"In the act of loving someone you arm them against you."

- Anonymous
 
 

Chapter Fifteen
 
 

A few rays of the early morning sun managed to slip through the blinds, partly illuminating the dark face relaxed in sleep. Messina was lying on her side, silently studying the young woman sleeping soundly beside her. An affectionate smile crossed the blonde´s face as she reached out and gently brushed a lock of black hair away from Jo´s forehead, before she propped herself up on her right elbow, sighing quietly.

Last night had been an experience to say the least. At first Messina had thought she´d have to show Jo what to do. That she´d have guide her to all the right places to touch and taste, but to her surprise it had been nothing like that. After the initial nervousness and awkwardness, Jo had been all fire and heat, almost desperate in her attempt to explore and touch as much of the blonde´s body as possible. She´d been so much in a hurry that Messina had laughingly told her to slow down, that they had all night and there was no reason to rush things.

She´d immediately realized her mistake when she´d seen the walls go up in blue eyes which until then had been dark with desire and Jo had started to move away, but Iris had quickly reached out to stop her.

"Hey…" She´d smiled reassuringly. "I only told you to slow down, not that I wanted you to stop." To emphasize her words, she´d pulled Jo down for a breathtaking kiss while simultaneously pressing herself against Jo´s thigh. Needless to say, the private had gotten the message and hadn´t tried to move away again.

Until now that was. Messina, careful not to wake Jo, leisurely ran a finger down one exposed tanned shoulder, relishing the feel of the warm smooth skin. They´d fallen asleep in each other´s arms, exhausted and satiated after long and heated sessions of lovemaking, but sometime during the night in her sleep, Jo had disentangled herself and curled up on her side, facing away from her and when the blonde had woken up minutes earlier, their bodies hadn´t even been touching.

She wasn´t really surprised by that, considering she´d known Jo for as long as she had, and although she admitted to herself she wouldn´t have minded waking up with Jo´s arms around her, she also knew it was one thing to be physically close during the act, another thing was to have the same intimacy afterwards when all needs and desires had been satisfied. And frankly, it would´ve surprised her no ends if Jo had turned out to be a cuddler.

Oh well, we´ll just have to work on that, she mused silently, her finger now tracing the well-defined muscles on Jo´s left bicep. She smiled to herself, coming to the conclusion that she found the prospect of working on that particularly aspect, and everything that went before, mighty appealing. It had been a long time since she´d been with someone so eager, someone so passionate and relentless. Hell, it´d been a long time since she´d been with anyone, period!

For quite awhile, she´d been aware of the furtive looks and shy glances Jo had given her and a few times she´d met the cadet´s eyes on purpose, curious as to how she would react, but every time Jo had looked away quickly, a faint blush colouring her cheeks.

Messina knew that if she´d really tried, she could have gotten Jo into bed within a week of them meeting, but she hadn´t wanted to take advantage of the young girl´s hero-worship and had also realized that as time went by and Jo had matured, she would never have forgiven her if she had.
 
 

It have been close a couple of times, though. The blonde smiled as she remembered the time where she´d been so sure that Jo would kiss her. One late night, they´d been standing shoulder to shoulder, studying a map on the wall when she´d turned her head to say something and had been caught up in an intense and strangely focused gaze. Jo had been looking directly at her then her eyes had strayed to her lips, unconsciously licking her own in response. Their eyes had met again and for a long time they´d just regarded each other in silence, the atmosphere in the room suddenly very loaded, then Jo had looked away and the spell had been broken.

Messina wasn´t sure why she´d wanted it to be Jo who made the first move. It had never bothered her to be the one who instigated something before, but this time she´d never used any of the opportunities she´d been given. Maybe it was because Jo was her subordinate, worked for her and usually she never took a lover who wore a uniform. In her position it was just asking for complications, complications she couldn´t afford.

So what´s different this time…

The blonde´s gaze lingered on what she could see of Jo´s face and a faint smile crept onto her lips.

I trust her… that´s what´s different… And she trusts me, otherwise she wouldn´t have come back to me last night.

Still smiling, Messina leaned over, intent on waking her assistant in the most pleasurable way possible.

"Ma´am, it´s almost 6 am and you-." Vladimir stopped dead in his tracks and froze in the doorway, his hand still resting on the door handle.

"Damn you, Vlad!" Messina whispered hotly, jerking away from Jo. "Don´t you ever knock!?"

"Well, it´s never been an issue before," the aide replied stiffly, his eyes locked on the still sleeping girl in the bed.

"Well, it is now," the blonde replied, drawing the covers up to cover Jo better when she noticed the young man´s gaze. The movement caused Jo to stir a little and Messina held her breath. She knew for certain that the last thing Jo needed was to wake up and find Vladimir staring at her. If that happened, she doubted that the private would ever get near her again, much less sleep with her. To her relief, Jo just mumbled a few unintelligible words and then went back to sleep.

"Okay, Vlad, the show´s over. Get out and I´ll be up in a minute."

Her aide nodded, eyes still lingering on what he could see of smooth bronze skin then he straightened up and began to turn away.

"Oh, and Vlad?" Messina´s voice was quiet, but authoritative and the young man didn´t hesitate to look back at her. "Not a word about this to anyone. Is that clear?"

Vladimir looked almost offended, "Of course not, ma´am. What do you take me for?"

Iris raised her hand in surrender and gave him an appeasing smile, "Just checking, Vlad. Just checking. I know you´re not the kind to go around spreading tales."

The aide returned her smile briefly then turned around to walk away and as he closed the door behind him, Messina could swear she heard him mumble, "Some people have all the luck."

***************
 
 

28 July 2044

Dear Jo,

So, how is life? Moving around a lot? Busy as always?

If your last letter is anything to go by it sounds like you spend all your waking hours working, and although I´m really happy for you that you´re doing well and that you like what you do, I want you to remember to relax once in awhile. And yes, I know that´s not what you want to hear, but do an old friend a favour and take some time off occasionally. It´ll help me sleep better at night.

Personally, I´ve been really busy, too. Studying, exams and all that unpleasant, but unfortunately necessary stuff. Thank God, I had my last exam a week ago and can now look forward to a month of relaxation with absolutely no books in sight. Oh well, you know me, I´ll probably be reading again by the end of the week.

Mickey and I are thinking about going back to Vega for a few days, just to say hello to Pilot and see how things are going and you´re more than welcome to join us if you have the time, although I suppose it isn´t very likely? But if you suddenly find yourself with a free weekend let me know. It´s been so long since we last saw each other so if you get the chance maybe we can meet up somewhere, just for a couple of hours or so? It´d really be a shame if we don´t manage to see each other again before Basil´s graduation in August next year. You´re going to be there, aren´t you? You better be, Jo, or I´ll have to come and drag you down there myself. Now, that would be embarrassing, wouldn´t it?

Oh yeah, there´s one thing I think I should tell you in case you don´t know already, and please don´t kill the messenger, okay? It really is very stupid and silly, but you know how some people are and I just want you to be prepared in case somebody says anything to you.

Well, the thing is that for a couple of weeks there has been this rumour going around that you and Messina have become very… well, close, you know, that you´re sleeping together and although I know it´s just gossip and that nobody in their right mind believes a word of it, I can imagine it still must be quite unpleasant for you. Anyway, I just wanted you to know so it won´t come as a surprise and don´t get all freaked out by this, Jo, it´s just a rumour and it´ll go away. Probably sooner than you think.

While we´re at this subject, I simply have to tell you something. It was quite amazing I can assure you. You know how Mickey´s always been such a calm and friendly person, and I never thought I´d get to see a different side of her, but boy was I wrong! A couple of days ago, we were passing a group with three or four students talking and as we went by, we overheard them discussing this very rumour, in a not such fine language if you get my drift, and before I knew what had happened, Mickey had grabbed the nearest one by the collar and "in a very persuasive tone" told him to shut up and think before he spoke the next time. She was really angry, I can tell you, and you wouldn´t think so, with her stature and height, but she really is quite strong and she definitely scared the shit out of that guy. Granted, he wasn´t that big, but still.

I thought it was quite funny and was very impressed, but I think Mickey was a bit embarrassed about the whole thing afterwards because she didn´t want to talk about it, so maybe you shouldn´t bring it up when we meet. Whenever and wherever that´ll be. I just thought you´d like to know that your virtue is being ardently defended by your friends, so I really wouldn´t worry about the stupid rumour if I were you. By the time you get this letter, it´s probably been dead and gone for weeks.

Okay, got to stop now. Hope you´re doing fine and don´t forget to come to Basil´s graduation, okay?

Dane

***************
 
 

December 2044
 
 

Messina was sitting behind the crowded desk in her room, deeply engrossed in the latest reports from the Organisation´s agents in Neo Roma when the sound of determined and hurried footsteps caught her ear and she looked up, just in time to see Jo barge in, angrily kicking the door shut with her heel. The sergeant´s blue eyes were deadly and her face was stained with mud and blood, making her skin look unusually pale. Her camouflage uniform was soaked and appeared almost black from the rain, and her hair was dishevelled and dirty with a few dark strands clinging to her forehand glistening with water or sweat.

"Oh, you´re back already," Messina managed to say before she was forcefully interrupted by a furious Jo.

"What the fuck were you thinking, Iris?! Withholding our backup like that? If anything had gone wrong we would have been slaughtered." Jo stormed closer, putting both hands on the desk and leaned in to tower over the blonde woman in the chair. "Why the hell wasn´t I notified about the change of plans?" Do you have any idea how-."

"That´s enough, Jo!" Messina rose abruptly, her expression hard and controlled. "I did what I had to do. We received a distress call from one of our bases and we had no choice but to send all available soldiers. I know it endangered you and your men, but I trusted you to be able to pull it off without the backup." She crossed her arms and regarded the sergeant who was dripping all over her reports. "And apparently I was right, wasn´t I? You came through for me, just like I knew you would."

Jo´s eyes narrowed and she was by no means mollified, but before she could open her mouth, the blonde raised a hand that clearly indicated that her superior was in no mood to argue the point any further.

"Discussion closed, Sergeant! I did what I had to and I´d do it again in a second if I thought it was the right thing to do… And Jo…" Messina stepped around the desk, pausing just inches away from the agitated soldier and spoke in a quiet but cool voice which left no doubt as to who was in charge, "Don´t you ever question my orders again, is that clear?"

"Yes, ma´am," Jo said through gritted teeth, struggling to keep her temper under control. She knew she had been out of order, attacking her superior officer like that, but the unpleasant surprise of suddenly finding her back uncovered without having been notified had pissed her off, and the fact that it had made the destruction of the two factories much more dangerous than necessary and endangered the lives of her men had made her feel vulnerable and exposed. Two feelings which by no means appealed to the dark sergeant.

Messina had no problems reading the emotions on Jo´s face and she stepped back a little, waiting for the young woman to cool off. For a moment Jo´s gaze was centred on the floor then she sighed inaudibly and looked up to meet surprisingly warm and concerned eyes.

"You feeling better?"

Jo nodded, "Yeah, and I´m sorry. I was out of line. It´s not my place to question your decisions."

"Forget it," Messina replied. "I should have notified you, but you´d already entered the factory and there was no time." She studied Jo for a few seconds then asked casually, "High casualty?"

"No. The factory was nearly abandoned and none of our soldiers were killed," Jo answered evenly as she looked directly a her superior, her face not betraying a single thought.

A few civilians had been killed in the explosion, but Jo knew Messina had been aware that that would be inevitable when the order to destroy the factories had first been given, and she suspected that neither of them were interested in a repeat of the argument they´d had back then. So she remained silent, knowing that Messina would get all the details in the upcoming report.

"Good," the blonde answered, seemingly lost in thought and Jo let her mind drift, thinking again about their latest argument.

They had been doing that a lot lately, she mused, arguing, and she couldn´t help but wonder what the reason was. She knew a lot of it had to do with the fact that she was no longer so in awe of Messina that she didn´t even consider to question anything the leader did, but even so it seemed like they were clashing more and more often and she couldn´t quite pinpoint why.

She´d realized long ago that Messina wouldn´t tolerate her authority being questioned and that a lot of the things Jo had said during some of their more heated debates would have gotten anybody else who´d dared to speak to the blonde like that fined or even prosecuted for insubordination. Messina had once mentioned that she was pleased that she had someone around her who wasn´t afraid to speak her mind or ask questions, but Jo also knew there was a line somewhere, a line that not even she could cross.

The blonde allowed her a lot of room because she trusted her and knew that Jo wouldn´t pass anything they´d spoken about on to a third person, and Jo secretly prided herself of that trust and had sworn that she would never do anything that would make Messina regret that decision. And she hadn´t. The leader of the organisation and her assistant trusted and relied on each other like nobody else, but that still didn´t keep them from arguing.

Maybe it was because they never really resolved anything. If the argument was theoretical and harmless, they´d mostly end up agreeing to disagree, and in the cases where it was deadly serious with sometimes incalculable consequences, Messina would cut through when she was tired of arguing and use her authority to silence Jo. Something which angered the sergeant no ends, especially because there wasn´t a single thing she could do about it and she knew full well that the blonde had every right to do so.

Of course sometimes they didn´t even get that far. On more than one occasion they´d ended up on the floor or the nearest horizontal surface instead, ripping each other´s clothes off. It was, Jo suspected, an attractive, but not very pedagogical or mature way of solving the problem and they usually continued to argue anyway afterwards.

She was brought back to the present as Messina suddenly stepped closer and reached up to gently wipe the blood and mud from her forehead. Blue eyes lingered briefly on the blood stains on the dirty uniform then she looked at Jo who said softly, "It´s not mine. I wasn´t hurt."

Messina didn´t answer but exhaled quietly, her hands coming to rest lightly on Jo´s hips. Jo smiled knowingly, subconsciously moistening her lips, "I´m a mess, Iris. I should take a shower."

The blonde shook her head and Jo felt the warm breath against her skin as she spoke, "No, I want you just the way you are."

A wicked smile appeared on the sergeant´s face and she rose an inquiring eyebrow, "Is that an order, ma´am?"

Messina´s brow furrowed slightly, then she grinned, "No, it´s a request. Besides, it´s not like I could get you to do anything you didn´t want to."

"That´s right," Jo whispered as she leaned down to meet the blonde´s lips. "And don´t you forget that."

***************
 
 

 Chapter Sixteen
 
 

August 2045, Vega 3
 
 

Pilot was leaning causally against the coarse wood of the childrens´ barrack, enjoying the feel of the warm midday sun on his face while grey eyes leisurely roamed the activities before him. He was supervising a dozen of the oldest cadets who were busy building a makeshift stage where later that night the proud new members of the Command Corps would be given their berets and, if Pilot remembered correctly from earlier ceremonies, also be subjected to a good deal of wisecracking and shouting, as well as being on the receiving end of a lot of good-natured pranks willingly played upon them by their former instructors.

He took a deep breath, absently feeling the material of his shirt strain over his chest before he exhaled slowly. They were a good bunch, the kids who were graduating this year. He´d the opportunity to meet a couple of them the few times they´d been passing through the area, often staying the night in the camp, and then of course he knew both Basil and Bruno well who would both be there tonight. He was looking forward to seeing Basil again. The last time the redhead had almost beaten him in arm wrestling and the thought caused the instructor to smile wryly to himself.

Someday, old boy… Someday one of ´em is going to nail you. And what then…?

The smile was replaced by a slightly melancholic expression and the big man sighed again, but before he could move further down that line of thought, his attention was caught by the gate being opened and a grey nondescript van driving through. Idly, he followed the van with his eyes as it drove across the compound and then came to a halt in front of the main building. For a few seconds nothing happened then the car door opened and the driver stepped outside with a small duffel bag in her hand.

The civilian clad person, wearing faded jeans and a grey shirt only, placed the bag on the ground then took off a pair of black sunglasses and put them into her shirt pocket. She squinted briefly against the bright light from the sun before she turned her head and looked directly a Pilot. For a long moment they just took in the sight of each other, then a small, almost incredulous smile showed on the instructor´s face and he began to walk towards her, not stopping until he was only a few feet away from her, the smile broadening on his face.

"My God! Jo? Is that you?"

"It was the last time I checked," Jo replied dryly, an amused glint in the pale eyes. Questioningly, she raised an eyebrow as she noticed the instructor´s slightly stunned expression. "Oh, c´mon, Pilot. I haven´t changed that much! It´s not like I´ve grown horns or anything."

Pilot didn´t speak as he studied the young woman before him, not caring at all that he was staring. It wasn´t that Jo had changed that much physically. She was older of course and if possible she was even a bit leaner than when he last saw her four years ago, but otherwise the changes weren´t that big. It was something else that had changed, he could almost feel it and as he looked into her eyes, trying not to be affected by the hard lines of her face and the thin ragged scar that marred the smooth skin of her throat, a scar that hadn´t been there the last time, he knew what it was.

Inside, Jo had changed on the inside. The cool blue gaze studying him so patiently was no longer shy nor was it wavering. It was still reserved and that would probably never change, Pilot mused silently, however, it was also as frank and relaxed as Pilot had ever seen, conveying a quiet confidence he´d never witnessed in Jo before, a confidence he´d doubted he´d ever get to see. He was about to speak, but forgot what he wanted to say when he noticed something else in the depths of her eyes and he frowned lightly.

He could no longer tell what she was thinking.

It was like the access he´d always had to Jo´s thoughts, almost from the very moment they´d met, had been sealed off and instead he was faced with a controlled and unreadable stare that testified of a guarded and emotional detachment he usually only saw in the eyes of battle hardened veterans, and suddenly he found he had to look away, realizing that for the first time in his life he wasn´t able to hold someone´s gaze.

Old beyond her years… Has she always been that way? And why have I never noticed before…?

"Hey… Pilot?" Jo asked, a hint of bemusement in her voice. "Are you just gonna stare at me all day or do you plan to say hello to me eventually?"

The instructor shook his head imperceptibly, surprised by the sudden sadness he was feeling. Then he gave her a big grin, "C´mere!" And before Jo had time to react she was enveloped in a big powerful embrace.

"Hey! Leave some for the rest of us!" A voice shouted and Jo instantly took a step back as Pilot reluctantly released her, the sharp features softened by a warm smile. "Dane," She spoke fondly as the young man raced towards her, then her eyes widened in alarm. "Oh no! No no no, Dane! Don´t even think about it!" But it was too late. Dane jumped her forcefully and Jo staggered a few steps back, trying to maintain her balance, but to no avail and she crashed to the ground with her friend on top.

"Hey, Jo." Dane smiled broadly down at her, not caring that the air had been knocked out of his lungs or that they were both covered with dust. "Have ya missed me?" Jo shook her head, but then started to laugh heartily, "Get off me, Dane! You crazy idiot! If I´d known you were gonna do this, I wouldn´t have come!"

"Oh… You don´t really mean that," Dane gave her a mock pout which was quickly replaced by another dazzling smile. "Gosh, Jo, you´ve no idea how much I´ve missed you." The words were quiet and earnest, meant for Jo´s ears only and she smiled, reaching up to ruffle his hair affectionately, "I´ve missed you, too, Dane… But now get the hell off of me!"

Laughing, Dane got to his feet and pulled Jo up as well, who quickly dusted herself off, shooting a glance at the wildly grinning Pilot, "Glad, someone thinks it´s funny, seeing me being steamrolled like that… Damn…" She shook her head furiously, "I got sand everywhere!"

"Well… Then perhaps I could help you remove it," a low voice said and Jo turned around slowly.

"Hello, Christa."

The brunette was standing a few feet away, wearing a short black skirt and a matching jacket and Jo noticed nonchalantly that she was looking just as beautiful as ever. Christa smiled pleasantly and stepped a bit closer, "Is that a way to greet an old friend, Jo? Where are you manners?"

The smile on Jo´s face wasn´t mirrored in her eyes as she leaned forward and placed a kiss on Christa´s cheek, then she turned to look at Dane and Pilot. "If you´ll excuse me, I think I´ll have a shower before the ceremony tonight… I´ll see you later, Dane." She grabbed her bag, nodded at Pilot and Christa and then walked away, only too aware of all the pairs of eyes following her.

***************
 
 

Jo allowed herself the luxury of taking a ten minute shower instead of the usual five, relishing the feel of the hot water running down her body, washing away the dust and the weariness from the long drive. She´d been pleasantly surprised to discover that she´d been staying in her old room for the night, and although Dane and Basil wouldn´t be sharing it with her it had felt very much like coming home. The cadets who usually occupied the room had been moved to another house so Jo would have it all to herself, something she was secretly thankful for. Sharing a room with three teenagers had not been something she was looking forward to.

She stepped out of the shower and began to towel herself dry, then grabbed a second towel for her hair. As she was about to exit the bathroom, she caught a glance of herself in the mirror and she paused, regarding her reflection thoughtfully.

It wasn´t that she looked much older. She was twenty-two and she suspected she looked her age. It was hard to tell sometimes since most of the people she dealt with on a day to day basis were at least ten years older than her. She stepped closer until her face was almost touching the mirror.

Pale blue eyes looked back at her and the sergeant´s brow furrowed.

They look… old. My eyes look old… I wonder when that happened?

She straightened up, her gaze now trailing the faded scarring on her shoulders and on what was visible of her chest above the towel she´d wrapped around her. I look like a soldier, she thought absently then sighed quietly and stepped out of the bathroom.

That´s because you are a soldier, she heard Messina speak in her heard, echoing one late night conversation they´d had once while lying in bed. You should be proud of your scars, Jo. Every single one of them. I am of mine…

Jo pushed the thought away, not wanting to think about Messina right now. She quickly dressed in a pair of khaki trousers and an old dark blue t-shirt. She´d have to be in full uniform later tonight because she was representing Messina and everything Jo did reflected back on the blonde, but right now Jo wanted to relax and wearing a uniform always prevented that.

Sometimes she felt like she was two different persons. The efficient and capable soldier who always did what she was told, always succeeded no matter the odds, no matter the circumstances. And then there was the other Jo who loved to stay in bed all day being decadently lazy, or who enjoyed listening to the outrageous tales of the veterans, bragging about their victories.

That was also the young woman who was becoming quite good at discussing pre-Revolutionary Russian literature with Vlad, to both their surprises, and who actually studied a bit when she had some time to spare and wasn´t spending it roaming the mountains and forests on her own for no particular reason other than she liked the solitude and silence she found there.

Jo slumped down on the bed and began to tie her boots, smiling briefly when she felt the usual loose springs in the madras which had already been loose when it had been her bed four years ago.

Some things never change…

Suddenly she heard light footsteps approach and she looked up to see Mickey stand in the doorway, an enigmatic smile on her face.

"Hey Jo…" She spoke softly. "Dane told me you were here."

"Hi." Jo smiled and rose from the bed. "And yeah, I´ve just arrived."

The two friends looked closely at each other, making up for years of separation and Jo was surprised to find herself at a loss for words. Mickey was silent, too, for a moment as she slowly took in the sight of the dark sergeant in front of her, then her gaze returned to Jo´s face and she smiled again.

"Is it okay if I give you a hug?"

"Oh, sure…" Jo grinned sheepishly. "That´d be… nice."

For a few more seconds they looked into each other´s eyes then Mickey suddenly closed the distance between them and put her arms around her. Jo´s arms slipped around Mickey in return and she heard her friend sigh quietly as the blond head came to rest gently on her shoulder.

"It´s been awhile," Mickey mumbled against Jo´s t-shirt and she heard her mumble something in response, but was distracted by the feel of Jo´s arms subtly tightening around her.

"Sorry?"

"I said, you can say that again," Jo repeated mindlessly, inhaling the sweet floral scent of Mickey´s hair then abruptly she let go and took a step back. Mickey managed to mask the confusion in her eyes before their gazes met again and she spoke cheerfully, "So… how have you been, Jo? Dane tells me you´ve been busy?"

"Yeah, but it´s okay," the sergeant answered, not wanting to talk about her work. "I don´t have to do it all alone."

"Well, that´s good," Mickey smiled. "From Dane I´d more or less gotten the impression that you were responsible for running the entire Organisation by yourself."

"Nah," Jo said, not lingering on the thought why she was feeling so annoyed every time Mickey mentioned her boyfriend. "Dane tends to exaggerate sometimes." She looked into the blonde´s eyes and was surprised to see they were exactly as she remembered them. "I only run half of it," she then grinned, feeling slightly nervous when Mickey remained silent.

The blonde could sense Jo´s discomfort and was strangely pleased by the insecurity she could detect in the until then so cool blue eyes, then she shook her head imperceptibly to clear her mind, knowing a futile and dangerous line of thought when she saw one.

"Let´s go find Basil," she finally said, seeing relief in Jo´s eyes. "We probably won´t be able to get a sensible word out of him after the graduation, so we better talk to him while we have the chance."

Jo nodded, "Yeah, good idea." However, neither of them moved immediately then Mickey smiled briefly and walked out of the door. Jo hesitated for a second then she followed.

***************
 
 

"Basil looks good, doesn´t he?" Dane whispered in Mickey´s ear and she gave him a quick smile and nodded. "Yes, he does." Dane smiled affectionately and kissed her softly on the cheek before he returned his attention to the stage before him where thirty-two young men and women were lined up, all waiting to receive their berets.

Mickey´s gaze rested briefly on the redhead who caught her eye and gave her a big grin then they both looked back at the man who was currently speaking from the stage. The blonde only managed to stay attentive for a moment then her eyes strayed back to where they´d been before Dane interrupted her.

Jo was sitting a couple of rows further ahead surrounded by the instructors and leaders from V3 and the Command Corps. She was representing HQ and had even given a short speech of her own in Messina´s place and Mickey had been mesmerized by the relaxed and self-assured way the sergeant had spoken to the crowd, so unlike the bashful young cadet she used to know.

But that wasn´t the only reason why she hadn´t been able to tear her eyes away from her, and that wasn´t the reason either why she for the last ten minutes had been staring at Jo´s back.

God, I didn´t think she´d still affect me like this. I´d no idea she could still do this to me.

Mickey shifted on her seat and glanced at Dane, but the young man´s attention was on the speaker in front of him and he didn´t notice her restless twitching. Mickey closed her eyes, willing herself to calm down. This was ridiculous, she knew that, she wasn´t a teenager anymore. She had one year left before she´d graduate as a medic and then most likely she´d volunteer to be stationed in Neo Roma to work in the Slums. She was a confident and responsible person now. She´d matured greatly during the last couple of years, she was a grown woman now.

Yeah right… A grown woman who just happens to melt every time she looks into a certain pair of blue eyes.

Mickey had known that seeing Jo again for the first time since their not so fortunate last encounter would affect her in some way, but she´d been deeply shocked by how strong and how quickly all the old feelings she´d thought long buried had resurfaced within seconds of seeing the dark woman again. As she stood in the doorway and watched Jo smile at her, it had been like no time had passed at all, like it had only been yesterday she´d caught Jo and Christa together and discovered the numbing pain of unrequited love.

She´d believed her feelings had passed, that she´d moved on a long time ago. When Dane had first asked her out, she´d thought of it more as a way of killing some time than anything else, but as the weeks passed she´d grown very fond of the young man and had even believed she was in love, overwhelmed and flattered by the obvious adoration she saw in his eyes every time he looked at her. Now she knew it had only been a pale imitation of what she´d felt, and still felt, for Jo and the realization made her angry. Angry at Jo for not knowing what she did to her and angry at herself for not being able to get over it and accept the love Dane so willingly offered.

Mickey inhaled deeply then opened her eyes, her gaze searching out Jo once again.

Did you ever think about me? Did you ever care about what I was doing or wondered whether I was all right?

"Mickey? Are you okay?" Christa´s voice interrupted her thoughts and the blonde turned slightly to look at her friend who was sitting on her other side.

"Yeah, I´m fine," she whispered back. "Just feeling a bit tired, I guess."

"Hmm," the brunette looked at her questioningly. "Are you sure? You looked a little pale there."

"Dane and I had a long journey yesterday and I didn´t sleep very much last night." Mickey smiled reassuringly at Christa, "It´s all probably just catching up with me now."

"Okay, if you say so." Christa still looked a little sceptical, but obviously decided to drop the subject and sighed wearily instead, "Gosh, I´d wish that guy would stop talking so we could get it over with and start celebrating." She winked at Mickey, "After all, isn´t that what we´re all here for."

Mickey shook her head good-humouredly, "You haven´t changed one bit, Christa. Partying and having fun is still your number one priority."

"As it should be," the brunette replied with mock offence then she grew thoughtful, her gaze trailing forward, coming to rest on Jo. "Hmm, I wonder if the rumours are true…" She spoke quietly, an intrigued expression on her face.

"Which rumours?" Mickey asked casually, knowing full well what her friend was referring to.

"The rumours about Jo and Iris Messina of course, that they´re sleeping together." Christa looked at her, "Surely you must have heard about that. It´s been all over the place."

Mickey shrugged, "One shouldn´t believe everything one hears, Christa. You working in intelligence should know that."

"Yeah… maybe," the brunette acquiesced without much conviction. "But the first rule we learned at the academy was that there rarely is any smoke without a fire."

Suddenly people around them started to applaud thus saving Mickey from having to answer.

***************
 
 

Head aching from too loud music and too much wine, Mickey left the mess hall and stepped outside, inhaling the warm night air deeply a few times. The party continued loudly behind her and she suspected it probably would for the rest of the night, but she wasn´t in the mood for celebrating.

Although she knew she shouldn´t, she´d tried to talk to Jo all night, but the sergeant had spent all her time drinking heavily and acting silly with Basil and Dane, and Mickey hadn´t had the chance to speak to her alone. Which probably was the way it should be since she doubted she´d have known what to say anyway. So consequently she´d spent her evening talking with Pilot and some old friends, her eyes continually searching out Jo no matter how much she tried to stop herself or pretend that she didn´t care.

Eventually she´d lost Jo from her sight and had then told Dane she was tired and was going to bed. He had of course offered to leave with her, but she´d convinced him to stay and enjoy himself, feeling absolutely disgusted with herself when she saw the grateful and loving expression in his eyes.

Walking quietly among the barracks, she paid little attention to her surroundings, knowing the way to her room by heart after having lived in Vega almost her entire life. Lost in thought she practically jumped when she heard a low voice behind her, "Leaving so soon?"

Mickey spun on her heels, heart pounding in her chest, "Jesus, Jo! You scared the hell out of me!"

The sergeant was leaning heavily against the wall next to the door leading into her room. The dark uniform and black hair made her almost invisible in the night, and the darkness between the barracks was making it difficult to tell where Jo´s body ended and the shadows began.

"Sorry," she drawled. "I didn´t mean to frighten you." She straightened up, but continued to lean against the wall, not quite trusting her balance after all she´d had to drink, "So are you? Leaving?"

There was something about Jo´s tone of voice and the way the blue eyes brazenly studied her that made Mickey nervous and she licked her lips unconsciously, "Yeah, I… I´m tired… Thought I´d make it an early night."

"Uh huh…" Jo answered noncommittally and Mickey swallowed as she noticed the sergeant was staring openly at her breasts.

"Jo…" She began hesitantly. "Jo, are you drunk?"

Jo´s gaze moved from her body to her face and she said innocently, almost managing to prevent her voice from slurring "Why do you ask?"

"I… I just," the blonde faltered and she shook her head, wondering whether she´d ever seen Jo drunk before then she gave her a tentative smile, "So you´re going to bed, too?"

"I was planning to," came the husky answer and Jo stepped closer, swaying just a little. "It´s been a long day."

"Yes." Mickey involuntarily took a step back and found herself with her back against a barrack. "Yes, it has."

"But that´s okay," the sergeant continued conversationally, continuing to close the distance between. "Basil was ecstatic when he got his beret. I´m very happy for him."

"Yes, so am I," Mickey whispered distractedly as Jo stopped only inches away from her. She could feel the heat radiating from Jo´s body, smell the alcohol on her breath and as she dared to raise her head to look into her eyes, she was caught up in an all-consuming gaze unlikely any she´d witnessed before.

"Jo…?" She breathed uncertainly, feeling her heartbeat quicken. "Jo, what are you doing?"

A languid, sensual smile was all the response she got then Jo leaned forward, capturing Mickey´s lips with her own. For a second Mickey was paralyzed then a myriad of emotions exploded inside her and a small sob caught in her throat as a voice whispered in her head, Finally…

Her blood heated up, rushing frantically through her veins, making all her nerve endings tingle with awareness and as Jo deepened the kiss, roughly thrusting her tongue inside, Mickey wasn´t able to suppress a moan.

So long… I´ve waited so long…

Suddenly Jo´s hands were on her trousers where they started to fumble with her belt. Mickey tried to reach down to stop her, her mind screaming that it wasn´t right while her body was on fire, not caring about anything except the warm lips on hers and the firm body pressing her against the wall, but she realized quickly that it wasn´t up to her when Jo caught her moving hands and intensified the kiss, making Mickey moan again.

Jo´s tongue explored her mouth mercilessly, running over her teeth, plunging deep inside, not for a second allowing the blonde to take control. Mickey´s head was spinning from the sensual onslaught, so caught up in the kiss that she hardly noticed Jo had continued to work on her trouser until she felt strong hands roughly pull the zipper down and push the trousers down her hips.

"N-no, Jo," Mickey managed to tear her mouth away from Jo´s. "Stop…"

"Don´t wanna," the sergeant growled in return, pushing a thigh between Mickey´s legs, causing the blonde to gasp loudly. She sought out Mickey´s mouth again, but the blonde turned her head away.

"Jo!" Mickey said more forcefully, shocked by the out of control sensation Jo´s grinding against her was creating, all adding to the aching pressure building in the pit of her stomach. "Jo! Jo, I mean it. Stop!"

"No, you don´t," Jo said throatily, her breath growing more ragged by the minute. She placed a hand under Mickey´s chin and forced the woman to look at her, "You´ve wanted me to do this to you for years, haven´t you?" Her free hand found Mickey´s right breast and squeezed it hard and the blonde closed her eyes in pleasure, missing the look of satisfaction crossing Jo´s face. "That´s okay, Mickey," Jo spoke again, continuing her ministrations to Mickey´s breast and between her legs. "I don´t mind."

She kissed Mickey again and this time the blonde didn´t try to avoid the relentless mouth intent on conquering hers, and soon she was unable to concentrate on anything but the raw feelings surging through her body and instead of telling Jo to stop, she clung onto the sergeant, meeting Jo´s thigh thrust for thrust with her hips.

Jo suddenly abandoned her mouth and moved down her throat instead, eagerly kissing and licking all available skin, her hands roaming up and down Mickey´s sides, coming to rest on the blonde´s breasts where they found the erect nipples and pinched them roughly through the thin shirt. That turned out to be Mickey´s undoing and she climaxed hard, crying out Jo´s name while her body shuddered uncontrollably. Jo instantly slowed the pace, but continued to move her leg gently, prolonging Mickey´s release as long as possible until she felt the blonde become limp in her arms and she stopped completely.

For awhile they held onto each other in silence, their heavy and shallow breathing mixing with the faint music coming from the mess hall, then Mickey raised her head from where it had been resting in the hollow of Jo´s throat. Their eyes met and the blonde reached up to slowly trail a drop of sweat running down Jo´s temple.

"My room?" Jo whispered hoarsely and Mickey nodded mutely before their mouths met in another searing and lip bruising kiss.

In spite of Mickey´s trousers obstructing her movements and the fact that their lips never parted, they eventually managed to stumble inside Jo´s room and close the door behind them without any accident.

***************
 
 

Chapter Seventeen
 
 

When Mickey awoke the next morning, the first coherent thought that entered her head was that she was trapped. Bewildered she opened her eyes and instantly the events of the night before came flooding back as she saw the dark head resting on her chest and felt the warm body lying almost on top of her, pinning her down.

For a moment she gazed at the sleeping sergeant in wonder while her hand absently stroked the black hair, then a brilliant smile showed on Mickey´s face and she had to close her eyes against the overwhelming sense of happiness which was coursing through her.

Last night had been the most exhilarating and wonderful night of her life. Everything from the moment Jo had kissed her outside and till the moment they´d finally made it to the bed, had felt like a dream coming true. A secret and well guarded dream she´d given up all hope of ever experiencing for real.

She opened her eyes again, not wanting to miss a single second of the moment and instead savour it like her life depended on it. Looking down her body she could tell that she was still partly dressed and the soundly sleeping sergeant was except from her jacket still in full uniform. Smiling fondly, Mickey recalled what had happened between them once they´d managed to get inside, or as it turned out, what hadn´t happened between them.

Jo had pushed her down on the bed, quickly discarding her jacket before she´d lowered herself onto Mickey, sighing in satisfaction when their bodies touched. Their mouths had tasted each other hungrily and Mickey´s hands had been busy pulling up Jo´s shirt when suddenly Jo had become less responsive, and when Mickey through a haze of burning desire had tried to find out why, she´d realized that Jo had gone out cold, finally succumbing to the alcohol in her blood.

At first she hadn´t known whether to laugh or cry, but as her pulse slowed down and her arousal became bearable, she´d made herself as comfortable as she could with Jo lying heavily on top of her, not the least interested in pushing the sergeant away. She´d fallen into a dreamless sleep caressing Jo´s back, feeling the warm and regular breathing against her skin. To Mickey it was the closest to heaven she´d ever been and, she suspected, the closest she ever would be.

Jo sighed in her sleep and rolled over, her body coming to rest between Mickey´s and the wall. Freed from Jo´s weight, the blonde was able to breathe more easily, but she immediately missed the contact and for some reason she was hesitant to move closer.

Don´t be silly, Mickey. Don´t start worrying when there´s no reason to.

Still, she remained where she was, only shifting to lie on her side so she could watch Jo better.

God, she´s beautiful. It takes my breath away just looking at her. How in the world could I ever believe I was over her?

Unable to stop herself, Mickey smiled happily, wondering whether she´d ever be able to get that silly grin off her face again, but then she grew serious as she started to think what Jo would say when she woke up, what she´d feel about everything that had happened.

Well, Mickey thought wryly, I know for certain one of the things she´ll be feeling. Poor Jo… She reached out to feel a lock of soft hair between her fingers. You´re going to be having the hangover of a lifetime when you wake up. I wonder if you´ll be able to remember anything at all.

The last thought caused a small frown to appear on Mickey´s face and she absently bit her lip. However, she refused to let her nagging insecurities ruin the morning and decided to get up and go out to get a bit of fresh air, hoping that would clear her mind of all worries and doubts. Loath to leave the bed, it took her a few minutes before she´d pulled herself together and she rose and found her trousers, blushing faintly by the memory of how quickly they´d come off. Then she stepped out into the bathroom and washed her face and ran her fingers through her hair to put it into some semblance of order, before she with a last lingering look on Jo walked outside.

The morning air was still relatively cool, but Mickey knew it was only a matter of time before the smothering August heat would take over and make everybody pant no matter how slowly they moved around, or how many layers of clothing they discarded during the day.

Suddenly Mickey realized she was hungry, starving actually, and with a small grin playing on her lips she began to walk through the still sleeping camp towards the mess hall, hoping to find a few edible leftovers from the night before.

On her way she passed the main hall and the grey van Jo had arrived in yesterday and she couldn´t help but wonder if it hadn´t been the same van she´d left Vega in four years ago. She wouldn´t be surprised if that was the case. The Organisation was having increasing difficulties financing their operations and didn´t have the funds to buy as much new equipment or vehicles as they would like, and the power struggle that took place a few years ago and the subsequent fierce confrontations with the Council hadn´t made the situation better.

Mickey sighed as she opened the door and stepped inside the mess hall. Sometimes she wondered whether all the promises and beautiful sentiments Messina was so full of really had just a remote chance of becoming true. Whether it really was possible to defeat the Council and what would happen if they actually did.

I wonder if Jo has ever thought the same thing. Ever lost faith… But then again, she´s so much closer to the people making the decisions, maybe she knows something I don´t. Maybe she knows what it´ll take to change the tide. End the suffering… Or maybe she doesn´t… Maybe nobody does…

Deciding that she was getting way too deep for such a beautiful morning, Mickey shook her head to clear her mind and was instantly reminded that she, too, had had a bit too much to drink last night.

Okay, Mickey. Let´s not do that again, shall we?

Stepping over empty bottles, crushed plastic cups and other not so easily identified objects, she walked over to the table where the buffet had been, scanning the plates for something that wouldn´t make her stomach revolt.

However, before she could decide, her thoughts drifted off to a far more pleasurable subject, recalling Jo´s demanding kiss outside the barrack and the strong hands all over her body. Without even knowing it another big smiled appeared on her face and she let out small satisfied sigh, then turned her attention back to the food.

Just as she had decided on some bread and cheese, she heard the faint sound of a car engine igniting and then the sound of gravel crunching under its tires as if started to drive away. For a second Mickey froze, her eyes staring blankly at the table, then a sense of sickening fear washed over her and she ran to the door, roughly slamming it open just in time to see the grey van speeding through the gates. Soon it was lost behind a cloud of dust and the gates closed slowly and silence settled once again over the camp.

***************
 
 

Mickey´s lips parted, but no words came out. For a moment she stood absolutely still then she began to walk faster and faster until she was running towards the barrack where she´d spent the night.

It can´t be… She wouldn´t have…

She pushed the door open, but instead of rushing inside she stopped in the doorway, suddenly reluctant to go inside and have her worst fears confirmed. Then, feeling almost like she was watching herself from afar, she walked into the room.

She would.

The room was empty and the only sign indicating that anybody had slept there at all was the towel lying on the bed and the hastily, but surprisingly neatly folded covers.

Always the perfectionist, huh, Jo? Always the soldier.

The thought entered and left Mickey´s mind as she stared at the bed, surprised by how calm she was feeling. How numb.

Listlessly she sat down on the bed, wrapping her arms around the pillow. She swallowed hard as she detected the faintest hint of Jo´s scent and she knew she ought to get up and leave, but she couldn´t and instead she held the pillow tighter, closing her eyes against the tears that threatened to fall.

I´m not gonna cry, damn it! I´m not gonna cry!

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid Mickey! What the hell were you thinking? She didn´t want you the last time, why should that have changed now?

"Oh, but she did want me," Mickey snorted, arguing with her own thoughts. "She made that very clear last night."

Yes, she did. But where is she now? Is she here? Holding you close, telling you how much she loves you? No, she isn´t, is she? She probably wasn´t asleep at all and the second you stepped out of the door she got up so she wouldn´t have to bother with making up an excuse to leave, so she didn´t have to say it was a mistake and that it meant nothing to her - that you were just the first available body to come along. She was probably waiting for Christa and when you happened to show up and was willing, she decided to go for you instead

"Shut up! I don´t want to hear anymore," Mickey cried out and punched the madras hard with her fist several times, taking an almost devilish delight in messing up Jo´s work with the covers, but then her hand dropped to her thigh and she leaned her head back against the wall, feeling how she was losing battle against the tears.

"Jo, have you seen…" Dane stopped himself and paused in the doorway as he saw his girlfriend sitting on the bed and the expression on his face changed from puzzlement into concern. "Mickey?" He began uncertainly, looking around for Jo. "I´ve been looking for you all over the place, I thought you…" he trailed off as Mickey looked up. "My God, Mickey. You´re crying!"

He instantly walked over to the bed and sat down, drawing her into his arms. "Shhh…" He cooed softly, stroking her back. "Whatever it is it can´t be that bad." He felt her trying to pull away, but he tightened his embrace, "Hey, don´t worry, sweetie, I´m here for you." He moved away a little and Mickey chose the same moment to raise her head and look into his eyes. "I love you, you know," Dane smiled reassuringly. "If something´s wrong you can tell me, I´m here for you."

Mickey looked into his loving blue eyes, seeing both concern and the desire to help and she felt like the lowest of the low, disgusted with herself and, she realized, as she gently but firmly extricated herself from Dane´s arms, with Jo as well.

She could tell that he was confused and also hurt that she wouldn´t let him comfort her, but he quickly hid it behind a smile. "What´s wrong, Mickey?" he asked gently and then looked around. "And where´s Jo? Isn´t she here?"

"No," Mickey said, clearing her throat. "She left."

"Left?" Dane repeated disbelieving. "When?"

"This morning." Mickey found she was unable to look at him and stared at her hands instead. "Ten, fifteen minutes ago."

"But why?" Dane´s voice was full of confusion and Mickey could also detect a little anger. "I thought she wouldn´t leave until tonight so we´d have some time together." Suddenly he noticed the look on Mickey´s face and he reached out to gently tilt her face up. "The reason why you´re crying…" He hesitated as if not knowing how to proceed. "Does it have something to do with Jo? Is that why she left?"

Mickey nodded, still unable to look at him.

"But… but why?" Dane bit his lip, not knowing what to say or what to think. "Did… did something happen between you? Did… did you have a fight or…" He faltered, waiting for Mickey´s answer. When the blonde didn´t speak, he continued very quietly, "Did she hurt you?"

Mickey´s head shot up and Dane felt a shiver crawl up his back, disbelief and the beginning of anger showing on his face. "Is that it? Did she hurt you in any way?"

Mickey didn´t answer and averted her eyes.

"Damn you, Jo!"

Dane rose abruptly from the bed, unable to remain sitting. He knew Jo had a volatile temper and that she often acted without thinking, especially when she was angry or felt threatened, but in all the years he´d known her she´d never hurt him, and although he knew about the unfortunate incidents during Jo´s first year in Vega, he´d never been afraid of her or felt he had a reason to fear her. But what if she´d snapped?

He looked at the young woman on the bed, feeling his heart overflow with love and affection for her. What if Mickey had said or done something that had angered Jo? Made her lose it? God knows, she´d been drunk enough the night before to lose control.

"No," Mickey´s quiet voice interrupted the frantic flow of Dane´s thoughts. "No, she didn´t hurt me." The blonde paused then added so softly that Dane had to strain to hear it, "At least not that way…"

"How then?" Dane asked soothingly, wanting to reassure his girlfriend, let her know he was there for her no matter what and that he loved her. He sat down beside her again. "What happened? What did she do?"

"She… she didn´t do anything, I didn´t want her to," Mickey smiled bitterly, staring at the bed. "She… she…" Mickey braced herself, knowing she owed Dane the truth and wondered whether he would ever forgive her. Their eyes met and she felt her resolve melt together with the words on her tongue. "We… Jo and I…"

Dane nodded slowly, encouraging her to go on. Mickey took a deep breath. She´d never been a coward before in her life and had no intentions of being one now.

"Last night after I´d left, I ran into Jo outside her room."

"Yes?"

"And she was very drunk, could hardly stand… We talked a little and…"

"And?"

"And then she kissed me."

"She kissed you?" Dane repeated blankly, not quite having realized what it was Mickey was saying or what it meant.

"Yes, and then I kissed her back," Mickey continued in a hurry before her courage abandoned her. "And then… then we…"

What? You did what exactly? What really happened? And what did it mean? If anything…?

"And… and then we… then we had sex… At least I think we did," Mickey finished quietly, feeling more uncomfortable and awkward than she ever had before in her life. She knew she was blushing, but whether it was from embarrassment or shame she didn´t know and frankly, in that moment it didn´t really matter. She´d seen the light in Dane´s eyes disappear already.

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

Damn!

Jo eased her foot off the accelerator pedal, her hands tightening on the steering wheel.

The checkpoint is supposed to be deserted. That´s why I chose the fucking route in the first place.

In front of the bar effectively cutting off the road ahead stood four heavily armed soldiers. The three of them were casually pointing their machineguns in Jo´s direction while the fourth was stepping forward, stopping next to the door as the van came to a halt. The man tapped briskly on the window and Jo put a neutral, slightly indulgent expression on her face as she pushed the button that rolled down the window.

"Yes?"

"ID and travel permission, please?" The soldier spoke dispassionately, hardly looking at her and Jo reached into the clove compartment and picked out the appropriate papers. She handed them through the window to the soldier who glanced at her ID and then at her travel permission.

"On our way to Munich, are we, miss Delaine?" The man said without looking up from the papers, checking the dates and the destination written on the permission.

"Yes," Jo answered pleasantly, inwardly deciding to buy Sharon, the pretty redhead from administration who was in charge of all documents and papers used for travelling, a drink if the forged ID and permission slip held water.

"Well," the soldier looked up and gave her a detached and professional smile, "it looks like everything is in order. Have a nice trip, miss Delaine and don´t stop for anybody on the way, there are a lot of crazies out here."

"I won´t, sir," Jo smiled warmly as she accepted the papers, "and thank you."

The man stepped back to allow her to drive past, but just as Jo´s hand touched the key in the ignition, another soldier rushed out of the shack located a few yards from the bar and hurried towards them.

"Peterson! What are you doing?!"

The soldier immediately straightened up and Jo could tell he only just stopped himself from saluting. "I was just checking her papers, ma´am, and they´re in order. I was just about to-."

"Peterson," the soldier interrupted and as she came closer Jo could tell from her uniform that she was a captain in the Council´s A Corps. "I told you as late as this morning that nobody is to be allowed through here unless he or she has been thoroughly inspected and the same goes for the vehicles." She stopped in front of her subordinate who was shifting nervously on the spot. "The rules have changed, Corporal, and this is the last time I´m telling you this. If you are this negligent again, I´ll have you reported, is that clear?!"

"Yes, ma´am!" The soldier exclaimed, a faint blush of embarrassment or fear showing on his cheeks as he saluted.

Without missing a beat the captain turned her eyes to Jo, "Bring your papers and get out!"

Jo studied the sturdy brunette and her implacable cool facade for a second, then she shrugged like she couldn´t care less, grabbed her papers and stepped out of the van.

"Search it!" The captain ordered, already on her way back to the shack, obviously expecting Jo to follow her.

"Yes, ma´am!" The soldier gestured for one of his comrades at the bar to assist him and the two men quickly began a meticulous and efficient search of the van.

Jo walked down the dusty road slowly and shot a few furtive glances at the forest around her, mentally calculating her chances for escape if the worst should happen. She could only hope the soldiers wouldn´t find the hidden compartment where her uniform and guns were, because if she remembered correctly there had to be at least fifty miles from the checkpoint to the next populated area and Jo doubted she´d make it that far if she tried to make a run for it, and she had no real desire to find out how it felt to have a bullet put in her back.

She berated herself for not being more attentive. She should have called in and checked with HQ before she chose a route that hadn´t been cleared, but she´d been so certain it would be free from soldiers and it was the fastest road to the Netherlands where Messina was waiting for her to come back so they could move on.

It´s your own damn fault, Jo. That´s what happens when you don´t think. Now see if you can get yourself out of this mess again and preferably alive.

The captain had left the door to the shack open and Jo strode purposely up the two steps, determined not to let it shine through how fast her heart was pounding or how clammy her palms had become. She smoothed out her shirt and then tucked it into her jeans before she inhaled lightly and stepped inside, feeling very much like a lamb walking into the lion´s den.

"Shut the door."

Jo did as she was told then turned around to face the captain who was perched on the edge of her desk, eyeing her speculatively. Without being asked Jo held out the papers to the woman who took them and began to study them closely.

"Miss Jo Delaine, born 2023 in Neo Roma, which makes you… what? Twenty-two?"

Jo nodded and their eyes met for a second then the captain looked back at the papers.

"The papers say you´ve been visiting friends in Austria and now you´re on your way back to Munich, where you´re studying…" The captain paused and looked up. "Twentieth Century German history with the main focus on political propaganda during the early 1930s, is that correct?"

Jo nodded again, "Yes."

"Hmm…" The brunette carelessly put the papers on the desk, her grey eyes searching Jo´s face. "Political propaganda? Your parents must be influential people in order for you to study that." She bit her lip thoughtfully, "Only the children of the elite are allowed access to those studies."

Jo thought she could detect a hint of both contempt and envy in the captain´s voice and she cursed silently. It was always a risk when they travelled on that kind of papers, but usually the mere thought that they belonged to the elite was enough to get them past the checkpoints without any interference. However, sometimes, when faced with a bitter and disillusioned officer, it was like waving a red rag in front of a bull and in this case it looked like she´d encountered one of those bulls. A bull which was now staring at her with open hostility.

The captain´s eyes remained on her for a moment longer, then she eased herself off of the desk and stepped over to the shack´s only window. She was silent for a minute then she turned slightly to look at Jo, "How come you´re driving such a piece of shit? Doesn´t daddy have enough money to buy you something better?"

Jo looked into grey eyes, trying to decide what her best course of action would be, but no answer came to her.

She shrugged lightly, "If you were me would you be driving around in an expensive new car in these deserted parts?" She gave the captain a derisive look when she saw her words had hit home, "I didn´t think so."

The brunette walked away from the window, coming to a halt a few feet away from Jo who had to stop herself from stepping back in order to put some more distance between them.

"Why are you travelling alone?"

"I prefer it that way."

"And your parents just let you? They don´t insist on you bringing any guards, some kind of protection?" The captain paused, an expression of dawning realization on her face and she smiled evilly, "Or maybe they don´t know you´re out here all alone? Maybe they think you´re tucked away safely at your university back in Munich, being industrious, getting good grades… Pretending to be daddy´s little girl… Mmm?"

Jo gazed at her, managing to keep her face neutral. Then she made a decision.

She allowed her mask to crack a little, letting a small hint of insecurity appear in her eyes. Softly she said, "If that were to be the case, then what would you do about it?"

Triumph flashed across the captain´s face and she tilted her head, studying Jo with half-lidded eyes. "Well… that´s an interesting question, isn´t it? You´re only twenty-two, you´re not allowed to travel on your own without your parents´ permission. If I wanted I could keep you here until the police came and picked you up, escorting you straight back to your parents."

She stepped a little closer, her eyes leaving Jo´s face to leisurely examine her body.

"They could get into really big trouble… your parents… if the authorities heard about this. They might not want to, they might respect your mummy and daddy, but with all the incidents we´ve had lately, all the minor acts of disobedience, they´ll have to make an example, show the world that they still hold it in their grasp. And you don´t really want to talk to the police, do you? Nobody ever does."

Jo watched coolly as the soldier´s eyes lingered on her breasts.

"So… I hope you see my predicament here, miss Delaine. I really have to report this, it´s my duty as a loyal officer of the Realm, but then again…" Her eyes returned to Jo´s face. "I really wouldn´t want you or your parents to get into trouble for one act of youthful folly. After all, we all make mistakes, don´t we?"

"Yes," Jo spoke softly and swallowed a little, playing her part of the game to perfection. "Yes, we do."

The captain´s hands casually came to rest on her belt buckle, fingers caressing the leather gently. "I thought we would see eye to eye on this one, miss Delaine." The leather slipped easily through the buckle as the captain continued to speak in a low, conversational tone, "One should always be allowed a second chance." The belt was loosened and slim fingers moved to the button of her trousers. "But of course," the voice was even lower now, hoarser, "you rarely get a second chance without paying for it," the button unsnapped, "isn´t that so, miss Delaine?"

Emotionless pale blue eyes watched the trousers slip down the brunettes´s hips and legs, coming to rest around her ankles. Nothing showed on Jo´s face as the captain cupped her own sex and then began to touch herself through the fabric of her underwear, hips moving lightly.

"I have money," Jo said, not able to recognize her own voice. "If you let me pass, I´ll-."

A hand came to rest on Jo´s shoulder and a voice interrupted, "I don´t want your money." The captain´s fingers played idly with Jo´s hair, "It´s something else I want."

The light touch on Jo´s shoulder became firm, commanding, and she felt herself being pushed down onto her knees, her face level with the woman´s groin.

Shielded from the captain´s field of vision, Jo´s face was carved in stone, her eyes cold as ice. "Is that all you want?"

The soldier smiled and closed her eyes as she felt the beautiful young woman´s warm breath caressing her thigh. Her hands entangled themselves in soft black hair, "No, miss Delaine, that´s only the beginning."
 
 

Some time later, Jo stepped out of the shack and regarding the soldiers at the bar dully, tucked her shirt back into her jeans, zipping them up. She hawked and spat a few times then without a word she walked the short distance to the van and climbed inside. The bar was raised and she drove through.

***************
 
 

Chapter Eighteen
 
 

February 2046
 
 

Jo downed her third drink and gestured for the bartender to bring her another. The man eyed her for a second, but when he noticed the look in her eyes decided it was better to just give her one instead of taking the consequences if he didn´t. Maybe if he was lucky she´d pass out before she could start to make trouble. God knows it wouldn´t be the first time.

The blonde sitting on the stool beside her gave the dark sergeant a small smile, "Feeling a bit thirsty tonight, are we, Jo?"

Jo shifted slightly on her seat, turning to face the slender woman. She let her eyes slowly roam the blonde´s body and when their eyes finally met a faint flush was showing on the woman´s cheeks. "Always, Leah," Jo drawled, never breaking eye contact, "I´m always thirsty." She leaned forward and cupped the blonde´s face, "You should know that by now."

"Your drink, Sergeant," the bartender announced and then hurried to the other end of the bar where a couple of customers were waiting impatiently. Jo sighed and let her hand linger briefly on Leah´s smooth skin before she turned back to the bar and grabbed the small glass, but before she could raise the drink to her lips, a pale hand reached out to gently rest on top of Jo´s.

"Aren´t you going to share, Sergeant," Leah asked suggestively, her fingers gently caressing the hand beneath hers. "You still owe me a drink, remember?"

"Oh, I do, do I?" Jo smirked as she studied the contrast between the blonde´s pale skin and her own darker one. Then she looked back into the woman´s eyes, "I thought I´d made it up to you already… several times."

Leah blushed and her eyes turned a darker shade of green. Jo´s brow furrowed slightly then she blinked and shook her head imperceptibly. Smiling sensuously she spoke, "Well, if you say I owe you…" She let the words linger between them as she removed the blonde´s hand from hers and then brought the glass to her lips. With a small tilt of her head and wrist she emptied the glass and felt the liquid burn inside her mouth, then she leaned forward and put a hand around Leah´s neck pulling her closer. Their lips met and Jo opened her mouth gradually, letting the fierce alcohol pass from her to Leah who swallowed it down eagerly, moaning softly when the liquid was replaced with Jo´s demanding tongue.

"Delaine! Get your fucking hands off my girlfriend!"

Slowly, Jo released Leah´s lips and turned her head to watch the seething soldier standing in the doorway. Still with her hand behind the woman´s neck and her fingers burrowed into curly blond hair, she spoke placidly, "Oh, get a grip, Navarra, if she were your girlfriend she wouldn´t be here with me, would she?" Jo paused, letting a slightly mocking smile appear on her face, "On the other hand, maybe she would…" She slid down the stool, her left hand now resting comfortably on Leah´s thigh. "Is that it, Navarra? Can´t keep your women happy, can you?" Jo squeezed the blonde´s thigh, "Well, then it´s good I can."

Before Jo could continue, more than two hundred pounds of solid muscle vaulted over the table that separated them and slammed her directly into the bar, knocking all the air from her lungs. She slid down the smooth wood, coming to rest awkwardly on the dirty floor and more than a little dazed, she heard Leah scream for her boyfriend to leave her alone. Apparently he wasn´t listening because the next thing Jo felt was a kick in the kidneys and she groaned in pain, not having the air to cry out.

Forcing her eyes open, Jo saw the next kick coming and caught Navarra´s foot, twisting it forcefully. She grinned with evil satisfaction as she heard the joint snap and the subsequent scream from the soldier as he lost his balance and staggered backwards, only to crash head first into a table, sending both bottles and patrons flying.

"Are you okay? God, Jo, I´m so sorry! I thought I´d made it-."

"Doesn´t matter," Jo interrupted gruffly, ignoring the hand Leah was offering her. Grabbing onto a stool she pulled herself to her feet, eyes never leaving the man on the floor.

"So what´s up, Navarra? You done already?" Jo demonstratively brushed a bit of dirt from her uniform, "If that´s all you got to offer then no wonder they all come running to me."

"Fucking bitch! You broke my ankle!" The soldier on the floor groaned as he tried to roll onto his back without jarring his right foot. "You´re a goddamn psycho! If you weren´t fucking Messina you´d have been sent to hell years ago!"

The room, which until then had been filled with a primitive sense of excitement emanating from all the patrons watching the brawl from a safe distance, grew deadly silent by Navarra´s last words, all eyes fastening upon Jo.

All colour left Jo´s face and her eyes paled. Her fists clenched and unclenched a few times, but she remained rooted on the spot, not a single muscle in her face moving. After what felt like an eternity, she exhaled slowly and spoke in a cold, but surprisingly controlled voice, "I´m gonna give you one chance, Navarra. You take that back right now and I won´t hurt you. Got that arsehole?" Her eyes narrowed, "You take that back now and you´ll be able to walk out of here, if not, those nice people here will have to carry you out in several small pieces when I´m done with you."

A collective breath was held as all eyes now came to rest on the fuming man on the floor. The soldier visibly swallowed, but didn´t break eye contact with the sergeant.

"Oh, promises, promises, Delaine. Do you really think a broken ankle is going to keep me from kicking your arse?"

Suppressing a groan of pain, he managed to rise to his feet, keeping his right foot suspended a few inches above the floor.

"You´re so full of yourself, you know that? Thinking you got it all made just because you´ve been lucky a few times. Hell, anybody could´ve handled those missions if only Messina could see past those baby blues of yours and would give someone else a shot." He spat angrily then glared back at Jo who hadn´t moved during his entire tirade. "You think you´re so damn irresistible, don´t you? Well, let me tell you something, Delaine, not everybody here thinks you´re so great! I´m not the only one who knows you´re just a piece of worthless shit, so full of big words, but unable to deliver!"

"You may think that, but your girlfriend most certainly didn´t when I fucked her last night."

A deafening quiet followed Jo´s calm statement. Carelessly she studied the frozen man before her, her own face dispassionate and relaxed. "Tell me, Navarra, have you ever made her scream out your name? Made her beg you to take her again and again until you´re too exhausted to even…"

Jo trailed off as she watched Navarra raise his arm and the all too familiar detachment entered her body as she stared into the pistol barrel. Without even being aware of it contempt showed on her face as she noticed the man´s finger tremble on the trigger and she raised an eyebrow and shook her head a little, then she sensed a movement behind her and glanced away briefly, but before she could see what it was, she heard a gunshot and something slammed into her body and the world faded away.

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"…But otherwise she´s all right?"

"Yes, ma´am. She´ll be sore for some time, but the bullet only grazed her shoulder and she won´t have any permanent injuries. Although…" The medic paused, giving the blonde a meaningful look, "If it hadn´t been for the bartender getting her out of the way, things could have gotten very ugly and ma´am…" He paused again and was silent for a few seconds before coming to a decision, "I know it´s none of my business, but I am a doctor after all and Sergeant Delaine has been a far too frequent visitor in my clinic these past few weeks and-."

"Your point being?" Messina interrupted impassively, arms crossed in front of her chest.

"Uh, I just thought," the medic began hesitantly, unnerved by the blonde´s impatient and cool gaze, "that maybe you should consider having your assistant talk to a counsellor or maybe-."

"Delaine doesn´t need a shrink," Messina stated curtly. "Can I see her now?"

"Oh, uh, yes, of course," the medic moved away from the door he´d been standing in front. "She´s the only one there so you won´t be disturbed."

"Good." She gave the flustered man a nod then opened the door and went inside.

The room was small and smelled of chlorine and something else, something unpleasant, that the blonde couldn´t define.

Death probably…

Sighing she walked past the empty beds to the end of the room, taking care not to make any noise. Jo was lying on her back in the last bed underneath the window, but the curtains were drawn and the sergeant was staring straight ahead of her, eyes distant and unfocused. Pausing, Messina studied the motionless woman in the bed for a moment then Jo´s head turned and their eyes met. For a long time they looked at each other without speaking, then Messina smiled slightly and covered the last distance to Jo´s bed.

"I´ve just had a chat with the medic, Delaine, you´ll be out of here in no time." When she didn´t get a response and Jo´s gaze strayed to the ceiling instead, she sighed quietly and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"So, are you going to tell me what it was all about this time?"

The sergeant shrugged, grimacing lightly when pain shot through her shoulder, "It was nothing, no big deal."

"That nothing got you shot, Jo," Iris´ voice was harder now, less patient. "You were lucky it didn´t kill you. So tell me," she continued, trying to make eye contact without success, "what was it about? Someone stepped on your toes? Said something you didn´t like? Or where you just being your usual provoking self, insulting someone until they´d had enough?"

"He had it coming," Jo muttered, still not meeting Messina´s eyes. "Just because Leah dumped him it doesn´t-."

"Ah…" The blonde cut short Jo´s words, a small edge to her tone. "A woman, I should´ve know. Really, Jo, if you absolutely have to screw every pretty thing you come across, can´t you at least do it discreetly? Make sure they´re single? Not attached to some 200 pounds bully with no brains?"

"What do you care who I screw?" Jo spat, her eyes briefly meeting Messina´s before she looked away again. "I always come back to you, don´t I?"

For a second the blonde looked like she´d been slapped in the face then her eyes narrowed dangerously and she said icily, "Don´t you ever speak to me like that again, Delaine. Is that clear?" Jo didn´t answer. "Is that clear?!"

"Yes," came the mumbled response and Messina took a few deep breaths, forcing herself to calm down. For minutes nobody spoke and they avoided each other´s eyes then Iris cleared her throat softly.

"Jo… Jo, please look at me."

Reluctant blue eyes met hers.

"Jo, you might not believe it, but I care about you and I want to know what´s going on here. You´ve been acting strange for months now and I can´t help you if you won´t tell me what´s wrong, why you´re behaving like this." She was silent for a few moments then reached out to take Jo´s hand and to relief the sergeant didn´t pull away. "You´ve changed, Jo, and I don´t know why."

Jo regarded her silently, no emotion whatsoever showing on her face. Images and events from the last couple of years flashed through her mind and she was surprised to find that she remembered so many. Like the time she´d returned to Gunnar´s village only to find it deserted with the thick smell of death hanging over it, or the pale face of the factory owner who´d refused to give up his code to the hall where the Reuma pills were kept and his subsequently horrified and shocked expression when he his oldest son was executed only ten feet away from him, courtesy of Jo, following Messina´s instructions.

She also remembered the smell of burnt flesh coming from the camp which had rebelled and pledged allegiance to the Council.

The frozen stares from corpses with bullets through their heads.

How it felt the first time she´d had to use her body in order to get the information the Organisation needed.

The tapes smuggled out from St Peter´s Prison showing what happened to rebels once the secret police got their hands on them.

How difficult it was to wash blood out of her hair and how sticky it felt on her hands.

The renegade soldier who´d tried to rape her in the forest. How she´d smiled when he begged for mercy, pleading with her not to kill him. The sound he´d made when she broke his neck.

The severe beating she´d received that had almost killed her after she´d shown too much attitude to one group of drunken soldiers too many.

And how she´d felt when she walked in on Messina in bed with a general whose support she was trying to gain.

And Messina´s laugh, saying that it didn´t matter, that nothing and nobody mattered as long as it served the cause.

"I haven´t changed, Messina. I´ve just grown up."

The words hung in the air between them and the blonde´s face grew serious. "It´s that what you call it, Jo? That you´ve grown up?"

"Yes," Jo´s face was still expressionless and she withdrew her hand. "Wasn´t that was it was all about? Wasn´t that why you took me away from Vega 3? So I´d grow up, become useful to the Organisation?"

"I brought you with me because I thought you were special, Jo. That your talents were wasted in a camp so far away from everything."

Jo looked at her and raising an eyebrow she spoke caustically, "And which talents were those exactly?"

For several minutes the blonde just regarded her in silence then she shook her head incredulously and rose from the bed. "I´ll be back when you´re ready to behave like the adult you claim to be."

Jo watched as Messina walked briskly to the door and disappeared outside. Her gaze returned to the ceiling and she tried to relax, but it didn´t work and she punched the wall beside her violently with her fists, not knowing why she was feeling so angry or what to do about it.

She didn´t stop until she had no strength left in her arms and the grey wall was smeared with the blood from her abused knuckles.

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The little girl smiles happily, clutching the teddy bear tightly in her hands. The bear´s stomach is torn and the stuffing is showing, but the girl doesn´t care. She doesn´t care that it smells badly either or that she had to pry it from the cold fingers of a dead boy she came across as she crossed the railway. She´s never had a teddy bear before and it´s hers now. That´s all that matters.

She´s on her way to a man her mother wanted her to see, saying that if Jo was nice to him he´d give her money to buy the pills that her mother so desperately needs. As always Jo does what she´s told, willing to do anything that´ll keep her mother from being in so much pain, and maybe, if the man is as nice as her mother claims, he´ll give her enough money to buy some food, too. She´s tired of stealing and it´s getting too dangerous with all the soldiers who´ve arrived in the Slums lately, patrolling the area. If she´s caught there´ll be no one to take care of her mother.

She drops to her knees and squeezes herself through the narrow gap in the fence, never loosening her hold on the bear. Rising to her feet, she studies the buildings around her suspiciously, her entire body tense and prepared to flee if she hears or sees something that doesn´t belong there. Enrique has always told her it´s better to run and not know than to stay and not like what you find out.

Nothing happens and nobody seems to be around so Jo begins to jog quietly down the empty street, not wanting to use all her energy on running before she might actually need it.

Suddenly she hears screaming. At first she doesn´t pay it much attention, screaming is a normal occurrence in the Slums, but then the screams intensify in strength and increase in numbers and uncertainly she slows down, coming to a full stop a hundred yards before the street turns sharply to the right.

Then she hears the gunfire and when it stops the screams have silenced, too.

Blue eyes widen in shock as the first tank turns the corner, closely followed by a second then a third. Then the soldiers appear, walking behind the tanks, machineguns and flame-throwers ready.

Jo stares at it all for a moment then she turns on her heels and runs. She sprints down the street only to find it´s a dead end. She watches the approaching tanks and soldiers briefly then she looks at the teddy bear in her hands, closing the hole in his stomach with her fingers to stop anymore stuffing from spilling out or there won´t be anything left for her to play with when everything´s over.
 
 

Gasping Jo sat up in the bed, blue eyes staring blindly out into the darkness of her room. She angrily wiped a few dark strands from her sweaty forehead then moved to the edge of the bed, putting her feet down on the cold floor.

After a few minutes the frantic beating of her heart had slowed down and she rose and padded over to the desk standing next to the window. In the darkness she could just make out the file Messina had dropped by earlier in the evening, containing instructions and orders she wanted to have carried out, together with a small note that said Jo had been promoted to lieutenant.

Looking away from the file she moved over to the window, opening the blinds a little so she could peer outside. The base, consisting of only a few scattered bunkers almost buried in sand, seemed empty and deserted, but Jo knew the area was heavily guarded and the soldiers stationed outside had orders to shoot before asking and that they wouldn´t hesitate to do so which meant that a late night run was out of the question and she´d have to find another way to spend her excess energy.

Closing the blinds again she stared at the bed, wondering if it´d be any use to try to go back to sleep. She knew it wouldn´t and her eyes trailed from the bed and then along the wall coming to rest on a door. She chewed on the inside of her cheek absently for a moment then she shrugged a little and walked to the door, opening it without a sound.

Never faltering she stepped over to the bed placed at the opposite wall, her ears picking up the sound of quiet breathing. Looking down at the sleeping woman, she pulled off her damp t-shirt before reaching down to take off her briefs, quickly discarding them on the floor next to her other piece of clothing. Then she lifted the covers and climbed into the bed, her hand clamping down on the now awake woman´s mouth to keep her from crying out.

"Shh, relax, it´s only me."

She removed her hand and the two women regarded each other in silence for a moment, then Jo´s hand moved purposely under the woman´s shirt, her hand finding warm and soft skin.

"I told you I´d be back, didn´t I?" she spoke, her voice determined, but devoid of any emotion.

Messina didn´t answer, but closed her eyes to fully enjoy Jo´s skilled and knowing exploration of her body.

Later, as they lay side by side, bodies covered in sweat and both of them breathing heavily, Messina shifted slightly to study the flushed face so close to hers.

"Jo… I think it´s about time we talk about you getting an assignment working undercover in Neo Roma. It´s a little earlier than I´d have liked, but I think a change of scenery will do you a world of good. You need to get away from it all for awhile… to get away from me…"

Jo turned her head, her expression indifferent, weary, "You want to get rid of me?"

"No," the blonde protested softly, but earnestly. She propped herself up on one elbow, her other hand reaching out to draw small patterns on Jo´s stomach. "I want you to go to Neo Roma and serve the Organisation there the best you can, and when everything´s over and you´ve found yourself and know what you want from life, I want you to came back to me again. And Jo…" She looked into clouded blue eyes, cringing at the haggard expression the sergeant was too tired to hide effectively. "I´ll be here… Waiting."

Jo regarded her silently for a minute then she spoke slowly, "What if I don´t want to come back?"

"That´s something we´ll deal with, when, or if, the situation occurs," Messina answered, managing to keep her voice even and neutral. However, she had to look away for a second to compose herself before she glanced back at Jo concerned that she had noticed, but she needn´t have worried. The sergeants eyes were closed and she was fast asleep.

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To Be Continued…


Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse