilot´s gaze was centred on the wall behind Vivien. "Pilot?" She asked hesitantly. "Pilot?" This time more assertive. "You need to pull yourself together, I have to be certain I can count on you if the worst possible scenario should occur. Can I?" Their eyes met." Can I rely on you to do what´s necessary?"

He nodded stiffly, "Yes, of course. I´ll make sure everything´s ready and that procedures are followed." For a second he seemed to drift off again then the weary expression was replaced by cold efficiency and he turned on his heals and walked outside.

Vivien sank back down in her chair, allowing herself a brief moment of peace before she would have to go outside and inform people that their carefully protected world might be falling apart around them. Unbidden memories of long ago flooded her mind and she closed her eyes against them, willing them to go back to the dark recesses of her mind where they belonged.

***************
 
 

"Jo! Jo, don´t bother." Messina tried to push the bloodied hands away, but was too weak to accomplish anything.

"What do you mean, don´t bother?" Jo asked incredulously, not caring to hide her growing anger and frustration. "I have to clean the wound, I have to bandage it." She looked at the eerily white face and softened her tone a little, "If I don´t you´ll die. Either from an infection or loss of blood… you know that."

Iris placed a cold hand on top of the two resting impatiently on her wound, "I know, Jo. I know, but…" She began to cough violently, tears filling her eyes and Jo but her lip helplessly as she tried to steady the weak and shaking body. When the coughing had subsided, Messina managed to take a deep breath and looked directly into the cadet´s worried eyes.

"Jo… I´m pretty sure the bullet grazed my intestines and if that´s the case they´ve started leaking already, and I´ll die from peritonitis if I don´t get immediate and capable medical help…" She patted the now motionless hands and smiled gently, "Something you can´t provide, Jo. Not here, in the middle of a forest without any equipment and proper medical training."

"No-no-no-no!" Jo shook her head vehemently. "You don´t know that for sure. It might not be that bad, maybe it only grazed your lung."

They both had to smile at the grotesque statement. "At least a little less bad," Jo continued with a pale grin while she carefully removed Iris´ hand from hers. She looked at her superior officer and practically whispered, "Please, let me try…"

Messina started to speak, but faltered as she found herself caught up in desperate, almost pleading blue eyes and she let out a quiet breath. "You´ll need water, a fire, bandages." The expression on the blonde´s face became challenging, "Where are you gonna get all that?"

"I can always make a fire," Jo replied, her gaze already searching their surroundings, looking for suitable materials. "I´ll go find water, there´s has to be some out here." Her eyes returned to Messina´s, "And for bandages I got this," she gestured at her bloodied and torn shirt, grinning sheepishly when she saw the raised eyebrow. "Yeah, I know, but we can´t afford to be picky." She took one last look at the woman sitting halfway up against a tree and rose, "I´ll make the fire first and then find some water."

Iris watched as the cadet quickly gathered wood and twigs, cleared a small area close to her and began to built a fire. "How are you gonna light it? Hit two rocks against each other?" Jo looked up. "Rub some sticks?"

The cadet grinned and Messina could barely make out the white of her teeth in the gloomy darkness, "Nah, I was thinking of using these instead." She held up a box of matches, "Not that your suggestions don´t sound fine though."

The blonde smiled inwardly as Jo lit the fire and soon small shadows were dancing among the trees, trying their best to illuminate the tiny clearing. "Here." Jo reached behind her and took out the gun. "I want you to have this while I´m gone."

Iris stared at the offered weapon for a moment then looked back to Jo´s face, "Why?"

"Why?" Jo frowned. "So you can defend yourself in case somebody comes by. No that I think it´s likely," she hurried to add, "we´re pretty deep inside the forest and I don´t-."

"Jo," Messina interrupted gently, "in the state I´m in, I´m not capable of defending myself and even if I were I´d want you to keep it."

"Why?" Jo repeated. "You´re more important than me, you should have it, if only just to scare them off for a while."

"Do you think that?"

"What?" The cadet rubbed her forehead in confusion, annoyed and unnerved by the blonde´s continuing questions and her refusal to be practical and rational. "Do I think what?"

"That I´m worth more than you are?"

"Well, you are," Jo deadpanned. "The Organisation needs you, it needs you alive and well. There are tons of people like me, but only one you and that´s all that matters."

"Jo…" Iris faltered and then took the gun, studying the dark emotionless face above her. For a moment they looked at each other and Messina couldn´t help but wonder what was going on inside the cadet´s head, but then Jo turned around and started to walk away, "I better find that water."

The blonde stared at the retreating back about to melt into the darkness and heard herself say, "Hey… Delaine?" The cadet stopped and turned around, her face a picture of stubborn determination, "Yeah?"

"Hurry, okay?"

Jo blinked then nodded, "I will." And then she disappeared among trees and shadows.

***************
 
 

"Do you want some more?" Jo held out the makeshift bowl she´d carved out of a piece of wood. It barely held more than a few drops of water, but it was better than running back and forth to the spring, carrying even less water in her hands.

"No," Messina turned her head away from the offered bowl, exasperation and pain evident in her voice. "I just want to lie down and die. My side hurts like hell."

"I´m sorry," Jo muttered as she put an arm under the blonde, gently easing her away from the trunk she´d been leaning against and down to the ground. "I tried to be as careful as possible, but I didn´t have any-."

"Hey…" Iris put her hand on Jo´s arm before the cadet could move away. "You did as good as you could under the circumstances, I couldn´t have asked for a better care." Jo looked down sceptically at the bandage covering most of Messina´s side. It didn´t look quite like the bandages Pilot had showed her how to make, and she wasn´t even sure she´d managed to clean the wound properly. At least the bullet had gone all the way through and hadn´t been in the blonde´s body. Not that that would make much of a difference if Iris´ intestines had been punctuated.

"Hey," Messina repeated, noticing the faraway look on the cadet´s face. "You did everything right, Jo." She smiled weakly, "After all, I´m still alive, aren´t I?" Jo returned the smile with a pale grin, inwardly deciding she would deal with an eventual worsening of Messina´s condition when it actually happened and not drive herself crazy worrying about it now.

Her gaze rested on Iris´ face, "Are you cold?" The sudden tremor running through the blonde´s body was all the answer she needed. "Yeah, I guess you are." She looked around aimlessly as if expecting to find a couple of blankets hanging from the trees.

"Well, you could´ve picked a worse month for sleeping outdoors," Messina replied through chattering teeth. "It´s June and not December so it could´ve been worse."

"Mmm," Jo agreed absently, throwing a couple of more logs on the fire. She was worried that the flames would be too visible in the darkness, but she didn´t really have much of a choice. It was either that or risking that Messina began to freeze, something the blonde couldn´t afford to spend energy on in her current condition. "Next time I´ll try to have it arranged that we´re further down south, Greece perhaps and then let´s see if we can´t make it July or August instead."

She didn´t receive a respond and she looked back at a thoughtful Messina, "You´re thinking about the attack?" Iris nodded, "Yes, I have to." Her eyes grew distant for a moment then she refocused on Jo, "It all happened so fast. I didn´t even have time to get out of my room before it was under fire. I woke up to the sound of bullets splintering the windows." She stared at the cadet, "Why do you think I wasn´t notified that something was happening? Why wasn´t the Command Corps more effective than it was? How was the Council´s soldiers able to practically wander into the camp without anybody noticing?"

"It… It could be a coincidence, a lot of unfortunate things happening at once," Jo offered hesitantly, both hearing the lack of conviction in her voice and Iris smiled wryly. "Yeah, Delaine, that must be it. A lot of unfortunate things coming down… all at the same time." She sighed, suddenly looking very tired, "It doesn´t matter right now anyway. It´s something I´ll have to deal with later."

The sentence hung in the air between them for a moment and their eyes met briefly before Jo moved to lie down beside the blonde. She cautiously moved as close as she dared, fighting the impulse to get up and move to a more comfortable distance. Messina sighed quietly, welcoming the warm body so close beside her. She had no problems detecting the tension in Jo´s body, but she was in too much pain and too exhausted to give it much thought. Jo would get used to it eventually.

Soon Iris was asleep and Jo started to relax a little, but still kept all her senses alert to her surroundings, listening out for the smallest of sounds which didn´t occur naturally at night in a forest. Her bare feet were hurting from the cuts she´d received from crawling through the window, and her entire body was aching after having carried Messina in her arms for miles through thick and scratching underbrush, thorns tearing through her trousers and into her flesh. The dried blood on her legs had started to itch, but Jo was afraid to move in case she woke up the blonde sleeping fitfully beside her. So she gritted her teeth, closed her eyes and tried to think of something else.

Christa´s image suddenly appeared before her eyes and for once, Jo allowed herself to linger over it for a moment before she pushed it away and was surprised to find it replaced by Mickey. A determined Mickey edging herself over the top of the cliff, grinning victoriously as Jo pulled her to her feet. It was with that image of Mickey and the imagined feel of their hands clasped together that Jo finally fell into an exhausted and dreamless sleep.

***************
 
 

Chapter Twelve
 
 

Mickey was kneeling on the floor, staring into the darkness under her bed.

Nope, no anatomy book there.

She rose and stood motionless in the middle of her small and clustered room for a moment, while trying to remember where exactly it was she´d last seen the book. Then she resolutely stepped over to her desk in front of the window and began to look underneath all the papers and books lying there.

No, nothing there either…

A movement outside her window caught her eye and she looked up to see a very old and very battered Fiat pull up in front of the house. Two young men stepped out and Mickey felt a smile come to her face as she recognized the blonde looking questioningly around.

"Dane!" She opened the window to make sure he could hear her. "Dane! What are you doing here?" The young man looked up and smiled briefly then pointed at the front door. Mickey nodded eagerly, indicating that he should come in and after he´d exchanged a few words with the other man, he disappeared into the house.

Mickey threw one glance at her room and quickly decided it would be no good to try to clean up anything now. She´d need at least an hour and a crew of fifteen to make the room look just remotely like a place one could live. Books and charts were scattered all over the floor and several sheets with hand-written notes were occupying both chairs and the bed. She decided to remove most of the junk from her bed and place it on her already overcrowded desk before going back to the bed and sit down, waiting for Dane to take the forty-five steps up to her floor.

She was looking forward to seeing him again. It had been more than six months since she last saw the blond man, hell, it´d been more than six months since she´d seen any of her old friends from V3.

She liked studying medicine in the small dusty town whose only remainder of its glorious past before the Silent Revolution was its outstanding university, but the town was also situated so far away from everything that one quickly got to know every single person and student there, and since people from the outside world rarely came by, Mickey had started to feel cooped up and terribly bored months ago.

Of course the town´s location and the trackless roads which let there was the main reason why the Organisation chose to have most of its medical staff educated and trained there. The town wasn´t in alliance with the Organisation, but they had, and had had for a long time, an unspoken agreement with the town´s leaders that as long as a certain amount of money was transferred to the accounts of certain members of the city council, no word of the surprisingly large number of young students with no real background studying in the town would be mentioned anywhere outside the town´s border. The arrangement had worked well for years and Mickey suspected it would continue to do that for years to come until the Organisation was strong enough to overthrow the Council´s rule.

Whenever that´ll be…

A knock sounded on the door and Mickey jumped up from the bed, "Come in." The door opened to reveal Dane who was looking slightly paler than usual, but otherwise didn´t appear to have changed much during the last months.

"Mickey…" He smiled and stepped over to her and for a second they stood awkwardly in front of each other, then Mickey opened her arms with a small smile and they embraced. "So…" He spoke into her hair, enjoying the sensation more than he´d thought he would. "How have you been?"

"Oh, just fine." Mickey loosened the embrace and leaned back so she could see his face. "I´ve been busy as hell and bored senseless." She grinned at the expression on his face, "But that aside I´ve been just fine and you? Still learning statistics?"

He nodded and followed the blonde with his eyes as she made herself comfortable on the bed. Mickey smiled apologetically, "Sorry about the mess, I´ve been studying a lot lately and haven´t really been motivated to put everything into order." Dane smiled and sat down beside her, "That´s okay. Remember, I spent more than three years living in one tiny room with Jo and Basil, believe me, I´m used to… well… chaos and… uh… alternative ways of storing and keeping stuff."

Mickey smiled warmly, "Yeah, I bet you are…" She paused and glanced briefly at the blanket covering her bed before she looked up at Dane. "So… Have you heard anything from… from Jo? Do you know if she´s doing fine, if she´s…" She trailed off as she noticed a strange look in Dane´s eyes and suddenly she felt a small tingle of fear inside her, although she didn´t quite know why.

"Dane… Dane, why are you here?" The young man looked her directly in the eye, "You haven´t heard?" He shook his head before she could answer, "Well, I was kinda expecting that. You´re so faraway from everything out here and this town has no real connection to the Organisation, so of course they wouldn´t know."

"Know what, Dane?" Mickey asked carefully, holding her breath as a small shiver ran down her back. "Is… is something wrong?"

"Messina´s missing," he said softly, still looking into her eyes. "The camp she was staying in was attacked five days ago and the entire Organisation has been on blue alert ever since." He reached out to squeeze her shoulder gently when he saw the shocked expression on her face, "But don´t worry, I´m sure they´ll call it off soon. No other camp´s been attacked so apparently they were going for Messina herself and not the entire Organisation." He took a deep breath before continuing, "Of course all this is strictly classified and I´d be in real deep trouble if anybody found out I was telling you this. I only heard of it because a guy in my class has a sister who was part of the medical team who arrived at the camp after the attack."

"And…?" Mickey whispered and Dane shook his head sadly, swallowing hard. "There… there… They didn´t find any survivors, only a lot of burned corpses and mutilated bodies. Apparently the Council used Class A soldiers to make sure the attack didn´t fail… Apparently they didn´t want to take any chances that anybody might get away alive."

They stared at each other, the implication not lost on either of them. "I´m here," Dane said hoarsely, "I´m here because I know that… that… I know how much you cared for Jo and… and I thought you should know…"

Mickey turned her head abruptly and looked down at the floor. A thick lump was forming in her throat, but no matter how many times she swallowed it wouldn´t go away. She hadn´t realized how hard she was biting down on her lower lip until she tasted blood in her mouth and tears of pain sprang to her eyes, mingling with tears from a different kind of pain. As she looked back at up at Dane, she saw his eyes were moist, too.

***************
 
 

Jo fought her way back to consciousness through heavy layers of exhaustion and pain which seemed to having engulfed and taken control of her body. Disorientated and still with her eyes closed, she remained on her back trying to pick up any sounds around her. She couldn´t understand why she was hurting so much or why her head felt so heavy and her thoughts so muddled.

Suddenly she sensed a warm presence beside her and all her instincts flared, instantly taking control. She waited until she felt a small change in the air as an arm reached out, then her eyes snapped open and she grabbed the approaching hand and aimed her other hand at the person´s head.

Through a foggy dizziness Jo saw and felt her fist connect painfully with a man´s chin and a cry mixed with both pain and surprise reached her ears. She tried to sit up and follow up on her punch, but noticed that her limps didn´t seem to want to respond to her brain´s directions, and for a few seconds she waged a great war against the dizziness that threatened to take over once again.

The man beside her had recovered and Jo felt panic rise as he approached her again, and she was unable to stop strong heavy hands from pushing her back down. She started to struggle aimlessly and with no real effect as she wasn´t really able to move, and then she vaguely heard a voice call out, but she was too caught up in her adrenaline rush to respond right away.

"Jo! Jo, stop it! It´s all right! Nobody´s trying to hurt you!"

It took Jo a few seconds before she realized it was Messina´s voice she´d heard and she fought down the urge to continue fighting and her body went limp. Through the pounding of blood in her ears, Jo heard Messina continue soothingly, "Jo, just relax, everything´s all right. We´re safe, we´re among friends."

"Why do I feel so funny," Jo mumbled, her tongue thick and her mouth incredibly dry and as if guessing her discomfort the man above her released her, and took a mug from a small table Jo first now noticed was standing beside the narrow bed she was lying in.

"You´ve been drugged pretty heavily," a warm and somewhat amused voice said as the man offered her the mug. ""That´s why you´re feeling so strange. You´ll feel better in an hour or so."

Jo warily eyed the elderly man before her. He had friendly, almost yellowish eyes and his hair was thin and grey. He didn´t look much like a threat and she hesitantly accepted the mug, greedily drinking the lukewarm, but nonetheless refreshing water.

"Jo?" The cadet turned her head and for the first time noticed that Messina was lying in a bed a few feet away, her face weary and pale, but the blue eyes shining with the usual good humour Jo knew so well. "You all right?"

Jo nodded, her eyes leaving the blonde´s face to study the big and spotless bandage at Messina´s side and then come to rest on the man standing between them. He gave her a friendly smile while rubbing his chin gingerly, "It´s quite a punch you got there, kid. Even with all those drugs in you, I´m impressed."

Jo regarded him suspiciously then looked back at Iris, "Where are we? I don´t remember us going anywhere."

"They found us two days ago… They´re friends," Messina added reassuringly, not wanting to see a repeat of Jo´s last performance. "They came across us in the forest and brought us to their village." She looked into the cadet´s eyes, "We´re safe, Jo. They´ve taken good care of us, of me. They probably saved my life."

Jo´s gaze fell on the white bandage again and she nodded mutely to herself, then her eyes narrowed and she stared angrily at the patiently waiting man. "Why was I drugged?"

The man hid a smile, inwardly impressed by how much menace the obviously still dazed girl could convey in just one look. "You… you didn´t quite believe our good intentions when we first met," he spoke calmly, an amused glint in the yellow eyes. "You fought back pretty intensely, trying to defend your friend there." He indicated Iris with a tilt of his head. "It took three of us to overcome you, but even then you wouldn´t keep still, so the only way we could think of to take you with us without having to knock you unconscious every other hour was to drug you."

During the last part of the man´s sentence, Jo´s gaze had strayed to her arms and hands and she noticed several bruises and cuts, and if the aching of her body was anything to go by she knew she´d find several more under the large t-shirt she was currently wearing and the tossed aside blanket which was just barely covering her legs.

The man whose eyes had followed the path down Jo´s body said softly, "Yeah, I´m sorry about that. We didn´t have much of a choice, you wouldn´t listen and your friend didn´t have the time to wait for us to debate it out. So we kinda took the matter into our own hands." Their eyes met, "I´m sorry."

Jo looked at him for a moment then at Messina who seemed to have dozed off during their exchange. "Is she okay?" The man nodded, "Yeah, she´s fine. She´ll have to stay in bed for a couple of weeks, and it´s going to take a long time before she´s up to full speed again, but otherwise she´ll be just fine."

"I don´t remember hearing you approach us," Jo spoke, more to herself than to the man and he was surprised by the self-reproach he detected in the girl´s voice. "Well," he began carefully, "you were fast asleep and it was early morning." He could tell she was still angry with herself by the clenching of her jaw so he continued, trying to make eye contact, "You must have been very exhausted… taking care of your friend like that. You have nothing to blame yourself for."

"Yeah…" Jo muttered under her breath, more annoyed than soothed by the man´s attempt to reassure her. She let her eyes roam the small room they were in, taking notice of the only exit and the two small and closed windows. The man had no problems following her line of thought, but decided to let it pass. Trust would come, he assumed, eventually. When he felt the girl´s eyes come back to rest on him, he smiled and casually reached one hand out, "My name´s Gunnar by the way. I´ve had the pleasure of being your doctor for the last two days."

Jo studied the tanned and slightly wrinkled hand for a moment then she accepted it, barely making contact before releasing it again. "I´m Jo and this is…" She trailed off, wariness and suspicion showing in her eyes again as she looked from Gunnar to Messina and back.

"I know who she is," the doctor said, his voice void of any emotion, then he gave Jo a small smile. "You need to rest." He turned and walked towards the door then looked back at her, "It´s okay to sleep, Jo. You´re safe here." Then he left and closed the door behind him. Jo considered his statement briefly, then, deciding to trust him, made herself comfortable in the bed, realizing that even if they were in danger she was in no condition to do anything about it.

***************
 
 

"I envy you, you know…" Messina sighed as she watched Jo try on the pair of boots Gunnar had brought by earlier. "I´d do anything to be able to get out of bed. I´m sick and tired of lying on my back with nothing else to do than to stare at the ceiling and count the cracks… There are forty-three by the way."

Jo stood up and took a few experimenting steps in her new boots, deciding that once the leather had become softer they would be quite comfortable to wear. She grabbed the jacket lying on her bed then looked at Iris whose eyes were practically glowing with frustration and pent up energy. "Just a few more days and then you can try to get up." She walked over to fluff the blonde´s pillows, ignoring Messina´s exasperated sigh as she did so.

"I´ve been lying flat on my back for almost four weeks, Delaine! While you´ve been able to run around outside having fun. It´s driving me crazy!"

"Well, that´s what happens when you allow yourself to get shot," the cadet smirked, knowing not to take Iris´ complaints too seriously. "Besides, it´s not like I´ve actually been running around laughing my arse off the last couple of weeks, I´ve been working pretty hard in case you didn´t know."

"I know, Delaine, I know," Messina sighed again and she gave Jo a small smile. "I just hate feeling useless like this."

"Don´t worry," Jo replied as she made sure the blonde had everything she might need on the small desk beside the bed, "we´ve been kind enough to save you a lot of work once you get back on your feet. Trust me," she straightened up, hearing all her bones crack in response, "you won´t get bored… Okay, you got everything or is there something you want me to get?" Iris shook her head, "No, I´m fine. You just get out of here and tell Gunnar I want to speak to him about using his radio when he has a free moment."

"I will." Jo gave the blonde a quick smile then disappeared quietly out of the door.

The rest of the day, Jo spent pretty much like she´d spent any other day since they came to the small secluded village. Chopping wood, feeding animals, boiling water and tending to the sick. It had taken awhile, but eventually she had started to trust Gunnar and the small community he´d created faraway from cities and people, alliances and conflicts. The small village which was barely more than twenty wooden houses was located in the mountains about 70 miles from the forest where Gunnar and his men had first found Jo and Messina. The village population consisted mainly of old renegade soldiers from various battles and various causes mixed with a few haggard and shady looking men and women who didn´t seem to have a past or a background at all. Jo suspected that many of them were from Neo Roma, she thought she recognized the accent of a couple of them, and it would also account for the large number of Reuma victims in the village which required daily treatment and care.

The cadet had been violently sick the first time she´d stepped into the large house used as a hospital and had seen and smelled all the telltale signs of people in decay, but after a bit of fresh air she´d pulled herself together and begun to wash and feed the patients as Gunnar had requested. Now, as she walked from one bed to another, it was almost second nature to her, carefully washing the constantly seeping blood from their ears and noses, changing the drenched sheets and wiping the gruel from their faces when she fed them.

The reason for the patients unstable and deteriorating condition was that the village was quickly running out of the small, but extremely expensive and effective blue pill which was the only remedy that the Realm had against Reuma. The pills didn´t cure the patients, but kept them alive until their bodies were too destroyed for the organs to function properly and they died, a process which could take years. Due to the low supply of pills, Gunnar and the other healthy people in the village had been forced to attenuate the drug to make it last longer, which unfortunately also meant that the patients were now barely being kept alive and were going through withdrawal since the pill was strongly addictive. Thus the patients were in constant pain, shaking with cramps, which also seriously threatened their supply of morphine and other analgesics.

Jo had listened quietly one night as Gunnar had told her how he´d left Neo Roma shortly before the contamination of the water in 2025 which had infected more than a third of the people living in the Slums with Reuma, and when he returned, his wife and two sons had succumbed to the virus. He´d remained in the city for a couple of years until the riots began to increase in numbers and strength, and he´d left Neo Roma again only days before the Council had troops move in to clear the Slums of unruly elements and whoever else who happened to get in the way of the bullets.

"So," he´d smiled sadly at Jo, "I think by now I´ve more or less used up my share of good luck, wouldn´t you say so?"

Jo had only shrugged, the subject of Reuma and Neo Roma not being one of her favourite topics of conversation and Gunnar had seen the haunted look in the blue eyes for just a second before she managed to veil it behind her usual expression of aloofness and indifference.

"You´re a survivor, too…" He´d stated softly and for a minute he´d reminded Jo of Pilot when the instructor had tried to tell her something important, both having friendly and concerned eyes and a warm and compassionate voice.

"You have to be," she´d answered curtly then excused herself to check on Messina and then get back to her duties with the sick.

She hadn´t been happy at all when Gunnar had seemed to take a special interest in her, always showing her different ways to treat injuries and care for patients or telling her about life in the village. How he and a small group of men had started the community several years ago, surviving in spite of their refusal to support either the Council or the Organisation, always trying to remain inconspicuous and out of the line of fire.

After awhile, Jo had just given up getting Gunnar to leave her alone and soon she actually found she was looking forward to the quiet hours after all the patients had been fed where they´d sit down and talk, or more accurately, Gunnar would talk, telling her about this and that, his concerns and worries while Jo would nod or shake her head on the appropriate places. Occasionally she would offer some kind of solution to a problem and whether it was useful or not, Gunnar always showed so much enthusiasm no matter what she said that the cadet always squirmed in embarrassment, promising herself that that was the last time she´d ever suggest anything again. However, she surprised herself by responding more and more often to the elderly man´s innocent, and sometimes not so innocent, questions and inwardly she mused it probably had something to do with the fact that she´d missed having someone to talk to since Messina was still sleeping most of the time, and the rest of the village´s inhabitants were, not directly hostile, but certainly guarded around her and most of the patients were in no condition to speak at all.

***************
 
 

Gunnar was sitting on the edge of Messina´s bed while Jo was lying sprawled out on her own bed, impatiently listening to the argument which had been going on for more than an hour. It was pretty basic really, Iris wanted to get out of bed, Gunnar wouldn´t let her. Iris wanted to use his radio to get in contact with HQ, Gunnar wouldn´t let her out of fear that the signal would be tracked and lead soldiers to his village. Messina had promised to station people there from the Organisation to help him, Gunnar would have no such thing, claiming that the mere presence of armed forces in the village would inevitably attract the Council´s attention and he and his people couldn´t afford that. Their final point of disagreement had been about the food Iris had been served that evening, and with that Jo suspected they were both starting to run out of things to argue about.

For about five minutes Messina and the doctor just stared at each other without speaking, both having their arms crossed and their shoulders set, then Iris sighed and almost visibly backed down, "All right, Gunnar. I can´t make you let me use the radio, but…" She raised a hand to stop him from speaking, "Sooner or later I have to let the Organisation know I´m alive, preferably sooner, and the faster I can get a message through to them, the faster Jo and I can get out of your face. Think about that…" She looked at him seriously, "The longer we stay here, the greater the risk is for you and your village. Also I have to get back soon, the people in the Organisation need to know that I´m still alive, that we haven´t been defeated by the Council and won´t stop fighting until we´ve prevailed."

Gunnar scratched the back of his head, not the least impressed by the blonde´s speech. "I´m sure they´ve replaced you already," he said with a small smirk. "I doubt they wasted much time naming your successor."

He grinned to himself when he saw the scowl on Messina´s face then rose from her bed, sighing deeply.

"Okay, here´s the deal… I get a message through to your people that you´re alive and well, but also that they´re not to come within fifty miles of the village, or in any way try to come and get you. When you´re well enough, we´ll drop you off some distance away from here and then we´ll let them know where they can find you." He glanced briefly at Jo and then back at Iris, "How does that sound? Is that acceptable to you?"

Messina contemplated the suggestion in silence for a moment then nodded, "I can live with that." Gunnar nodded as well, sealing the deal, then turned to Jo, "Want to help me fix the fence?"

He was referring to the fence around the small patch of grass where the village´s three cows were kept, a fence which was in desperate need of repairs and Jo sat up, eager for the opportunity to get out and use some of the restless energy she´d built up while watching Messina and Gunnar argue.

"I´ll be back soon," she promised the blonde as she disappeared out of the door behind Gunnar, secretly hoping that the work with the fence would take awhile since Iris´ usual relaxed disposition had suffered severely during the last couple of weeks where she´d been confined to bed, and with Jo being the only one around to entertain her or keep her frustrations at bay, the cadet´s resources were drained and she was having increasing difficulties to keep her temper from flaring every time Messina was being particularly unreasonable.

She suspected Gunnar was aware of the problem because for the next couple of hours they worked on the fence in silence, Jo holding the boards in place while the doctor hammered nails into the wood or sawing off ends to make them fit better. The air was warm and smelled of spices and summer and Jo found herself humming quietly, not knowing when she´d begun or from where she knew the tune, and it was with a rare sense of peace she collapsed down on the grass several hours later when it´d become too dark to continue working.

She accepted the bottle Gunnar offered her, eyes widening abruptly from the fierce taste. Gunnar chuckled, "Potent stuff, eh?" Jo nodded as tears began to run down her cheeks and the doctor laughed out loud, "I make it myself, it´s the only luxury I allow myself, the only vice I have left from my decadent days in Neo Roma."

"I see," Jo spoke hoarsely, clearing her throat a few times then handing the bottle back. In the faint light of dusk she watched in amazement as Gunnar took a big gulp from the bottle and she shook her head slowly, "You really like that stuff?"

"Mmm," Gunnar answered, drinking some more. "It´s the best there is. It´s even better than sex."

Jo arched an eyebrow, but didn´t comment when she saw the mischievous twinkle in the doctor´s eyes and for a while they sat in silence, passing the bottle between them.

"You know, Jo…" Gunnar finally spoke after a long time, "I´d like to hear you opinion about something."

"Sure," Jo took another sip of the bottle, finding the taste less disgusting than earlier. "What´s up?"

"As you know we´re running out of medicine to treat the Reuma patients. The dosage is now so low that within the next couple of days, the weakest of them will start dying and there won´t be anything we can do about it."

Gunnar sighed in the darkness and not for the first time Jo wondered how old the doctor really was, and for how long he´d been taking care of everything, the village and the patients without any substantial help from the other inhabitants.

"However, I happen to know," the doctor continued without looking at Jo, "that tomorrow night, a truck carrying a load of pills will be passing through only thirty miles from here. The truck will be relatively unguarded and the amount of medicine onboard will be enough to keep all the patients here alive for at least six months. Now…" He turned his head a little, making eye contact with the cadet. "My dilemma is that if I don´t do anything, people will start dying and if I do something I risk the existence of the entire village. You know as well as I that the Council won´t just accept a missing shipment of pills. They will ask questions, they will go looking… And then of course there´s the matter of the guards…"

Until then Jo had been following without difficulties, but now she frowned lightly. "What about the guards? I thought you said the truck wasn´t heavily guarded and with all the ex-soldiers you got to your disposal, I don´t see why that should cause a problem."

The doctor looked at her, "The guards will fight back, Jo. They´ll defend the shipment, I´ll have, no, we´ll have to kill them to take the pills. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Jo said slowly, "but I still don´t see the problem."

Gunnar regarded her thoughtfully for a long time, then something resembling a sad smile crossed his face, "No, I guess you don´t." He fell silent again for a moment then spoke softly, "So, what do you think I should do?"

Jo removed the gun from her waistband, relishing the smell of the well oiled metal and the comforting weight in her hand, then gave the doctor a predatory grin, "What do ya think we´re gonna do?"

***************
 
 

Chapter Thirteen
 
 

Jo was lying motionless on her stomach beside Gunnar, watching the narrow and dusty road cutting through the hilly landscape. The sun was just setting and the doctor had told Jo and the ten other men he´d brought from the village that the truck would most likely appear within the next hour or two, and he had ordered them all to get into position along the road and be prepared.

At first Gunnar had been reluctant to bring Jo along, but the cadet had insisted, claiming that that was the least she could do after he´d saved Messina´s life and taken so good care of them both, and he´d soon realized it was futile to argue and agreed to let Jo join him and his men in the attack. Iris had grown quiet and pensive when Jo had informed her of the doctor´s plans, and Jo suspected the blonde was irritated that she couldn´t go herself, so she had more or less slipped out of the door when the time to leave had come, not wanting to have another discussion with an agitated Messina who´d only been out of bed for one day, disregarding Gunnar´s orders, and still tired easily, much to the blonde´s frustration and dismay.

The sun disappeared in the horizon, briefly painting the sky in a dark red before the gloomier colours of dusk took over, causing the temperature to fall as well.

Jo suppressed a shiver, but Gunnar caught the small movement and shook his head lightly, "The temperature drops quickly in the mountains, Jo. Didn´t I tell you to dress properly?"

"Yeah well…" Jo looked at him a tad sheepishly. "I was too hot earlier so I left my sweater behind." She turned her gaze back to the road, "I didn´t think I´d need it."

"I guess you´re used to a slightly warmer climate," the doctor spoke to himself and Jo didn´t feel the need to disagree. "Tell me, Jo…" Gunnar shifted slightly beside her, turning so he could look at the cadet while still keeping an eye on the road. "How did you get out of Neo Roma? How did you escape?"

For a long time there was silence and the doctor sighed inaudibly, "I´m sorry, Jo. You don´t have to tell me if it makes you uncomfortable."

"No… No, it´s okay," Jo looked at him briefly then turned her head away. "I just haven´t thought about it for a long time." Inwardly, the doctor pondered the truth of the statement, but decided not to say anything and instead wait to hear out whatever Jo wanted to tell him.

"There… there was this guy," the cadet began, fingers fidgeting with her right sleeve. "I used to work for him, the occasional odd job, you know… Nothing big." Gunnar remained silent as he took Jo´s age into account together with what he knew kids in Neo Roma used to do to get by, and he quickly realized he didn´t like what it added up to. "Well, this guy, Enrique, that was his name. He always knew what was going to go down before anybody else did, and after I´d been working for him awhile he started to get really funny, edgy, always telling me that he´d heard something was going to happen and that it was going to happen soon."

Jo took a deep breath, not quite sure why she was telling Gunnar this. Why she was willing to tell a man she´d known for barely a month something she´d never told anybody else, not even Pilot who´d tried again and again to get her to open up and tell him the story of her escape. "Anyway, I didn´t know then, but later I found out he´d been planning an escape route out of the Slums and past the city border for weeks, and when something finally did happen he had everything ready." She glanced at the doctor, "And he brought me with him." Her gaze dropped back to her sleeve, "I don´t know why… Maybe it was because I happened to be around when the soldiers came, maybe he thought I´d be useful later, I don´t know. In any case he grabbed me and threw me into the back of-."

A warm hand shot out and silenced her words and Jo barely stopped herself from slapping the hand away. "Shh!" Gunnar hissed, pointing at two small white lights heading in their direction. "They´re coming!"

***************
 
 

To muted shots rang out in the night the second the truck was right in front of them and it instantly began to sway as the driver tried to bring it under control and then came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the road. For a moment nobody moved then silently shadows separated themselves from the darkness and moved in on the truck.

The following exchange of fire was quick, but lethal. Three of Gunnar´s men went down before the doctor reached the back of the truck with Jo, and as they started to manipulate the lock they heard another round of shots which later turned out to have killed the driver and the man sitting next to him plus one more of Gunnar´s men.

"Gotta be careful now," Jo whispered as the lock was seconds from giving in, "there´ll be at least three more men in the back." Gunnar nodded, absently wondering when exactly it was the young girl beside him had taken over the operation and started to give instructions.

"Ready?" Jo mouthed and the doctor nodded, stepping away from the back of the truck and moulded his body against its side. The lock fell to the ground with a low thump and for a second nothing happened, then the doors were forcefully swung open and heavy machinegun fire tore through the gravel on the road only inches away from Jo´s feet. She and Gunnar fired a couple of times at the guards, but didn´t have to wait long before the remainder of Gunnar´s men went through the front of the truck, shooting the soldiers in the back before they had the time to turn around.

With all the soldiers down, Gunnar and those of the villagers who were still standing began to unload sealed metallic boxes from the truck while Jo dragged the dead off the road and behind some trees. Then she searched the glove compartment in the truck for anything valuable or important, but didn´t find anything. She knew the truck most likely carried a tracking device and that they needed to get it away from there as fast as possible before anybody noticed the exact location of where it had stopped. Unless of course… Jo jumped out of the truck then kneeled to look underneath it.

"Gunnar! Did you bring a flashlight?" A thin man walking past her dropped the box he was carrying and reached into his jacket to produce a small flashlight. "I want this back," he said gruffly as he gave it to Jo who gave him a slightly sceptical look before disappearing in underneath the truck.

The tracking device was where Messina had told her it would be during a discussion they´d had about ambushing Council transports several months ago, and Jo made a mental note to thank the blonde for the information. In no time she´d removed the tiny black slate from its hold and she used her legs to push herself out from under the truck again, trying not to think about the huge amount of itching sand she knew she´d find in all sorts of places afterwards.

"Gunnar!" She rose and looked around for the doctor, finding him waiting for her a few yards away with a few shadowy figures all carrying boxes behind him. "If we put this transmitter in your jeep and follow the route of the truck for a couple of hours, we might be lucky and the Council won´t notice anything before we´re too far away for them to suspect where the attack took place. All we have to-." Jo trailed off briefly as the thin man suddenly stepped forward and snatched the flashlight out of her hands before trailing back into the darkness behind Gunnar. "Right…" A slightly bemused expression showed on the cadet´s face then she continued. "We´ll have to get rid of the truck as well. A lake perhaps or some kind of chasm, somewhere nearby where they won´t be able to spot it from the air. Do you got anywhere suitable around here?"

The doctor scratched his cheek then turned around to face the silent people behind him and after what appeared to be a brief discussion he looked back at Jo, "There´s a lake nearby we can use." He stepped forward and almost tentatively took the transmitter from Jo, "I better leave now. The sooner we get this away from here the better." He glanced back, "Simon! You´re in charge of getting the truck away from here and Ossie you make sure the pills get back to the village. You´ll have to walk since I´m taking the jeep to lead the signal away from here, but I´m sure you´ll survive." He gestured impatiently when nobody moved, "Get going! We don´t have all night!"

Ossie, who turned out to be the thin guy with the flashlight, and four other men quickly picked up the boxes and began to walk away, while the man named Simon stepped over to the truck, and after a few coughing attempts the engine started and he slowly turned the vehicle and carefully drove down the road on wobbly tires.

Jo and Gunnar stared at the disappearing truck for a moment before it was swallowed up whole by the night, then Jo looked at Gunnar, "Want some company?"

The doctor smiled, but shook his head, "Nice of you to offer, Jo, but I´d rather that you went back to the village instead. I don´t know how successful this manoeuvre will be or who I might encounter on the road. I think it´ll be safer for you if you go back."

Jo decided not to mention that if the signal had been tracked already, the village would be the least safe place for her or anybody else to be, instead she just nodded, "Okay, if you think that´s better."

They walked in silence back to the small gathering of trees and bushes where the village´s only jeep had been parked. Gunnar gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder, "Take care of yourself, Jo, and try not to hit too many people when they´re only trying to help you, okay?"

Jo grinned good-humouredly, "I´ll try."

As she watched Gunnar drive away, Jo realized she was actually eager for him to get back fast, so they could finish their work on the fence.

***************
 
 

Her lack of knowledge of the landscape and the impenetrable darkness around her made it impossible for Jo to catch up with Ossie and the other men who´d left before her, so for hours she stumbled along narrow paths in solitude, more or less successfully ducking branches and thorny bushes which suddenly appeared before her.

It was with a weary sigh of relief she finally spotted a faint light before her and after a few more steps recognized the beginnings of Gunnar´s village. She walked down the dusty road between the houses when suddenly something further down the road caught her eye, and she came to an abrupt halt, eyes widening in alarm. Ossie and several other villagers were standing in front of the hospital, facing the wall. Dark figures were standing right behind them and Jo could dimly make out the machineguns in their hands, directed at the people at the wall.

Momentarily caught off guard, Jo just took in the scene, not moving a muscle for about three seconds then she pulled the gun from her waistband, inwardly calculating how many bullets she had left since she didn´t have anymore clips on her. Just as she was about to move forward, she saw Messina exit the hospital and unsteadily walk over to the nearest soldier, and Jo´s eyes grew even wider as the soldier saluted and apparently began to tell the blonde something, gesturing to the people at the wall.

More confused than ever, Jo remained motionlessly on the spot, fingers uncertainly curled around the gun as she watched Messina nod and then say something which immediately made three soldiers appear from nowhere and disappear inside the hospital. Almost instantly they returned, all carrying sealed metal boxes in their hands. They made two more trips into the hospital each time coming out with the precious boxes Gunnar and his men together with Jo had stolen from the truck just hours earlier.

Pale blue eyes zoomed in on Messina and as if sensing her presence, the blonde turned her head and looked directly at Jo. A broad smile showed on Messina´s face and she waved, indicating that Jo should step closer. Still with the gun in her hand, Jo closed the distance between them, her gaze briefly darting to the quiet people who were still being held in front of the hospital before she looked back on Iris, her brow slightly furrowed.

"Ah, Jo…" Messina gave the cadet a pat on the back. "I was just about to have someone go looking for you. I`m glad you made it back in time, now we can leave as soon as everything´s been taken care of." The blonde turned to the soldier waiting beside her, "Is that all there is?"

The man nodded, "Yes, ma´am. We´ve searched everything and those boxes are the only Reuma pills in the village. There´s nothing else of value here."

"Good." Messina´s voice was sharp and commanding and Jo realized she was seeing the leader of the Organisation in action, and not the relaxed and genial person she gotten to know during the last year. "Bring all the villagers inside the hospital and lock the doors. Make sure that nobody will be able to escape right away."

"Yes, ma´am!" The soldier saluted and issued a quick order which instantly brought the men around them into action and they began to usher the villagers inside.

"What´s… what´s going on here?" Jo asked, confusion and accusation clear in her voice. "Why are you locking everybody up?"

The blonde turned around to face her, the expression on her face cold and hard. "What do you think is going on, Delaine? I´m taking possession of all the Reuma pills. I need them more than they do."

"What do you mean?" Jo turned her head to see the last villager being roughly escorted into the hospital and then looked back at Messina. "There are people in there who´ll die if they don´t get the medicine."

"I know, Jo," Iris´s voice was quieter now, but still firm, "but even more people will die if I don´t take the pills. You have to understand…" She placed a hand on Jo´s arm and led her a few steps away from the hospital. "That attack on the SB camp wasn´t just an unfortunate coincidence. They knew exactly where and when to look for me and there´s no way the Council could´ve known that if they hadn´t been tipped off by one from the inside. By one of us…"

She looked intensely into Jo´s eyes, "You know as well as I do that not everybody agrees with the way I´ve been running the Organisation since I came to power, and that certain elements, some of them even close to me, have tried to get rid of me from day one. Now… this is my chance to find out who´s behind it all, who it is who´s so desperate to see me dead that they´re willing to sacrifice the inhabitants of an entire camp in the process. That person, or those persons for that matter, they assume I´m dead, Jo. There´s no reason for them to think otherwise and that exactly is my chance. Who do you think will be leading the Organisation when we get back? Who do you think is leading it as we speak?"

"The people who tried to kill you," Jo muttered slowly and Messina nodded. "Yes, exactly and that´s the people I´m up against. If I send a message through the official channels two things will happen. Either everybody who´s had something to do with the attack will cover up their tracks and disappear, or I might just become the victim of a fatal accident on my way back if you get my drift. I can´t just go back, Jo. We´ll have to lay low for awhile, find out who it is we´re after and only then can I resume leadership and…" The blonde sighed and smiled bitterly, "And it won´t be pretty because they´re not likely to surrender control willingly. I´ll need weapons, Jo. I´ll need men, but first of all I need money and that´s what the pills are gonna give me. You know how much they´re worth on the black-market, if I sell them I´ll be able to finance everything I need."

"But…" Jo chewed on her lip, doubt clouding her eyes. "But people will die if you take the pills away from here."

"I know, Jo," Messina spoke softly, "and if there was any other way to do this, I would, but I don´t have the time. The people most likely to be behind it all are known for wanting a more aggressive policy towards the Council, they are in favour of an open conflict and the Organisation is far from ready for that. Think about it, Jo… How many people do you think will die if we begin a direct war with the Council? Is it fair to sacrifice thousands of lives in order to keep a dozen mortally ill people alive for six more months?"

A myriad of conflicting emotions flickered across Jo´s face as she looked into the blonde´s eyes. She knew it made sense what Messina said. There was something that wasn´t right, she knew that, too, but she couldn´t ignore the fact that all what the blonde had said sounded logical and reasonable.

"But…" Jo began hesitantly. "But what about Gunnar? He trusted us. He saved your life…"

"I know and I´ll always be very grateful for that, but I have to practical, Jo. I have to think about the common good and not just the feelings of one person, surely you must be able to understand that?"

Jo thought about strangely yellow, but always smiling eyes and for a moment she was silent then she nodded slightly and said tonelessly, "I understand."

"Good," Iris smiled. "I knew you would." She looked back at the quietly waiting soldiers standing a short distance behind them. "Okay, folks! Everything´s been taken care of. It´s time for us to go. It´ll be dawn soon and I want to be very far away from here when the sun rises. Is that clear!?"

"Yes, ma´am!"

Without looking back, they all walked to the waiting vehicles and left the empty village behind in a cloud of dust.

***************
 
 

Chapter Fourteen
 
 

It took approximately three months before Messina regained the full control of the Organisation and had it cleared of all treacherous elements and people of questionable loyalties. More than a dozen were imprisoned and three high ranking officers were convicted of the killings in SB camp, Alpha 4, attempted murder on Iris Messina and treason against the people and were subsequently sentenced to death by shooting.

For weeks afterwards the Organisation suffered greatly from internal power struggles, but eventually as Messina´s supporters gained in strength and after several fierce confrontations with the Council who´d used their enemy´s weakened state to deliver the blows, peace started to settle, if not in the Realm then within the Organisation and by the end of 2042 nobody questioned who the absolute leader of the resistance movement was.

Initially Messina had tried to keep Jo from getting too involved in the conflict, but as time went by and sides were chosen, they both found that Jo had no choice but to take a direct stand and support Messina openly. It soon became obvious that the blonde´s personal assistant was a valuable and skilled player in the game, and Jo narrowly escaped two attempts on her life after having supplied information to Messina which sent two Lieutenants to prison and caused the downfall of a highly decorated Major. Messina quickly came to rely on Jo as her right hand and more and more often trusted the cadet with plans and instructions no one else were privy to.

By the time Jo turned twenty there wasn´t a single person in the upper parts of the hierarchy within the Organisation who wasn´t aware of who the dark young woman was, and how fiercely loyal she was to their leader and how dangerous it could be to cross her. On a more personal level, Jo was doing her best to adjust to all the changes around her, trying not to be overwhelmed by the ever increasing responsibility she was given and the duties she was expected to fulfil. Tasks which sometimes weighed so heavily on her shoulders that she was afraid she´d break from the strain. The harsh efficiency with which Messina had regained leadership had shocked her at first, but the blonde had assured her that it was the only way and Jo hadn´t been in the mood to argue, still recovering from the first attempt on her life and soon she´d been caught up in the frantic activities around her and hadn´t given it more thought.

Not everybody had welcomed the news of Messina´s return, but in a small town located in the mountains and a camp hidden away in a dense forest, the news had been enthusiastically greeted, especially the brief note that mentioned the return of Messina´s assistant as well, and two letters had been sent, neither which Jo had received as they were confiscated by the tightened security around Messina and hadn´t been deemed important enough to be passed along.

***************
 
 

2044, Region of the Former Netherlands,

The Organisation´s base outside the abandoned city of Amsterdam
 
 

"Private Delaine? There´s someone here to see you." Jo glanced up at Vlad who was standing in the doorway to Messina´s office, a small frown on his face. "I told him you weren´t available today, but he insisted and I don´t-."

"Jo!" A loud voice shouted from somewhere outside. "Tell that nanny of yours that I don´t need a security clearance to see you!"

"Basil!" Jo exclaimed as a huge grin appeared on her face and she jumped up from the chair. "Basil, get in here, you jerk!"

Vladimir was roughly shoved aside and a man dressed in the dark uniform worn by CC aspirants appeared, a grin plastered all over his face. Jo stared at the tall muscular man, the leathered skin and reddish complexion indicating a life spent outdoors, but before she could say anything, she was caught up in a fierce embrace which threatened to squeeze all life out of her.

"Jo, you devil!" Basil said happily and squeezed her even tighter. "How are you?"

"Dead," Jo managed to croak out, "if you don´t allow me room to breathe."

"Oh, sorry," Basil released her and gave her a sheepish smile. "Better now?"

"Much," Jo returned his smile then turned her head to look at Vladimir who was standing uncertainly in the door. "It´s all right, Vlad. This is an old friend of mine."

The aide eyed the man doubtfully, but then shrugged imperceptibly, "If you say so…" He turned to leave, but spoke over his shoulder, "Remember Messina returns tonight, she´ll want to brief you on the situation in the former Germany."

"I know, I know," the private answered absently, only listening with half an ear, her eyes eagerly taking in the sight of her oldest friend. "Gee, Basil, you´ve… you´ve changed. I almost didn´t recognize you when you came in, you look so… so… so…"

"Gorgeous? Mature? Charming?" Basil replied helpfully.

Jo grinned, "No, grown up. You look so grown up… It´s…"

The redhead gave her an almost shy smile, "Well, Jo, that´s what happens when you don´t see someone for three years. I´ll be twenty-six this year, you know… People change, get older."

Jo´s grin faded a little, "Yeah, I´m sorry about that. I really tried to make it back the last time, but something came up and we had to-."

"Jo," Basil smiled gently, "it´s okay. You don´t have to explain anything. We know you just can´t drop everything in order to come and see a couple of old friends, no matter how much you want to. Everyone sends their regards by the way." He slumped down on the old and battered couch standing opposite Messina´s desk. "Dane wasn´t too happy, though. He really wanted to see you."

"Yeah, I know," Jo sighed and sat down beside him, the still unfinished reports on the desk momentarily forgotten. "I really wanted to see him, too. He´s still in school, isn´t he?"

"Yes, but should be done soon. Mickey still has two years left before she´s qualified as a medic and apparently Christa is the fast rising new star within intelligence. She seems to be real good at that secrecy stuff."

"Looks like it," Jo said noncommittally, studying a thin white scar on her left hand, a reminder of the last attempt on her life while the power struggle was still at its highest. "So…" She looked back at her friend. "What are you doing here? I thought CC aspirants weren´t allowed to travel anywhere on their own?"

"Well, we aren´t. I´m here with two of my instructors who´re here to meet Messina and since one of them is a good friend of mine, I begged him to bring me along, claiming that it´d have some kind of educational value." Basil grinned and rolled his eyes, "Anyway, I´ve been doing all the shitty jobs on this trip, even done their laundry and polished their boots, but I didn´t mind as long as I got to see you."

A faint blush showed on Jo´s face and she gave him a slightly embarrassed, but genuine smile. For a few seconds they sat in silence, just looking at each other then Jo cleared her throat, "So, how long are you gonna be here?"

"Well," Basil sighed. "Unfortunately we´ll leave tomorrow night already as soon as they´ve had the chance to speak to your boss."

"Too bad, then we won´t have much time together." Jo scratched her cheek thoughtfully, but then smiled a little, "Oh well, I´m sure we´ll manage. Are you on your own tonight?"

"Yeah, more or less, but I have to report back at eleven." The redhead grimaced, "I´m sorry, I know that´s not a lot of time."

"Then let´s not waste a minute!" Jo rose and with a bit of difficulty pulled the heavy man to his feet. "It´s time to have some fun."

"Oh? And what does one do for fun out here?" Basil inquired as he followed Jo out of the door.

"Well, counting the stars is always an option," Jo replied with a smirk. "And sometimes, when we feel really reckless, we polish the jeeps."

***************
 
 

They spent the next couple of hours together in the tiny village which was the only inhabited area for miles. They found the village´s only bar and had a few drinks, but since both of them were short on cash and had to be back early, they spent most of the time talking about old days in Vega 3 and how their lives and careers were coming along.

Basil would complete his basic SIT next year and was then permitted to wear the Bordeaux beret which proved to everybody that here was a man worthy of being a member of the Command Corps. Jo had briefly experienced a small twinge of envy and regret, but had quickly composed herself, knowing that if anybody deserved to be a member of the CC, it was Basil. She´d screwed up her own opportunity years ago, and yet, she was now closer to the leadership of the Organisation than ever, and moved in the highest circles as if she were a full-blown member of the elite Messina surrounded herself with. Jo had met and talked to people whom Basil would have to get promoted several times to encounter and even then he might not get to meet them at all.

Jo herself had been pleasantly surprised when Messina had sauntered into her room one day and had announced that Jo was now a private, and if she continued to be as valuable as she had been for the last year, she´d make corporal or even sergeant before she knew it.

Originally, Jo had never cared much for ranks, but the more she observed the respect and admiration the superior officers around her, and especially Messina, received from their subordinates, the more she wanted to rise within the hierarchy herself so she could experience the same loyalty and, as she admitted to herself, the power they held as well.

She had grown to like the respectful looks that followed her around, and although she knew it was mainly due to her favourable position with Messina and the unlimited praise the blonde had for Jo´s abilities and competence that people noticed her, she enjoyed it nonetheless. Inwardly, though, she had decided that one day, the looks following her around would be for her and her alone, and not caused by someone else´s merits.

Jo said goodbye to Basil outside the barrack used for visiting guests after having solemnly promised that she would make it to his graduation next year which was to be held in Vega 3.

"It´ll be a great opportunity to see everybody again," Basil had said enthusiastically. "Both Dane and Mickey have promised to be there and I think Christa will come, too, and you know Pilot´s gonna be there. So you really, really have to come, Jo." He´d given her his most charming and pleading look, grinning wildly when Jo agreed just as he´d known she would.

"And guess what," Basil had leaned closer and given Jo a conspiratorial wink. "Don´t tell him I said this, but Dane, our little Dane, has gotten himself a girlfriend."

Jo had laughed out loud, "What! Dane!? Dane with a girl? He used to be so shy around girls, I mean, he´d practically melt if they only looked at him."

"Well," the redhead had given her a look. "I seem to remember another friend of mine who was pretty much the same around the cute girls, or am I wrong?"

"Hahaha," Jo had raised an eyebrow good-naturedly. "So, who is it. Anyone I know?"

"Yes, actually, and that´s the most amazing part, but I guess it´s only natural since he got transferred to her town for the last part of his education. It´s Mickey!" Basil had smiled triumphantly, obviously pleased with himself that he got to be the one to pass on the news. "You´d never have guessed that, would you?"

Jo had been silent for a moment and Basil had noticed a slightly confused, almost bewildered frown on her face before she´d given him a small smile, "No… no, I wouldn´t have."

After that they´d said goodbye, Basil disappearing into the guest barrack and Jo heading back to the barrack where she and Messina had stayed for the last two weeks they had been at the base.

Messina´s office was empty when Jo arrived and there was no sight of Vladimir, so Jo went outside again and around the building, stopping in front of a door and knocked quietly on the wood.

"Come in!"

Jo opened the door and entered. Messina´s room was dimly lit and it took a moment before the private´s eyes had adjusted to the darkness and she was able to make out the blonde´s location. Messina was lying sprawled on her bed, legs dangling over the edge and a half empty bottle in her hand.

"Hey, Delaine!" Iris greeted cheerfully, managing to sit up. "Guess what? I´ve just had a really pleasant meeting with two CC instructors who were foolish enough to think they could drink me under the table. Hah!" She took a big gulp from the bottle. "They really should´ve known better."

Jo hid a smile. In the almost three years she been with Messina she´d rarely seen her drunk or in any other way out of control, but when the blonde finally allowed herself to let go, she did so with a vengeance much to the private´s amusement, although it usually meant she´d have to help her to bed and Messina would be frankly impossible to wake up the next day. A task which luckily always befell Vladimir and not Jo.

"Wanna drink?"

Jo shook her head, "No, I better get some sleep. I got a lot of work to catch up with tomorrow."

"Oh yeah, that´s right." Messina stood on unsteady legs, but instantly regained her balance and Jo knew the blonde wasn´t as drunk as she´d first believed. "You were with that aspirant tonight, an old friend Vlad said."

"Yes, Basil. I know him back from V3."

"Oh…" An intrigued smile showed on Messina´s face and she took a few steps towards Jo. "An old boyfriend perhaps?"

The thought made Jo laugh. "Oh no, far from it! Basil´s one of my best friends, he´s the closest thing to a brother I´ll ever have."

"Hmm," the blonde shrugged. "Too bad, he wasn´t a bad looking chap." Then she suddenly seemed to lose some of her drunken behaviour and dark blue eyes focused on Jo´s face. "Oh wait… that´s right… You prefer girls, don´t you?"

"Uh," Jo blinked, more than a little startled by the blunt question. "Well, um… I guess so…"

"In that case…" The blonde said slowly as she took a few steps closer. "How come you´ve never made a pass on me?" Jo´s mouth fell open, but no words came out and a small knowing smile flickered across Messina´s face. "Don´t you find me attractive, Jo?"

Jo could only stare at her, unable to hide the nervous fascination showing in her eyes as Iris closed the distance between, her face only inches away from the private´s.

"You don´t have to answer that," Messina breathed and Jo could detect the alcohol on her breath. "I have seen the way you look at me when you don´t think I´m paying attention. You like what you see, don´t you?"

Jo´s mind was completely blank and all she could do was swallow. The blonde only smiled, "That´s okay, Jo. You see… I like what I see, too." Her arms slid around Jo´s neck. "Very much so…"

"So soft," Iris whispered as she let her fingers run through the private´s black hair. "So very soft, just like I knew it would be." She smiled again and looked into Jo´s eyes, "Aren´t you gonna kiss me, Jo?"

Without even noticing it Jo leaned down, but just as their lips were about to meet she abruptly pulled back. "I… I´m sorry. I… I have to go now." She firmly removed the blonde´s hands from her neck and more ran than walked towards the door which led into her room. As she roughly closed the door behind her, she heard Messina call out her name, but without breaking stride Jo threw herself on the bed, blankly staring up at the ceiling. Her heart was pounding in her chest, but as minutes ticked by without anybody opening the door, she began to relax and breathe more easily.

Jo continued to stare at the ceiling, millions of confused and mixed up images and events running through her head. She thought briefly of Christa, of her mother, of her childhood in Neo Roma and of Gunnar, but as she calmed further down, she began to think about Dane and Mickey, about the things Basil had said and what had just happened in the other room.

And then she thought of what she wanted and with a shocking clarity, Jo realized she wanted Messina. Wanted to touch her, wanted to feel her skin slide against hers, wanted to feel how it was to have the blonde´s arms and legs wrapped around her with no thought of tomorrow or the consequences.

Jo felt the heat spread in her body as response to the images in her head and she sat up, licking her lips nervously a few times before she rose completely and walked back to the door. Without knocking she went inside, pausing slightly to orientate herself in the now fully darkened room then she continued tentatively towards Messina´s bed. She could hear Iris´s quiet and regular breathing, but something told her that she wasn´t asleep and she was proven right only seconds later when she was caught up in an intense blue gaze. Messina slowly drew the covers aside, exposing her naked body and Jo was unable to tear her eyes away until the blonde reached up and took a sweaty and motionless hand into hers.

A warm and indulgent smile showed on Iris´ face as their eyes met and she gently drew Jo down onto the bed beside her. She slowly traced a cheekbone with her index finger and saw Jo´s throat move as she swallowed. Her hand moved around Jo´s neck and as their heads moved closer and their breaths intermingled, Messina whispered softly, "I knew you would come back, Jo. I just knew."

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

To Be Continued…


Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse