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Rated: XGC · Campfire Creative · Other · Sci-fi · #1492298
A secret school. A secret war. A chance to regain their honor beneath the hallowed Earth.
[Introduction]
For my wonderful and favorite campfire evar...Renegade Earth


3256AD, Earth, minor outpost of the Galactic Republic:

We've been under their dominion for almost five hundred years, a forgotten relic of the past, a monument only to the beginnings of this 'glorious' galactic experiment. In the beginning, the Republic was a glorious thing, representing the galaxy from right here on Earth. But then, five hundred years ago, President Ikae tired of Earth and removed the seat of government to Deklahn, a planet on the other side of the galaxy and about as tied to the interests of the people as the sun is to the skies of Pluto. From then, the depredation began. Earth remained the center of scholastic and philosophical learning and the spiritual leaders still chose Earth for their temples and churches. As the Republic descended into chaos and tyranny, Earth rebelled, remembering its glorious history. And we were crushed.

For five-hundred years, we've been under the heel of the corruption and the example of past glory gone awry. But now, my friends, the Republican government begins to topple. It is time. We must rise up once more and show the Galaxy that the past it not something to be forgotten.

We will crush them.


Earth as we know it now hasn't changed much. When the rebellion was crushed, the planet wasn't destroyed; it was the beginning of the Republic, after all. The instigators were executed and martial law was instituted. Five-hundred years later, the planet has developed much as the rest of the universe and, though it is considered a minor outpost, it remains a major site of religious and spiritual pilgrimages, and many of the galaxy's universities still stand. The only difference is the Martial Law; soldiers and police forces patrol the streets, people who open their mouth to voice their opinions disappear and are never seen again, and no one is given the choice of anything- even the food they wish to eat.

Earth's denizens are tired of it. And, with the assassination of President Awagabe and the ascension of his Vice-President Lynz, a weak-willed wasp of a man, the rebellion begins to foment once more.

Revolution has been a part of Earth's history as long as the Republic. And humanity is very good at it.

But are they good enough?
I grew up in and around London, England, a place that was never really a Republic in all of its history; and a long history it has been, indeed. Going all the way back before even the Romans- whose Republican example is the shining beacon for all of us trapped in these harrowing times- London has always been under the rule of some sort of monarchy. Yes, the crown has switched familial hands as often as a whore changes sexual partners, coming at last to settle in my family's hands some two-hundred years ago, and it has lost much (if not all) of its varnish and shine in that time, but it has always retained a crown, nonetheless. Perhaps it is because the monarchs of England have long since lost any real power- authority it retains, and the adoration of the people, but little actual power- to the democratic machinations of the Parliamentary system, but the Galactic Republic never saw fit to remove the crowns of England from their seat as it had with Saudis and wealthy Dubai. Instead, it allowed the English their 'pretty puppets' as they called the rulers of my beautiful land.

England's voice has never really been a loud one- the last time the Gaian Representative to Deklahn came from anywhere other than China, Russia, or the U.S. was three-hundred years ago, when a Frenchwoman managed to get herself elected- but England has always been respected given that its voice rarely rises above a whisper. Perhaps it is because of this ancient authority, the power in our history, that the other countries of the planet have always respected us and listened to our advice, deferred to our political counsel though we have not had the power to exercise our opinions in over a millennium. Perhaps it is because of this that Buckingham Palace is the spiritual epicenter of a rebellion that will undo the horrible deprecations of the Deklahnian Government. To return Earth to the position of power it deserves and restore the majesty of the Galactic Republic.

Maybe, one day, I will be able to do more than write of the glory of our cause. Maybe, one day, I will be able to fight for it with everything I've got, with every ounce of skill and courage that I can muster, and with compatriots who feel with every ounce of their soul what I feel and are willing to give just as much.

One day, Earth will rule again.


"Lady Amelia, your mother the Queen wishes to see you in her parlour, ma'am." Mia looked up, sighed, and placed her writing set into the drawer of her desk, locking it with a swipe of her hand. It was as secure a place as any in the Palace- and in the world, Mia surmised- for it would not open for anything but someone with her prints, eyes, and voice. Her journal harbored more than seditious thoughts- it harbored seditious plans and seditious meetings and seditious knowledge of seditious weapons and seditious training- and, for any but the most trusted of friends and partners, it would mean death at the hands of the Republic's famous 'Doctors'. The Doctors knew more of how to cause pain than anyone in the galaxy and a visit to one of their offices meant an exit in a coffin. They were a special gift for Earth from Deklahn, sent after the failed rebellion five-hundred years previous. Mia had seen her fair share of people come into the palace one day and come out of a Doctor's Office a few weeks later. The rebellion, she knew, had never been an easy thing and only the Royal Family's plausible deniability had saved them thus far; when the finally committed, they would never be safe again. But, Mia surmised, it would be worth it.

"Of course, Ingrid. Please tell my mother that I will be with her in just a few moments, after I have had a chance to refresh myself." The maid, a tall, willowy thing from Norway, curtsied and exited the room as quietly as she had entered a minute before. Mia stood and stretched- she'd been sitting at her desk for several hours already- then walked over to her boudoir in order to make herself presentable for her mother. The Queen, who'd taken the throne ten years before upon the death of her husband and until her son came of age, did not tolerate Mia's pension for showing up ink stained and with uncombed hair, much less wearing the pajamas she'd neglected to change out of that morning. As the younger child, Mia would likely never gain the throne, but Mother insisted that she act like the lady she was supposed to be.

Mia Godwin, therefore, was the youngest living descendant of Harold, the last Saxon King of England, who'd lost to the Conqueror (or the Bastard, depending on who you felt about him) at Hastings almost 2200 years ago. It had caused a great celebration in England when, on the 2000th anniversary of Hastings, the descendants of Harold came to once again hold the mighty English crown upon their heads. The English people felt that it was a sign that sometime soon Earth, too, would once again regain its old glory. None had dared say that openly, of course, but there were whispers and prayers and even the scholars opened the databases and codexes that contained all the information of England's past, looking for any reason to hope that the Republic could regain its former glory. Under a Gaian rule.

As of yet, Mia's family had done little more than open up her home and journal to those in England willing to fight. Her skills in rhetoric and politics, though considerable, were the skills of open rebellion. In a world as deeply scrutinized as Earth, even closed doors were not safe and Mia, as the younger daughter of the thrones, and only twenty-one at that, did not have access to the political circles necessary to foment rebellion quietly. And her fighting skills, equally formidable, were even more conspicuous. So, while Mia had the know-how and the passion, she lacked the connections necessary to really make a difference in this rebellion. Yet.

Pulling a comb- of all the things that had been invented in the past centuries, no one had come up with an easier way to untangle one's hair- through her dark waves, Mia winced and cursed mightily; this is bloody well why she didn't waste so much of her time in front of the mirror. It hurt like all the seven hells. But, she mused, it was what mother wanted and one did not go against the Queen. Even if one was her rebellious, headstrong daughter, who wanted nothing more than to continue writing and practicing her skill with weaponry.

Changing into an outfit more suitable- namely a dress in a pale blue that at least had the decency to bring out the green in Mia's almond-shaped eyes- Mia exited her room and made her way through the corridors of the palace, aware always of the guards trailing her and lined along the walls of the halls, always watching over her. Some of them, including those who followed her everywhere, were trustworthy, but no one was sure whether the walls' eyes, as Mia called them, were sent in as spies for Deklahn. No one would put it past them; the government lived in perpetual fear that, one day, Earth might actually mount a successful rebellion.

"One day we will, too, and their worst fears will be fact," Mia muttered to herself, lips barely moving as she knocked on the door to her mother's parlor. "Mother, it's me."

"Come in, Amelia." Mia winced. Her mother and father insisted that everyone call her by her formal name. It had always sounded like the name of a Princess to Mia and, though she assumed that her name should reflect what she really was, Mia had always been a little uncomfortable with all the formality of her full name. Amelia Elizabeth Lynn Chesterfield Godwin. The Chesterfield came from her maternal grandmother, whose family had married into the Godwin line. There really wasn't too much need for five names, Mia reflected, even if there were history in them.

"You wished to see me, Mother?" Walking into the room, Mia curtsied briefly and raised an eyebrow when she saw a man standing next to the Queen's chair. She knew better than to ask anything- it wasn't polite- but had an inkling that he was who her mother wanted her to see.

Edwina Godwin, Regina Brittanica, smiled and nodded, motioning for her daughter to sit. "Yes, I asked that you come here because I have some news for you, daughter. I have arranged for you to be sent off to a very special school."

Mia resisted the urge to raise an eyebrow. "A special school, Mother?"

"Your talents in both word- and swordplay have not gone unnoticed. This is Edward Phelps, and he has come to escort you to Oxford." Oxford had been in existence since the 1100s, but it had always been a school for scholarly arts, especially history and law. Following the rebellion, Oxford was shutdown until the Deklahnians had forgotten that it existed to begin with; a few years following that blessed event, Parliament had decided to reopen it, but with one important addition. In the underground vaults and chambers, Oxford was home to the most revered Paramilitary Training Program on Earth. 'Going to Oxford' now meant learning the arts of espionage, marksmanship, politics, combat (weapons and hand-to-hand), and dissembling. It was the heart of the rebellion and its most guarded secret.

'Going to Oxford', for Mia, meant one thing: her Mother had finally decided she was ready to join the rebellion. And join it Mia would. "I look forward to it, Mother."
A Non-Existent User
He couldn't remember the last time he heard his parents talking in that language, all "sh" and "im" and "tz" and "ot," the throaty "ra" and that rasping "ch" bouncing between them. Shamefully, he couldn't even remember what half of it meant, so little of it had he payed attention to as a child. "Sha, Habib- sheket! Ani lo rotzah-" said his mother, and all the words that followed must have been very important or insulting, for his father, Habib, retaliated with his own verbose assault. He knew she was saying that she didn't want... something. And though he did not understand any of the words after, "I do not want," after a while he could guess what she didn't want, in the context of her son's brief return, how his face was worn, how his brow was scarred, how his coat smelled like tobacco, how he had put his life in danger.
I do not want him to go back; I do not want him at that school; I do not want you to let him go; I do not want him to get hurt.
It could have been any of these things.

Shlomi watched them from down the small corridor. He hadn't seen them for three years. His mother's thick brown locks were now tinged with grey, but his father hadn't greyed at all; his fine black hair now framed the shiny dome of his head. In the dim evening gloom that washed in through the window, he realized how old they looked, the new shadows around their mouths and eyes- was it all because of him? Was it all because the family name Assad had a connection to Oxford now? Shlomi sank against the wall. He had put them all in danger.

Not that they hadn't already been in danger. A thousand years ago, the racial and ethnic and religious boundaries that had so plagued human life had crumbled; intermarriage suddenly became common, and it seemed that with time, the entire world would be descended of the same mix. But five hundred years ago, with the seat of power moving to Deklahn, the demographic tensions began to creep back into the flesh of human kind like cancer during remission as each group blamed another. The old rivalries and hatreds and bigotries flared up, and a period of brief but brilliant conflict erupted in all the traditional centers of unrest. Today, there was no longer state-sanctioned violence, only scorn and bitterness. And the occasional acts of inhumanity by the part of a few self-righteous, delusional individuals. His parents- Habib Assad and Tziporah Rabin- shouldn't have eloped, and he should not have been born. But he was. Tziporah's family, even in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, had held a funeral for her; Habib's brothers in now-prosperous Ramallah had threatened to kill him. Together they had fled to Britain, where at least the law welcomed their marriage.

No one could tell his background simply by looking at him, past the fact that he must be from somewhere in the Middle East, or perhaps from Mediterranean areas of Europe. The kids in the neighborhood, and even his younger sister, had called him Shtringy instead of Shlomi, such were his long body and gangly limbs. When he avoided haircuts as teen, the thick, floppy curls had grown out more than they had grown down, creating a comical, bushy halo atop the stick of a body; he then became known as Lolly. But three years had changed him. His long face, once smooth, was never free of stubble. His mop of curls had been more or less tamed. His chest and shoulders, though not broad, were now at least strong. He was tall and sardonic like his father, angular and inquisitive like his mother. He knew how to kill a man. Everyone just called him Shlomi now.

Finally the arguing stopped when his father took a seat on the couch and his mother stormed down the corridor. Shlomi stood up and made to retreat back into his old room before she spotted him eavesdropping from the shadows, but his mother had always been sensitive to his presence.

"Shlomi," she said, noticing him by the doorway, "you were listening?" Her accent was a bizarre mix, the throatiness of her home mixed with the pinched nasal tones of this new place. She was an Israeli who had learned North American English in school, but one who tried to utilize it the way her fellow Newcastle residents did. He lowered his head. She continued, her eyes brimming with tears that glimmered in the dark like the stars outside his window. "Three years, hardly a word from you. And it's only training! How am I supposed to know," she paused to take a shuddering breath, "if you're okay, when the real thing happens?"

"I don't know. I'm sorry, Mum, I really am. But we need every person we can get-"

"Why does it have to be you, though?" She grabbed his shoulders. "Why did they want you?" She knew perfectly well, though. He already spoke English and perfect French, a smattering of Hebrew, a dash of Arabic; his mind wrapped itself around language and absorbed it. They were teaching him Mandarin and Japanese, refreshing him on Arabic, starting Russian- he never mentioned to his mother that he would not have time to finally learn her language. In school, his grades had been immaculate, and from his associations, they could tell he felt betrayed, angry, and willful. By the time he had turned 18, Oxford recognized the potential for Shlomi to be an excellent spy. His mother knew it. She just didn't understand why that had to be her son.

"I don't want you to worry," he said, realizing how futile his wish was. "But I have to go back tomorrow. I just wanted to see you and Dad again." Neither of them spoke of the reason he did, though they both understood it. Rebellion is always a deadly act.

"I'll make salat aravi for breakfast tomorrow," she sighed. "I know you don't get salat there... you probably haven't had it for three years." No one knew how to prepare food anymore. It was all bought and produced in ready-made servings, distributed by the ruling forces. Some avoided food entirely and merely used nutritious pills. There was a black market for everything, though. And wary as she was of Shlomi's training, she disregarded her own safety in order to procure raw ingredients. Tziporah Assad had always said she would be proud to disappear for a cucumber.

"Thanks," said Shlomi. After a moment of silence he embraced her, holding her close enough to count the wrinkles in her face and the white strands in her hair. She sobbed into his shoulder words that he could not understand before tearing herself away and bustling down the hall to her bedroom.

A part of him wanted to stay. But the news he had just received made him all too anxious to return on the lightning rail the next day. No one else knew; he and a select few of equally impressive performance had been let in on the information. The royal family was in.

"What the fuck do you mean the royal fucking family is here?

"She's being sent-"

"No seriously: what the fuck?"

Laras was fuming. Of Finno-Urgic descent speaking five different types of Russian Olde English, English and French, he wasn't stupid. Far from it. He was also twenty-six years old, a tutor at Oxford having written his thesis at twenty three and he was also, without a doubt, also one of the most experienced of the people there. He'd been fighting since he was seven. He was like Othello, a man of blood and war. There were hundreds in Oxford like him, of course there were, it was Oxford and there were plenty of people who were just as valued. He had fought to be there, scrabbled like a desperate animal from the hole that was Moscow now. But why then did he seem to be the only one who had recognised what was going on here? The royal family becoming involved? Now? When every lay in such a precarious balance… why? Why?

"Can't they fucking see that this isn't some pretty little game that they're mucking about with here?"

"I thought we wanted-"

"We want their support and backing of course we do!" He scowled, "But a member of their own brood? Who? Which one?"

"The younger. The girl. Mi-"

"Amelia."

His accent always become more pronounced when he was angry and now was no exception, the assonance was deep and scornful and the messenger, a small whelp of a boy with barely a hair on his face trembled before him like an autumn leaf left alone on a silver barked yew.

"Yessir."

Voice dropping to barely a whisper he ground out the next few words between his teeth, "Can't anyone see that this is going to end up just like that bloody Prince Regent in 2008? The brat was a target for the enemy and everyone sought his blood." The volume increased again, "How many people will have to die this time before they realise, once again, it's a bad idea. We'll just end up babysitting and protecting the mollycoddled brat! And why the hell did you tell me? Any other tutor here would know how I feel upon such matters!"

"Because… b…because….they…uhhh…"

He tapped his foot, crossing his arms, sneering, almost snarling at the boy, "Well?"

"She's being given to you. They want you to be her tutor for… for… because… "

"Get out."

"What?"

"Get out."

The boy almost passed out, his face openly displaying relief. A strategist he guessed… no physical abilities there. He wavered before nearly jogging towards knarled door of his study.

"Wait."

Trembling, the unshaven youth turned back.

"Who sent you?"

"Mr. Stephens sir. Of Brasenose."

*

Exeter College lay on Turl Street, two minutes from Broad Street, five minutes from the Bodleian and right on top of the new studies for hand-to-hand combat and negotiation. As it was, Brasenose was also settled over these two areas though Brasenose also clipped the corner of the language centre where he himself worked so often. As it was, Laras Nikolao had dropped down through the entrance in the Fellows Garden and now walked through the tunnels passed the doors he so often frequented and made his way towards Languages where he knew Stephans would be lecturing on the importance of language as a medium of manipulation. Some of it was very basic but it was the fundamentals that really made a student worth their time. He scowled, reminded of all those he had know who had failed repeatedly to grasp at the simple things but persevered with the hard, leaving them useless due to the huge gaps in their credibility.

He was ready to argue against the older Tutor. Though he knew exactly how it would end. With he, the younger more 'impulsive' of the two being told that he should test the water and take her on. But the truth was this was one time he was not going to be demure in the face of his youth. He needed them to know his opinion before she arrived, before she realised that he was not going to be kind, before the university recognised the mistake that they were making. If he was wrong he wouldn't mind if he was proved so, in many respects he hoped as much, but at the same time… He understood the revolution and what it meant. He had studied Russian history and had been forced to flee his own home in Moscow to escape the civil strife that had targeted the intelligentsia and westernisers such as his Father. He had been young, too young to fully comprehend the scale of the violence but he had known enough to fear and more than enough to realise that revolution was just as dangerous on earth as it was in the rest of the universe even if the weapons were more extensive and the threats more varied.

Stephans was, of course, right where he had suspected. Teaching, his animated, musical voice dithering over the syntax of the early French poets and the beauty of the French language before plunging into the Latin and then wrenching himself into a discussion on why it was all so important, why it was important to know these things. Laras smirked, smiled then scowled. He admired Stephans, the man wasn't old but he wasn't all that young anymore either and was just as passionate now as he had been when Laras had been a student and even before that when his Father had brought him to Oxford when he was 16 to look around the language centre. It was a pretence back then, 'looking around' meant tests and interviews to see how sharp the alacrity of ones mind was and how powerful one could turn out to be as a spy, as a warrior.

The class was disassembling and moving apart, chatting lowly as they passed into the tunnels and Laras and Stephans were left along.

"What are you thinking, Laras Nikolao?" The man spoke with a grin, his voice smooth and suddenly sultry.

"Nothing that would surprise you."

"Business?"

"Indeed. The girl."

"The royal family?"

"What the fuck are you doing, letting her enter?"

"I interviewed her a very long time ago, she didn't realise. I was a guest at the palace, a secret of the Queen's."

"And you thought she was good enough? Good enough to ignore the possibility of danger? Good enough to forgo the preliminaries and-"

"Laras, you need to be less impulsive, less dramatic."

He smiled ruefully, "I knew you'd say that."

"And you know I'm right. Give her a chance." Stephans obviously noticed his grimace, "I'm not saying be kind. Just, give her a chance. If you think she's not an asset then we'll wait the three years and give her a homey desk job she can do from Buckingham Palace."

Laras's eyebrow tweaked, "So you understand where I'm coming from?"

"I knew you'd come to me. I felt the same until I analysed things a little more. Give it time. It might begin to make sense."
An older man sat sorting through papers at a oak desk. Papers littered the desk on the small area in directly in front of him, yet the rest of the desk sat under stack upon stack of carefully organized paper below the eyes rimmed by thickly framed glasses. The man ran a hand through his thin white hair as he pushed back a stack of papers that happened to nudge the small plaque with his name and title on it.

Edward Greywall: Dean of Admissions

Just as he prepared to read over another letter of recommendation for a student there was a knock on the door. He thought over the situation for a moment. That secretary of his wasn’t doing her job again. He hadn’t been warned at all about this meeting, “Come in,” he said in a loud commanding voice. The door opened, revealing a young man wearing what seemed to be the same clothes he’d been wearing for at least a year. A denim jacket and a plain faded red t-shirt seemed to simply fall over his upper body while he wore a pair of well worn blue jeans on his legs and some white shoes dyed brown by Mother Earth. Thick black hair fell wildly over his shoulders and didn’t look brushed in the least. There was a grin on his lightly sun-bronzed face that held a pair of hazel eyes fixed on Mr. Greywall. As the man walked in he bowed slightly acknowledging his respect, “And you are?” Greywall asked raising an eyebrow.

“You may call me ‘Tada’ Mr. Greywall. I’m here to take the entrance exam, or apply, or whatever it is that I have to do to get in here at this wonderful school of Oxford,” Tada said grinning. For a guy who looked like a vagabond his teeth were awfully white and straight. This guy could be a con artist. Edward wasn’t convinced in the least. He couldn’t stand it when these young bucks came waltzing through with no accomplishments thinking they were hot shit in champagne glasses.

“You’re trying to come here to Oxford you say? And what, my good man, is the reason you think I’d admit you? Do you have an adequate tuition fee?”

“No sir. I’m actually looking for the full ride,” said Tada with a gleam in his eyes.

“And why the devil would you receive that? I’m sorry, I’ve got lots of work to do and you don’t have an appointment. How did you get in here?”

“On the note of the first question sir, I just wanted you to know that I do have reasons to ask for the full ride. I’m a valedictorian from Japan actually. I’ve never had a home to call my own, and yet I’ve made straight A’s since elementary. Of course, I’ve also applied for a slew of the other scholarships and received information saying I qualify as long as I can pass the entrance exam. So, since you are the Dean of Admissions, I’ve come to you.” Edward sat back in his chair by this point with the eraser of a pencil in his mouth. A habit he hadn’t reverted to since high school. He took it out, tapping it on the table.

“Young man, what exactly do you KNOW about Oxford, and hand me your transcript,” he said.

Tada handed a group of stapled papers to the Dean and grinned broadly. “I know that you’ve been Dean of Admissions for twelve years and the place boasts famous names of instructors like Laras Nikolao, the language guru Mr. Stephens, and -one from my own country- Kuroda-sensei, or Takio Kuroda. Let’s not forget Sir Blankard. Not to mention…” began the aspiring student who looked more like the grounds keeper would in his street clothes if he were still nineteen. Another gleam flashed across his hazels as Mr. Greywall looked up from the flawless transcript to raise his eyebrow at the grinning boy two feet away from him. Tada took his arm out of his jacket sleeve and slid up the short sleeve to reveal two small tattoos on his shoulder, which read the kanji for “Senkai” and “Sakae”, meaning ‘Revolution’ and ‘Glory’. Greywall shifted his glasses and focused on the words. His brown eyes widened. “Ahh, I see. Then you understand what the important purpose of this place is?”

“You bet. A cause I wouldn’t mind taking up a position as a strategist for. I’ve always loved outthinking people,” Tada piped.

Greywall stared for a moment before smiling. This kid was the spitting image of himself before he graduated. “Well then Mr. Tada, I do have a bit of information to tell you,” he said.

Tada’s grin was too big for his face. All the days he’d spent outside on the streets jumping from temp home to temp home going straight from school to the books to workouts were about to pay off. He was one step on the long path of making a difference.
A Non-Existent User
There was a grin on her face as she leaned there against the windowsill. Her arms were crossed and she tapped her fingernail against her arm with impatience; the charm bracelet around her wrist making a few melodic sounds as it shifted. He was taking forever and she was never one for patience. Finally the door opened and the two men stepped out.

“Now then, I trust you'll make it here on time to take the entrance exam? It will be held here in two weeks; on the 23rd of this month. ” Mr. Greywall replied as he shook the young mans hand.

“I understand.” The guy replied. Paige smirked, kicking off the wall and strolling across the hallway as she stuck her hands in her tight faded blue jean pockets.

The two men turned looking at her. Mr. Greywall raised an eyebrow. “Miss. Summerstone, what are you doing here?”
The smirk on Paige's face blossomed into a smile. “Now sir, does a girl really have to have a reason to say hi to her most favorite Dean in the whole world?” She asked teasingly.

The Dean rolled his eyes. “Tada, this is Paige. She's one of our brightest and most talented students- unless you include her eye-hand coordination.”

Paige's steel grey eyes shot the old man a look as her lushly curved lower lip poked out. “Hey now! Just because I'm not to good facing off with somebody doesn't mean you've got the right to tell the future new kid my weaknesses.” Paige leaned in towards the messy black haired guy. “I'm the best and fastest driver here but I can't shoot a target for the life of me.”
Mr. Greywall smiled. “Paige, since you're undoubtedly not busy at this moment, why don't you and Mr. Tada here get more acquainted with one another?” He said, expecting her to be even slight perturbed by the suggestion.

Paige grinned. “Sure thing Mr. Greywall.” She replied nonchalantly; tucking a strand of her muted, wavy strawberry-blond hair behind her ear. “That is...” She added, looking at the guy Mr. Greywall called Tada coyly. “If Mr. Tada wants to, anyway.”

A grin crept over his face. “Ah, I guess I an stand you for a little while longer.”

“Good. Now that that's all out of the way- I hope you kids wont mind if I get back to work?” He asked in a tone that clearly showed his sarcasm in his caring if they minded or not.

Paige grinned, slipping her hand through Tada's arm and beginning to walk back down the hall. “Course not Sir. We'll just be on our way now.” She heard the old man grunt and mumble something under his breath but didn't catch what.
*****


As the two walked down the steps Tada could see a steady grin on Paige's face. Before he could say anything she finally chuckled a little bit. “So, its Tada now, huh?” She asked.

Tada smiled. “What, you don't like it?” He asked.

Paige let go of his arm and stuck her hands into her back pockets. “No, I don't. I much prefer the name I've been using to call you this last month.”

“Which one is that exactly? Jiyuu or Jizai?” He teased. “Maybe it was Isourou since I've been acting as such- staying with you and your cousin and letting you two take care of me?”

Paige rolled her eyes. “I gave you a corner in Dustin's apartment floor. You wouldn't except anything else, Konsen.” She answered- putting emphasis on the name he'd first introduced himself as. “You know most people stick with one name- not one meaning. I know how important freedom is but don't you think you're going a little overboard by using any and every name involving the word?” She asked.

“Not in the least. I don't know my real name- last or first. So there's no point getting attached to one name in particular. Besides, as you mentioned, freedom is very important.” He replied, glancing at her and seeing her lower lip poke out a bit. It made him smile. He chuckled a little bit as they walked towards the entrance. Paige's shiny black heels that gave her an extra three inches, which she felt she needed being only a couple inches over five feet, echoed loudly on the marble floors as she confidently walked along side Konsen- correction- Tada. When he chuckled, it caught her off guard. “What?” She asked, looking up at him with those stormy eyes of hers.

He shook his head. “I never thanked you did I? For buying me that meal and helping me get here.”

Paige laughed. “You make it sound like I'm some sort of saint or something. I only bought you the meal because I nearly ran you over with my jeep. When you jumped clear over the thing and landed on my hood the food you bought splattered all over my windshield. My automatic reaction was to offer to replace the stuff- especially after you so nicely noted you'd bought it with the last of your money. I didn't really think I could send you off without at least replacing the food. Can't afford for my insurance to go up just cause I almost killed someone, after all.” She replied, giving him a wink and making Tada laugh even more. “And as far as Oxford goes- you belong here in a place like this. I told you after that day long conversation we had in the all-you-can-eat buffet we went to that I'd do whatever I could to help you get in.” Tada remembered that day as well but if there was one thing he knew about Paige Summerstone, it was that she hadn't been worried out the Jeep or money when she'd jumped out of the vehicle in near tears. She'd spent a good fifteen minutes repeating how sorry she was- even after he told her he was okay. He had accidentally let it slip that he was out of cash but he hadn't expected her to take him out and treat him to an afternoon full of the best conversation he'd had in a long while. Then to top it all off, when he said goodnight to her and she offered him a ride home, finding out he didn't have one to go to, she practically dragged him into her jeep and drove him over to her Dustin's place and offering him a place to stay there.

Suddenly Paige's cell began ringing. The ring tone was a song he actually liked. Tada smirked, raising an eyebrow. He hadn't taken her for a rock kind of girl. “Hello?” She answered as soon as she pulled it out and flipped it open. “Oh, hey... didn't expect to hear from you.” She said, glancing over at Tada before looking straight ahead. “So what can I do for you? ... Ha! Now why would you call me if you didn't plan for me to do something?... oh? And what's that? Does this have anything to do with that recommendation I made?” Paige glanced at Tada again and smiled. “So what's your decision?... And when would you like me to do this? ... Really?” Paige sighed and laughed. “Oh no- that's fine... there's just one thing... I get to do it my way... Hey if you want someone else to do it then I can just let you go- yea I thought you'd see it my way... Okay then, consider it done. Alright- bye-ya!” She smiled shutting her phone and sliding it back into her front pocket.

“Everything okay?” Tada asked.

Paige laughed. “ Of course it is. I just gotta do something later on. Say, You know something?”

“No. What?” He asked teasingly.

Paige grinned. “I'm hungry. Let's go eat Tada.” She said as she made a sharp turn towards an exit; tugging on his jacket and pulling him along as she walked through the doors and down the cement steps outside.

“Huh, you know, if you want to call me Konsen you can.”

Paige looked up at him and smiled. “Good. Cause I really do hate Tada. It doesn't suit you in the least bit.” Konsen laughed. Paige looked at him strangely before shaking her head. “You really are a charmer.”

Konsen raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And how's that? It's the hair isn't it?” He teased.

Paige rolled her eyes. “No- that could actually use a bit of a trim. I was referring to the fact that I don't know anyone else who could just waltz right into Mr. Greywalls office and talk him into letting you take an entrance exam so soon.”
Konsen chuckled. “And here I thought that charm of mine only worked on women. Besides, I do recall you getting his secretary out of there long enough for me to speak with him.”

Paige grinned as she walked to her black jeep and unlocked it. Konsen hopped in- noting that Paige's jeep was due for a good cleaning. There were fast food bags crumpled up in the back seat and a melted slushy that had been in there for god knows how long. Paige didn't seem to notice or mind it when she grabbed her special form fitting, tailored, black leather jacket and slid it on over light pink tank top before getting behind the wheel. She stuck the key in the ignition and started the jeep- the blue rabbit's foot dangling with two other keys as she put the thing in reverse before looking coyly at Konsen. “Ready?” He just grinned and with that, she stepped on the gas and pulled out of her space- jamming on the brakes, kicking it into drive and racing out of the parking lot at eighty- tires screeching for a split second before the black jeep disappeared down the road.
*****


Paige rolled down the windows, letting her thick bangs and long hair fly behind her wildly. She looked pretty calm as she scanned the busy roads for something in particular. Red light. Paige braked, letting out a sigh. She turned her head to the left when she heard the revving of engines. A smile crept over her face as she watched the gang of bikers pull up alongside her. This looks promising.She thought to herself. “Hey Konsen- looks like some people are still stuck in the stone age. These guys look like something out of a history book.” She said, laughing and pointing at the men. Only a couple heard her and actually turned their heads to glare at her.

Konsen paused for a second in disbelief as he turned his head, looking at her. Then he let out a loud fake laugh. “Hehe, YEA Paige, why don't you say that a little louder so the rest of their friends can hear you and beat us up.” He said.
The next thing he knew she got a look in her eye which he'd quickly learned in the time he'd spent with her that it meant she was up to something. “Okay.” She said, grinning from ear to ear. “I SAID- LOOKS LIKE THESE GUYS ARE STILL STUCK IN THE STONE AGE, DRESSING UP LIKE THEY'RE ALL BAD.”

“Hey lady, keep your comments to yourself would ya? We don't want no trouble.” The biker closest to her window responded.

“Wow Konsen they seem to have a third grade IQ too!”

“HEY! I said knock it off!” He yelled.

Then the unthinkable happened- Paige reached behind her seat in the back and threw the red slushy at the biker. The drink splashed all over his clothes hair and bike and all Paige did was giggle. “Oh- there we go. That's so your color.”
The biker stared at her in confusion before his face turned red- matching the slushy splattered on his cheeks. He let out a low growl as he slowly got off his bike and walked over to her. Paige just kept a grin on her face and pushed down on the gas. Konsen stared at her as if examining her. “Yep- thats it. You've lost 'em. That's all the marbles.” Konsen looked behind him and watched the guy get back on his bike, following after them along with the rest of his friends.

Paige just laughed. “Don't worry about it.” She piped in as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Konsen looked behind him again. The bikers were catching up and it looked like they meant business. At some point in time they'd gotten out some weapons. He spotted three knives, two baseball bats, and a long chain.

"Paige- have you checked your mirrors recently?”

Paige glanced in the rear view mirror. “Oh... uh oh... Um... what should I do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well... I didn't think they'd chase after us. What do I do Konsen?” She asked in a panicked tone. A scraping sound came from the back. One of the bikers had run his knife along the trunk.
“Are you serious?”

“KONSEN! Hurry! What do I do?”

Konsen sighed and looked at Paige with a confident smirk. “Well, there's no better way to hone a skill than through experience.”

Paige turned and looked at him- giving him a big smile. “Exactly.” Do you know this is your real entrance exam, I wonder? Well, either way- good luck... though you really don't need it. I know you'll ace this. She thought to herself.


The reflection coming off Charon's polished black luxury sedan was starkly at odds with the vehicle itself. Dilapidated housing that could barely hold itself up, much less the garbage and filth accumulated on every wall and floor and roof. Grimy sidewalks, long beyond the point that anyone wearing his clothes could hope to travel them without ruining the shoes shining up from the automotive masterwork's gas and break pedals. Hopeless faces, having grown so accustomed to pain and need that even the sight of their own wasted expressions in such an obvious expression of wealth and power as true mirrored windows on a car with more power than this entire neighborhood could use could do nothing more than distract them for a few moments.

He shook his head as he accelerated, leaving the sad scene behind him. His visits to this place never had been good for his reputation, professionally, at least. What use did a prosecuting attorney and English professor have for sentiment? Well, at least the English professor part seems to make sense.

Dr. Charon Trusko slowed back down to the speed limit once he started recognizing the signs of real civilization again; it wouldn't do to be caught speeding in a part of town where someone would actually care. His pocket let out a pleasant tone, repeated twice before he removed the sleek wireless. He took a moment to wonder if he owned anything that didn't match before answering.

"Charon, you're late. The recitation is going to be starting in barely ten minutes, where are you?"

Charon sighed, his pressed suit rising and falling over his lean form with the action. "I needed to get into the mood. I'll be there in five minutes. I never miss a recitation."

The other professor was clearly not impressed. "That doesn't leave any time at all to go over anything before you start talking!"

The car took a turn sharp enough to throw Charon to the side with a smile. "Has anything changed since the department last discussed my recitation?"

The answering voice raised in pitch. "That's not the point! There's a way we do things here, Dr. Trusko, and you are not exempt from those rules!"

Charon smirked. "Then complain, Wetherby. My recitation will be on time, and it will cover everything that it is supposed to. If I am so terrible at my job, then let the Dean know. And let me know if you have any luck getting through the wall of compliments I have building up."

There wasn't even a click to let him know the call was done, but he could here the absence of white noise well enough to know. His frown returned to his face. It will take more than that putz to lift the spirits of those poor souls back behind me.

*****

The applause had faded long before the last person was out of the lecture hall. Charon couldn't help but notice Professor Wetherby was among the first out, leaving a few of his students standing rather clueless trying to figure out whom to address their questions towards. The blond attorney stepped down from the podium, offering his services, generally being the nice guy he was used to. They walked off a moment later, smiling, leaving Charon wondering how bad the next argument in that classroom was going to get.

He turned to pack his things, pointedly making no move to face the person entering the room behind him. "You would be Charon, yes?"

He put on his best smile as he turned. "It's pronounced Sharon, but yes. Would you be Killian?"

The suspiciously normal-looking man nodded. "I am. I had a question about the recitation and wanted to know if you had a transcript so that I could look over it."

Charon withheld the sigh he felt at the obviousness of this. "I do, here you are. Let me know if you had any other questions I could answer."

The Professor handed a small packet of paper, with the heading "Links Between Immortality and Sound in the Asiatics" over to the young man, who scampered off with muffled thanks. Charon was still laughing quietly to himself when someone else entered the room, through the other door. "I'm beginning to think that they know that you're actually working for us now. Their attempts at covert operations are pathetic."

"Now now, they know what they're doing. You are supposed to know about me, so that the real operative can move more easily. It's just your convenience that I also happen to be the real operative."

The other 'professor' shrugged her shoulders. "We know about you, so we're watching you, so we notice how inept you are at hiding things, so we miss what you're actually hiding. I get it. I'd consider doing the same thing if I could get someone as close to the heart of their covert headquarters as you are to ours. Other than you, of course."

Charon nodded. "And I appreciate that I've never needed to explain to you how Omega feels about even the possibility of a double agent."

The woman stiffened, clearly to resist the shudder that the name Omega normally inspired in their particular line of work. The internal intelligence service of the Republic was not the most subtle that had ever existed, but it was also among the most efficient. The only names Omega had that weren't buried already were the ones that would be martyrs without more evidence.

Not that Omega would let that stop them if Charon's intelligence didn't keep making it clear what sort of affect killing Oxford Professors would have globally. I can only exaggerate so much. Sooner or later, they'll come for at least the agitators. How ironic that they're not the ones who actually know what's happening.

The woman moved around to glance into his briefcase. "What did you pass along this time? The names of everyone who ordered chocolate milk and fries yesterday?"

Charon laughed again. "Officially. The actual message told them a new arrival was coming in, someone high profile who's being brought in in preparation for something big. Nothing too dangerous, Naomi."

Naomi Martin's jaw dropped. "Are you insane? You told them the Royal Family was getting involved and expect me to blow it off?"

"No, I told them someone high-profile is getting involved. Did you notice who else is coming to Oxford this weekend?"

The spymaster for the rebels at Oxford, at least so far as Charon knew, smiled. "They'll start investigating Brick Brig."

Charon nodded. "Brick Brig's concert this weekend is one of the student highlights, and he's never been terrible subtle about disliking authority. A few more subtle nudges on my part over the next week and Omega will be examining him for years, waiting for him to 'slip up'."

"Careful, you know the higher-ups don't like you painting targets on innocent people."

"Bah. Brig's hardly innocent, and he's a big enough target that the Republic won't move against him until they're sure, same as Oxford itself. A cultural icon can get away with a lot, so long as it keeps proof from showing up. And as Brig isn't a part of our little group here, he won't give them that proof."

Naomi couldn't keep from smiling any longer. "And with one high-profile addition, the odds of us attempting another less than a week later will be greatly reduced. The higher-ups won't like it, but nice job." She turned to walk out, then stopped. "Would you mind explaining why exactly you keep visiting the rougher part of town? It's not likely to help anyone, you know."

The answer came immediately. "So that I remember what I'm fighting for."

"You realize that those slums have nothing to do with the Republic, right?"

Charon nodded, then turned, face hard with conviction. "Not everyone sees those people the same way. Some dreams are worth fighting for, even if they aren't yours."
Leaving the palace was like nothing Mia had experienced before. Usually, she left in stately limousines or a fashion vehicle, always with the accompaniment of a contingency of the Royal Marines and a personal retinue that nearly rivaled her mother's in size and scope. She was the princess, after all, darling of the British paparazzi and a favorite among the people as long as she could remember; from childhood, she'd been the precocious charmer. On one memorable occasion just after her third birthday, she had taken the hat from one of the Palace Guards and put it on her own head; the hat had slid down to nearly her hips, much to the delight of the visiting emissaries from America and France. She'd even managed to get a smile out of a Deklahnian guard by offering him a lollipop from her pocket some time after her fifth birthday. It had been laced with the Jade Fever, which started as a simple cold and built until greenish scales formed on the skin and the eyes turned bright green, flashing jade just before the fever consumed the body and the victim died in horrendous pain as the poisons ate away at his body. At five, Mia had put it there herself and knowingly offered it to a Deklahnian guard. Had he taken it, Mia later learned, they could have traced the poison back to the lollipop and, from there, to her family; everyone, from her mother all the way down to the family dog, would have paid a visit to the Doctor and never returned. From a young age, then, Mia had been used to fighting against the Deklahnian government, but she'd never been considered able enough to actually join the movement. And now, now she was leaving London for Oxford town, ready to begin her descent into the Revolutionary underworld that was Oxford University.

The delivery truck was uncomfortable, but Mia hadn't expected anything like the processional coaches that normally delivered her from the palace to the train station. Her mother and Phelps had stressed the need for Mia to keep silent at all times, and to never touch her head where the cloaking device had been placed, just at the back of her skull, to disguise her as a delivery boy. Looking into the mirror, Mia could see nothing of herself in the boy that stared back, so complete was the transformation; instead of Mia's soft, feminine features and womanly curves, a tall, angular boy with too-long arms and limp, mouse brown hair blinked, mud-colored eyes dark with confusion. The face was unremarkable but for a scar that twisted the top lip, evidence of a cleft palate that had long ago been repaired with haphazard tools. Edward Phelps had stressed that no cloak should be too unassuming; the Deklahnian guards would stop a wholly unremarkable person simply for the crime of being unremarkable. The scar, at least, was a memorable feature and, therefore, not something that someone in hiding would use as their disguise. Mia had nodded absently as Phelps placed the cloaking device on her head, wholly overwhelmed by the entire situation and the information being crammed into her head and labeled as 'vital to the safety of your mission and of the entire Royal Family and, therefore, of England itself'. If this is what going to Oxford entailed, then Mia was glad her mother had waited so long to send her there.

Sitting in the back of the delivery van across from Phelps, Mia stared down at the burlap sacks into which everything she was taking to Oxford was crammed, hidden cleverly among the sacks of linens the van was to take to Oxford from Harrods. Amazingly, Mia thought, the store had never shut down. It had even regained its royal seal, which it had lost all the way back at the death of Princess Diana a millennium before, largely because it was one of the few big stores to survive the takeover, but also because it, too, assisted in certain matters that the Royal Family wished to see done and kept secret. The delivery from Harrods to Oxford had, therefore, included a stop first at the palace to deliver some delicate lace for the Queen. At that point, Mia and Phelps had stolen away in the back of the truck, disguised as workers for the delivery company, and ridden out of the palace grounds as ordinary folk. Mia had asked, then, about what would happen when the Deklahnians realized that she was gone from the grounds. Phelps had smiled and assured her that he had taken care of it.

"Are you sure everything is taken care of, Edward? I'm not sure that this is a good idea, if it means mother won't have something to say in her defense when the Deklahnians come to visit. She can't exactly say that she's sent me off to Oxford when they ask, can she? I'm a huge security risk!" Mia had become increasingly panicky since leaving the palace, realizing that her going to Oxford would cause as much of a problem for everyone else as it would for her to pass the training. Her presence could undermine the entire operation of the resistance, ruin hundreds of years of work in an instant, should the Deklahnians attempt to look in at her education at Oxford.

"The Deklahnians know you're going to Oxford. And they're going to see you go to Oxford." Edward sighed, his head back against the side of the truck, eyes closed as if he had expected Mia's worry to overwhelm her manners as soon as the Queen could no longer check them. "We have experts in the field of dissembling. And experts in the field of generating cloaks that use the DNA of a person to practically clone them. As we speak, a Royal delegation, including your Mother- whom you will not be able to see today, Mia, so don't get your hopes up- is on its way to Oxford proper. One of our master dissemblers is with her, wearing one of our cloning cloaks, and she will act as you for the day. Everyone at Oxford proper is one of us- a large part of our full-time staff is devoted to keeping up the charade that Oxford is a proper university- so it won't matter that you spend the majority of your time in classes other than the usual fare. Should the Deklahnians come for a visit- which, coincidentally, they haven't in over a hundred years- we will simply use another dissembler. It's that simple."

Mia frowned, the scarred lip of the cloak rendering the feeling strange and uncomfortable, unsure of whether or not she enjoyed having all of this effort spared for her. She had wanted to be just another student at Oxford, unremarkable in every way- except for her fighting skills, of course. Now it appeared that it would take extraordinary effort just to have her at Oxford, at all. No wonder Mother had always put off sending her to take her place in the resistance. Her very presence strained the resources of Oxford, forcing them to go out of their way to keep her, the family, England, and the entire resistance safe. "Maybe...Maybe I should just go home, Edward. If my entire stay at Oxford is going to make it harder for the Resistance to operate...I shouldn't be there. I don't want special treatment. I want to be treated like an average student. But...I guess that's not possible."

Phelps, for the first time since she'd met him earlier that week, laughed heartily, pausing only to wipe the tears streaming from his still closed eyes. "Miss Godwin, if you think that we're going to give up the patronage of the Royal family just because we need to actually do our job to get you the training you deserve, you are sorely mistaken. You belong at Oxford. Anyone tied to the cause as strongly as you seem to be, whose skills with weaponry are as innate as yours- not that you don't need training, mind you, in street fighting and such- and whose presence requires us to work and keep our skills sharp should be at Oxford. You're giving our dissemblers some much needed practice. They've not had enough of late, and they could use some fun. Believe me, Miss Godwin, you're not going to get special treatment. We're not doing this for you to be safe. We're doing this because you've got the skills necessary to be in our program and we've got the skills necessary to keep you there. Once we're at Oxford, your crown won't matter one jot."

Mia smiled slightly, hands reflexively reaching to run through dark masses of curl, instead meeting a greasy mop of untidy tresses. She put her hands back at her sides, trying to ignore just how uncomfortable she was in this entire situation. Surely they must be at Oxford soon and she could divulge herself of this useless stick of a body. Even walking was ungainly. How did men even manage to walk without getting their...thing...caught between the friction of their legs? It was decidedly discomforting. "Good," she whispered. "I just want to see Earth free."

"Then you'll fit right in, Mia," Phelps replied, using her name for the first time as the vehicle came to a stop. "Alright, when the doors open, grab one or two of the bags that you know are yours. The rest of your things will follow shortly and will be delivered straight to your room. We'll be using one of the service entrances. The Royal retinue will already be here. If you run into a girl in your rooms, she's the agent we're using to play you today and she won't leave until you're ready to walk out again. As soon as you've dropped your things off, turn right around and I'll take you to meet your trainer. Our dissembler will follow you to the salle, where you will remove your cloak and she hers. No one will notice that a gangly boy walked in and two women walked out."

Mia raised an eyebrow. "Does everyone get a personal trainer?"

Phelps chuckled. "No. Just the more advanced students. It's a good thing you're not in for analysis, miss. You'd make a horrible spy."

"You'd be surprised how well I can spy," Mia mumbled in reply. "No one expects the pretty princess to know what's going on." Phelps looked at her for a moment, a bemused expression on his face, before the doors opened and the two Harrods delivery men stood, smiling at the opening. One of them even winked at Mia as she climbed out, and Mia had to suppress the urge to giggle and wink back at him. It would be most unmanly, she supposed, to giggle like the flirtatious girl she sometimes was. Instead, she jumped out of the truck, allowing her knees to bend rather than apply undo pressure to the ligaments there, before turning and grabbing two of the bags she knew belonged to her. Phelps did the same, carefully grabbing two more of her bags.

"Right then, this way lads. The Princess will be wanting her specials delivered safe. The rest of this stuff, boys, take to the kitchens. They'll know what to do with them." Mia could barely contain the urge to stare at Phelps in slack-jawed awe. In an instant, he had transformed from honed warrior to efficient foreman, from proper London accent to a Liverpudlian drawl, his shoulders hunched from years of hard work, eyes squinting from too much time in the sun. The man is an artist, she found herself thinking. If they can train me to fight half as well as he can dissemble, I might make half a decent rebel myself. University College stood before her, in all its glory from back into the 17th century, when the current buildings had replaced their Medieval counterparts. Just about two-thousand years old, University College was but two hundred years younger than her great ancestor and closer to that glorious period than anything else in England. Even Westminster Abbey, freshly completed just before the death of Harold's predecessor, was gone, destroyed in the Deklahnian backlash against the rebellion. Mia had visited the site, still a ruin of the ancient building, many a time in her life and contemplated what earth might have been and what earth might be again, if the rebellion succeeded this time. Which, despite everything she hoped, there was no guarantee that it would.

"Come with me, lad. No time to dawdle, gawkin' at the school and whatnot. It's just a place for them rich types to get unnecessary learnin' that keeps 'em from earnin' an honest livin' what the rest of us do." Mia snapped back to herself and followed Phelps into the building, trailing him as he nodded at everyone he passed in a manner reserved for strangers and service industry employees. She marveled at him nearly as much as at the architecture around her. And the knowledge that everyone she passed, everyone who nodded solemnly to her, was a member of the resistance. She had never known so many people were dedicated to the cause. No wonder Phelps had dismissed the extra security to get her safely to the school. One or two dissemblers out of this entire crowd of people- and this was only one college, Mia reminded herself- would be next to nothing. "Follow me, lad."

Mia hustled up the steps, following Phelps as he climbed to the second and then the top floor of the building. "Princess's rooms are this way, lad. At the end of the hall." The bags were starting to get heavy and Mia had to shift the weight constantly as she walked. She'd obviously been neglecting her strength building exercises. "Ah, here we go." Phelps reached out and turned the doorknob, which, to Mia's surprise, wasn't locked at all. "Door was left unlocked because the Princess 'ent here yet. Nothin' in there worth stealing, then, is there? She'll be getting the key when she gets here." Mia nodded. She gathered, then, that Phelps had the key in his pocket and would give it to her once she'd met up with the dissembler playing her down in the salle. "Let's just drop it off now. We've got a delivery to the salle, too."

Mia wondered why the charade continued. Surely, now that they were at the school, it wouldn't matter what they did. But, then again, what did she know? The survival of the program had obviously been founded on cautiousness and ensuring that everything that could happen was anticipated. So, Mia guessed, the playacting would continue until she reached the salle.

Dropping everything into the bed, Phelps turned and walked out immediately, obviously intending that Mia do the same. Trudging back down the stairs- would she never get the hang of walking as man- and then down to the basement level of the building, Phelps walked into what had been the storeroom and, with a casualness that betrayed prior knowledge, stepped carefully onto a stone in the precise shape of a hexagon (the other stones, Mia noticed, were rough hexagons, all with some slight deformity; only the one Phelps had stepped on was a perfect shape) and then stood and watched as, to Mia's delight, the wall swung quickly open, revealing another set of stairs. "Go down," Phelps mouthed, gesturing. Mia went first, stepping quickly down the first few steps as Phelps came in behind her. As soon as he entered the hall, he pressed a button and the wall swung closed, leaving the stairwell pitched in total darkness. "Lumen," Phelps whispered, and the hall lit up. Brushing past, Phelps led Mia down the stairs. At this point, Mia thought, someone could push me over with a feather.

As they reached the end of the stairwell- a long and winding affair that Mia did not look forward to redoing later- Mia saw that they opened up into a tremendous training salle, complete with mirrors and weapons wracks. Hand-to-hand equipment- largely boxing gloves and a padded ring- was stacked in the corner. A single man stood in the middle of the room. Clearly the 'princess' had not arrived yet. Mia was suddenly glad for her disguise; this man did not look pleased to be standing in his position. I guess not everyone was as open to my coming as Phelps was. So why make him my trainer if he obviously doesn't want to be? Mia couldn't help but stare at him in awe, though. He was handsome in a way that no man Mia had ever met could match; clearly of Russian lineage, he had the strong features common of Finno-Urgic descent, and a grim stamp that lent him a deadly caste, but only enhanced his attractiveness. His body was chiseled, near marble, Mia thought, a fissure of excitement stirring within before she realized that she was in a man's body and could not rely on the properties of female development to keep her feelings secret. And the last thing I want to experience is an erection...in a fake body...just as I meet my trainer.

"Your fucking princess is late, Edward." The man's accent was acute; clearly of Muscovite descent, this man. "I told you this was a bad fucking idea. The fucking royals can't do anything without making a show of it."

Phelps held back a chuckle, but just barely. "You have no idea, Laras, what kind of show the Royal Family can make." Turning to Mia, Edward removed the cloak from the back of her head. "Say hello to your trainer, Princess Amelia." Stepping away from Mia, Phelps allowed the man- Laras, Mia guessed- to see her for herself. Mia could barely suppress a giggle in response to the look on Laras' face. It was a curious mixture of anger, shock, disbelief, and even a faint stirring of approval that soon flickered out in favor of disdain.

"Good day, sir," Mia said instead, curtsying properly. "I am to be your student, I hear."

"That depends."

Mia raised an eyebrow, feeling much more comfortable in her own skin. There had been a fissure of attraction in his body, as well, a stirring similar to hers. Mia had seen it in the slight stiffening of his muscles. Spending those short hours as a man had taught her a lot about how their bodies reacted. He hid it well, but an immediate reaction could not be suppressed consciously. This could prove interesting. Or completely detrimental. Sexual tension in the training salle. Oh my. I doubt this is what mother had in mind. "On what, sir?"

"You." Without preamble, Laras rushed forward, revealing the sword he had been holding behind his back. Mia had but a second to react, using it to look for and locate the nearest weapons rack. Launching into a series of flips that had taken her the better part of ten years, multiple broken bones, and nearly the loss of her right eye to master, Mia headed for that rack, landing next to it with enough time to grab a rapier to match Laras'. She could have chosen an axe, but felt that the heavier weapon would not do her a service against the lighter blade. Raising the sword, Mia barely had enough time to parry his cutting thrust and repost, narrowly missing Laras' head as he ducked out of the way. Mia continued to lead Laras around the salle floor until she could determine his fighting style- the German, if she was not mistaken- and launched into the Renaissance form developed in a Germany of later years, the only style considered an improvement, if not superior, to the one Laras had chosen.

The two of them danced around the salle- thrusts narrowly missing their target, no slash touching flesh, no mistakes from either end- for a good twenty minutes. Mia was sweating profusely- her shirt was nearly see-through at this point, something that would normally have embarrassed her, but didn't really matter at this point- and Laras breathing heavily, though not with any labor from the lungs. He was clearly in impeccable shape. An image of Laras without his shirt, the cords of muscles pulling and moving beneath the skin, appeared unbidden into her mind. Mia had to bite down on her lip to suppress a groan, pushing harder into the attack to banish the tingle growing in her stomach. Laras suddenly stop-thrusted then, standing stock still with his blade held straight before him, and Mia had to struggle to duck under the blade and touch the blade to his chest. "Touche," he said, voice deep, accent less pronounced between his heavy breaths. "But a big mistake." Taking his elbow, Laras slammed it into Mia's temple. The girl collapsed, unconscious, to the floor. Laras took the weapon from her hand and replaced both of them on the rack.

"That was uncalled for, Laras," Phelps called from the corner, where he'd watched the fight. "She had a point on you."

"A point won't stop the enemy from killing you."

"In a real fight, you would have been dead before you could do that. You should not have used that move." Phelps' scowl was formidable. Laras, however, dismissed it with a wave of the hand.

"Rules don't matter in a real fight, Phelps. She needs to learn that. And, if she's going to be my student, she will learn it very quickly."

Phelps' face transformed into one of subtle triumph. "So you'll take her, then?"

"Princess or no, Phelps, she scored a point on me. No one does that on the first try. She's got a lot of learning to do, and no one here will be willing to give her the beating she's going to need to take in order to learn it right. This better not be a fucking mistake, Phelps. I won't hesitate to kill her if she becomes a problem. And, point or no, she's still a spoiled princess. I won't let her crawl back to mommy and reveal us all if something goes wrong."
A Non-Existent User
Shlomi's heartbeat thundered in his ears, the rush of blood a tide of white noise throbbing with the muscle in his chest. He was on his stomach, propped up with his elbows, laying on the sleek metal surface of the air duct. His knees hurt from sliding and pushing on them for several hundred yards, slowly and deliberately so as to not bang and clatter. To his left were several slits through which he had a view of the training salle below. A bar of light fell across brown eyes; he was watching Laras storm out now and Phelps helping the girl stand, feeling at once both anger at the harsh cheat, and smug satisfaction at seeing a new recruit- who had thought it a good idea to curtsy- put in their place. He’d been there before. And, after three years of rising through the ranks, proving himself over and over, and watching scores of new faces stream in all to eager to join the cause, he knew it was necessary. But he still didn’t like it.

Laras had told him to watch. Why, exactly, Shlomi didn't quite understand. Laras was only instructing him in Russian and keeping him up with French, occasionally serving as a sparring partner. He simply didn't have the authority or background to judge Shlomi as a spy; that was Naomi Martin's territory. But the previous evening, when the young tutor had approached him, Shlomi had quickly agreed. Anything to occupy his mind after the slightly unpleasant stay with his parents. And he and the tutor had developed an understanding, if not a friendship. It hadn’t taken long for either them to figure out that they were both the children of people unwanted in their own societies.

Perhaps the request had been to justify tutor's belief in the useless danger of a princess, should Amelia have been weak and unprepared. But, Shlomi noted, she had been just the opposite. She was just a bit naïve, the way all new Oxford recruits were with their inflated sense of purpose and automatic expectations of camaraderie. He smirked in the dark and absentmindedly touched the scar over his right eyebrow.

Knowing a princess was involved, his mind turned to disguises. He understood the purpose and practice of dissemblers and cloaks, having been introduced to using them in his first year. And when Laras told him the princess would most likely be concealed, he knew just what to look for. He looked for the recruiter named Phelps, for the man that shown up at the Assad home when Shlomi was 18 and offered him a place at Oxford, the one in charge of the public façade of the school- the press secretary, in effect. He knew he had to look for what was intentionally left obvious and open; even the whiff of secrecy would set off the alarm.

Early that morning he had gone a a few yards down on High Street, across from the front of University College, and stood in front of one of the sleek screens that had replaced newspapers and magazines in the last few centuries. For a while he watched aimlessly, a few other people on their way to work or study gazing at the information that they all knew was somehow filtered, somehow diluted, their shoulders hunched against a cold wind. Shlomi wasn't paying attention to the information, though. He was paying attention to the areas of darker shades and hues on the screen, the ones that reflected the street behind him. After what seemed like an eternity, the reflection of a delivery truck silently ambled into view and stopped to the side of the mirrored image of the old building. He waited for the end of the report and then listlessly, seemingly finished and unimpressed with the morning news, the scruffy student meandered away in no hurry and with no other purpose than perhaps to get to an early class.

Those like him who had been singled out for espionage had been introduced to the secrets of the various buildings that made up the university, both the old nooks and crannies and the modern additions that carried with them tunnels, hidden rooms, clandestine constructs. They had learned how to use them, how to plant bugs and other devices. That was all in the first year. Now it was all study, all information, tactics, planning, speaking, disguising yourself, bending your knees just enough, raising your eyebrows to mimic genuine surprise- they assumed so many identities that Shlomi sometimes forgot who he was. And with a little twist of his stomach, he remembered his first instinct to listen in on his parents, how they hadn’t noticed him there. Was that really all he was becoming?

He held his breath as Phelps pulled the girl to her feet and let it out in a sigh when they had hobbled out, the echo pattering around the duct.

-------------------------------------------------

“Je pense que...”



“Quoi?” Laras raised an eyebrow. He always got suspicious when Shlomi enunciated his French, instead of slurring it together like he did when comfortable.

“Peut-être, tu es un peu trop stricte avec elle.”

The tutor’s voice lowered dangerously. “Trop stricte?” He threw a pebble and sent it tumbling into a bush, sending up a startled bird. “Trop doux!”

It was autumn, and the Walled Garden was awash in brown and yellow, the grass faded to a pale green. The goldenrod were in full bloom, brighter than the clouded midday sky above, outshining the sun. When Laras grew tired of his close, crowded study, they spoke out here, ambling among the plants as if they were two students studying botany centuries ago. It was Laras’s favorite section of the Botanical Garden- neat, orderly, everything in its place. Shlomi tried egging him on to the Water Garden, once. But the man didn’t like the “unnecessary clutter.” Still, conversing in the Walled Garden was better than staying inside. There was less of a risk of interruption and fewer reminders of the real stresses and struggles, the frightening goal they were working toward. Today, they had decided to speak in French, which was a relief to Shlomi. He still stuttered and stumbled with Russian, made all the more uncomfortable by the tutor’s quick tongue.

He hugged his jacket against his hunched shoulders, head down. “I just think... this is such a different case from all the others. She’s not just some promising student they picked up. I mean, she’s older than the typical-”



“Older? So she’ll have less time. All the more reason to come on a bit strong.”

“She wasn’t expecting-”



“When you’re fighting someone, they never tell you what to expect.”


“I’m not saying-”



“What are you saying? Sounds a lot like I should map out everything. But there is no structure in war, you know that, Shlomi-”

His words slurred into their normal form, one that would find him company with the youth of the suburbs of Paris. “But at least here, we don’t just go running about like headless chickens, putain de merde!” Shlomi’s face flushed a bit. Laras didn’t mind vulgarities from students- he frequently utilized them himself. But despite Laras’s youth, his nonchalant bluntness, Shlomi felt some inexplainable urge to be polite, just as he had been taught as a child. Unlike ever other teacher he had known, however, Laras hated affectations and propriety. Which was relieving, yet left him uncertain at times about what to say. He wanted to call Laras vous so badly, but the Russian man insisted on staying informal.

Laras paused to push at some fallen leaves. “So. You want to go against her with a sword?”



Shlomi laughed and shook his head. “You know I hate swords. What’s the fucking point? Balance, yeah, I guess. But no one uses them anymore. You go against Deklahn with a sword, they’ll fry you with plasma.”



“Yet you wouldn’t doubt the necessity of the mandatory martial arts training? You go against them with your fists?”



“I see what you’re getting at...”



Laras almost smiled. “So you’ll spar with her? I know you’re not concentrating in combat, but I’ve seen what you can do. You’re not all that bad for someone who reads manuals about pressure points and blueprints of government buildings."



“She got you the first time. I’ve only come close to beating you- what- twice? Twice out of the three years. If she needs to practice, she should go against someone who’s also training that way.”



“It’s not her that needs the practice,” Laras said without flourish. He looked at the small tube of a watch strung about a thin chain on his wrist. “That’ll do for today. Back to English. Though I really do hate your Geordie accent. I wish you actually were French, sometimes.”



They traipsed back in silence to the university, going their separate ways within the walls. He passed a staircase and caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of a face with a large bruise at the temple; the girl was trudging up the stairs. Slinking back instinctively to a corner, Shlomi watched that princess, that last-minute recruite, that pure gamble. It was almost silly how a creature who had aged at the same pace as him had been so far removed, so elevated and brought down so quickly. He remembered the media fawning over birthdays, watching her every move in public. They portrayed her as sweet, gentle, always charming. The proper girl, the delicate princess. Thinking back on what he had seen from the air duct, they knew nothing. He smirked. If this was the real Princess Amelia, then the grand old Queen herself might as well run a brothel. He left that thought lingering at the foot of the stairs and slipped away.

Oxford had been a place which had inspired him since his earliest years, where his father had passed across photos of a new land: ‘Orksforrd’ city of dreaming spires, the home of lost causes, whispering from her towers the last enchantment of the ages. The golden skyline of towers and domes and spindly tipped pinnacles was set against the lush water meadows and hills… It was a beautiful place. Yet nothing was as beautiful as the botanical gardens, the naturalness of the place despite its many creators being deliberate in positioning each of their plants. He had been glad to talk with Shlomi there, to know what he had thought about the whole thing with the girl. After all, the boy was one of the better students he taught and with more personal integrity than most of the others put together. There was a mutual understanding between them, a comradeship which, although not stretching to friendship, was civil enough to suffice. It had been interesting to hear the same argument echoed by Shlomi as the one Phelps had suggested. That he was too harsh on her. He had been nice; he’d not used his left hand which was his natural, stronger sword hand (not that he ever had needed to use it with any student prior), nor had he been too strong at the beginning, if he’d really wanted to beat her too badly he wouldn’t have let her figure out what fighting style he was using either. He had seen it in those pretty little eyes, in the twist of her lips, the concentration going into her defence, trying to sort out how to match him, best him. He liked competition.

Her placing a point on him had been humiliating. In front of Phelps. Shlomi. Though he’d meant what he’d said to the pair. Life was life. There was no such thing as too harsh, too hard, too strict.

It had reminded him that in despite it being the beautiful city, it was full of ugliness too, the nineteen sixties lego block buildings, the twentieth century roadways, the craters caused by the war against the universe. And people. The townsfolk hated the university but how could anyone blame them? The students were a hideous composition of self-absorption, self-regarding smugness and stubborn, perennial soul-searching which so many deemed a mandatory sport for the gowns. But it would seem that he could not claim that that ugliness was aesthetically based as well.

She certainly hadn’t been ugly. Though that criminal disguise had been.

The fire in his office was warm and comforting with its crackling chatter. His mind felt as alert as he could bring it to be when it was so wrapped up in the last two hours. Ridiculous as it would appear to any who knew him… he couldn’t rid himself of that first glance at the prim and proper princess Amelia. She wasn’t quite what he had expected.

There was a shift in the air as the door behind him quietly opened and closed. His blue eyes rolled, mocking, but he didn’t turn around.

“You’re musing again.”

“And you’re in my office again. What do you want Phelps?”

“Came to see how your pride was faring since you spoke to Shlomi.”

“How did you know I spoke to him?”

“You didn’t think I’d notice you taking your conversation with the boy to the gardens?”

“Spying on me. Are you jealous?”

“No I daresay that’d be one of your many habits.”

The last word was humoured and Laras finally turned away from his fire, raising an eyebrow at his merry intruder. He didn’t ask what was funny but instead moved towards his desk and glanced at his empty coffee mug and let out a long sigh.

“I’m out of coffee.”

“You only drink that when you’re musing.”

“No, it’s ‘yummy’.” Laras turned to Phelps and glowered, “So why are you here?”

“I told you already.”

“I think you’re not saying something. You choose a plain teal tie. Hmm…”

“I think your argument is specious. The one colour is simpler.” Phelps’ lips quirked upwards and his eyes flashed. He guessed the man felt special since it was only with him that he would banter as such.

“I think your tie is ugly. Why is one colour simpler than two? It’s lower, lonelier… is it simpler?”

“It’s simpler because it’s less ostentatious.”

“Well good for you, Phelpsie, you’ve learnt how to make your unnoticeable self even more boring.”

The older tutor moved to the larger of two chairs near the fire and sat down with a grin on his face. Laras remained impassive, occasionally shuffling the empty coffee mug between palms as he watched Phelps made himself comfortable. He almost groaned when he saw that expression appear on the well defined features.

“What do you think you’re going to do with her?” Phelps was more serious now and Laras smirked.

“So Stephens sent you. I see. Doing his whip work. I’ll treat her like everyone else. She’s proved that she’s worth consideration, though I’ll bet she’ll hate her room.”

“What tower is she in?”

“2-6.”

“You put her right at the top? Why to amuse yourself?”

“It was the room I stayed in for my interview. Draughty with plenty of noise from Turl Street and the Covered Market and of course some carry over from Broad Street. It’s large enough for a princess of course, whilst being right opposite Jesus. Everyone loves to try and sneak into that room to pull one over on our historic rivals. And it’s right at the top. So she has plenty of exercise in the wee hours of the morning up and down.”

“You really have it in for her.”

“I’m testing her. I have plenty which I am going to use. You may deem some immoral, ridiculous, petty and maybe even a little illegal, and you’ll probably be right. But I don’t care what Stephens said and I certainly don’t care that she put a point on me today. She will prove that she has more than just a good trainer and too much free time.”

“I shouldn’t have expected anything less. And I daresay nor did anyone else when they gave her to you.”

*

The normal lecture rooms were primarily used for the more banal studies. It was Oxford in the true sense of its heritage. A place where the students studied Chemistry or Philosophy or English Literature in their unadulterated simplicity for the benefit of appearances but also because it was useful to have scientists, thinkers and dreamers within the corps. People with originality and passion and the ability to think. That was crucial. It stopped the revolutionaries from becoming one mind, one lackadaisical entity with one plan and no deviations. In that sense this place, with it’s long hallowed halls and well-trodden paths were pure to purpose of the university. Below the ground, the world span more slowly, as one lecture finished above ground another began below ground. Whilst he sat with two of his tutees in his office, mugs of tea scattered through out his room, the oddness of their conversation was transparent. It was a girl, Michelle Lynch and a student from St Johns called Jerry Turnitt, he was tutoring them on Russian Literature, in Russian. Their accents were atrocious, though at least Turnitt was trying to improve whereas Lynch seemed to think his native tongue was as delicate as German. It was as if he was attempting to pet a porcupine listening to her.

“Вы даже пробуете?” He questioned her with a glare, “Вы даже заботитесь о вашей степени?”

“Я пробую!” She bit back.

As if she was trying. It was worse that a cat raking it’s claws down frozen glass. She couldn’t enunciate and she was going to fail. He told her as much.

She glowered and Turnitt turned red, looking away.

“Get out of my office. Both of you. And practise talking to each other before you come back here. You’ll never pass for Russians if you continue to speak like the pre-Nazi peasents in Southern Germany.”

Turnitt stifled a snort. He didn’t really mind her. But the sniff of disgust and the furious stomping that accompanied Lynch out of the room made him almost ask to kick her out altogether. Or maybe put her in Room 2-6. That room truly was terrible and he wasn’t sure that Princess Mia deserved as much as that sudo-bitch.

“Thank you Sir,” Turnitt murmured as she left, quietly leaving.

She was just too bloody nice, that girl. She’d make a great house wife. If her ability in munitions didn’t work out, he had no doubt that she’d end up there.

But right at that moment there was a lot more that he wanted to think about.

Primarily the fact that if Amelia wanted to stay at the university and then become a full part of the revolution. She would have to die.
Konsen glanced in the rear view to see one of the bikers -the one with the knife- riding hard on their tail, but just ahead was a police car. The young man smirked, "Don't worry just keep going the speed limit. See that cop car? Once it makes it's left at the intersection we'll hit a right,"
"But they'll just follow us and we won't have the police to make them second guess they're actions," Paige replied though she hadn't meant to. She wasn't supposed to suggest anything during his test, but that dumb of a decision had surprised her,
"I've got this under control okay? Just do what I say when I say it and keep your big mouth closed alright? That's what got us into this mess,"
"Oh right of course," Paige said with a bit of false nervousness in her voice. The bikers kept up waiting for the cop to turn out of view. Konsen was calm on the outside, but his heart was thumping hard against his chest within. Why would Paige have done something so reckless? One of a strategists greatest assets was knowing how to attain victory without engaging the enemy. Fewer casualties, less danger for equipment and supplies, and obviously a smoother more definite victory were the by-products of an absence of combat. Konsen sighed, at least now he'd have to think on the other side of the 'what if' fence and deal with combat situations. Besides, if he did it the hard way it would be good practice for his entrance exam. His mind began to churn as his eyes began to pull at the strings of his memories bringing back things they'd noticed. Three cars were ahead of them, there was one more turn past this next one for the next several blocks onto a two-way that happened to be heading left, the bikers were ALL brandishing weapons.

You can't win a battle if you can't move on the offensive so there had to be a tide-turner somewhere around him. The car began to make the right. Soon the cop car would be out of sight out of mind, and the bikers wouldn't hesitate to speed up and start doing some real damage. Konsen forced himself to think. What was the most commonly used tactic to turn tide of a battle? An ambush. Of course ambushing an army of five-hundred horsemen with ten samurai and three angry farmers was just useless bloodshed. Same goes for jumping 9 pissed off armed bikers with a young woman who had terrible coordination when it came to anything but driving, one guy who hadn't really been working on his hand to hand lately but could definitely hold his own against two or three guys at once. They may take out five people, four angry people, and a grand total of three angry bikers separately of course and that was figuring the results opptimistically, but nine of anything whilst unarmed was insanity. The only other thing would be reinforcements which had been flipping the chess board of battle since before the word was thought up. Where to get them though? How much longer did they have? Two seconds? Three? There had to be a decision made now,
"Speed up," Konsen said glancing back into the rear-view. The lead biker was pulling back up close. One thing he remembered was that a great fighter wins best by first putting himself beyond the possibility of defeat, then waits for a mistake from his enemies. There was something here that would put them beyond the possibility of defeat. Defeat by name right now was Tricia's severe beating at the hands of nine large unhappy men,
"Okay Tricia, get out of the car once we hit this stop light," Konsen instructed. As he did this, he pressed one and dialed it on his cell phone in his pocket. It dialed emergency. His eyes shot to an alley to the right that they'd need to move quickly into it. Konsen remembered this area. If there was no ladder he hoped for within the alley, then the alley still went all the way through allowing them to retreat on foot to gain a more tactical positioning. Three seconds till he they had to move, he'd have to tell her now even though she had a strange look on her face from his saying her real name out of the blue. Konsen instructed Tricia to speed up toward the end right before the stop. They'd have to have a bit of time to get moving since one could dismount a motorcycle much quicker than a car.

Stoplight flashed up, the car stopped and things suddenly got jarringly real the moment the keys swiftly left the ignition. The doors flung open and the two stormed from the vehicle. Konsen grabbed Tricia's hand and bolted toward the alley. The thundering of his heartbeat drowned out the quiet sound of an emergency operator (computerized of course) jabbering about his options. He tapped his pocket hitting the 'one' button again remembering that it was the answer to "Have you dialed this number to deal with an emergency?" One was yes, then he tapped his pocket again while running to hit the four for "I cannot speak, but need immediate help" The phone was being tracked now. The ladder wasn't against the brick wall like he'd hoped. Multiple footsteps were already thundering behind them. A swinging chain sang a grave song of leering clinks and jingles that warned of retribution for the reckless girl's actions. Konsen pulled Tricia out of the alley bolting to the right again. Plan B was more important than Plan A. Plan B meant you've at least HAD two plans. Konsen's plan B was simple. Play an easy little game of ring-around-the-rosy, but this one had something at stake. The mad dash continued and the biker in the lead of everyone else was holding a knife and a nightstick. Konsen decided not to think about how he'd gotten it. Problem was, this guy was really fast for a smoker. Konsen's free hand thumbed his own knife resting in the breast of his jacket as he hoped he wouldn't have to use it. Whipping around the building he heard an order from one of them,
"GO BACK AROUND!" shouted a gruff voice. They were splitting ranks. Konsen smiled as an idea warmed his stress dissolving it back into confidence.

There was no latter, so the "climb to the roof and hide" option was ruled out", since the bikers 'got smart' and tried to split up to catch them from both sides the "run all the way around the building and get back in the car after taking they're keys for assurance of safety" was out, but now...Konsen smiled,
"What do we do now Konsen?" Tricia asked shakily looking back with worry. It was all fake worry now. At first when he decided to get out of the car, but then again it was a red light. They couldn't just run it without getting in trouble, and sitting still would've been suicide. Seeing him move now she realized that once they started moving, he'd held some level of control over the enemy the whole time. Since they gave chase, he knew that if he ran they'd follow. He was positioning them like bowling pins. She remembered him making a weird reference once about the old sport of bowling,


"So they object is to skillfully knock down all the pins right? Don't you think you'd get more praise if you could somehow get the ball behind the pins without toppling a single one or sinking into the gutter? No scattered pin mess and the ball come right back along with thunderous cheers and applause. Well, as long as that's what you meant to do..."

Is this kinda what that was supposed to mean? Someone could have been cool by beating up all the bikers and neutralizing the threat, but that was dangerous, messy, and barbaric. His was clean, a little rough around the edges per say, but stylish in it's own sense. He definitely had potential. Maybe he would become a field officer like he hoped. But wait…this wasn’t like the saying. Bowling without hitting the pins and no gutter wasn’t possible, but would be amazing to see. What they were doing wasn’t impossible it was…easy. Maybe she didn’t quite get the saying yet…
"Tricia go!" he shouted letting go of her hand and taking off towards...her car? She hadn't even thought about how they'd been weaving in and out of alleys and vehicles not being seen, and now they were back on they're 'parking area' that traffic had been going around for the last three minutes. Konsen quickly tossed his phone into the bag on the back of the lead biker's bike and dashed towards Tricia's car with surprising fleetness lifting up a half full trashcan on the way. The gang was too close to try and grab the keys to there bikes, that valuable time was needed elsewhere. The first group had-again-circled around to the vehicles hoping to catch them. As Konsen had predicted, it was a smaller group. The bikers had split into four and since you don’t get to make four groups of 2.25 people three of the groups had two people and only one got three. This large group of course was the one that was right on their tails. Two men from the first group tried to come out from the alleyway, but their action had been predicted. The first thing Konsen did as he neared was hurl the can into the alley hearing it hit and make a mess that kept the two bikers from getting in their way, “Tricia let’s go!” Konsen shouted to the young woman who’d just frantically made it into her car starting it up again. Konsen slid into the passenger seat in time to hear his own door close, the footsteps quicken in the matter of trying hard to stop, and a chain hitting hard against the back of the jeep as it sped off. The bikers hopped on their own wheels ready for a chase, but ‘Tada’ just sat back in the chair with a sigh of relief,
“What are you all calm for? They’re still after us!” Tricia said. Her English accent came out heavier in times of stress. It was almost…cute. Grinning with pride and confidence, Konsen held up three fingers. Two…One. The cops pulled up behind the bikers courtesy of the phone in the leaders bag that supposedly belonged to a person who needed help about six minutes ago and was too weak or occupied to speak. With that, Tricia smiled and decided to drive the speed limit, “You’re really something you know? That was pretty cool once I got over the stress,” she admitted,
“Yeah well you know, I could’ve just called the cops myself, or run into a public place and asked for help but where’s the fun in that?” Konsen asked. Tricia rolled her eyes,
“So Mr. Hotshot Field Officer you need a new phone now?” she asked coyly. Konsen’s eyes flashed like they always did when he had stumped someone. Whenever he knew for sure that the next action was unexpected to them,
“Nope, wasn’t mine…” he said with a grin. Tricia thought for a moment then looked at the cup holder where she would sometimes keep her phone placed. It wasn’t there,
“You DEVIL!” she shouted smacking him on the shoulder and trying very hard not to smile. He really was slick. The young man just laughed as they rode on,
“So where are we going anyway? I forgot?” he asked.
A Non-Existent User
With him sitting beside her, drinking a milk shake and eating some of the fries, she turned left and parked in front of the apartment complex. With a heavy sigh she pulled out her keys and unhooked her seatbelt. “You did good back there...”

A smile formed at the corner of his mouth. “I didn't have much of a choice with you going crazy on me and spilling that drink on a guy twice your size, now did I Tricia?”

Paige shot him a look. “And where in the hell did you learn my first name in the first place? Nobody's called me that in years.”And they sure as hell aren't going to start now.She thought to herself.

The facial expression on his face didn't change. “Your cousin told me about it. Tricia Paige Summerstone. I also know about the little spectacle you made at your uncles wedding when you were a little girl and pulled your first tooth out in the middle of the exchanging of vows. I haven't seen the tape yet but apparently all that can be heard is you're screaming and shouting that you pulled your tooth out all by yourself.”

Paige moaned softly. “Dustin.”

“Yep.”

She made a mental note to herself to make sure her dear old cousin couldn't get the chance to share any more of Paige's information or history- history that had long since been buried. A sigh escaped her mouth as she looked back at him. “Well I'd prefer you didn't call me Tricia. Everyone else knows me as Paige and it would take an awful lot to explain why exactly I've been having them call me by my middle name all this time.” In that instant his eyes lit up as he grinned and that's when she got it. “Oh.” Paige sighed as she leaned back in her seat. “I get it. You've already introduced yourself as Tada at the collage.” Tada nodded. “... So it's settled then? I won't call you Konsen and you won't call me by my first name.”

Polishing off the last French fry, Tada unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car, walking around to her side to open the door for her. Paige thought she felt a bit of heat rise up in her cheeks but with a quick side glance into her mirror, she noted that her cheeks weren't in the least bit red. Thank god she didn't blush easily. She wasn't used to a gentleman being around to open doors for her. Looking up into his eyes, Paige gave him an equally confident and friendly grin. She slid out of her seat, brushing past him a little closer than she'd intended but couldn't help but grin as his muscles tensed up a little. She wondered if he was as attracted to her as she was to him but didn't say a word as they walked into the apartment complex- to room 69 B.
...

Dustin was slouched in the sofa with his arms propped up on the back when Paige and Tada walked in. He glanced back at them lazily. “Well lookie here- my little cousin's come home again?” He teased, giving a lazy grin before nodding towards Tada who nodded back.

Paige didn't say a word as she took off her jacket and slung it over a kitchen chair before she slipped out of her heels and bent over, taking off her pink leg warmers. She'd been oblivious to the fact that Tada had been behind her and had stolen a few glanced at her backside before clearing his throat and walking past her- sitting on the couch next to Dustin. Paige glanced over at him as she stood back up and grinned, walking into the room and standing next to her cousin. “And who's been running their big mouth, telling people stuff they don't want to hear?” She asked as she crossed her arms in front of her chest.

Dustin's eyes widened and he chuckled nervously as he scratched the back of his head. “Oh come on Paige, he was asking is all. It gets boring over here when you're at your classes. We men gotta have something to talk about while you're gone don't we?”

Paige looked over at Tada. “You were asking?”

All he did was grin and shrug his shoulders. “Maybe so. Like he said- there's not much else to talk about.”

“Well then, next time you wanna know something, come to me instead of this slime ball.” She said playfully as she ruffed up her cousin's brown curls.

“Hey!” Dustin exclaimed.

Paige giggled as she walked over to the bedroom- the only access to the bathroom thanks to the genius who built the place. She spun around on her heels. “Well, you boys play nicely for me. I need to get cleaned up. Oh- by the way, Konsen's gone and changed his name to Tada so no more of that.” She said with a bit of a pout to her lower lip.

Dustin looked over at Tada as if he'd grown a second head. “Wait, wha...?”

Without waiting to hear the brilliant explanation from Tada, Paige turned back around and walked into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her and turning on the water as she pulled out Dustin's cell phone- which she'd easily swiped off the dresser without either of the boys noticing. She quickly dialed the number.

“Hello?” A familiar voice answered.

“Hey there Mr. Greywall. It's me.”

“Why aren't you calling from your regular number?

“It's a long story...” She replied, wondering where her phone must be by now. Hopefully she'd get it returned quick enough.

“So did he already finish his test?” He asked- getting straight to the point as usual.

Paige smiled coyly as she thought back on the whole thing. “Yep. He's a stylish one that Tada is.”

“And?” Paige could tell he was anxious to hear the results. In truth Mr. Greywall had known about Tada- Paige had gone to him and told him about the young man. The way she talked about him- and the way his scout had after 'observing' Tada for a good while- had made it clear that the only place the man belonged was there at Oxford. Yet even though he'd heard about Tada, he'd never expected someone with enough balls to come waltzing into his office. That had made an even greater first impression. He wanted to know the results now but when Paige didn't answer fast enough, he growled. “Well? Did he fail or not?”

Paige chuckled again as she leaned against the counter. “He's as brilliant as I thought he'd be sir. He executed his plan like a true genius if I do say so myself- different from the average quick thinker but all the more effective. I assume you want a full report of his actions?” She asked even though she already knew the answer.

“Of course.”
...

Dustin blinked a few times. Apparently he was having a hard time swallowing the explanation Tada just gave him. Tada grinned knowing what he'd say next. Giving up trying to wrap his mind around it, Dustin just shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever, man. That's cool.”

“Why exactly doesn't Paige like to be called by her first name anyways?” The question had been bugging him for a while now.

Dustin sighed and looked over at Tada. “It's complicated. I think when she hears that name she remembers when her real folks got caught by the courts going the crap they were doing before they lost her. I think she blames them for the stuff that went on back then- for not loving her enough to make an effort to change or to fight for their rights for her.”

“...I see. So you don't think she's mad at me for using it do you?”

“Who Paige? Nah, she's already over it- I can tell. I doubt she could stay mad at you for too long anyways.”

Tada didn't understand the meaning behind his words and judging by the smirk at the corner of his mouth, Dustin wasn't telling Tada something. “What aren't you telling me?”

Dustin quickly caught himself and stiffened as he leaned forward a bit. “Don't worry about it. It's nothing important.” Before Tada could press him a little further the phone rang. There was a lot of confusion before Dustin got off the phone, scratching his head as he walked back into the livingroom with Tada. “So are you going to tell me how Paige's phone got on a bike that was pulled over for some sort of emergency phone call made to the police earlier today?”

Tada grinned. “I think it would be best if we let her explain that.” Dustin looked at him oddly before shrugging his shoulders and walking back over to Tada and sitting down.

“Well the police are going to drop it off later.”

“That's fine.” Fifteen more minutes passed before another word was spoken. “Thank you again for letting me stay in your's and Paige's apartment.”

Dustin laughed. “What, are you kidding me? I'm just glad you found a way to bring her home. Before you, she hardly ever visited.”

“What do you mean? I thought she lived here with you.”

“Dude, she lives on campus. She only started spending the night since you showed up. It's cool though- she helps me with rent. But like I said... before you showed up she never came around. I was beginning to miss her- she did grow up with me at my parent's place after my aunt and her husband lost custody of her- she's more like a sister than a cousin. I was missing her till you came along. Now its like old times.” He grinned.

Just then Paige cleared her throat. She smiled when she noted Tada's face reddening for just a split second before he looked up at her grinning with one eyebrow raised. She was wearing an over sized button up shirt with knee high socks... and aside from her undergarments- that was it. She walked over to him with a big grin on her face. Her arms were crossed- hiding the packet she held onto until she was closer. Tada stood up as she approached him. “You know...” She said coyly as she looked up at him. “You really could use a bit of a trim.” His gaze became all the more curious as she ran a finger through his hair. “Wouldn't want you looking bad on your first day... besides, I think you'd look even more handsome.” She teased.

“What are you saying?” He asked, though judging by the look in his eyes, she could tell he was already starting to get it.

“I'd like to be the first to formally welcome you to Oxford.” She replied, holding out the packet. “You're classes will begin tomorrow. I believe we've got a few classes together in fact.”

“The entrance exam...” He began, thinking back to her strange actions involving the bikers. She'd specifically put him in a situation where he'd need to use his skills to get them out safely.

Paige grinned, nodding as she laughed. “That's right. And you've passed. Congratulations.”

Dustin laughed. “Dude- you got into Oxford too? That's awesome.”

Paige nodded again. “Yep. All your other info's in there too. Including your dorm room number.” She looked to Dustin. “Looks like we won't be bugging you anymore. We'll be out of your hair by tomorrow night.”

A look of total disappointment seeped onto Dustin's face as he gave his cousin puppy dog eyes. “But... but... I thought we were going to...” Paige just grinned but before she could say anything there was a knock on the door.

Tada smirked. “That's for you.” He said, looking at Paige.

“How do you know?” She asked.

“Trust me.” Is all he said.
...

Paige sighed as she walked back into the apartment. She'd had to put on some sweat pants before she could go out and explain to the police just what had happened earlier in order to get her phone back. As she shut the door behind her she noticed she'd gotten a text. She opened it and read it.

Shlomi
I'm back.


Paige's eyes lit up. “Well I'll be...”

“What is it?” Tada asked, coming out of the shower with just his pants on and a towel over his hair as he was still drying it.

Paige looked up at him and smiled. “Just a fellow classmate. I'll introduce you guys tomorrow.” She said as her eyes skimmed over his body before she shrugged her shoulders. I guess I deserve that after coming out in just this shirt but really... why does he have to look so good getting back at me? She thought to herself as she slid past him, brushing up against him a second time after getting out of the car earlier. He tensed again before forcing himself to relax. Paige grinned coyly as she looked up into his eyes. He had the same look. This was starting to turn into a game wasn't it? But with such high stakes she wondered who'd be the first to crack against the pressure.


Charon's eyes roamed slowly across the mounds of reports and secrets and seemingly unimportant facts stacked neatly on his desk. So many... He picked up one report. The numbers across the sheet wouldn't mean anything to most people. They weren't labelled with what they were, the sheet itself wasn't labelled with what it was, and the Oxford Professor knew that about half of the numbers were fake. He could point out every one without really looking at this point. Each one of those numbers, even the fake ones if you studied them close enough and knew they were fake, said the same thing. Too many... He lowered the report back down onto the stack with a heavy sigh before leaning his head back and rubbing his eyes. A quick glance at the clock showed the time at four am. He couldn't help but grin. Prime meeting time, or so most people thought. Dead of night, just before people started waking up. Too bad it never worked that way. Too suspicious, too many questions if you got spotted. The real work was done in broad daylight, in front of everyone, where anyone could see the whole thing, and no one could tell exactly what was going on. Too fast...

He finally shook his head and stood, moving away from the desk and slipping back into the slick black shoes he made a point of shining too much.

*****

The decoy operative moved away from the green patch of wall, his stride making almost no noise as he passed through the archway and out into town. He'd lead the revolutionary tailing him to no place of consequence, just as Charon would if he really needed to lead off the one tailing him. It wasn't a long walk back to his place, but the gardens here were beautiful in the moonlight.

A few students were still out and about. In pairs. Charon wasn't the only one who thought the trees and flowers looked nice in the darkness, but he had less to hide here than some of the amorous couples. He wasn't surprised to find Naomi waiting in what he mentally referred to as his 'Memory Garden'. A particularly dark corner, with a single break in the trees to let sunlight through to fall on the thin, weak, and beautiful roses that grew there beside the bench. They were just as lovely in moonlight.

The English professor moved to take his normal seat, marvelling that he hadn't worn a groove in the stone yet. Then he just stared at the nearest rose, taking in every detail of its weakness, its perfection. "You're awfully quiet tonight, Professor Trusko. Feeling introspective?"

He didn't answer immediately, leaning down to inhale the cool night air with the rose's scent mingled in. "I'm going to fail, Naomi."

The frown flashed over her face as quickly as he'd known it would. "You had better not. There is no room here for anything less than complete success. It is no matter how hard you try, only how well you succeed. You had best try harder if you fear anything. I won't let you fail."

Charon chuckled dryly. "I am well aware that I will be killed before I am able to betray anyone here should it come to that. I am also aware that I am still the best you've got, and that you like me as much as you allow yourself to like anyone in your business life. And I am also aware that you know exactly what I meant when I said I'd fail. Even if you aren't privy to the actual decision-making, you've gotten enough information to be able to figure it out as well as I have."

"Since when did you become an analyst, Charon?"

For the first time in all the time Charon had known Naomi, he gaped at her in open shock. "Certainly not as long as you've been saying things like that to buy yourself time to think. I have to analyze all the information at my disposal and decide which bits are least harmful while looking exactly the opposite. Analysis is the hardest part of my job." His eyes narrowed. "You know what's about to happen, and you aren't telling me. You know how dangerous that is."

"Then I suppose you'll have to be very careful what information you turn over in the days to come. You don't have all the variables." Her voice was not at all apologetic.

He turned back to the rose with a frown. "Which is why I will fail. Either I will reveal something I shouldn't, or I will reveal that I'm hiding otherwise important information. If the first, then I would ruin whatever Oxford was about to do. If the second, then Omega would be able to learn even more by looking at what I have and haven't told them over the course of my service with them. Which is why you are watching me more closely, and why I have taken the liberty of adding an extra compartment to my Rolls."

Naomi shook her head. "Your conviction is too strong for that. If we came to kill you before you could give anything away, to further convince Omega of any information you gave them before they could discover you, you would not fight us, you would offer to help make it look more realistic."

"I didn't hide a shotgun in my car so that I could fight you. I did it so that I could fight the Republic when the time came for me to no longer hide."

Charon couldn't help but laugh aloud at the surprise on Naomi's face. "I've been waiting a long time to catch you off guard like that."

The spymaster's shock faded into a smile. "That would require you to survive and succeed until such time as we are able to openly fight, Charon."

"It would." He could swear the rose looked a little stronger tonight. "It does."

"You are going to be teaching our newest student. Publicly and privately."

"Princess Mia desires to learn the eloquent usage of our most prominent and linguistically entertaining language from such a verbose, if undeniably charming, master of his craft such as I?" The man's grin went ear to ear.

Naomi nodded. "Not really. I doubt she wants to learn much of any actual learning while she's here. You'll be spending more time with her dissembler than with her. Keep up appearances. When she's ready, you will be called on to help show Mia herself how to speak in you own brand of foreign language. She needs to be able to say absolutely anything at all without anyone else being able to figure it out. You may also be called on to help teach her to obfuscate her movements, and possibly one or two other things."

The Oxford double agent tilted his head slightly. "I may actually have a way to throw some heat off of me with Omega without causing any other difficulties." A raised brow was his only sign to continue. "Would, perhaps, a bit of scandal divert attention in a good way?"

A cloud passed before the moon, darkening the garden, but Charon could hear Naomi's smile. "That would be quite acceptable, and it might also help give our little princess some practice in the basic dissembling that she will be need to master to carry this out. Her dissembler is good, but can't do everything for her. Don't push Mia at all, but by all means, get your picture with Mia in a tabloid somewhere. That would even provide opportunities for the Queen to come and visit. You'll have to be careful to keep things from being too obvious. Make it happen. I will see to it that Silvia is informed. She won't break character to help you, but she'll expect it."

Charon rocked his head slowly. He never did understand just how someone could so completely subsume themselves in another person's identity as that. Of course, some can't understand how I can handle my own precarious position for so long.

"I'll make it real." He smiled again, wistfully. "Do you think the higher-ups will approve of dragging Oxford into a royal tabloid scandal?"

Naomi shook her head, smiled, and left Charon to his late-night musings.
Mia got to her room, closed the door, and let loose a stream of docks language that would have seemed excessive coming from a sailor and certainly would have killed her mother to hear; she clutched her head, pressing a cold press to her temple- she'd pilfered it as she'd accidentally passed the kitchen trying to find her way back into her room- and stared around the room she'd been given. Room 2-6, at the very top of the tower. With nary an elevator in sight. Oh well, she figured, at least exercise won't be a problem at any point during her stay at Oxford. The room itself, might, though. Large, it seemed to have been designed expressly for the point of allowing air in and out of the building, as if it needed to breathe just as she did; she could practically feel a breeze coming from one of the corners. On the opposite side from the window, which just happened to look out into Turl Street and the Covered Market. Mia could practically hear word for word the conversations of every individual walking up and down the sidewalks. Well. No one had said this would be comfortable for me. Knowing what some people think about me, I wouldn't be surprised if this is some sort of test. I'll be sure to get plenty of sleep, then.

Behind her, the doorknob to her room jiggled. Mia raised an eyebrow, took the cold press from her temple- wincing as her fingers accidentally brushed the inflamed skin- and stepped closer to the doorway, listening carefully for any voices. It definitely wouldn't be Phelps, she surmised; he would knock and announce himself. Maybe it was Laras, coming to beat her further into submission in order to further undermine her hard won skills. She'd have to work hard with him. He seemed determined to break her, convinced that she was just a whiny little princess, trained in a pristine salon with absolutely no street-style skills. She, then, would be equally determined to prove him oh-so wrong; she would wipe that smug self-satisfaction from his face, replace the disdain with respect and admiration. She'd wipe the salle floor with his Russian ass. And first she'd shove an elbow into his temple when he had won the point. No...he'd expect that. She'd find something more...painful to hit.

"Dude, this is the only room to get to Jesus from. I can totally jimmy the handle and we'll get over there in a cinch." Definitely not Laras, then. Mia was surprised to find herself rather disappointed. She was looking forward to a rematch. Perhaps when her head had ceased throbbing. She'd have a hell of a bruise there in the morning, though. So, apparently her room was the way to get into Jesus. Oh Laras. You think you're hilarious, don't you? Well, I'll show you. Striding to the door, Mia unlocked it and yanked it open, startling the group of students standing in front of her.

"May I help you?" She asked, as sweetly as possible, a winning smile on her face. "I understand that some sort of ritualized hazing may be in order, given that I am a new student here, but please...don't ever try to break into my room again. Or I will be forced to hurt you. And, believe me, I can hurt you. I'll start by inflicting a series of small cuts between each of your fingers and toes, and just under your eyeballs. If you're not screaming by then, I'll then start in on your lips and the backs of your knees. Then I will force you to walk down every step in this damn tower, just to hear your screams. Need I go that far?" She wouldn't do it, of course, but Mother had taught her the art of threatening with a silken voice, detailing the worst of punishments with the sweetest of dispositions. Granted, Mother had never threatened to torture someone, but they didn't need to know that.

"There's no need to be so violent," the leader replied. "We didn't know you were here."

"I am a Princess of the realm, younger daughter to Edwina, Regina Britannia. I will not have anyone but myself or someone I have expressly invited come into my room ever again, is that understood? If I catch you or anyone else near my room again, I will not hesitate to engage in some of the techniques my guards have taught me over the years. Did you know it was possible to stop the human heart with a single touch to the neck? And, with a pinch between the thumb and pointer, I can make your knees buckle and tears spring to your eyes? I'm sure I could give a brief demonstration."

"Dude, calm down. We're leaving." The group of students turned around and headed off down the hall and toward the stairs. Mia heard one or two pejoratives being thrown her way, but shrugged them off. She supposed she would have to get used to people not liking her. She was at the bottom of the food chain now, but Mia Godwin had no intention of remaining there even until the end of the night. I suppose that's where Laras gets it. Mia shook her head as an image of Laras standing at her door, saying similar things, popped into her head. She was equally as determined to never end up like him as she was to climb in status.

Mia closed the door, threw the lock, and, just in case they tried it again, placed her desk in front of it. She would eventually walk into the town and buy a chain for the door. I wonder if I can learn how to install a deadbolt. Is that possible? Or do I need a new door? I'll ask Phelps. The dissembler seemed, ironically enough, the only person she could trust at this institution. Trust to help her, anyway. She didn't think Laras would intentionally do anything to put her in real danger. Unless it was a test, of course. Bastard. He'd been the one to revive her after Laras had shoved his elbow into her temple, and he would have led her back to her room if he hadn't wanted to talk to Laras. I wonder if he would help me with this room? Or is he watching to see what I'll do, too? Is all this one, big fucking test?

"Fuck," she whispered. "It is all one, big test. Well, Laras...Phelps...I hope you liked what you saw tonight. It'll only get better."
*****


What on earth was that pounding? Mia's eyes fluttered open, one staring into a pillow and the other out a window that faced full into the morning sun. An unfamiliar room spread out before her, Mia sat up in a panic, tangling her legs in her blanket. As she struggled to stand, the mess about her feet threw her off balance and she fell, gracefully as always, with a thud to the cheap carpeted floor. "Ow...damn it all," she muttered, registering at last that she was at Oxford and someone was knocking on her door. Using her fingers to comb her waves out of her face, Mia rubbed her eyes and kicked herself out of the bundle and shuffled toward the door. "What is it?"

"Mia, get up!" Phelps replied. "It's almost noon and we've got to get you ready for the orientation dinner." A brief pause. "Unlock the door, Mia."

Yawning and scratching her head- Mia was as much of a morning person as a bear wakened in the middle of winter- Mia threw the lock, chuckling as Phelps tried to open the door and ended up pushing straight into the desk. "What on earth have you put in front of the door, Mia?"

"A desk. Some people tried to break into my room. I don't know what people are going to do now that they can't use my room to sneak over to Jesus. Though I do think I need to run into the town and buy some sealant for the window. That noise from the market and Turl is absolutely disgusting. Soon, I'll have to resort to sleeping pills, or something." Pushing the desk out of the way, Mia smiled at Phelps as he entered the room. This morning, he wore a blue button down shirt and a black argyle sweater vest with khaki slacks and boat shoes. Boat shoes! His unremarkable face scanned Mia's bedraggled form and he sighed.

"That bruise is going to get much worse. I thought so. Here's some Camfrey salve. It should help it from getting too much deeper. Anyway, I trust you're not feeling too badly this morning. I know Laras was a bit..."

"As I recall, I got the point. Even with that cheap shot. And, now that I know what to expect from that asshole. And, of course, I now have this delicious shiner to walk around with like some badge of Laras-defeat honor."

Phelps laughed. "You two are so much alike. Too proud for your own good. Hopefully, you two don't kill each other before you realize you like each other."

"Like him? Please. All I know is that I got a point and he proved his by knocking me unconscious. As far as I know, he's a hardhearted brute with not a scrape of humanity inside that wretched soul of his. I can tell he's devoted to the cause. And that's a wonderful attribute. But he's forgotten what the cause is all about- the dignity of mankind. And he needs to remember that."

Phelps sobered himself, frowning slightly. "Perhaps you're right. But the rebellion has us all entranced. No one can really see the trees for the forest here at Oxford." He stood for a moment, lost in his own thoughts. "But Laras does seem to have it the worst. It's not surprising, once you know his story. His mother was killed in front of him, you know, by Deklahnian officials."

Mia refrained from gasping, but just barely. That wasn't any excuse. Losing someone you loved didn't mean you could run and hide, even behind duty. "What did you mean by orientation dinner?"

Phelps coughed. "Well, all of the...special students and professors get together for a dinner. Then the students and some of the younger professors retreat to Undercroft Bar over at Exeter for a more informal scene. I've been ordered to get you ready for the dinner. Which is at seven."

"You think I need seven hours to get ready for a dinner?" Mia raised an eyebrow. Oh the ubiquitous 'getting to know you' dinner. What joy.

"Of course not. Lunch is first. I'm to show you around the campus, then. After that, you'll get ready. I'll have to show you to the showers and then you're on your own. It's dressy, but not formal. So don't drag out the crown jewels, or anything. I'll come to your room at six thirty to escort you."

Mia laughed. "Aww, Phelps, I didn't know you cared. Don't forget the corsage. And I'll make sure to shine my braces nice and pretty."

"Enough, Mia. You don't know your way to the formal lounge and getting lost isn't necessarily the best thing to do around here, remember? Anyway, I'll step outside while you get ready. You have twenty minutes before I barge in here and force you downstairs in whatever you're wearing."

"Oooo, that could be scandalous, Phelps. You sure you want to say whatever?"

"Just get ready, Mia."
*****


"You look very....suitable, Ms. Godwin." Phelps stood at her door, sweater vest and slacks traded in for a dinner jacket and dress pants. And were those wingtips? Next thing, he'd be tying a cravat around his neck. Mia rolled her eyes and stepped out into the hallway, red dress swirling about her knees. A Grecian-style halter, with a woven mock belt and braided straps, the dress made Mia as uncomfortable as it rendered her stunning. Mia had never warn the outfit before, even when her mother had purchased it expressly for the purpose of her brother's twenty-fourth birthday. Instead, Mia had shown up in jeans and a t-shirt; Mother had been decidedly displeased. So, she figured, she'd do Mother proud and wear the dress. She'd even done her hair- straightening it and allowing it to fall about her shoulders- and her make-up, though the latter had ended in battle with the eyeliner.

"Thanks. You look like a penguin, Phelps," Mia shot back, more out of her discomfiture than any real mocking. "I'm not overdone, am I? I don't know much about this dress up stuff. Mother always tried to instill a proper sense of feminine wiles in me. It never took. I'm too much like my father, God rest him."

Phelps smiled. "Your Mother is very proud of you, I'm sure."

"Well, of course she's proud of me. She just wishes I didn't embarrass her so much. Not that anyone sees it, of course. When I'm out and about, I'm little Princess Amelia with the big smile and the heart of gold." Mia chuckled. "Not that my life was horrible. Everything has its downfalls, though. Privacy being a big one being the Princess. I couldn't go out to get a burger with my brother without someone photographing us both. Do you know that I'm twenty-one and I've never kissed a guy, Phelps? I've always been too afraid that I'd see myself on the cover of some tabloid the next morning and I'd have to see myself, wretched and drooling, right in front of me in grainy black and white."

"You do have a way with words, Mia." Phelps and Mia descended the stairs, Mia dreading the climb back up in heels later that night, and headed toward...well, Mia didn't know where they headed. She still hadn't figured out anything of the structure of the school, even with the tour. She knew Jesus was across the way, but they were headed in something of the opposite direction. "This building wasn't part of the original school. It's called Buillard Hall and was only built when the school reopened a hundred years ago. According to Deklahn, it's a new Interplanetary Politics program. It also holds all of our formal events...and it's where a lot of the analysts and dissemblers do their work. You'll pretty much be in the salle with Laras, though you'll also meet your other professors, including Charon, today."

"Charon? Do I have to give him a coin, or something?"

"No. And he doesn't really like that joke about his name, either. Imagine hearing that all the time."

"Granted," Mia replied as the two approached a building that had clearly been built as a near-replica of the Pantheon of old (much larger, of course), but without the evidence of years of hard work and human sweat. Other people, all dressed in clothing similar in class-level to Mia and Phelps, were already entering. Ahead of her, Mia swore she saw Laras see the two of them, scowl (despite her attempt to camouflage it, her bruise still stood out like flattened eggplant on her face), and storm inside, drink already in hand. "Oh looky, he's so pleased to see us."

Phelps coughed to cover up a chuckle. "Laras hates these functions. Oh, look! There's Shlomi, one of your fellow students. And Paige. Although, I don't recognize the boy she's with. I might as well introduce you. Shlomi!" A boy, dark and powerfully built (though anything but a body builder), stopped and turned, a smile breaking over his face when he saw who had called him.

"Edward. How are you? And you must be Princess Amelia." Shlomi offered his hand.

"Mia," Mia replied. "I hate my full name. Nice to meet you, Shlomi." Mia smiled, pulling her hair down a little to cover the bruise. She noticed Shlomi's eyes find the bruise and examine it, without surprise and even with a little recognition.

"Shlomi is a spy and an analyst."

"You've seen me before, then. Hiding somewhere while Laras put on his little show of humiliating me. Where were you, exactly?"

It was to his credit that Shlomi didn't look surprised, though Phelps certainly did. "Air ducts. How'd you figure that out, Miss Mia?"

"You saw my bruise but didn't look at all surprised to see it. You were actually examining it, as if you wanted to see it more closely. Meaning you'd already seen it and knew where it came from. So, therefore, you must have been watching Laras and me fighting." Mia loved demonstrating that she had more going on in her pretty little head than just some fighting skills and a lot of princessy rhetoric. It tended to keep people on their toes.

"Very good! I think I approve, Phelps. And I daresay Laras had decided to keep her on as one of his students?" Shlomi turned laughing eyes to the dissembler.

Phelps nodded. "No one else has ever gotten a point on him, even if he did knock her out shortly thereafter."

Mia grinned. "I don't suck, you know. Even if I am a princess."

"And I heard what she did to those pranksters trying to break into her room last night. Do you really know how to stop a man's heart?" A girl walked up to them, strawberry-blond hair twirled into an up-do, gray eyes sparkling. Behind her, she dragged a dark-haired young man, who looked around with an eagerness that betrayed him for a new student like Mia.

"Unfortunately, no. The guards never showed me that particular move. But I can cause someone immense pain just by pressing certain places in their body. I guess they believed the threat, then."

The girl laughed. "I daresay they did. Everyone's heard about it by now. Half the school will be terrified of you." The girl stuck her hand forward, shaking Mia's returned hand vigorously. "I'm Paige. Getaway driver extraordinaire. Don't ask me to shoot anything, but I guess other people are for that. Oh! And this is Tada. He's new here, like you. Tactics and whatnot."

Phelps looked around. "Let's get inside, guys." Leading the four students through the door, Phelps made sure he stayed by Mia's side, even as Shlomi remained next to her, asking questions about life at the palace and how she'd learned to fight the way she had.

"No doubt she was trained by a preeminent old man with no notion of what it's like to fight in real life." Mia's smile disappeared as an all-too-familiar voice broke through Shlomi's questioning. Turning, Mia faced Laras. He was dressed well this evening, in a fashionable suit that made him look like a Russian James Bond. Mia steeled her thoughts and smiled.

"Good evening, Laras. I see you're doing well. Shlomi, would you please get me a glass of the champagne I see being offered. I would dearly love one." Understanding completely, Shlomi excused himself to procure the requested beverage, leaving Mia and Laras alone.

"Actually, if you must know, I had several teachers. Yes, my official tutor was older. He was a survivor of the Korean-Japanese wars thirty years ago and has taught me several of the eastern styles, as well as the western. I did have several unofficial teachers, though, in the palace guards and some of the police officers in and around London. You'd be surprised what I know." Shlomi returned with her champagne, which Mia accepted gratefully. "Now, who would like to tell me about this after party I hear about at some bar at Exeter?"
A Non-Existent User
Jerry Turnitt was sulking off by a tray of drinks, though she managed a smile when she saw Shlomi. “You actually shaved properly, for once,” she teased, though her voice betrayed her reluctance at being at the event.

“And you’re wearing a dress,” he replied tartly but not unkindly, reflectively touching his own face and feeling that it was indeed smooth. He stared for a second at the champagne. His body language said nothing of the fact, but Shlomi was just as uncomfortable as Laras was opposed to the function or as Jerry felt out of place. He wore black slacks and a clean black shirt with a jacket, the only nice clothes he bothered to keep with him. Simple, but Shlomi had learnt to carry himself so that it looked respectable. However, if it weren’t for the fact that he had learned to control his posture and mask his feelings, he would have appeared awkward and gangly as a spider running from a flame. He was getting champagne for an angry princess with intimidating combat skills that could be provoked by an equally angry tutor. A dangerous mix.

A little flurry of deep blue taffeta passed across his peripheral vision as he took an unassuming tin out of his pocket and opened it to reveal a cluster of miniscule white pills. Jerry had come to look over his arm as he selected one and positioned it over the champagne flute. “You’re testing for synterine? They’ve already done that.”

Without looking at her, Shlomi selected a glass and dropped in the tablet with a barely audible “plink!” against the champagne before it dissolved in a whirl of bubbles. No color change; it was clean. “Just a precaution,” he mumbled before turning away. “You’re welcome to join us.”

“You should save those for the bar, that’s where the drinking will be. And no, not right now. I don’t think he’d want to see me right now, not after the last lesson…”

“Laras?” Seeing her tilt her head in exasperated confirmation, he sighed. “He’ll hate you if you act like you think he does. All too happy to accommodate, that man.” And with that he left Jerry by the drinks, though not without a pang of guilt. She was in her second year, and though her shyness had faded considerably since they had met, she had great reservations about dressing nicely and parading herself around the other talented students and faculty. She was too modest for her own good, and no matter what advances she made or commendations she received, she blinded herself to her own worth. While humility was refreshing in a school where both students and professors openly glorified achievements, Shlomi couldn’t help but think that she should be showing off. She was good enough. He wanted her to flaunt herself for once, to strut across the creamy tiles and brag to new acquaintances of her talents with and knowledge of guns, her ability to name the caliber just with a quick glance. She deserved to feel important as much as anyone there.

Composing himself perfectly, he brought the champagne to Mia, who accepted it with a practiced smile. Only after a moment—and just in time to avoid suspicion—did he realize she had asked about the later excursion. “Oh, there’s a good-sized pub just on Broad Street, a little bit away from Exeter College. Not many go after the dinner.”

“Would you recommend it?”

“Absolutely, especially for new students.” Though he actually didn’t give two shits either way. Shlomi just felt he should at least seem to be making an attempt at helpful suggestions for such a high priority recruit. But maybe there was some truth in his answer. After all, he had met Jerry at Undercroft’s her first year. She had been so drunk—

Again Shlomi had to push away his own thoughts. Laras had decided to ignore Mia for the moment and was directing his comments to Shlomi. “After this unnecessary formality,” he said, gesturing around at the well lit hall, “I’ll need a few good stiff drinks. You’ll be going as well, I assume?”

Shlomi had no choice but to accept. Surely now the disgruntled tutor wanted a sympathetic mind with him at the pub, especially with the looming possibility of Mia there as well. Luckily, Paige intervened. “I definitely agree with Shlomi. New students need to try out Undercroft,” she said with a humorous but firm look at Tada, who remained calm and unflustered at her suggestion.

Even Laras observed pleasant social conventions when meeting someone against whom he held no grudge and of whom he knew nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, Shlomi could see Mia tensely keeping her mouth shut, understandably disapproving of Laras, who denied her respect but was perfectly capable of giving it to others. It seemed the tutor had only come near Mia to act oblivious to her.

Tada cleared his throat. “Looks like people are taking their seats,” he said to the little group, glancing towards the numerous tables across the wide hall. “I wouldn’t mind finding places where we could sit together, if that’s all right.” Shlomi could have kissed him, so grateful he was for this excuse to leave the uncomfortably awkward conversation behind. Laras saw them moving in one direction and excused himself to another, presumably to take his place with professors more worthy of his time.

Mia grumbled at the thought that Laras had evaded her wrath, though she seemed relieved to have at least avoided a potentially large confrontation. Taking her place with Shlomi, Paige, and Tada—for Phelps had disappeared, and they were the only acquaintances left which hadn’t yet earned her ire—Mia complacently followed to a round table at the far end of the hall.

“Now I’ll join you.” Jerry had reappeared at his side and smirked as Shlomi settled himself between her and Tada. “But not for Undercroft, not after what happened last year.”

“What happened last year?” Paige had overheard them. Mia, apparently bored with the formalities and anxious for the later setting, perked up in the hopes of an interesting story.

The small girl looked around herself with uncertainty. “I shouldn’t drink. I’m too small to have so much alcohol,” Jerry said quickly and quietly, and no more questions were asked, though Shlomi clearly remembered being sick all over his shirt, his sheets—

The formal introductions from the front of the hall interrupted his thoughts, keeping him from giving Paige’s comment any more attention. Still, he could not concentrate. There was a welcoming statement, the usual publicly acceptable praise of the high standards of education, the university’s pride at having such students, but nothing about the real character of the mission, other than the goal “to arm the best of this generation with the tools, abilities, and strength needed to succeed in the future that awaits them.”

On his left, Tada turned to Shlomi. “Any more of this mush and I’ll have to gag myself,” he whispered jokingly.

“No kidding,” said Shlomi. “It doesn’t get any better the third time around.”

Finally the long-winded introductions ceased and the dinner began. He understood why Laras hated the orientation dinner and any of the flashy events. They were enjoying good food, fine company, distracted from their purpose, while less fortunate people suffered. Could keeping up appearances to deceive Deklahn be enough to justify these sorts of functions? Shlomi felt as if Laras himself was stabbing at his conscience with a rapier. He numbed himself to the conversation, answering when he needed to, never contributing more than nodding. Tada and Mia had struck up a pleasant rapport. They were all agreeing to go to Undercroft, all but Jerry who insisted she was not one for casual drinking and must return to St. John’s. Again he felt that pang of guilt, the same he had felt leaving her by the champagne, when he reaffirmed he had told Laras he’d be there, and one would be wise not to go back on one’s word with Laras. All but Mia laughed.

Finally, as plates were collected and the diners started mulling about, the push was made towards Undercroft. Many of the female students were getting a head start, rushing back to their rooms to change, lest their clothes fall victim to spilled beer or the occasional nefarious cigarette ash. Paige bustled away with that purpose, but Jerry walked slowly, clearly with no intention of seeing Broad Street that night. Shlomi was left with Tada and Mia. Mia, to their great relief, didn’t seem to care about the dress. “It’s the year 3256,” she said. “We’ve got more than enough technology to take care of a stain.”

Their walk was pleasant enough, though Tada turned back halfway through and insisted on waiting for Paige, despite Shlomi’s assurance that Paige was perfectly capable of finding Broad Street herself. He was left walking with a princess and with nothing useful to say.

“You know, I’m exactly one month older than you,” he said and quickly regretted it.

Mia raised her bruised brow curiously. “You must follow me in the press, then.”

He shook his head. “No, actually. My little sister had this fascination with the royal family…”

She laughed. “A fan of the tabloids?”

“She was more into the history of it all. Lines of descent, succession, that whole thing. Memorized a good part of the current family tree.” Why was he telling a princess about his sister?

Mia did what he was both dreading and hoping she’d do and picked up on the verb tense. Or was it the tightness in Shlomi’s voice that he had failed to suppress? Either way, she understood and asked very gently, “What was her name?”

“Zara.”

“Was it…” Mia knew the answer before she even asked. “I mean. The ‘Doctor’?”

Shlomi let his breath out of his nose. “Maybe. We don’t know what happened.”

They continued their walk in silence while internally he berated himself for the lapse in tactfulness and tastefulness. One more corner, and they found themselves amongst the earlier visitors, and the warm chatter from inside melted the chill of the bungled conversation. A few tables were filling already and people were milling about or seated at the bar counter. Shlomi caught a glimpse of Laras sitting with a pint in the far corner, speaking to another professor with his head lowered, and suggested the counter to Mia before she had time to spot the offending Russian. There were Sam Brookings and Martin Lee, then Carla Gianni, a whole slew of people to introduce and talk with normally, now that they were released from the confines of the dinner.

The two of them finally grabbed their own glasses of beer, passed over from the counter through several hands in the mêlée that now accompanied the entrance of a good deal of people. Out of habit, Shlomi took out the synterine detection tablets again, though he kept them discreetly in his lap as to not worry anyone around him. He took two between his thumb and index finger. Mia was turned to the side, smiling and talking with another combat student. With just the slightest motion he dropped one of the tablets into her drink. Of course, he told himself, it’s clean. He felt stupid and foolishly paranoid as he dropped the second tablet into his own drink, expecting to only reaffirm himself as a trivial worrywart and not a fleeting blush of pink in the liquid

It lasted only a moment before fading away into the beer’s original golden hue as the tablet dissolved. Shlomi almost didn’t realize what he had seen. He’d never seen a positive synterine test before, though he had been trained to carry around the tablets like many other students and understood that there would be pink if the poison was present. He knew what synterine was—a synthetic poison developed on the Io colony. He knew how it killed people, how they died silently and quietly in their sleep and how their bodies showed almost no detectable trace of what had killed them.

Most people, anyway. New recruits were subjected to a barrage of medical examinations and blood tests upon being accepted to the University. No doubt Mia would soon be, too, if she hadn’t already. They looked for allergies, diseases, susceptibilities, immunities. Especially with consideration for synterine, its deadliness and low cost of production too great to ignore. 0.2% of the population, for whatever reason, could not metabolize synterine and therefore could survive being poisoned. What made Shlomi even more attractive to Oxford as a candidate for the spy programs was that he was a part of that group.

However, he had never ingested synterine before. If he couldn’t force himself to vomit—and he’d never done that, either—then the irritation and damage done to his stomach could be so great that he could still die. All these thoughts crashed through his head as he stared at his own glass. Someone deliberately spiked this drink. Someone knew it was going towards him and Mia. They were here. They might be watching, waiting to see that the poison arrived at its destination. Shlomi’s stomach was already churning. It could have been meant for either of them, though most likely it had been aimed at Mia. She’d gotten the wrong drink.

Seizing the glass in one hand, he took a determined gulp while Mia sipped calmly. All the manuals he’d read had been right; there was no taste to synterine.

“Do they play music?” she asked over the growing hum in the building’s cool, sparsely lit amosphere. “I feel like we should be making as much noise as possible.”

“Probably people would want to hear Brick Brig? He’s playing in town in a couple of days.”

Mia’s face lit up. “I love Brig!” she beamed. “Why didn’t I know about this before?”

Shlomi kept smiling and drinking his beer, but the slow loosening it should have brought to him was overcome by the rising internal panic at what he was doing, at how much synterine he was consuming. So far he felt nothing, and that’s what was worrying. He wanted his stomach to lurch and pain the moment the beer touched it, to confirm his chances at survival. But all he felt was the absence of anything amiss. Just like all of those who succumbed to the poison, never knowing they were doomed. He could be the living dead a that very moment.

Just as he was nearing the bottom of the drink, a searing pain shot through his abdomen, and he buckled slightly in his seat. It was the most wonderful pain he had ever felt, the pain of being alive. Or at least of having the chance to live. No one saw but Mia. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Shlomi said, straightening up. “I’m fine.” But then another wave tore through him, and this time he remained bent over the small table they shared, his face fixed and stony.

Mia made to get up, but he grabbed her wrist hard, looking straight at her in calm, collected agony. “Don’t get up. Don’t make a scene,” he said in a low voice, his breath short. There was a bit of sweat breaking out on his neck. Should he have taken care of this before the pain set in?

“What’s going on?”

“I’m going to the toilets. If anyone asks, I had a bad piece of fish at the dinner.” He managed to raise himself and hobbled to the back hallway just as Paige and Tada entered. They didn’t see him as he snaked around the wood-paneled corner and pushed into the men’s room.

At least he was alone. The sounds he was making—the groaning, the gasping and sputtering—were awful. With a few stumbling, dizzy steps, he pushed into a stall and fell to his knees in front of the toilet. It smelled foul enough to make him wretch, but after a few heaves nothing left his stomach. He guided his finger to his mouth but gave a pitiful, gargling moan as his belly seemed to knead itself like dough from the inside.

“What the hell…” With one hand bracing himself over the toilet, he slammed his eyes shut and plunged his fnger down his throat. Immediately the reaction was to withdraw it; tears filled his eyes as he forced it to remain inside. He pushed farther, produced a croaking burp, and felt a massive, strangling heave from his throat to his stomach. Again, another heave. A third one, and finally a rush of hot slime coated his hand and spilled from his mouth, burning everything it touched before splashing into the toilet water with the most grotesque sloshing noise. He spit the remaining vomit from his lips before surrendering to a second upheaval of partially digested food. The sound of the door opening barely reached his ears. He was too overcome with pain and disgust and the fear of death to count the footsteps and realize they belonged to two people.

“Don’t stop yourself now. Put your hand back in your throat, or I’ll do it myself.”

Laras?

“Do you hear me? Keep going until you can’t puke anymore. Empty yourself out.”

“I brought water—“

And Mia?

Before he knew it he was at it again. The vomit came in smaller amounts now, but he was dribbling some onto his sleeve. His face was wet with either sweat or tears, or maybe both. He couldn’t tell. The sting had numbed his throat and tongue, but now it was his nose that was filled with the foul, pungent stench.

There was a lull in the heaving and splashing, punctuated by a few loud gags and burps. He felt hollow in his stomach but his chest was filled with fire, rising and falling in a desperate grab for oxygen. A pair of strong hands pulled him up and dragged him out of the stall, allowing him to rest on the wall nearby.

“Do you want to take a sip?“

“Let him catch his breath first, will you? He’ll just cough that back up at this point.”

Shlomi opened his eyes and flinched against the bright washroom lights. Laras and Mia stood over him, their faces a mix of worry, anger, and sympathy. “I think… I think I’m done.”

Laras crouched down next to him and looked him squarely in the eyes. “What was that all about?”

“My beer…”

“How many did you have?

“One, but… it had a positive synterine test.”

There was a stunned silence between them, their gazes unbroken. “You drank synterine? But then… someone here. Someone put that in your drink. Who was with you?”

Shlomi had never seen Laras so unnerved before. “Just Mia.”

“You never left your drink?”

“No. It was in there before we even drank.” He flicked his eyes up to Mia, who was standing rigidly, her eyes wide and frightened and her knuckles white against the glass of water.

Her voice was suddenly small and weak. “Was it in my drink, too?”

He had to calm her quickly. “No. No, I tested it when you weren’t looking.”

But Laras was still not satisfied. “So you’re saying the old bartender, that man who’s one of the only people in this town who actually likes the school, poisoned you?”

Shlomi was finding more and more strength to speak. “The drinks got passed to us. By a few people.” He looked back up at Mia. “Water sounds great.” Laras stood back up and paced to the sinks as Shlomi took small sips of the cool water, sliding like ice down his acid-burned esophagus. “Thank you,” he said gratefully when he had finished half the glass.

“Can you stand?” asked Mia.

“I’m going to sit for a while. You should probably go back out, though. Someone like you draws just as much attention to themselves with their own absence as with their presence.”

Laras, turned to the side, agreed. “We have to keep this quiet right now. Besides, this is the men’s washroom. A bit odd for a princess to be in here,” he said, though there was no sarcastic bite to his words. Only a somber weariness. Compared to his earlier words to her, it was almost kind, and Mia sighed and left quietly.

“You’re not getting up until you finish the glass,” instructed Laras when Shlomi made an effort to lean forward and pull himself up. Laras half-laughed. “So you’re one of the ones with the fancy blood test results. Congratulations. How does it feel?”

“Like shit.” He swigged the water more quickly now.

“That was one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever known a student to do.”

“I thought it would be suspicious if I didn’t drink it.”

“If they were watching you, then they saw you do the test. And if you drank it, they’ll know you’re not susceptible.” His voice was nearing anger now, but he reined it in. “We can’t lose someone like you so easily.”

“And you didn’t.”

“Don’t try to play the hero ever again.”

Shlomi rolled his eyes. Playing the hero? Surely Laras knew that was a ridiculous assertion, but the man had an obligation to assert himself as the older and wiser of the two.

“Nonetheless,” said Laras, “excellent job. Especially concerning her.” The usual scoff returned to his voice, and Shlomi was glad to hear it. “If she had been the one to drink it… oh, I don’t even want to think about what would happen after that. What an absolute mess that would be” He smirked, and Shlomi smiled back. “All right. I won’t keep you glued to the floor all night,” he said, extending his hand. Shlomi took it and was pulled to his feet which, though a bit unsteady at the moment, supported him better than they had at the onset of the pain. “Get yourself back to the university, or I’ll kick you out of here myself.”

Now Shlomi grinned. “Trust me, I don’t feel like drinking here for a while.” Gulping down the rest of the water, he pushed the glass into Laras’s hands and walked back into the pub and out the door, ignoring Paige’s question of his long stay on the toilet.

The night air chilled him through as if his skin were paper, making him shiver with each soft breeze. The moon was high in the evening sky now, almost full, and the town was completely silent and still. Shlomi had thought himself a dead man amongst the living just an hour before. Now he was alive and surrounded by the dead.

-------------

Her nails dug into his back as he shifted his weight on the mattress. She was pulling at his bare shoulders with one small hand, his waist with another; her grip was surprisingly strong. A wispy lock of dark hair gently streaked across the pale forehead. He didn’t worry when a low groan pulsed in his throat, he didn’t care who heard.

Jerry bit down on her lip as Shlomi gave a sharp push against her, into her. Another. She turned her head to the side, her milky neck stretched and tight. Her eyes were squeezed shut, while Shlomi was struggling to keep his open against the surges of warmth he felt. He wanted to close them and lose himself in the sensation, but he loved watching her. He loved the hair across her forehead, the tension in her brow, the way her shoulders squirmed as he ran his fingers lightly up her side. Her small mouth hung open- he put his over it, his body rocking back and forth, rhythmically pushing his lips against hers. With a shudder he broke away for a gulp of air and buried his face in the crook of her neck. Her breathing was growing louder. He couldn’t keep watching her now; the warmth that was enveloping him was too thick, too heavy. She squeezed her thighs around him, and he grabbed one to pull himself against her again, this time harder and sharper. She let out a strangled cry that bubbled down into a coo of pleasure, stroking his neck and twisting her fingers into the curls at the nape.

Shlomi groaned again, feeling the vibration in his chest pulse against hers, rising and falling rapidly. He had lost track of how many times they had done this, but it still felt wonderful. Almost a year, now. She had been in her first year and he in his second when they met. She had been as innocent and naïve as he remembered being during his own first dangerous twelve months at Oxford, when a yearly quantity of failed recruits came and went. But Jerry, a small and sprightly girl with little expectations, remained. Her father was a chief weapons shipper for Deklahnian authorities on Earth- and his true sympathies were not with Deklahn. He had smuggled what he could to the resistance; his daughter had grown up around guns and bullets and weapons of all sorts. It was only natural she should find her talents in that arena here at Oxford. Such powerful instruments of destruction seemed odd when paired with the small, slender body, the doe-like eyes, the easy smile- at first it had even seemed a bit odd to Shlomi to even picture sleeping with someone as innocent as Jerry looked.

But if he’d learnt anything from his experiences at Oxford, it was the constant affirmation that looks could be unbearably deceiving. The princess, for one. Mia was no princess, in the common sense of the word. She was fierce and still incredibly flustered, abandoning all polite conventions when roused to anger. And Laras, for all his parading and strength, was afraid, not just of the rebellion failing, but of what happened if it succeeded. For all their planning, its architects had failed to even sketch the denouement. Everyone was afraid, deep down. Shlomi was terrified. If Earth liberated itself… then what? They had been used to a central authority for centuries, as much as it was hated. Someone would want power. No, many people would want power. The wars of five hundred years ago, when the Republic’s President moved to Deklahn. It would all be repeated. The blame, the hatred, the greed, the blind bigotry. Its afterglow had put his family in danger once before, and it could easily happen again, tearing countries apart from the inside. If he survived, if Jerry was still alive… Was it even possible? And if it were, would war change them too much? Jerry…

His mind was jerked back into the dark room in St John’s by a noise in his ear, his name. Jerry’s bright voice was quietly and breathlessly repeating his name. He stopped thinking as her legs pulled around him even tighter, her arms wrapped around his shoulders, her body squeezing him as hard as it could. He thought of metal coils scrunched as compactly as possible, of a star heated from within collapsing on itself. The warmth blurred everything now. Shlomi didn’t recall anything more than the pull inside his chest and the notion that the spring had been let loose, and the world around him seemed to compress him towards a single point several times. His skull filled with the rushing of air from Jerry’s mouth like white noise. They writhed against each other a few more moments, and Shlomi heard his own voice tapering to a spent sigh. He didn’t even realize he had been making as much noise as the girl sprawled beneath him.

Jerry had her eyes closed again, her bare chest flitting up and down with each progressively quieter breath. As Shlomi settled himself to her side, she pulled the blanket over her small breasts and tucked it under her chin. Pushing his cheek into the pillow, the fabric inched up his side as well. First the dinner, then the vomiting, then rushing back, then sex: he was tired. It was one in the morning. And he had an early meeting with Naomi Martin now. Something important. No doubt it had something to do with the synterine.

Jerry turned on her side to face Shlomi, giving themselves as much room on the single bed as could be managed. Under the blanket, his hand found the gentle dip in her waist and settled there. “You’re gonna stay the night, then?” she asked, her voice low with pleasant exhaustion.

With a sincere yawn, Shlomi let his muscles relax. “I don’t want to be walking across campus, not when it’s chilly and not when I’m wiped,” he said, stifling another yawn.

“They won’t like that, you know. You’re a repeat offender.” Jerry’s voice sounded too playful to be scornful. It was more than just the safety issues of staying in another building overnight, though. Oxford didn’t mind one-night stands or drunken sex. They didn’t mind casual relationships and flirting in the gardens at night. But when people repeatedly slept together and then talked together, ate together, just sat together; that was too much. Though not against the rules, serious relationships were discouraged. They were seen as a distraction from studies and the mission, a possible source of grief and agony that would complicate performance and duty. For the most part, such a policy was successful. But there were the few like Shlomi who, despite excellent performance and high expectations, somehow succumbed to feelings they should have been strong enough to conquer. That was why they had to play the game of avoidance, as at the dinner. To the outer world, they were no more than friendly students.

Less conscious now, he scoffed at her. “So Oxford says I can’t do this… but I could… have… just a one-time go with a man?” Seeing as she took this as a joke, he continued, “True story. I took it up the bum once. And that’s not as surprising as… me… sleeping here with you? Odd. This place is odd.”

“You really…?” Jerry had scooted closer, daring him to confide.

“My New Year’s Eve. here” He swallowed. “Drunk as I’d ever been in my life. All I can remember is… stumbling about. I don’t really remember where in the school I was,” he said with his eyes closed and a thoughtful frown on his face. His words came slowly and detached. “Walked into some guy’s room by accident, I think. Somehow. I ended up there. Don’t even remember his face, I was so pissed. But I remember how it felt. Hurt like hell. I was sore for two days. “

Jerry stared at him. “You’re not making any of that up?”

“Nope. All true.” He was losing consciousness too quickly now. He knew he had to say something other than that before falling asleep. But his judgment was always impaired by fatigue. “So now… you get to tell me about doing it with a girl.”

She looked away for a moment, unsure whether or not to humor him or to let him babble himself to sleep. Jerry knew Shlomi very well, but in these states of weariness, in the feeling of relaxation and security he felt in bed with her, he often volunteered rather unusual information about himself. “I kissed a girl once. That was it, though,” she said hesitantly.

“Hmm.”

“Are you even paying attention?”

“Mmmm.” He had not the energy in his brain to process her words. A bit of strength still remained in his arms, slowly draining through his fingertips. With an automatic willing of his wrists, he pulled her hips towards his. She was close enough now to rest a hand on his chest as he rolled onto his back, a shaft of moonlight from the window washing across her arm and his torso.

Silence. Her mouth was at his ear. “I can’t believe you drank synterine.” A pause. “You could have died.”

But he could only feebly stroke her waist as he drifted off, her voice lingering in his head.


His personal rooms were always excessively cold. He kept the windows wide open, let the dust-grey curtains flutter inwards like disparate clouds. It wasn't that he liked the cold, it was just that it reminded him of Russia and no matter what miserable memories that held for him, the country itself was still in his blood, the landscape was still carved into the pale contours of his own body. He looked himself up and down in the mirror, considering the impression he would indubitably made on the new additions tonight. Of the tutors and older students, all knew he wasn't one for big occasions, though some assumed that as he liked to dress properly - not in the jeans and t-shirts the students usually donned - he'd enjoy dressing up. And perhaps, had it not been for the pathetic nature of the occasion he might have done. But tonight, in the trim suit and a dark gunbolt-grey shirt, he was positively vampiric and his attitude had been equally as cold and elusive as the mythological creatures.

He smirked at the thought, the reminder of the conversation he'd had with Stephans in Undercrofts, their discussion on Mia and his fellow's amused anger at the bruise he'd given her. Just before they had been interrupted by the sight of Shlomi moving, slightly drunkenly towards the bathrooms, they'd been discussing his teaching 'etiquette', as the older man called it, and how his apparent desire to look like Heathcliff from the infamous Wuthering Heights was only another way of making himself unapproachable.

Of course, Mia hadn't thought that. She'd gracefully risen from her seat where Shlomi had left her alone with Paige, Tada and a few others, face carefully composed into a proud expression which reminded him of a portrait of Charles I which hung in one of the college halls. He hadn't been watching her, bit something had drawn his awareness her way, a subconscious interest pulling his eyes after her like gravity pulled the planets around their cyclical orbits. She'd gone to the bar and let her eyes float across the room. That was the only word for it, float, her gaze literally seemed to hang in the air. He'd scowled until he saw the tapping of her fingers on the bar top. Tapping only her middle and index fingers in what he almost instantly recognised as Morse Code. At first he hadn't been sure that she was doing it on purpose. Until he realised that she was spelling out S-H-L-O-M-I-B-A-T-H-R-O-O-M-L-O-O-K-E-D-I-N-P-A-I-N-N-O-T-R-E-T-U-R-N-E-D over and over again. Excusing himself from Stephans, who'd started up a conversation in French with a young man he'd not recognised, he'd flicked his chin up to tell her to stop sending signals so obviously, after all not everyone may know Morse Code on sight but most would figure it out after a while.

The wind gusted through his window and he turned to the night, moving towards the warm, worn in chair that he usually read in and folding himself up in its comfortable embrace. He wasn't ready to sleep and he knew that he wouldn't be for a while, thoughts spiralled around his head in looping arcs, nothing to distract them from the events of the evening. The smell of vomit still burnt in his nose when he thought about it. The sight of one of the more useful students bent over the white porcelain bowl, poisoned and trying to make himself sick… it made him wonder how much longer Oxford had as it was. How long it would be before they had to make a move and start on full out war.

Interesting as it had been to find himself the one being trusted by Mia, he had feared for a second that it was all over because although not the first synterine poisoning he'd seen… it had been the first time he'd seen a survivor of it.

The door creaked open across the other side of the room, "I got your message. What happened?"

It was Phelps, this time moving with a purpose and not sidling in uninvited. Laras smiled, turning away from the pitch sky that the stars couldn't be seen from. It was too bright tonight, too many people still awake and partying to turn off the lights and let him look up-

"Laras?"

"Shlomi was poisoned tonight. Luckily he's got that immunity thing. Idiot decided to test himself, almost martyr himself, drinking synterine to protect that girl."

Phelps paused mid-stride, mid-room, "Already?"

"So coherent tonight, my friend," Laras glanced at the imposing figure that Phelps cut in the gloom of his living quarters.

"People are already trying to get to her? She only arrived last night."

"We have enemies. She has even more because she's an icon. I almost wonder if it was directed at her of course, but the fact was that thanks to his diligence he maybe stopped her from dying twenty-four hours after entrance to our university and a massive enquiry was avoided. Moreover-" He paused, wondering whether to add the next point, "He's revealed that someone at Undercrofts, someone local and most likely someone at the university itself, is not one of us. We're all compromised."

Phelps came to sit on a chair across from him beside a pile of old vinyl records that he'd rescued from an attic long ago, "You think this proves your point about Mia putting us in danger?"

"Tomorrow I'm going to tell Stephans. We all need to be on alert from now on. Constant vigilance on the synterine too."

Phelps heaved a sigh and relaxed. It was nice to be able to do that with someone, Laras knew that, but his companion's sigh seemed heavier, "Things are going to get complicated fast if you do that."

"And revolutions are meant to be simple."

Phelps grimaced and began to frown, the crumples in his forehead becoming lines which in no way resembled the laughter lines that used to be so prominent when they were younger.

"Tell me then what's got you looking so grim. I'm meant to be the morose one here, I feel usurped," He studied the face a little longer, frowning at the creases that had deepened again on Phelps' open face, "It has to be something to do with the brats. You're twisting your matriculation ring." Then Laras grinned, suddenly realising what the strange expression on his friend's face meant, "You've found something else wrong with her and you don't want to tell me because you know that I'll use it. You know that with whatever you've got and this thing with Shlomi, there'll be problems I can exploit."

Phelps sighed, nodded then twisted his mouth into a grimace as he felt himself compelled to tell the younger tutor the issue.

"She's too… honest."

"Honesty? I thought you praised that amongst all the other anachronous virtues you love to embody."

"I'm no saint, Laras, you know that." Phelps looked at him with a slightly wary, "And for godsake, imagine if you couldn't trust one of us, me or Stephans or Reggie; you know that honesty is valuable only as long as you know that you can inexplicably trust your confidant. She barely knows me and yet she told me so many things."

"Like what?"

"She's a virgin."

Laras' smile widened even further, "She told you that?"

"Only by inference. She's never kissed a bloke, she said, you know, gave it a way."

"That's the smaller revelation and you're hoping that I'll just ignore whatever else she said. Spit it out. What else did she say?"

Phelps twisted his hands, glancing up, "You need to get some heating in here you know-"

"So it's about me."

"I mean, this room is just so cold and-"

"Oh so it's not a very nice thing about me. What part of my mysterious past did you reveal to her to get that sort of response? My dead mother or maybe the manner of my upbringing? Or was it perhaps a humorous story about my fear of dogs?" Laras laughed and shook his head, "I knew you were going to give her ammunition of some sort in order to level the playing field a little."

"You're finding this funny…"

"She was the one who told me about Shlomi. Whatever she said, it wasn't important to her when there was a problem and though I'm sure he would have found the will to puke up the venom, had I not been there, as soon as she realised there was a problem she attempted to subtly get help. Almost pretty good really."

Phelp's face relaxed slightly as he smiled at the use of the word 'almost', "I told her you lost your mother. Not the details of course but-"

Nodding, Laras tipped his head back into the chair and leant into it more heavily, loosening all his muscles but making sure he was still half aware. Exhaustion seemed to have flooded through the room with the breeze and he could see Phelps' eyes closing. They would both be sore in the morning if they slept here. Stretching, yawning, shrugging his jacket from his shoulders, he found he didn't really care. He'd be working off the stiffness at dawn anyway.

*

It was all too often that he dreamed. But usually it was a simple dream of failed plans and lost battles. What he'd just experienced was nothing like that… And he knew that he had to force himself away from the dream before it finished, or he'd never be able to shake it from his mind.

Waking, stiff and cold Laras noted the dawn, almost feeling the fell of dark as his mind struggled with his forceful awakening. He wasn't going to dream any longer. In a dawn dirty light, the grey shadows of the sky hung like stagnant cloud over the town. The darker blue of space, still lingering above the yellow corona cresting the earth, seemed to have formed an orifice above the earth... He imagined how the rest of the Dekhlan Empire would be twisting restlessly in their distant orbits… He could still imagine that place in his head, the damp and chilly space which was inescapably silent except for the drum of fingers across the galaxies.

In the cold, iridescent light of a morning, Oxford seemed even more steeped in the archaic and the modern and he knew how things, people would be stirring. The one night stands would be running back to their colleges in a futile attempt to be subtle… The experienced would be shaking themselves of nightmares… And the wind was beginning to murmur its tales on the thermals and zephyrs, waiting in invisible coils in the branches of trees as it gathered strength for the onset of winter when it would sing its truths in a fountain of Boreas. That was the real hint at the beginning of day, when the wind whispered and grew with the town’s awareness. Shifting, he pulled himself out of the fanciful world he'd been dozing in and some how he dragged himself back to a strange semblance of consciousness. It was far too early. But he couldn't have remained in that goddamn dream any longer. Of course his subconscious would dredge up images of the girl, the idiot girl, dead in the top of tower two. The smell wouldn't even have begun yet, she'd simply have become granite but… the dream made him shudder, the hell of the situation… it had terrified him. Everything had been compromised with her death. Investigations ensued, people were led off to white panelled rooms and never returned...

Groaning, he realised that once again he had been right, this time about the mundane ache of his abused muscles. They were aching and cramped as he began to uncoil. It was definitely earlier than usual since the soft snores of his friend were so steady that he knew that the man still had a couple hours of slumber left to him. He needed a run. He'd just have to leave Phelps asleep as quickly and quietly as possible.

He needed a...

No. He shook his head, he wasn't going there. He just needed to think.

*

Thinking was always best done when running. Perhaps thanks to the adrenaline which made things so much clearer, so much more understandable. But today was not the day when he needed to run for miles to clear his head. Today was a day for calm, for meditation and thought. Not that he had time for that which was of course why he had ended up running. He was caught up in ideas, in people. For example, he couldn’t help but think about them… the plans that were in play even as he taught, hidden away in the universities’ underworld. He knew that it was necessary for him and others to keep a low profile in lieu of prior activities but it felt like such a long time, an age since he’d done something useful. That stupid princess had triggered that thought. Her pitiful attempt at subtlety in Undercrofts may well have been impressive had she not done it in such an obvious way… That was what was so important and so amazing about people like Shlomi. He knew how to play people, how to make them feel special, how to make them feel as if he was their greatest confidant. He was the sort of student that could tell when a person wanted to ‘go and get wasted’ or when they needed to politely be asked if they’d ‘care to come for a drink’. In a way, that was what separated someone like Shlomi who genuinely learned from Oxford and those imbeciles who ignored the rudimentary lessons that everyone was expected to complete. It was what separated the class A birds from the bad Manchester perms from Fife or Essex with their white wine farts, in metaphorical terms…

But from what he’d spoken of with the senior fellows the night before still bothered him. Charon, who’d only appeared for three quarters of an hour seemed to be doing better, already re-released from the last assignment and placed onto this new one which was taking up enough time for him to be jealous. He shouldn’t be, he knew his role was just as important in the university as out, but it felt like he was being held back like a reprimanded child might be. But he hadn’t done anything wrong because unlike others, he refused to make mistakes. At least he’d had the dubious honour of shooting Martello Foresythe when his dual allegiances had been discovered. That had been satisfying. To know that the infiltrators were relying on such punitive positions had been relieving as well…

And they had an interesting raft of new and old intakes now too. People that perhaps weren’t as good as Shlomi at giving the right impression but certainly people who had merit. That guy Tada, he’d already had the story of his interview accounted to him by the staff and he’d heard that Paige had impressed them all once again with her driving. He’d certainly want her if he was ever in a fix. Then some of the others had been talking about Turnitt, he’d had to nod and put in his own opinion on her as her language professor but other than that… There were many more others which were interesting, breig mentions of a boy who’d figured out how to break down the chemicals in thymetorine, a close relation to synterine, had been mentioned but not his name. Flavia Cookson had leapt on the fascinating relation between two analysts, twins who were able to break any code they’d so far come across, apparently they were rumoured to be descendents of James Turing, the grandson of Alan Turing. It was a bizarre coincidence which he couldn’t feel himself believing. Most had been distracted by the Princess. Some had laughed at how that had made him suddenly a lot quieter but he had growled out his assessment of her. Cocky, open, proud – he’d seen Stephans smirk and he’d noticed Phelps grinning.

But even as he winded his way through his thoughts, breathing matching the steady rhythm of his feet on the pavement, he found he couldn’t put his finger on the thing which was causing his restlessness. He guessed his conscious brain wasn’t ready for it.

*

When Phelps awoke music was playing. It wasn't what he was used to hearing… an angry, aggressive assault was much more akin to what he was inured to but instead the music blazing from the thousand year old speakers was merely a thrum, a steady growl in the back of the room whilst a dizzying trill sped around the room as if some strange bird had been loosed into the area. A… violin? He groaned. This early in the morning? Seriously something had to be wrong. He could have sworn that Laras had stopped playing the wretched thing since… he frowned… since he'd bought himself that bloody piano.

He cracked open an eye, wondering what sight he'd be greeted by and almost instantly he winced. Laras was gone. In his place was a demon, pale and dripping, as if he'd already been for a run, muscles rippling as the bow darted dangerous and cruel over the strings. Tartini's violin sonata in Gminor… The music was on the floor and the maniacal master wasn't bothered with it. He wasn't sure he liked seeing the younger man like this, it meant that something was on his mind which he couldn't resolve on his own. It also meant that he'd be in a grouchy mood all day and would probably steal food from him in Georgina's Café, since in this mood, he liked to be catered for.

"What triggered this?" He grumbled.

Laras did not reply and he shook his head, wearily closing his eyes again, "You know she said that you've lost sight of the revolution. The 'human' thing."

The ensuing silence was deafening.

He looked up again, saw the strange, alert intensity in Laras' eyes and smiled, "She doesn't like you."

"And who the fuck would?" Laras was relaxed and smirking, “She thinks I’ve lost sight of the revolution. The revolution is-”

“-Everything to you, which is why she said it. She’d make a good analyst.”

“Can we stop talking about her; I woke you up to make you do something for me.”

Phelps groaned, “Like what?”

“Take the lecture for me today. It’s the shitty motivational one that Stephans has been saying we have to do for-fucking-ever and the pillock bloody asked me.”

“You’re so floral in your language first thing in the morning,”

“Who the fuck would ask me to do something motivational? Does he want the students to all run away screaming. You’re much more heroic looking. You do it.”

“Yes master.” The sarcasm was not unnoticed.

There was a soft click and a short barked laugh. Phelps started, finally taking in everything in the room. In the palm of Laras’ hand was a voice recorder. So that was why he’d brought out the electric violin, a distraction. It was a shame that he played so well otherwise he’d never have fallen for that. He’d thought there was something wrong.

“I’ve got you now. You have to do it.”

“Whatever.”

Laras snickered and placed the violin back in it’s case before moving towards the kettle. It smelt like coffee. And… slightly smoky. He didn’t ask, just slowly worked his stiffened muscles out from his shoulders before rising up, stretching his legs out and pulling himself to his full height. He wasn’t that much taller than the Russian but the mere bulk of him made him that much more powerful in appearance. The lean tutor was certainly atypical for a revolutionary.

“Stop thinking about how much bigger you are than me and get on with whatever you’ve got to do. It’s not play time.”

Phelps merely shook his head and began to wonder what the hell he was going to say in this lecture he’d been forced into.
"So much so fast" is all Tada could think sitting at the dinner party. Talking with the other students and observing their conversations was enough to make the average person feel at least a little inadequate. Luckily, Tada had foreseen such formality and knew how to dress for the occasion. At least, he'd learned from seeing some movies. Before his shower back at Dustin's he'd decided it was time for a trim. He'd cut his hair and gave it a well-needed overhaul. The thick black locks were now well groomed and hung down in layers with the longest portion being two-inches above his shoulders. He also decided to shave the fuzz from his face giving him a more distinguished look. Of course, he quickly brushed that under the rug when he bought his dinner jacket and slacks and lost himself in self-contained excitement for the event.

Tada took another quick glance around the area.He forgot he hated formality. This place was overwhelming. The high ceiling, the brilliantly placed lights gave everything an almost foreign feel to him. The scents of cheap and expensive perfumes, and excellently prepared food clung to everything in the area. The formality was starting to wear at his patience quick. This type of thing was something he was new to, but seemed to fit well in, however; it was annoying to keep this up as he’d chosen to confide to Shlomi (who seemed to agree that it was pointless mush). Paige seemed to be talking away a mile-per-minute with some of the words directed partially toward him, but he was too busy letting his senses wander the room absorbing the colors, lights, and sounds to fall into her conversation. If he was stuck here at least for a bit then he’d have to at least TRY to put up with it optimistically. The obliviousness was going fine until Paige’s hand touched his cheek. Without realizing it he had been mid drink and some water almost dribbled from his mouth out of surprise. He sucked the liquid back in swallowing and looked in Paige's direction, "What?" he asked knowing full well she'd said something to him before the caress.

"I said 'Your shave looks nice'," she repeated raising an eyebrow, "What's with you? Too busy staring at Mia?" Tada suddenly felt confused. Taking a glance back where he'd been looking last he noticed he'd been staring in Mia's direction as he'd let the scents warm his nostrils. She only looked at him for a moment, but the look on her face asked the question,
"Why is he staring at me?" Tada leaned back in his chair and ran a scenario through his head barely being able to keep from smiling.

"What? She's cute," he replied giving a swift scan of Paige's eyes to trace her reaction. A slight irritation took her visage for a moment until she registered he was watching her face.

"Oh she is?" replied a subtly offended Paige remembering how Tada had only slightly acknowledged her dressed-up appearance, “Hmm, yeah of course she is.”

“Oh come now Paige, don’t tell me you’re jealous I’ve called you cute before and you weren’t even dressed up…”

“Hmm, so that’s the kind of girl you’re into eh Konsen?” she said easily with a bit of a smile, “Why don’t you talk to her?”

Tada casually took a sip of his water again then dabbed the edges of his mouth with his napkin. He was buying time to process good answer. As always there were a great number of choices. That’s when he caught himself. He was doing it again. Sometimes he just couldn’t turn it off. Situations like this didn’t require precise strategizing or tactics. Tada let out a heavy sigh wishing it would just go away when he wanted it too. This analytical mind could be a real killjoy at times. Through the course of the time they’d arrived he’d already analyzed all possible escape routes, cover, and even barricades and weapons that could be accessed. Not to mention taken mental note of all cameras and security in the area. His mind wouldn’t even let him out of spotting out each and every fire hazard and the alarms and sprinklers to deal with them. Of course, this also had a few perks besides usefulness in combat or military situations. He’d mapped out Paige’s outfit noticing the bra’s hook was in the front even though her dress hid her ‘undies’ very well. Though he wouldn’t outright say it to her, Paige was one of those queens of sex appeal at times and that had inspired many a hot thought in his head before. Tada, however, never let it get to him. He was a post-pubescent human male and that was its own excuse for such thoughts. He’d never really understood his strong attraction to her, though, since there were always girls with curves and cute faces like Mia, that other girl in the white across the room dress whom he’d never met or spoken to, and several others he’d looked at in the past, but there was a different attraction to Paige that went slightly beyond that of the usual delicacy of breasts and backside that appealed to Tada. Speaking of which, Tada quickly realized his eyes had shot down to take a peek at Paige’s D-cups. He corrected himself and noticed she hadn’t caught it.

“I said cute, not datable,” he replied with flawless recovery. Paige seemed to relax slightly as if winning some kind of victory. Did she even know he could read her like a book at times like this? No.

“Oh well I was just curious is all,” she replied taking a drink of her own water after a small bite of a tiny piece of meat on her plate. Eyes on his back felt piercing. Why was he getting so many looks? Did the shave and cut really do that much? He thought for a moment realizing he was the only idiot who was wearing his jacket wide open with the buttons on his shirt undone. Oh well, it felt better like this regardless if it looked too casual, and dammit he wasn’t going to wear that tie! When did they get to go to this Undercroft’s place?!

Sooner than he’d thought, but to his frustration’s great relief, the orientation was being picked up and cleared away as they all headed toward the pub. Getting out into the streets again was a potent relief and Tada couldn’t help but take a deep breath and exhale loudly, “Mmm, fresh air!” he sighed.

“So we’re going to Undercroft’s then? Alright, well I’m going to get something else to wear,” Paige said, “Don’t worry Tada, I’ll be back! I won’t leave you here with the big scary students,” she joked. Tada chuckled as did Shlomi,
“I think I’ll be fine. I’m a big kid mommy, kindergarten will be easy,” replied the smart-ass living in Tada’s throat. Paige gave a bit of a giggle and waved with a coy look as she pranced off.

Tada, Shlomi, and Mia continued toward their destination with at an eager pace. Mia seemed to be leading the charge. She was attractive, Tada would give her that, but she was definitely sharp as well. He wasn’t surprised that a princess raised to aid a rebellion was well versed in combat and tactics, but to hide it so well was a great talent in itself. Tada was almost a little intimidated by her. One of such high standing moving around so casually and regularly could be a scary thing. It was more daunting than when they were ceremonially put up on a pedestal with hundreds of guards, “So Shlomi what other things are in store for us?” Tada asked. Shlomi as always so far answered with an acuteness that assured Tada of his prowess in manipulation of interaction despite the fact that his mind was constantly on overdrive processing thoughts and noticing things most would overlook. Noticing his ability however did not save Tada from the pure skill and prowess that Shlomi possessed in his art; all he knew was that it existed. He knew that if the situation called for it, he would most likely not be able to see through the silver in his tongue.

“Sometimes they have a little motivational speech thing the day after orientation, but I guess we’ll see,” he replied.

“Hey Tada, I wondered, what are you to Paige?” Mia asked with sudden realization as if it had just hit her again after forgetting to ask earlier.

”What am I? You mean relationship wise? We’re just good friends is all. She helped me out when I really needed it,” Tada answered. That made him remember some things that he’d rather not have, and quickly shook off.

“Ah, I see,” Mia said.

“Well that’s good. Oxford tends to look down heavily on any kind of serious relationships. Those feeling of yours have to be managed as carefully as your studies,” Shlomi added.

“Really? Why…oh…never mind. I can see why that’d be unhealthy as a distraction,” replied Tada looking backward, “Say, I’m gonna go ahead and wait here for Paige now that I think about it."

“Why? I mean, I’m sure she can get to Broad Street just fine on her own,” Shlomi objected. There was a clear apprehension between him and princess. Could it be he really didn’t know what to say to her? Tada could easily understand that one.

“Well you know, attractive young woman out at night by herself…shit happens. Especially near a bar,” Tada retorted. Shlomi sighed a bit in agreement.

“Alright then, be careful,” he said following the eager Mia to Undercroft.

Being alone with his thoughts was one of his least favorite things to do. Tada tried to focus on other things, physical things to keep his mind off of the abstract and intangible memories. He knew some were there, but then again…

What are parents like?

That was a solid memory that was constant. It was always…there. It was always in color, vivid, with smells and sounds. He remembered specifically that thought, a moment in time when he wondered that, but even this memory was foggy to an extent due to the frequency of his thoughts of it long ago. Other things like the temp homes and orphanages he remembered, but they aged and grayed at the edges as time went along staying recognizable, but getting almost to the point of being too distant to be recognizable as one’s own. He’d already heard about Deklahnian technology that could fabricate memories creating them from scraps of the memories of others people. Of course, Tada had no account of ever being in contact with the likes of those. Though, there were many other possibilities as to how it could happen. Tada didn’t want to believe that ANY of his memories were false. Memories were the blueprints on which your personality was built weren’t they? Could part of who he was be…synthetic? No, his memories had to be his, all of them including the unsavory ones. Remembrances of a dark place without food assailed his psyche. Alpine Child’s Haven had been Hell on Earth, but he could never forgive himself for…

He carefully mapped out the building…

It was inexcusable no matter how bad they’d treated him. He wasn’t the only one suffering. All of the children there were hungry, usually thirsty too…


He studied the best hiding places for stolen items…

He had no right, but they did beat you if you did ANYTHING wrong. Even if they suspected you of anything they’d just keep going. Beatings in the cold took longer to stop hurting so they’d sometimes drag you to the walk-in freezer…

He found the kerosene and hid it carefully dumping a little in certain spots every night. Paying special attention to any areas with WARNING: FLAMMABLE items.

Tada’s fists clenched tightly as the gray memory played on. He was shaking even though it wasn’t all that chilly outside. What they did to that little girl was unforgivable though…

He found the matches and soon after gave all the children the warning. That in three more days…

They were attacking him for taking an extra biscuit at dinner. Into the freezer he’d gone with a hard kick, “You think it fun to take the biscuit eh?! You think it fun to steal from yer other children ‘ere?!” a wiry man with a red face had asked. His face was blurred from time’s ravages on Tada’s memory. Something hard struck a sharp blow on his head as he scrambled to get away hearing other overseers make their way to the assault to aid the attacker in punishing him. His breath wasn’t working right. He had to take in more air, but the cold made it thin and heavy. Tada remembered frigid tile under his hands and hard blows against him that made his entire system lurch in agony crying out that his body was in danger. Then he slipped into the back freezer trying to escape and that’s when he found it. Tada’d wondered where she’d gone. After she accidentally tripped one of the caretaker’s she’s just disappeared. Covered in white frost on pale skin was a ten year old girl frozen in a moment of terror dead and hidden like a piece of meat stuffed under old burlap. Soon after is when it had started and then…then…

The doors were barricaded from the outside trapping in their oppressors. The building burned with bright orange flames that ate away swiftly at the lives of the adults inside, and he cried. “What gave me the right?”

Tada let out a wavering sigh as he leaned against a nearby wall looking into the sky thoughtfully. He’d checked, there had once been an Alpine Child’s Haven here and it had burned down with the supposed story being that the workers sacrificed themselves to make sure all the children were safe as was told by the children. Was he hating these people who’d actually died for a valiant cause, or was it he himself who killed them and (like in his memories) was praising the worker’s as heroes just for the alibi? Maybe he’d never know, but what mattered was what he was preparing to do here. Here at Oxford.

“You know, you look pretty poetic-style handsome standing there like that,” said Paige approaching again with a coy smile as usual. Tada, for some odd reason, gave her a big grin. He was strangely happy to see her.

“Yeah? Well you look street-style sexy walking up like that. Anyway, I’m tired of waiting for you let’s go,” he replied. Paige caught a glimmer in his eye and her demeanor changed.

“You’re still shaking yourself up with those memories aren’t you?” she asked walking up to him standing right in front of him so he couldn’t escape her gaze. Sometimes he thought she was psychic, but he also noticed that her real beauty shone best when she was frustrated with him somehow. He smirked and lifted her chin having her full face him now. He almost got a blush as he moved close to her face and suddenly took a step past her.

“I said come on let’s go,” he dodged avoiding the question like an angry hornet’s nest. Paige huffed.

“Darn it Tada, just you-eh-wait!” she said flustered but somewhat entertained by his mood. She finally caught up to him and they made their way to the pub.
A Non-Existent User
Paige rolled over in bed- Her inner alarm clock telling her it was time to get up soon. Instead she snuggled up closer to the warm mass lying next to her. A smirk ran across her face as she let her dream seep into reality. “You caved in first. That means I win.” She teased as her eyes fluttered open. The smile disappeared and Paige chucked the pillow at the wall- angry at herself for even letting herself think it was Tada. Three seconds later the alarm clock next to her bed went off. “Damn my imagination.” She grumbled as the comedian Ann C. Harris went on about a letter she'd received from one of her listener's. She cracked a few jokes and began taking calls before Paige found the button to silence her 'too perky for this early in the morning' voice. Then, with a moan that stated just how much she hated mornings, Paige slid out of bed. Her button up shirt rose up past her hips until she landed on the hard wooden floor. She scratched her head- her hair a wavy mess of tangles. Why'd we have to stay up so late? She complained to herself as she slipped out of the large shirt- suddenly realizing that the comforting smell belonging to the man who'd first owned it had finally faded away. Her eyes staid on the shirt for a split second too long before Paige tossed it to the side; along with the memories that had begun to resurface the longer the fifteen year old shirt staid in her hands.

Tossing her panties to the side, Paige slid into the hot water, letting it massage her neck muscles. “Why'd Michael have to show off like that anyway? All I wanted to do was get ahead of the game a little bit.” She pouted to herself as she tried to undo the damage done.
...

Last night

She'd put a little extra time and care into picking out her second outfit for the night. Her “street sexy” look had been no accident. She'd gone through a dozen dresses beforehand until she found the one she knew would knock him dead. Every woman's secret weapon- her little black dress. She wouldn't need to go so far as to wear her red dress. That one, she'd save for another night. No, all she needed was this stylish little thing with its sexy low cut neck line and double spaghetti straps that allowed one to fall down her shoulders, sparkling when the light source hit the beaded crystals just right. Her simple thin gold chain necklace looped through the small gold ringlet, encouraging one's eyes to follow the dainty little metal down to the swell of her breasts. Tada would surely wish himself the end of that chain- gently caressing that tantalizing bit of cleavage she allowed to show. Her outfit was meant for him. The matching gold earrings that dangled, that twist of her hair into a sexy bun at the nape of her neck- a few loose waves free to make his fingers twitch with anticipation of running his fingers through them. Her metallic gold high heals with the strap around her ankle. Even the flirtatious way her dress clung to her breasts and waist as it danced loosely around her thighs. Everything was meant to be a tempting feast of the eyes. Sliding the jacket on over the dress, Paige was full of confidence. She would be the victor in their unspoken game.

And so, she walked out, surprised to find him waiting outside for her. She saw the first glimmer in his eyes as she approached. Oh he was good- it only lasted a second but it was enough to make her give him that look of hers and tell him how handsome he was. She wanted to make sure he knew. She liked his new look... it suited him. But he wasn't without his own ammunition- she found that out all too quickly when his finger had skimmed across the soft skin of her chin and his head had lowered ever so slightly towards her lips. It had caught her off guard- as he'd no doubt planned- and even more so when he slipped past her. “I said come on lets go.

“Darn it Tada, just you-eh-wait!” She called out to him. She mentally kicked herself for letting the disappointment and frustration seep up through her voice. Oh, he's good...She thought as she watched him walk slowly away from her. but... She thought to herself as she caught up with him. I'm better. Just you wait Tada... I've got quite the little night in store for you.
...

Paige slid her hand through the crook of Tada's arm as they walked into Undercroft. She felt his muscles tense a little bit at the first sign of the crowd. She gave him a cute smile. “What's wrong? This not your style either?” She teased.

Tada turned, smiling in a charming sort of way, heightening his sexiness. “Actually, its got a certain charm about it.” He replied smoothly. “Should we find a seat?”

“We could do that. Or we could set up a little picnic right here on the floor.” Paige leaned in, closer to him- glancing at something over at the bar and making a personal note before returning her attention to Tada. “Then you could steal a kiss under that bar stool over there. It'd be rather scandalous if I do say so myself.”

“Oh would it now?” As if calling her bluff and challenging her further, Tada leaned down. His lips were slightly curved in a smile. “Is that what you want me to do, Tricia?” He asked, getting back at her for calling him Konsen earlier.

Paige's cheeks reddened slightly before a big grin blossomed on her face. Oh, he thinks I'm bluffing does he? Leaning in, she bit her lower lip as her eyes glanced down at his lips before returning to those big hazel eyes of his. She began to close her eyes; they were twinkling in the light as she closed the gap between his lips and hers. Her hand came up, caressing his freshly shaved cheek as she pulled him in. 3...2...1 She thought to herself.

Just as her partially parted lips brushed up against his an interruption broke out. “My god Paige- lay the poor fellow out right here on the floor why don't you!” An all too familiar voice called out teasingly before half the bar ensued in bursting out in laughter.

Ah! Perfect timing! I can always trust in that big mouth of yours... Giving him a look of regret, Paige slowly turned- the look her eyes had been giving him gone as they lit up at the sight of the new comer. “Michael! Bridget!” She waved eagerly, letting go of Tada- not bothering to see him try and compose himself after that little assault.

“Either sit down or rent a room! None of us want to see that.” Michael called as he let go of Bridget's hand, standing up from their little booth and giving Paige- who'd already latched onto Tada's sleeve and pulled them over to the corner booth- a hug. As she squeezed the relatively thin man she noticed something else and began a mental timer.

Paige laughed. “Who me? Oh we were just having a little fun, weren't we Tada?” She teased, wrinkling her nose at him before giving Tada a wink.

Recovery with his usual speed and grace, Tada smiled and nodded- sticking his hand in his pant pocket. “That's right. No harm done. So Paige, are you going to introduce us or just stand there looking good?”

“Oh, silly me. Tada, this is Michael Chezawood and his finance Bridget.” Paige turned looking at Michael. “Tada is one of the newer additions to our student body at Oxford.”

Tada's eyes sparkled in realization as he and Michael shook hands firmly- each sizing the other up. “Then I take it you go to Oxford as well?” He asked.

Michael beamed behind his thin rimmed glasses. “That's right. I'm involved in medical research and technological advancements with the tools surgeons use. Though my biggest accomplishment is three months, ten days, and...” He paused for a moment to look down at his watch. A strand of his blond hair sliding down and tickling his eyebrow. “seven point three five hours.”

The other three laughed. “Oh Michael- you actually set your watch that far ahead?” Bridget asked, blushing.

Michael grinned- putting his arm around her. “As a great poet once said- time is as precious as all the wonders of the world, as elusive as the meaning of life, and as fragile as the beating heart which chooses to keep beat with it. The time of your life... besides I went and wore out every blasted calendar I came in contact with- flipping the pages to that day.”

Bridget laughed, gently tapping him on the chest. “Using my own words against me- you dog. Now come on- lets sit down- or do you want me to drag you back out on that silly little dance floor over there?”

It was Michael's turn to turn red in the face. “Now Biddy, you know darn well doctors aren't supposed to be able to dance. Don't humiliate me again... please. Especially not in front of Tada here.”

Paige giggled, leaning into Tada. “Bridget's the best poet and dancer to boot. She made Michael take classes with her. He might not look it but he deals a mean salsa and tango.”

“I see...” Tada replied, sliding onto the leather seat and scotching in to give Paige room to slide in next to him. When she did slide in, the side of Paige's breast brushed up against Tada's arm through their clothing as she crossed her legs- her jacket parting, revealing her dress coming up just a little bit higher on her thigh but at an angle reserved for Tada's eyes only. He may have pretended not to- but Paige knew. He'd noticed. Bridget and Michael followed suite- though Bridget made sure to sit in between her Finance and Tada. “I am curious though... wasn't it a little hard to be together with the whole unspoken rule- nothing serious between students?”

Bridget smiled. “Well I don't actually go to Oxford but even so- we weren't exactly encouraged to be together in a serious manner.”

Michael placed his arm around her neck pulling her in. Paige knew them. She could tell they were both remembering what they'd had to go through to get to where they were. Bridget gripped Michael's hand and smiled, looking up at him. “Luckily neither one of us are much for quiting once we know what we want. No relationship is easy. It all just depends on how much you want to be together.” Paige smiled then glanced over at Tada- a little surprised to find him glancing at her as well.

“So, you guys want anything to drink or eat? We ordered some of Undercroft's famous extra hot hot wings. You're more than welcome to have some if you'd like.” Bridget added, changing the subject and trying to lighten the mood once more. Plis she noticed the hot wings on their way to the table.

“That's fine... but I do think I'll have a scotch.” Tada stated as he gave the waitress a friendly smile as she set the hot wings in the center of the table.

She instantly blushed and smiled back. “Scotch... got it. Anything else?” She asked in a rather flirtatious tone.

Paige sighed. She didn't much care for this new attention Tada got but what could she do. We're not a couple or anything but... “I'll have whiskey please.”

“Sure thing. It'll be a few minutes but I'll get them to you asap.”

“That's fine. We're in no hurry.” Paige looked over at Tada. Had he always been so smooth- yes and no... seemed he had a bit more confidence. She was glad but... Darn it Tada! Stop being so flirtatious! She blushed a little when he caught her staring at him. “Funny, I hadn't taken you for a hard liquor type a girl.”

Another sigh escaped her mouth. “It was my dad's favorite drink besides wine. He'd stay up late reading to me and sipping on in while I snuggled up against him in his lap. Those are my drinks too. Whiskey when your with friends and wine either for special occasions or a hard day.” The small corner booth got quiet. She could feel the look he was giving her- the ones Michael and Bridget were giving her were bad enough. Tada went to say something but the next thing he knew Paige was smiling at him like a kitten who'd just had her fill on cream. “Hey, I've got an idea- Tada... why don't you come dance with me.” She practically purred as she placed her hand on his chest- tugging on it playfully.

Tada was too busy sighing and shaking his head to see Bridget and Michael's eyes light up and look at one another as if they'd both reach some sort of epiphany. “I'm not into the whole dancing thing.”

Paige pouted and slid further away from him, still tugging at his shirt. “Awe come on Tada... don't be shy. All I wanna do is dance.”

Tada rolled his eyes. “I think I'd rather just sit around and relax.” He glanced over his shoulder- Paige suspected hoping to get support from Michael but he was surprised to see the couple grinning broadly at him.

“Go on- one little dance isn't gonna hurt you. Might even change your life. All it took was one dance for me to know Biddy was the girl for me.”

Paige smiled coyly at Tada- who wasn't even looking at her and let go of his shirt. She turned around and slid out of her jacket carelessly tossing it towards the booth seat- not really caring if it fell. Tada caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and quickly caught the jacket before it fell on the floor- his eyes scanning up. Paige could feel his eyes on her and wondered if she'd wowed him enough to get a little color on his cheeks. Spinning around and leaning in towards him, she grabbed his shirt again. “Oh come on Tada... just one little dance.” The look she gave him just dared his eyes to shoot down to her breasts. “I promise not to be too rough.”

“Paige... come on- I don't like dancing...” Yet regardless of what he said Tada still stood up. Which told Paige to keep trying.

“Not even with me?” She pouted looking up at him with puppy dog eyes.

Bridget leaned in closer towards Michael. “Is she using that look of hers?” She asked so only he could hear.

Michael smiled. “You mean the one that sends the hardest of criminals caving into her every whim?”

“Michael- yes but stop exaggerating.”

“No... its true. At the sweet innocent little age of two Paige had been walking home with her old man. Turns out she spotted a drug dealer leaning against a building munching on a bag of her favorite chips and well... she was hungry. So she walked right up to him and held out her hand, giving him the very same look poor Tada is getting.”

“...What happened?” Bridget asked.

“She got her chips alright- and a week's worth of grounding.” He chuckled. “Still. Seems she gets what she wants. Her cousin says no one can turn her down with that look.”

Just as Michael said that, Tada just smiled at Paige, rolling his eyes.“Oh, that's so much more convincing.” He said sarcastically as he took a couple more steps toward the tiny dance floor.

Paige sighed looking down at the ground and sticking out her lower lip.“Oh I see how it is. You're one of those 'party poopers' I hear about...” She teased- her pout turning into a mischievous cat's grin.

Raising his eyebrow, Tada gazed at her suspiciously. “What are you after anyways, Paige?”

“Just a little dance. It's not gonna kill you is it?” She replied, letting go of his shirt and smoothing out the wrinkles with her hand. Her smile turning into an innocent one.

“I don't know... I've heard stories.”

Paige gave up. Pouting, she gave a heavy sigh and took a couple steps away from him. “Well fine then. I'll go dance without you. Just you wait though- and see just how much your missing out on.”

Tada grinned and leaned against the back of the booth. “Okay then- don't hurt yourself. He replied as he watched Paige head towards the dance floor.

Just as the last word fell from his lips Paige turned with a sexy little look planted on her face. “If I do, you promise to rescue me?” She coed gently.
His eyes widened- not expecting such a question before he gave her an equally devilish look. “Sure... I guess I could.”

Paige giggled. “Good.”
..

Tada leaned against the back of the booth with his arms crossed. His eyes were fixed on Paige while she danced alone. Her body language was slightly suggestive but her eyes remained locked on him the whole time. He hadn't realized a slight smirk was planted on his face until Bridget laughed and forced him to look in her direction.

“You know, some say dancing is poetry- the written word of the body.”

“Oh? And why is that?” He asked.
Bridget smiled. “When you dance with your partner- you're pressed close up against them- their heat and sweat mingling with yours. As you dance harder and faster you're hearts begin beating in the same rhythm. And if you can speak the language well enough to can read the person's soul. Know their deepest darkest secrets... their desires.”

Michael piped in.“Basically what she's trying to say is dancings like sex.”

Bridget shot him a look. “No. You know that's not what I mean. Dancing is like love and life.”

Tada grinned and shook his head. “Hmm.. no. It's like sex.”

Bridget rolled her eyes and sighed- collapsing back up against Michael. “Men...”

“What?” Tada inquired in an innocent tone.

“Obviously you just don't get it. With dancing you see what the person wants- what they need. All through the movement of their hips and wrists. The way their body keeps to the rhythm of the music. Even the way they their heads turn and the look their eyes hold when they look at you. The love in their eyes... sexual maybe but love is what you're looking for in the dance partner.”

“Those two usually means the same thing. And don't even think about getting onto me about slow dancing. Their bodies are pressed up close to each other- hip to hip.”

“Fine.” She replied- waving her hand as if it were a white flag. “Think what you want to think but you missed the point entirely. She's trying to tell you something you know but, are you just going to stand there gawking at her all night?”

“What you want me to have sex with her?” Bridget leaned up and over Michael, pinching Tada on the arm and twisting it. “Ouch.”

“NO! Go dance with her stupid. I swear... you Oxford men...”

Michael looked over at her wounded. “Honey... I'm included in that little statement too.” His comment was ignored.

“Or maybe you want one of those guys over there who've had their eyes on her all night to dance with her? Ooh- looks like one's finally scrounged up the courage to ask her. Now's your last chance.”

“Yea I saw... fine.” Tada sighed, rolling his eyes and kicking off the wall to make his way to her.
...

Damn it all! He'd been in there for five minutes or so after he'd taken his drink and hobbled unsteadily into the lave. Now Shlomi was on his way out- looking ten times wore than before. Not to mention Paige had caught the tail end of Mia's little Morse code message.And right now of all times. She thought to herself as Tada made his way up to her, stepping in close with every intention of placing his hands on her hips right after he got out whatever clever little thing he was about to say. Paige sighed and smiled, placing her hands on his lips before he could say anything. “Hold that thought. I'll be right back, handsome.”

Then without another word, she slipped past him catching up with Shlomi. “Oye- you get a hold of some bad meat or something, Shlomi? You were in there n awfully long time. i was about to request a recovery team be sent after you.” She teased, knowing all too well that she couldn't make too much of a big deal over it. But apparently her lighthearted inquiry was too much because he still ignored her though she did note the sharp smell of puke as he pushed the door open and slid out into the night. Paige stopped, putting her hands on her hips. “Well that's just great. He ignored me. I'll have to make sure to yell at him for it tomorrow.” She said to herself with no real intention of yelling at him- though she might give him a hard time over it. Turning around, she headed back towards the tables freezing when she saw Their drinks had finally arrived. Oh God! If Synterine's being passed around in the glasses- half the people here are from Oxford!She looked around the room. Some of the best teachers,students, and tutors were here tonight... not to mention a princess. This would be a huge loss and how many of them were testing their food or drink before they ate. There were quite a few who didn't pay the warning any mind. Then she thought of Tada- he was knew. He didn't know the dangers just yet. Paige quickened her pace.
...

“Well that was a flop.” Bridget pouted.

Michael and Tada laughed. “You can't say I didn't try.” Tada teased as he grabbed his scotch and lifted it to his mouth.

“Biddy- stop being a matchmaker. Leave 'em be.”

“Hey there handsome.” Paige was suddenly in the seat next to him- her hand on his arm. “I thought I told you to hold that thought.”

“Do I seem like the type to wait like a lost pup for you to return?”

Paige laughed, grabbing a cloth napkin and placing it over his lap- her other hand hidden under it. She pressed her hand up against his thigh. Tada's eyes widened as her hand moved quickly. Until he noticed what she was doing. Sign language.

Don't eat or drink without using your poison tester. There's a huge risk of Synterine poisoning. Shlomi's already swallowed some tonight but he's fine now. He's one of the small few who can survive I guess. Be more careful. You're a possible target now that your an official student at Oxford. I'll answer any questions later.

Then her hand was gone- back on the table- a quick swipe over their drinks without anyone other than him noticing. She forced another laugh. “No I suppose not. Bridget, I think you lucked out on Michael. He's too sissy to turn a babe like us down when they ask him to dance.”

Michael turned beat red while Bridget laughed. “Hey! I object to that statement.”

“Overruled.” Bridget teased between her little bursts of laughter. Paige stuck out her tongue before taking a sip of whiskey.
...

“Eh... I really shouldn't drink. Me and my short stature and all- I cant really hold that much alcohol.” Paige giggled as she walked the edge of the street as if it were a tight rope- her heels in her hand.

“Then why'd you have that much?” Tada asked as he walked over to her- steadying her. He only had the slightest sign of a buzz.

She blushed. “I just had two glasses is all. I've never had more than half a glass till tonight so I didn't really know what my limit was... besides- it was a celebration. You made it right?” She asked; wobbling a little bit before catching herself and looking up at him. He'd made it... now he wouldn't need her anymore.

“Yea, i guess I did... but its not like its over. I got in but I haven't even done anything yet.”

“Oh.”

“So do you want me to take you to Dustin's or-”

“No. I'm moving back into my dorm room. Well, I never officially left it. I'm on the third floor on the girls side of the dorms... room 23 I think... yea that's it.” She replied, closing her eyes. In one quick move Tada wrapped his arms around her and picked her up. “Ah! What are you doing?”

“Carrying you to your room so we're not out here half the night.”

“Oh...” She blushed a little again before smiling. “How sweet! Is this a date Tada?”

“No. Stop teasing. I know you're not thatdrunk.”

Paige stopped and giggled. “Okay... so maybe I'm not.” She whispered, wrapping her arms around his neck and laying her head on his shoulder. “Maybe I'm just lazy and didn't want to walk home. You forgive me?” She asked, closing her eyes again.

“Nope.” He said flatly.

“WHAT?” Paige's eyes opened wide as she looked up at him. He somehow managed to flick her on the nose- a big smile on his face. It took her a moment to get it but finally she smiled back and returned her head to his shoulder. “Oh I see... how mean. Teasing a girl when she's slightly drunk.”

“That's what you get. I should set you down right here and now and make you walk back.” He teased.
...

Now

Paige hopped out of the shower with a smile on her face as she wrapped the towel around her. He'd carried her to her room before he finally set her down. They'd gone back and fourth teasing each other about him giving her a kiss goodnight- though in the end she'd gone into her room alone with no kiss and he'd gone to his room. That was one of the things she loved about him- he was a gentleman through all that sexiness he had. Maybe that was one of the things that attracted her to him in the first place- even before he'd changed his style.

Paige quickly changed into a pair of pink panties and bra before sliding into a pair of dark jeans, a close fitting t-shirt and cream colored womens vest. Brushing her hair and making the basic preparations every woman tried to do in the morning, she made sure to put her charm bracelet back on before she made her way down the stairs- her red heals clicking with every step.
...

Paige couldn't believe her eyes. She read the sign again. Laras? Who in the heck was the genius to do this? In what sane part of their little world did they think Laras would make a good motivational speaker? She really wanted to know. Really. Her head cocked to the side and she actually tried picturing it. Crossing her arms and bringing her finger to her chin she actually ran through a scenario.


Laras glared out at the body of students. There was no pleasant 'good morning' or warm opening welcoming the new students. “I am Laras Nikolao. You've come today to get motivated so here it is- don't fuck up. If you fuck up then you fucking die. And if you die- well then you're lives were pointless now weren't they.” The students in the front seats all shrank down feeling like tiny ants about to be crushed under the might of this tutor's wrath. Laras singled one of the spineless bunches out. “You!” He pointed.

“Y-yes sir?”

“What pitiful little gift do you think you provide for Oxford?”

“Well s-sir... I-I I-”

“Stuttering perhaps?” Hopefully the kid went to the bathroom before the lecture- otherwise the look he'd just received could have possibly forced him to crap himself. “Useless. Anyone here who thinks they can withstand a year with me being in their fucking snot nosed faces all day- training them until they either puke or pass out from exhaustion can stay- everyone else- get the fuck out of my sight!”

Most of the students got up running out of the auditorium- a few of which in tears. Tada and a few others staid behind- Mia included. Once again Laras singled one of them out. This time it was Tada.

“You!”

“Laras, sir?” Tada asked with a steady tone- looking Laras straight in the eye.

“You think you're can last a fucking month without dying?”

Tada grinned. “I plan to last more than just a 'fucking month' sir. I plan to graduate.”

“Oh really? You think you won't get killed do you? What about Synterine or a simple gun?” He asked pulling out a gun. “Can you dodge a bullet?” He asked. Suddenly the room grew dark and his eyes gleamed red. “Let's find out shall we?” He asked before killing everyone in the room. An evil laugh hung in the room even as the dust cleared.


Paige snapped out of it. “Poor Tada!” Okay so maybe that last part of the scenario was a little over the top but still... She admitted to herself.

“What about poor me?” Tada asked as he and Mia walked up to her.

Paige gave a nervous laugh. “Oh nothing... really. Say why don't you two sit in the very back- you know, by the exit.”

“Why?” He asked.

Mia sighed. Seemed she knew just what the risks were stepping into that auditorium. “You needn't worry.” A familiar voice called from behind.

Paige turned and smiled. “Phelps!” She called before running up to him and putting her arm around him. “Please tell me he talked you into doing the speech.” She mumbled under her breath.

Phelps smiled. “You needn't worry. He began his trickery last night but officially waited till this morning to ask me and yes. I'm going to be the motivational speaker this morning.

“Great.” She giggled before walking back over to Mia and Tada. “Well, now that you're lives aren't in danger I think I'll be off.” Paige made sure to send Tada another look. “See you later. No getting into too much trouble without me.”

The knock on the door repeated itself. Charon finally sighed and turned to face it, straightening his tie and standing slowly to brush his hands along his pants, straightening them out as well. "It's unlocked."

The person entering the room had no clue. She said something about Charon's last lecture, a question about how it related to the last discussion in Charon's writing workshop class, and a few simple flirtatious comments. He liked this student, he really did. She just didn't have a clue. He answered her questions, tactfully deflected the flirting, and had her still smiling when she left his office. The professor pushed the door closed, then opened it again and stepped out into the hallway.

The English department was, appropriately in the minds of almost everyone working there, in one of the oldest and most uselessly artistic buildings on the campus. The clinical white of most of the buildings was largely absent here, with the plain walls decorated fairly heavily with framed sonnets and such. Not something that a Deklahnian would be pleased about if one ever deigned to inspect the 'standards' of the school, but not something serious enough to merit any real action beyond a frown, at least not so long as the pieces were being carefully monitored and chosen to prevent any anti-Republic sentiment.

Charon stepped out into the stairwell, the noise of the day echoing up the comparatively dingy space. It was rare that he went out without a full suit, but it would create a nice bit of gossip among the few who actually cared, and give them something unusual to talk about. More to the point, he just didn't care enough just then to bother. He wouldn't be going far, and appearances mattered. His little diversion would seem more real if he looked slightly out-of-sorts beforehand.

He reached the ground floor and started acknowledging the waves of students on their way to their next classes with a sophisticated nod or a calm word. He turned and pushed open the door, stepping out into daylight and blinking his eyes at the sudden sunshine, but he didn't stop walking. He didn't have much farther to go, anyways. The dispensaries for Oxford's on-campus newspapers were intentionally as close to the door as possible. He grabbed one of each: the official newsletter, the inevitable counter-paper basically saying the opposite, the spoof paper, and the dry, academic paper full of the least useful information of the lot.

It took him about the same time to get back to his office. It took even less time before he pulled the smooth phone from his pocket and dialed the office of the professor-sponsor of the official paper.

"Good morning. Yes, I'm doing well. Yes, actually, that's what I was calling about." His finger pointed to the front-page article to emphasize his point to the listener on the other end of the phone. "Are you insane? Even the spoof-news doesn't print anything so critical of the Republic. Are you trying to get a rise out of our government?" He placed a slight emphasis on the word 'our'. The voice on the other end of the line responded tersely, which Charon had expected.

"It doesn't matter, it is still our government, and such writing is at least unpatriotic and possibly even treasonous in the wrong ears. I doubt anything serious will come of one overly-critical article, but it will bring attention to Oxford. Angry attention... No, I do not think that's a good idea. The Republic is not famous for its understanding and tolerance of dissenting opinion. You might want to ask the History department what happened when Earth itself tried to dissent, in case you've forgotten. Oxford would be treated no differently. Except that your paper is the official voice of Oxford as far as the outside world is concerned, or at least the popular opinion of our school. That's all well and good, but when push comes to shove, it is a school, and you are endangering that. We are here to teach, not to protest."

He hung up before the last angry word could be said, but he knew what it was. It didn't matter. He shouldn't have called at all. How on Earth did she manage to get that article approved? He shook his head. The call was dangerous. If that particular conversation was tapped, he'd have a hard time explaining exactly why he was breaking from his normal anti-Republic stance. He doubted that citing the duty of an educator would work, but the possibilities that the school paper getting so blatant as to imply corruption in the local office, much less direct bias against Earth's local governments, would give the excuse needed to apply more direct scrutiny and pressure to Oxford.

And he didn't know how to cover for whatever was about to happen that would need to avoid that scrutiny.

He sighed to himself and turned away from the computer holding his lesson plans, pulling open the drawer with the random bits of paper and reports that really mattered. He'd have to wing it in class, preparations needed to be made if he was going to be ready when the shit hit the fan.

*****

Students rose, hefted packs, and strode one-by-one from the room. "Ms. Godwin, can I speak to you for a moment?"

It wasn't unusual for Charon to have a few words with students after class, especially new ones or his favorites, so no one paid much attention beyond the fact that it was the Princess he was addressing. "What is it, Professor Trusko?"

He smiled, flashing the pearly-whites that had gotten him the best date of his life. "I just wanted to ask how you were adapting to life at Oxford. I understand it can be a very confusing place to suddenly find yourself thrust into."

Mia's return smile was equally dazzling. The fact that it was a dissembler doing it made it that much more impressive and regal. "Thanks, but I'm doing all right. I can take care of myself."

Charon nodded. "Of course. If you have any questions or problems, please, let me know. I'm almost always in my office, and if I'm not then someone nearby will be able to tell you where I am. I'm always available to assist my students however they might need me, and your background doesn't make you any exception. I like to be a friend more than instructor, and as far as I'm concerned, your background only matters for that when a camera's on."

The dissembler's smile relaxed a little from the rehearsed royal version. "I'll keep that in mind, and thanks, it gets a little tiresome sometimes having to force people to give honest advice or help to a princess. I'll see you soon, Professor."

"Call me Charon, and take it easy." Mia Godwin's dissembler strode from the room with a slight sway to her step, smiling, while Charon kept his own smile plastered across his face while his next class slipped into the room. It wasn't easy fighting off the nausea in the pit of his stomach. It made him uneasy forcing a dissembler into a situation like that, where they had to not only fake behavior and mannerisms but flirting and potentially more. That didn't have anything to do with the twist in his stomach. If it had been the real princess, or anyone for that matter, this feeling would be the same. He almost wished he was just afraid.

He looked up over his class. Of the twenty students in this block, three were dissemblers at least as often as not. Two were full-time dissemblers whose sole purpose was to make everything at Oxford look as normal as possible. One was an agent of Omega, here in case Charon needed a message delivered immediately. There were eighteen code-words that he could say during the course of his lecture, any one of which would convey a message for the Deklahnian agent. Less than three-quarters of his class was actually there for the class. It all seemed normal now.

The class went quickly. The Deklahnian dissembler's most recent work of fictional prose was effectively praised, broken down, and examined. Everyone left with a smile at either the progress made or the comments that made it.

Charon's smile stayed with him all the way across campus and to his ride. The car was always spotless, and it should be for the amount he paid to keep it clean. He slid into the driver's seat and started rehearsing what he was going to say on arrival.

His phone interrupted him, but it wouldn't be wise to ignore the Dean. "Good afternoon. How can I be of service today?" His expression fell. "Impossible. Yes, quite. I don't have a meeting like this often, it would be beyond unwise to miss it, possibly fatal." The English professor gritted his teeth. "I don't care, there's more at stake than my life and we both know that." Charon's eyes widened with shock at the next mumbled phrase his suddenly painfully-sensitive ears picked up over the line. He ended the call without another word and glared at the road in front of him. Do we? Do we?

He accelerated.

It was barely ten minutes before he was at the hotel. He frequented the bar here fairly regularly, but not often enough to be expected to talk. He was just another patron who stopped off on the way home from time to time. The booth he normally took was open. It was dark, and at some point in the past someone had spilled something that made the entire corner of the store smell like week-old tuna and ginger. He dropped a card on the table, and the waitress picked it up, swiped it, and returned a minute later with a glass filled with a crystal-clear liquid. No ice. He didn't even pick it up. He wouldn't have time.

"Vodka this early? You're not much of a Limey, are you?"

Charon glanced at the man seating himself across from him with a mixture of respect and awe. He hid the panicking fight-or-flight instinct screaming at him from that primal part of his brain he logically knew was right. "I never was."

The man leaned forward, a drink being brought out for him without him asking or paying for it. Charon wondered idly what would happen to the waitress that complained about his tipping habits. They certainly wouldn't complain about his looks. The guy could've modeled for Apollo in ancient Greece, didn't look like he'd ever needed to shave. Smooth, but defined features complemented his haunting green eyes perfectly. More than one revolutionary had fallen for those batting lashes before someone had figured out that he wasn't just in Omega, he practically ran it in Europe.

That flight instinct was getting pretty strong. "What is it, Janus? I don't have time to play twenty questions. You wouldn't have called me in if it wasn't important."

The Omega's voice was perfect: silk brushed with steel. "Oh, come now. Nothing so serious. Just a question. You've been holding out on me, Yance, and I want to know why."

Charon almost swallowed his heart. Christ! He's already figured that much out? I've only sent one report since I started! No reason to deny it. Duval didn't guess. "True."

The man leaned forward, tilting his head and smiling. "That didn't sound to me like an explanation."

"I'm only one player in this. If you can give me a reason for it, I'd love to hear it."

Duval's shoulder's tightened slightly. "Excuse me?"

Charon kept going. "I'm having a hard time confirming my information. Someone suspects a leak, and is doing a very thorough job seeing to it that no one is getting more information than they need, and that some are getting directly contradictory intel. Everyone's guarding what bits they can confirm like they were their children. I can't very well send you information I know isn't true, now can I?" He cut off Duval's answer. "Not when I know that it is exactly what is expected of whoever the leak is. You use any of that false info and I'm wide open and exposed."

A laugh, somehow avoiding any nasal qualities at all even with Duval's high tenor, was his answer. "That's the beauty of your position, Yance. You're already exposed. All you have to do is play the part."

Charon gritted is teeth and slipped the thin pistol from his sleeve. He barely had it in his hand before he felt a thin prick in the back of his neck. "Wi' tha' be owl, suh?" The waitress was careful to keep whatever blade she had on the far side of herself from most of the patrons. At least they aren't all stooges.

Duval leaned forward, his hand grabbing Charon's tie and dragging his face up next to his own perfect features as he hissed. "It is not your place to decide what you do and do not tell me. You report, I decide. If I decide it will expose that insurgency sufficiently to act, you better believe I will blow your cover, and you will accept that and move on. You know very well what will happen if you don't."

The professor literally snarled back, just loud enough to be heard. "My name is Trusko, you parasitic primate, and so help me if you forget it one more time I will 'expose' myself right in the middle of this damn bar."

Duval held his glare for another second, then fell backwards laughing, the waitress walking calmly past him. "That's more like it. I'm looking forward to your next report. Keep me posted." The man rose and walked away, thumping a couple of others on the back as he passed. Charon drained his drink, as he always did after talking to that man, and walked calmly out of the room and to his car. He closed the door, sped a short ways down the road, pulled off into a parking lot, tinted the windows as far as they could go, and then just sat there.

His fingers played idly with the Oxford ring he wore on his left ring finger. It wobbled. He removed the thick piece of jewelry, and used his fingernail to pull out the plain, white-gold band that had been hidden just inside it. He dropped the Oxford ring and stared at the band for a few minutes in silence, then slammed his fist into the steering wheel and leaned his head against it, sobbing.
The winding halls stretched before him, brightly lit every few feet with proton energy only just harnessed by the scientists on Pyurn- a true and just planet, he thought, not anything like these ungrateful slatterns and heathen Gaians- the absence of electronic buzzing still unnatural to ears long honed to hear the whisper of a shiv as it glided through the air. Only the clicking of his boots, a soft shuffle that he only allowed himself because the silence- rather embarrassingly- unnerved him, broke the all-encompassing void that bore down on his soul, threatening to drive him completely insane. In the months since he’d begun at the Center for Gaian Intelligence and Surveillance, called Omega by everyone who worked there and even those that didn’t, it had never ceased to amaze him that within these walls, the actions of every Gaian rebel were carefully documented and observed- all in the deathliest of silences.

His uniform, meant to mimic those of the Gaian armies from the founding of the Republic, stood in stark contrast to the white walls, its earthy squares randomized to blend in to his surroundings (provided that they weren’t a building, he thought). It was made of some scratchy material that never really lost its starchy texture, no matter how many times he and his comrades had them cleaned. For all its wealth, the Deklahnian Republic had never seen fit to provide comfortable uniforms for its loyal soldiers- kept them in the moment, he’d been told, if they were uncomfortable- something he’d thought was bullshit from the moment he’d enlisted some six years ago. But, better to be an uncomfortable Deklahnian than a rebel Gaian; in the end, he’d still be alive, and the Republic would continue on despite the scum scuttling about at Oxford and the rest of the planet.

When he’d first been given his assignment, Alexander James Templeton had been mistaken in the belief that the Gaian rebellion was centered at Oxford; he’d wondered why the Deklahnians couldn’t just vaporize the school and be done with the fledgling rebellion once and for all. No, the amorphous voice of Omega had told him, Oxford was merely the beginning. It had once been the center, it had once been the lifeline. Now, while it was a symbolic epicenter, the heart of the spiritual rebellion, its destruction would do nothing more than throw the entire planet into a chaotic, destructive war that would likely end in the complete annihilation of Earth. The situation presented Omega with a delicate conundrum- how to destroy the rebels and leave Earth as it was. For, if Oxford was the spiritual center of Earth’s revolt, Earth was the spiritual center of the entire Republic. Earth’s destruction at the hands of its own Republic, Omega had explained to him, would destroy everything Deklahn stood for.

Pausing at a door, Templeton pressed three of his fingers into the scanner, wincing at the slight burn of the scan. Omega could never be too careful with spies- the vermin from Oxford had tried, and even succeeded on a few occasions to infiltrate the walls and systems- their information centers were much too important and secret to be left to chance. Scan complete, from the tips of his fingers through to the unformed skin of the dermis, the door slid open and Alex slipped into the room. He wondered if the meeting had something to do with that seditious article in the Oxford newspaper, calling for freedom from shackles, denouncing Deklahn as a false republic, a democratic farce, a circus…Alex barely managed to control his voice as he walked through the doorway. “Templeton, reporting.”

“Ah. Welcome, Alexander.” Alex started. The man before him was the last person he had ever thought to see again. “It’s been a long time since you’ve visited me at Oxford.”

“Professor. I…what a surprise! What brings you here?” Alex could not even pretend to hide his disconcertedness. He’d never expected this to be the man in Oxford. Omega trusted Charon well enough, but Alex had always known that there was another informant within the school’s walls. He’d just never thought it would be the man standing in front of him.

“I have news. Laras has a new student, for one. I thought in might interest you to know that your weapons tutor has replaced you. And I think this one might be just the person he needs to forget his prized pupil.” The man chuckled and pointed to a bundle that Alex hadn’t seen before. Upon closer inspection, Alex recognized it as a girl, bound and gagged, clearly dosed with a heavy sedative. “Cara? Cara Lebeau? She’s Laras’ new student? I thought she was one of Phelps’ dissemblers.”

“It’s good you’re not much more than a guard and a relay for information, Mr. Templeton. You were never very bright. She is one of Phelps’ dissemblers.” The man- Professor- ambled to the other side of the room and took a seat in one of the chairs. “No. Laras has a very special new student I thought you might like to know about. Your superiors especially. But first, a drink and a toast.” Alex watched, still numb with shock. Omega was better situated within Oxford than he and most of the soldiers had never thought. It was a wonder the rebellion even survived.

Accepting a drink, Alex deftly tested the bubbling liquid for a myriad of poisons. He’d survived for six years as a double agent by being smarter than he looked, and much more than one of Laras’ meathead swordsmen. Alex could not suppress a scowl at the thought of that Russian traitor. He thought oh-so-much of himself and his skills, gloating over Alex at every opportunity, never giving his ‘prized student’ so much as a compliment or even constructive criticism. A brow-beater and a pig, the bastard toasted to the death of Deklahnian officials, to the destruction of the ‘Empire’ and Omega’s demise. Alex had, on more than one occasion, tipped his blade in the deadliest poisons, hoping just to graze the man’s arm. The cur didn’t even have the decency to allow him that, laughing at his defeat and taking any shot presented, legal or not.

“Men like him think they’re so much better than us,” Alex muttered, finally taking a sip of the brandy in his hand. “He’s uncivilized, and has the audacity to say it’s Deklahn’s fault. Rebel scum.”

“He’s just like everyone else at that dump,” the man at the table replied, showing no intention of telling Alex anything. “The lot of them deserve to die, a trip to the Doctors and Dentists. I’d pay to hear their screams, to tighten the screws myself, hear their bones shattering and their souls tearing to shreds.”

Alex’s grin was dark, his eyes clouded with similar thoughts. “I’d like to start with Laras and that sidekick of his. Phelps and Laras are never far apart. I half expect those two to turn up in bed together.”

“I doubt it. He’s much enthralled with his beautiful new- female- student.” The Professor took a sip and chuckled. “Not that he realizes it. Man is stubborn as an ox. He’s already half killed her and they’ve only fought once. She did manage to score a point on him, though.”

“She scored a point on him? Her first time? God, are you sure she’s not one of us? They don’t always tell.”

The man shrugged. “She could be. Which is why I brought the dissembler. I thought you could…interrogate her.”

Alex finally understood why Cara was here. Part of him felt sorry for her- they’d known one another at Oxford (she’d been the best lay he ever had)- but the thought buried itself deep in the unmitigated hatred he felt for all things Gaian. If he ever left this hellhole, Alex thought, he’d move to Deklahn and live in real luxury, not in some forgotten outpost remarkable for nothing but its history. Finishing off the brandy, Alex nodded. “I’ll bring her to a Doctor. We’ll see what he deems fit for her. I’m sure she’ll talk.”


*****


Life, after the devastatingly boring dinner and afterparty that could only be described as memorable, settled into a routine that made her old life seem positively exciting. For a week, Mia settled into a beginner’s training; classes on the history of the revolution, the basic codes and routines of the school, the need for secrecy. She shared most of them with Tada, and the two spent as much time whispering in the back of the lecture hall, creating stories for each of the other students in the class, as they did paying attention to the various professors. On the few occasions that Laras taught an introduction class- luckily, Phelps had ended up giving the ‘inspirational’ welcome speech or the entire incoming class would have run screaming for the halls of Omega- Mia and Tada wrote notes, daring enough if the professor noticed but nothing that would directly draw attention to themselves. Mostly, the notes were about how ridiculous the Russian looked blustering about the front of the room like some wannabe Chernyshevsky, ranting on about rebellion and the war necessary to free Earth.

Inwardly, though she would hardly admit it, Mia thought it was beautiful, his dedication; although she suspected Phelps had mentioned her opinions of Laras’ obsession with the rebellion. Laras had stared at her most of one particular lecture- the Ideals of Rebellion- his blue eyes boring into her as he spoke, almost poetically, of the human right to freedom and the nobility of sacrifice for the good of all man. And his lecture voice, which she’d never heard directed toward her, was equally as alluring as his unwavering devotion, his Muscovite accent softening and removing some of the brutishness of his speech. Unwilling to betray her burgeoning admiration of her tutor, Mia had steadfastly refused to look back at him, instead feigning undue interest in the notes she and Tada were passing that day.

The best part about the week before her first individual lesson with Laras was that she finally met Charon, a teacher whose expectations of her were reasonable at least. Since arriving at Oxford, everyone had planned to introduce the two of them, but he always seemed to be off doing something else. She learned from Paige on one of the few days the two of them ate lunch alone (Tada had a lesson with Laramie, one of the analytical professors) just why Charon was missing as often as he showed up to Mia’s lessons in beginning codebreaking.

“He’s on mission,” the girl answered when Mia had asked why her lesson was cancelled for the second day in a row. “He’s a spook, you know. Gets information from Omega and gives them fake information in return.” Paige shoved a french fry into her mouth, chewing methodically as she danced in her seat to a song only she could hear, one bud of a music player tucked into her right ear, the other left hanging so she could talk to Mia. “Just do the work he left you and have it done by the time he’s back. He’s an understanding guy, especially since he’s gone most of the time, but he expects you to have your work done on schedule.”

Mia nodded, chewing on her salad, enjoying the taste of good food. So many of the people of earth had given up on real food, but Oxford made a point of eating properly, as their ancestors had. How Julius Caesar had ended up a salad and a dinner roll, Mia could never figure out, but he had…and the salad was extraordinary. “What about the other professors? I mean, I know Phelps does stuff other than recruiting. But does Laras ever leave that salon or his classroom at all?”

“Ah, Laras. No one’s really sure about him. He hardly ever gets to leave. Surprising, given how talented he is. He’s the best fighter we’ve got. And those he trains end up the best in whatever they choose to pursue, as well. His last weapons trainee, Alex Templeton, just got hired on at Omega as a guard. He’s been feeding us information for months and no one over there has any clue that it’s even him. Laras always said Alex was the only swordsman he had to warrant the title.” Paige shrugged and ate another fry. “Try not to let him get to you. I know he’s hard but he does seem to think you’ve got promise, according to the other professors anyway.”

Promise? Her? Why hadn’t Laras told her he thought she had promise? Damn it all, was the man incapable of telling her what he really thought? Why was she thinking this way? She couldn’t tell him what she thought about him, or wouldn’t. Or maybe nothing she did was good enough for his oh-so-exacting standards. He hadn’t even managed to comment on her letting him know about Shlomi. Was Morse the wrong way to go? She had had another plan flash through her mind, but she’d decided that it wouldn’t have worked. Should she have gone with that plan instead? Had she compromised everything by letting someone in that bar know about Shlomi’s synterine scare? Mia looked at her salad, finding that her appetite had suddenly left her in lieu of the feeling of mediocrity that washed over her as she thought of everything she had done. Laras could tell everyone else she had promise, but couldn’t find it in himself to tell her whether she had done something right? Had she done something right? “Damnit, Paige, what am I doing wrong?”

“Whoa there, where’d that come from? You’re not doing anything wrong! In fact, according to the rumor mill, you’re doing as well…better in some cases…as anyone could hope for!” Paige stared at Mia for a minute, her eyes narrowed in concentration. Something in Mia’s face must have clued Paige in to what the princess was thinking because Paige’s face suddenly dawned in recognition. “You’re worried what Laras thinks of you? I thought you said you didn’t like him! Why would you even care whether he thinks you’re good enough or not? You know you’re good enough. Don’t forget that, okay Mia? Stephens wouldn’t have let you in if you weren’t good enough, damnit. So don’t worry so much what stiff neck Laras thinks.”

Mia shook her head. “You ever had a teacher that you worked so hard for, but never thought what you were doing was good enough? I’ve only had one ‘lesson’ at Laras’ hands and I already have that feeling. What’s going to happen once I start actually taking classes with the man?”

“Hopefully he’ll manage to get over himself and realize that you’re twice, if not three times, the person Alex Templeton was. He was a prick, actually, and a bit of a misogynist. I don’t think Laras knew that, though, or else he would have sent Alex packing, swordsman or not.” Paige sighed. “He’s a bastard, but Laras is basically a good guy under it all. He cares so much about the revolution and freeing earth. He already thinks enough of you to train you, so don’t expect him to get all mushy and praise your every action. If he doesn’t get rid of you, he thinks you’re good enough.”

“I guess. But I want to be more than good enough, Paige. I want to be good enough that even Laras has to admit it. To my face.”

Paige’s lips twisted into a knowing smile. “Sounds like you want him to like you, Mia. Respect doesn’t need to be said. You’ll know it when he respects you. But you will have to earn it.”

Mia rolled her eyes and stared skeptically at the girl across from her. She even managed to get some of her appetite back and took a bite of her salad. “So, if he’s such a good fighter, why does Laras never leave Oxford? Shouldn’t he go on missions like Charon? Or maybe travel like Phelps? I mean, damn, they’ve got to need fighters…and his skill with languages is formidable enough. What did he do?”

Paige shrugged. “No one knows. Maybe he pissed off Stephens. But I’m sure it’s made him jealous of Charon at least, who’s always off doing something dangerous for the revolution. It’s a sore spot for him; everyone knows that. I guess if someone gave him something useful to do, he’d be a lot nicer to all of us.”

Mia laughed. “Nice? Laras? I doubt it. I’m not sure Laras knows anything about emotions. I could throw myself at him wearing nothing but a negligee and he’d counter with a scissor kick.” Paige joined Mia in her laughter and the two girls continued eating, their conversation turning to more mundane matters: the Brig concert, sports, and Paige’s inordinate skill behind the wheel.

*****


“Ah, I see you’ve remembered how to get down here, Miss Godwin.” Laras smiled cruelly, not stopping his elegant footwork for an instant, moving the blade through the six positions with careless ease. He was dressed much less formally this morning, in a pair of black slacks and a matching sleeveless shirt that already stuck to his chest, soaked with sweat, but he looked no less dangerous in these unassuming clothes than he had the week before in his elegant raiment of steel and smoke. For her part, Mia had dressed in an outfit that nearly mirrored her tutor’s, but for its color; hers was a midnight blue and free from sweat.

Smirking, Mia didn’t reply, instead sidling over to the weapon’s rack and finding a weapon that fit her arm, watching her tutor from beneath thick lashes as she did so. His footwork, she had to admit, was flawless, and his blade never moved erroneously. He had superb point control and his movements were concise, never sparing an ounce of energy on flourish or showmanship. Loath as she was to admit it, Mia had to acknowledge Laras’ skill with the blade. Furthermore, she had no doubt that his skill extended to firearms and hand-to-hand combat, as well. She wondered if she’d be forced to grapple with him. Heat rushed to her face as she thought of Laras getting a point on her, his body pinning hers to the salon floor. “No,” she whispered, shaking the thought from her mind. “Don’t go there.”

“Go where, Miss Godwin? You’ve never gone anywhere on your own since getting here. And so many get lost the first time they wander off on their own.” Laras continued his warm-up, not looking at Mia. Determined to catch his blue eyes with her own, Mia squared up across from him, matching his footwork and easily matching his attack with the proper parry and repost. Grinning, Mia fell effortlessly into the routine and the two warmed up together for a few minutes.

“Was that a compliment just then, Laras?” Mia finally asked. “So many get lost, but I did not. Be careful, Mister Nikolao, word might get out that you’re giving out compliments and no one will ever take you seriously ever again.” Brushing behind one ear a lock of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes, Mia chuckled. Laras didn’t visibly react, but his muscles tightened slightly, almost too imperceptibly for Mia’s eyes to catch; just enough for her to recognize the reaction.

Laras sneered, one side of his lip curling into an almost snarl. “That’s more like it, Laras. I was beginning to worry that you actually liked me.” Mia continued the banter, enjoying the moment; eventually, she knew, Laras would get angry enough to actually attack, but if she could control the moment, there might be a way for her to control the fight. She was pretty sure that she would lose- the man had five years of training on her and was a professor at Oxford while she was only a first year- but at least she could have some fun before she ended up in the infirmary for massive injuries due to an enraged Russian weapons tutor.

“It would be the first time for you, wouldn’t it?” Laras replied coolly. “A man that isn’t too afraid of you to touch you. You know, beautiful, the stock in your V-card doesn’t go higher the longer you hold on to it. You should see if someone would buy. Maybe then you can pay your mother back for buying your spot in this school.” Mia felt the breath go out of her, the blood boil in her veins. She’d opened her mouth to reply when Laras launched into a high reverse roundhouse kick, fast enough that Mia could do nothing but use her arm to block the assault. Barely managing to get her arm there in time, Mia felt the bone strain and dropped the sword.

“You fucking prick,” Mia replied, using Laras’ forward movement against him. As his kick forced him to turn completely, Mia jumped forward, grabbing Laras and throwing him to the ground, relying on years of jumbled judo training from the palace guards. She combined the move with an illegal knee strike to the small of the back, an attack likely to render him unable to move for a few moments. The two fighters landed hard on the ground beneath them, whereupon Mia pinned both of Laras’ arms, using her body to keep Laras’ legs from moving. “Do not ever speak like that about my mother, my family, or my integrity like that again, you son of a bitch, or I will find you in the middle of the night and strangle you in your sleep. Damn the consequences.”

Laras growled, but seemed to enjoy his position mightily. “Rule one, Princess.” Bringing his arms up, overpowering Mia’s less powerful hold, Laras grabbed Mia’s torso and rolled the two of them around, ending up on top of her. “Don’t talk so much.” Mia could barely breathe with the full weight of Laras’ bulk (as lean as it was) against her chest; her head was beginning to swim and darkness gathered at the corners of her eyes. The only thing she could think to do would be to kick at his head and then go for the groin, and even that was a long shot. Flexibility had never been in Mia’s repertoire of things she could rely on. But she didn’t have time. She would pass out soon and Laras would have won much too quickly. Again. Her thoughts turned momentarily to what she had been thinking earlier; this was nothing like it. Not being able to breathe wasn’t erotic at all. Instead, she found herself wanting the man above her to crumple in pain and acknowledge her skills as a fighter. Mostly, she just wanted him to hurt.

“Rule one for you, Nikolao,” Mia gasped out. “Every rose has its thorns.” Gathering every bit of strength, Mia kicked up hard, bringing her feet around Laras’ neck and pulling down, forcing Laras to let go of her arms. Swinging, Mia brought both fists down between Laras’ legs, straight into his groin. “That’s for my fucking eggplant of a face, Laras.”

No matter how much he had trained, or how strong Laras could say he was, he was still a man. And, no matter how much he killed her later, or how many trips she would take to the infirmary, Mia knew he would no longer underestimate her. Laras howled and curled into a ball, whimpering with the pain of the attack. Mia crawled out from under him, gasping for breath and gaining her balance back. Coughing and choking for air, Mia staggered away from Laras and toward her water. Grabbing for the bottle, Mia squeezed a few drops onto her tongue before a strong pair of hands grabbed at her shoulders and threw her to the ground.

“That was a dirty fucking move, Princess,” Laras growled, blue eyes dark and accent thick with anger.

“No dirtier than you slamming your elbow into my temple, Russian,” Mia replied, crossing her arms over her face as Laras pummeled her with punch after punch. Few of them landed on her face, though she took a hit to the bruise on her temple that left her breathless, tears pouring from her eyes. Mostly, her forearms and torso took a beating; Mia held out as long as she could. Eventually, though, she lost consciousness at Laras’ hands for the second time in a row.

*****


When Mia awoke a few hours later, she saw Laras staring at her from the other side of the salon, eyes intense with an emotion she never thought to see from the man: worry. She kept her eyes mostly closed, hoping to spy on him before he realized she was awake. The look on his face was disconcerting; Mia didn’t think he would care what he did to her in the name of training. Maybe someone- Stephens- had taken him to task for his harsh techniques and Laras was worried that his superiors would take disciplinary action. Mia knew that he, unlike what she’d heard about Charon, rarely left the school to go on assignment. Maybe he was worried that they would forbid him from leaving Oxford proper, relegated to back up, to teaching. One day, if she survived this, Mia would go off to fight and Laras would be forced to stay behind.

Or maybe, Mia thought, maybe he was just concerned for her. The thought didn’t last long though, as her body reminded her of just how much pain she was in. She groaned, her eyes fluttering completely open. Laras’ face showed only impassive disdain, the expression he seemed to have designated as ‘Mia Face’ her first day at Oxford. “Good of you to join me, Princess. Now it’s time to begin your actual lesson. Unless you think you need to quit today, of course.”

Always challenging her, this one. Maybe one day, she’d manage to get some sort of praise out of him. She wondered if he were still in any pain from her assault earlier; probably, she surmised. That kind of pain didn’t go away easily. Which meant that he had attacked her in something akin to the greatest agony a man could feel. The fact that he could do that made Mia realize that she could continue on with a few bruises and muscles twitching with pain. “No, of course not, Laras,” she forced out between gritted teeth. “I wouldn’t deprive you of further chance to use me as your personal anger management doll.”

Laras shrugged. “It doesn’t matter either way to me. I’ve got nothing else booked today. A few private meetings with some of my Russian students, but that’s it.”

“Will you teach me Russian?” Mia didn’t know why she’d asked that; why would she want to spend more time with this man? “Or do you plan on just beating me into a pulp every morning until you’ve succeeded in ridding me from your school?” Mia grimaced, forcing herself into a sitting position on the hard salon floor. Her hair had come free of its braid and fell, disheveled, about her shoulders.

“Asking for more punishment, Mia? Russian’s a hard language. Are you sure you’ll have enough time between your chats with Phelps and visits to the infirmary?”

“Are you sure you’ll have time between torturing me and your tea parties with Edward? Or putting fellow students to spying on me on my first day here? Did you want an audience to your show? Proof that I would fall apart and go crying home to mama? I belong here and I deserve to be here, too.”

Laras scoffed. “This coming from the girl who was stupid enough to use Morse code in the middle of Undercroft. As if anyone there wouldn’t figure out what you were doing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tale of Shlomi imbibing synterine were all over school this morning.”

“If it is,” Mia shot back, “it’s because you shouted it about in order to berate me for trying to help him.” Standing, Mia barely managed to hide the pain from her face as she walked across the salon to join Laras where he was sitting. “You can’t accuse me of knowing nothing and then punish me for not knowing enough to do the right thing, Laras. It doesn’t go both ways. I just got here. So fucking teach me to be good enough or quit accusing me of being substandard. Either way, it’s up to you. If I end up failing out, it’ll be on your shoulders as much as on mine. Your pride, they’ll say. Your stupid, fucking pride!”

Mia pushed herself close to Laras, whispering fiercely into his face, realizing the truth of her words as she spoke them and feeling them suffuse her soul. “This is a revolution, Laras, as you so often remind everyone around here except yourself. And we are only as good as our weakest link. If I am the weakest link, then I need to be made stronger. Because we’ll all be dead if I fail, or if you fail, or if Shlomi, Phelps, or Charon fail. One link fails and this revolution comes crashing down around us. If that happens, Laras, will it matter that you’ll be proven right about me? Will it matter that I wasn’t good enough? I don’t think so.”

Laras, to his credit, looked pensive. “Then let’s stop talking and fight, Princess. Prove me wrong.”

“It’s always about you, isn’t it, Laras? Forget that it’s all of earth at stake. Let’s prove you wrong, shall we?” Mia stood, pushing the pain from her mind, and adopted a basic fighting stance. “Bring it on, churka.” So what if he was from Moscow and the term was an insult more because it wasn’t true than because it was? She’d pronounced it perfectly, and damn it all if he would always get the last word.

*****


“You told him, didn’t you?” Mia quickly suppressed her personal joy at making Phelps the dissembler jump at her approach. She’d found him in the botanical gardens, determined to track him down after her pummeling from Laras that day. Granted, she’d invited the second pummeling by using a racial slur against him, but the physical pain was second to the emotional victory. And the nurses at the infirmary were very, very good. She was glad that she’d finally managed to find the place on her own. After that, of course, and with renewed energy, Mia had stormed off to find the recruiter. “You told him I’m a fucking virgin, you asshole! Do you have any idea what it was like in there today?”

The man at least had the decency to wince. “I have an idea. Laras will use anything to get to you.” Sighing, the wrinkles on his broad face deepening, Phelps put down the book Mia hadn’t seen and motioned for her to join him. “Mia, I told him for a reason. And no,” he held up a hand to stay Mia’s sharp rejoinder, “it was not to give him any ammunition against you. Frankly, I think you’re strong enough to handle any jabs about your personal life. It was to teach you a lesson.”

Mia opened her mouth to speak, but again Phelps stayed her. She pursed her lips and sucked at her tongue, but remained silent and sat down beside the man who’d brought her to Oxford. “I think, Mia, that you seem to have forgotten that I am your teacher, too. Not just Laras. Not just Charon and others. I am also in charge of looking after you, but I am not your friend.” Phelps smiled at Mia’s reaction. “Not yet. Not that we can’t be friends later, but this is Oxford, Mia. We are revolutionaries here. We are training to fight in a war that most- if not all- of us will die in.”

There it was again. The fact that Mia had ignored her entire life until earlier that day in the salon with Laras; the reason her mother had kept her from Oxford for so long. By coming to Oxford, Mia had placed the fate of earth above her own life and her own well-being. In essence, so had her mother; she was the sacrifice, a willing sacrifice, to the war for freedom. And it meant that she would have to change.

“I can see that you understand what I’m saying, Mia. You said yourself that you have lived largely in front of the camera your entire life. You are pretty sheltered, something you also admit, because of those cameras. But think of this: would you tell that tabloid scum that you were a virgin, or all about your family? Secrets and anecdotes from your past?” Mia shook her head. “Well then, treat those of us around here like we’re from the tabloids. At least for now.” Phelps smiled. “I can tell you will have friends. Paige, for one, seems more than willing to come to your defense. And Tada, I’m sure, will follow in her footsteps. You have an admirable ally in Shlomi, who was impressed by you and took a synterine hit in your stead.” Mia nodded, knowing intimately what Shlomi had gone through at Undercroft. “But you must learn to analyze people. You must learn to walk carefully.”

Mia nodded. “I understand, Phelps. But…it still doesn’t sit right with me. I trust you. And my trust has never before been misplaced. Technically, it still hasn’t. I have a feeling that, unless Laras bullied you, you wouldn’t tell him anything about me that would do me harm. If I had sworn you to secrecy, you wouldn’t reveal it unless I was planning to blow up Oxford, or kill Stephens. I’m an honest person, Phelps.” Phelps nodded, a glint in his eye. “Which I’m pretty much positive you’ve told Laras in your midnight chats. Yeah, I know about them.” Mia chuckled at Phelps’ startled reaction; she wished that she could get the same response out of Laras once in a while. “I get bored at night in that room, and I found Laras’ office by your description of the school. I didn’t stay long enough to listen in, since I’m positive Laras would have known and taken it out on me today, but I know you talk to him.”

The wrinkles in Phelps’ face loosened as he grinned. “I’m beginning to think they misplaced you. Oh well, Laras has already got you in his clutches. I suppose we’ll keep you there.”

Mia shrugged it off, smiling. “I’ve had a word with him today. Maybe it’ll help. Most likely, it’ll just make him angrier. But, really, if I have the power to make him angry, I have some control. It means he has something invested in me, even if he hasn’t quite realized it. His pride, probably. And I’ll make do with that until I can earn some respect and recognition from him.”

“You have, actually. He’s not good at telling people to their face what they’re doing right. He thinks it makes them complacent. It’s a matter we disagree on, actually. Laras will tell you what you’ve done wrong and what you can do better. It’s a tactic that scares people away more often than not, but those who stick with him are the best. They become the best. Because he does get results. And he does care about the revolution. He wants people to get better.”

“I can tell.” Mia rubbed the spot on her lower arm where she’d blocked his surprising kick. “And I have a feeling he’s pulling all the stops out for me. Which, I suppose, should be something I’m proud of, an inkling that he thinks something of my skills. But most of the day, he berated me for so obviously using Morse code to let him know Shlomi was in trouble. It’s all I know, you know. I thought Shlomi was in trouble, but I couldn’t just walk up to Laras. I had planned to pretend I was drunk and lay one on him, whispering how I wanted to jump his bones, but I realized people were already watching me and I hadn’t even finished one drink. For someone who dislikes him so much, I think it wasn’t enough booze to warrant the charade.”

Phelps thought about the scene for a moment. “I would have paid to see something like that. It might’ve been the one thing that would throw him off balance a little bit. I might have to tell him your plan.” When Mia looked ready to disagree, Phelps shook his head. “It’ll impress him, believe me. Since you seem so eager to trust me- something I am not entirely, just mostly, against- I am not averse to helping you with Laras.”

“Provided that you don’t tell him that we’re doing it.” Mia’s gaze went sharp and she looked directly into Phelps’ face. “I trust you. But I will find out from Laras whether or not you have betrayed that trust. In his search for the perfect cure to my calm, he throws almost anything at me he can in the salle. If I find out you have, Phelps, you will find out why Stephens thought I was good enough to be here on my weaponry skills.”

“I have no doubt about that, Princess Mia,” Phelps replied. “I, too, heard about your reply to those hooligans at your room your first night here. A little over the top, I daresay, but you do have a flair for the dramatic. I have a mind to give you analysis and dissembling training, beyond the basics. But you and Laras are too similar and he’s a horrible dissembler. Fighters don’t necessarily have to keep silent. But, please, do not trust everyone so readily. Even those whom you think have befriended you; make sure of it.”

A small smile pulled at Mia’s lips. “I won’t.” Mia didn’t add that she hadn’t told anyone anything that could really hurt her. Unless the enemy planned on seducing her into a one night stand and abuse pillow talk, or something. Of course, Mia didn’t know much of anything. If someone planned on seducing her, they were already at the school and knew just as much about the rebellion as she did at this point. Phelps seemed genuinely concerned for her well-being, beyond just as her appointed guardian. Or maybe, Mia added, the dissembler was duping her and Laras both. She didn’t think Laras would fall for it so easily as she, though; he’d been at Oxford long enough to have a discerning taste for friends. And she…trusted Laras. She didn’t like him, but she trusted him.

“On second thought, I won’t tell Laras about your original plan. I kind of want to see it done one day.” Phelps laughed. “I can’t imagine what he would do. A beautiful girl throwing herself at him.”

Mia laughed with Phelps, imagining the scene. Surprisingly, a wave of warmth rushed over Mia’s body as she thought of sliding onto Laras’ lap, wrapping her arms around his neck, and pushing her lips onto his. Suppressing the thought, Mia looked away, just catching a knowing twinkle in Phelps’ eye. “I think it would take a lot of alcohol for me to be able to do that at all convincingly. Everyone would be certain that I hid a shiv somewhere on me and we were doing some crazy training. The entire school must know by now that we’re antagonists.” Mia waved her fingers about, emphasizing the ridiculous nature of the word she had chosen.

Phelps quirked an eyebrow and opened his mouth to speak, pausing momentarily to wave at one of the students who rushed by on their way to class. Probably a dissembler given the familiarity between the two. The girl wasn’t someone Mia had seen before, but she smiled as well, feeling some connection to a girl whose life was devoted to the cause. “Yes, we know. You two work so hard making sure we know.”

“We don’t have to work hard. It just happens.”

“Of course it does. That’s why the first thing out of each of your mouths has to do with the other.”

Mia looked at the dissembler. Was he hinting at something? He had to be insane if he thought he would make a good matchmaker. Beyond insane. She’d rather try to steal Shlomi from…Jerry was it…than go for Laras! Or Tada from Paige, for that matter. Hell, she’d rather try and seduce Phelps than do anything with Laras. Right? “Shut up.”

Phelps smiled, saying nothing. The two sat in companionable silence for a moment until Phelps asked, “So, where are you off to now, Mia?”

“I’m going to practice sparring with one of the students. We, uh, met in the infirmary after the ladies patched my broken bones,” Mia shrugged off Phelps’ look of concern, “and he seems to think he can help me with my woeful hand-to-hand skills. I managed to get in a couple of moves on Laras because of some…training I got unofficially from the guards at home, but I mostly got my ass handed to me. I want to be able to beat Laras soon.”

“Well, if you got in a hit or two today, I’d say that’s a victory.”

Mia snorted. “Yeah, well, I amend my statement then. I want him to end up unconscious on the salle floor instead of me for once. And since he seems determined to teach me by knocking me out until I get it right, I figure I’d practice and work on my moves a little bit outside of class in the hope of improving my time of consciousness for next time.”

Phelps looked impressed, the first time she’d seen that face on any teacher since she’d arrived at the school. “That’s a good plan. Shows the kind of thinking that Laras prizes in his students. Beyond that, it shows the kind of thinking that makes for good revolutionaries.” He patted Mia’s leg. “You’ll do fine.”

*****


“Erik!” Mia waved, tying her hair into a basic ponytail as she smoothed down the unruly masses and preened like the girl she sometimes remembered she was. She’d changed into something more apropos for hand-to-hand combat, a tank top and yoga pants with sneakers, and ran into the courtyard giggling with excitement. This ‘lesson’ proved to be something quite opposite that of her mini D-days with Laras; a chance for her to put her all out before someone without the chance of ridicule. A chance to actually learn something for a change instead of defending her very being before a rude, self-absorbed weapon’s master.

The man waiting in the middle of the courtyard was a veritable Adonis among men. He stood well over six feet, built powerfully with broad shoulders and a narrow waist; one of the few Americans to gain entry into Oxford, he looked something like a star of old Hollywood. A Brad Pitt or, going even further back, a Newman or Brando (young Brando, Mia amended in her mind). The movie industry had failed when Earth joined the Republic, but Mia had loved watching old movies late at night. It was something of a hobby for her. And this man would have fit right among them.

Erik turned and smiled, waving back as Mia ran toward him, grinning madly at the prospect of some real fighting. The man wasn’t a fighter, per se, not like she and Laras (in her mind, Mia heard Laras snort in derision at her mental inclusion); he’d been accepted on the basis of his abilities with poison. He’d even managed to break down the chemicals in thymetorine, the next stage in producing a cure for the deadly synterine that Shlomi had imbibed at the party. The thought of creating an antidote, or even a vaccine- something that would be given to everyone in Oxford, rendering them free from the fear that Omega would one day poison their water- was a wonderment. Erik’s feat had spread like wildfire through the ranks of students and teachers alike, making him a veritable celebrity throughout campus. Mia, though, was still celebrity number one.

“Hello, Mia, I’m glad you made it.” Erik’s smile widened further. “I see the nurses in the infirmary patched you up good and tight. You feeling all right? The way you looked, it makes me glad I’m a scientist instead of a fighter. I’d rather not deal with the Russian, myself. I much prefer working alone or with other students.”

Mia wrinkled her nose as charmingly as she thought she could. “He’s not all bad,” she replied. “I’m pretty sure I left him something to remember me by today.” Mia’s eyes twinkled at the thought of watching Laras struggle to walk straight, hiding the obvious pain, unwilling to acknowledge that she had gotten him fair and square. “I’m sure he’ll remember today for a while, anyway.”

“I’m sure,” Erik replied, chuckling. “You seem to have had fun with it, at least. Anyway, shall we get started?” Gesturing toward the center of the courtyard- Erik had chosen a relatively abandoned one- where he’d set up a practice ring that would take the sting out of hitting the concrete below, Erik led Mia over to where he’d stacked the pads and gloves. “Let’s get suited up and then we’ll stretch. I have no urge to throw out my back, personally.”

Mia chuckled again, silently cursing herself for acting like a star struck child. For goodness sake, Mia, he’s a good-looking man. You’ve trained with guards that could’ve been fashion models. Hell, you train with Laras. The image of Laras served, ironically enough, as a sobering entity; Mia pretended as if he were standing in the shadows, watching her every move. His lips would be twisted in disdain, arms crossed as he leaned against the wall and laughed at her pitiful attempts in hand-to-hand combat. “Not good enough,” he’d say, before walking away and abandoning her completely.

“Let’s do it,” she replied, face composed, focused on the task. Before leaving Buckingham Palace, Mia had been working on a variation of the scissor kick that would end with her landing on top of her opponent, pinning him to the mat beneath her. Mostly, it had ended with bruised shins and even a broken tooth or two on the part of the guards unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a bad kick. Mia remembered fondly a time when a few of the Deklahnian guards had joined them, amused by the thought of the princess learning to fight. She’d launched into the attack and ‘misjudged’ the distance, accidentally ending up planting her feet straight into the face of her opponent. She’d apologized profusely, of course, but secretly, she’d been proud of her brief, if unrecognized, rebellion. Of course, the move was still imperfect, but she intended to get it right eventually.

Together, the two students stretched, breathing life into their muscles, warming their blood. Mia couldn’t help but stare at Erik. Despite the shirt he wore, his muscles were as visible as if he were bare-chested, and they bunched and corded as he moved. His hair was wheat blonde and glinted in the afternoon sun and, as sweat built, his shirt clung to his body, making it even less of a barrier for Mia’s appreciative glance. Eventually, they stopped stretching and, by mutual consent, stepped into the middle of the ring. Strapping the pads and gloves on, Mia caught Erik staring at her out of the corner of her eye. Mia concentrated on not blushing, again calling on the image of Laras as a shield.

“C’mon, Erik, let’s see what you’ve got.” Mia lowered herself into a fighting stance, pulling her fists up to guard her face. Erik shook his head.

“First off, you’re not going to get much done with that stance. Here,” he came forward and pushed her legs farther apart. “Put your weight on both legs evenly. If you stand like this, it is easy to imperceptibly change your weight distribution and surprise someone. Also, bring one of your fists down and in a little bit. See, it protects your torso better, while giving your face the protection it needs.” Erik rearranged Mia’s stance, bringing himself close enough that she could smell the sweat and cologne mix enticingly. A picture of Erik, shirtless and inviting, supplanted angry Laras, and Mia could no longer hold back the blush that had been threatening to break out over her face and neck.

Finally done tweaking her stance, Erik nodded with satisfaction. “Good. Now, let’s see your skills in the ring.” Crossing the fighting ring, Erik bowed and composed himself into a stance rather similar to Mia’s new one; with just a brief smile and a smirk, he launched into a sudden attack. In two big steps, Erik had closed the space between them and threw two or three quick punches, probing Mia’s defenses. She defended them easily, feeling more in her element here than she had earlier in Laras’ salon.

Chuckling, Mia went on the offensive, a sharp uppercut catching Erik just under the chin. Without the padding, a strike like that would have drawn blood or broken teeth; Erik’s head reeled and he staggered momentarily. Mia charged in further, but realized that Erik had only been bluffing when an axe kick nearly took her to the ground. For the first time since she’d met him, Mia found herself thanking Laras for something he’d done; this kick was much easier to block than a monster of a roundhouse. Mia grabbed Erik’s leg and used it to flip over behind him, landing facing his back.

“Mistake,” Erik said, dropping to the ground and bringing his foot around in an arc, catching Mia in the ankles and bringing her crashing to the ground. She found herself flat on her back, the thin padding of the fight ring no match for the hard concrete beneath them. Struggling to catch her breath, Mia kicked up hard, pulling herself into a backward summersault that brought her back to her feet before Erik was up and facing her again. “Good recovery, Mia.”

“Thanks. You, too.” Mia grinned and wiggled a little bit, shaking the hard landing from her limbs. The two circled each other for a few minutes, each appraising the other, appreciating the sweat and the color granted them with exertion. In all actuality, Mia’s shirt had begun bothering her; it was remarkably hot and beginning to stick to her skin, a feeling she absolutely hated. The feeling gave her an idea, something that she had no qualms doing to Erik even if the thought of something similar with Laras filled her with strange apprehension.

Mia hooked her fingers under her tank top and slowly, giving Erik ample time to watch, pulled the shirt over her head, leaving just a sports bra; she tossed the shirt away and jumped a little bit, allowing her generous endowment to bounce just slightly. When she saw that Erik was mesmerized by the show, she rushed in, catching him with a fierce right hook and then bringing him down with a butterfly kick that, for all intents and purposes, did what she meant it to do. Though she landed badly and was forced to tuck into a roll to regain her balance, the kick had sent Erik reeling into the padded outer boundary of the fight ring. Mia winced to see blood pouring liberally from Erik’s nose and mouth.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “I…I didn’t mean…”

Erik looked up at her, green eyes flashing intensely. If he had started this fight as a means to teach, it had just turned into something much more: a fight for dominance. Ironically, this made her more comfortable. It was something she had dealt with before, with Laras. “Shove it, Mia. Let’s finish this.” Wiping the blood away with the back of his hand, Erik stood and, unlike his earlier attacks, he stood back. “Come on, bring it.”

Mia held back, too, a little bit frightened at this change in Erik. This was just a practice fight, not anything that was meant to be real. They’d agreed to limit all damage to anything the ladies in the infirmary wouldn’t need to look at; she hadn’t even broken Erik’s nose with the kick, aiming it as she had at the side of his head. What had she done wrong? “God.”

Grinning, a feral caste to his handsome features, Erik ran forward, jumping and twisting, his leg extended as he flew through the air. The last thing Mia could think before his foot connected with her solar plexus was that his technique was beautiful, but flawed; Laras would not have left his arm out like that, instead tucking it in to his side to cut down on the resistance. Aside from that, the flying back kick was perfect.

The kick hurt. A lot. Mia went sprawling, her feet giving out from under her as she, too, flew a little bit. Careening into the side of the ring, Mia’s arm flailed out, connecting with the concrete wall of the one of the flowerbeds at each corner of the courtyard. She felt the bone crack, a pain like a thousand knives pricking her all at once, and cried out, cradling the wrist against her chest. Blood gushed from the side of her head, which had scraped against the edge of the ring; compared to the bone, though, the only real annoyance of the head cut was the blood threatening to spill into her eye.

Before Mia could get up, Erik had recovered from the kick and charged, grabbing the broken wrist and twisting the arm behind her and he brought his other arm around her neck. Mia screamed, the pain of her wrist being squeezed and twisted absolutely unbearable. Help! Her mind screamed out, knowing that psychics didn’t exist and no one would come. She would have to help herself or risk passing out for the second time that day; not to mention, she’d have to explain herself to Laras. One of his students, ostensibly training to be a fighter in the revolution, and she’d lost to a Chemist. It was only after this thought that she realized that she’d been picturing him when she called out for help.

Amazingly, the thought of Laras actually helped Mia get out of the headlock. She pictured him in this situation- albeit with some difficulty- and then imagined what he would do to get out. Grinning, Mia twisted her neck down. She’d only get one chance at this or else she wouldn’t be able to breathe, so she had to place it right. Opening her mouth, Mia bit down- hard- on Erik’s arm, not caring if she broke skin. At the same time, she used her free hand to swing at his nose. If she could break it, the pain of it and the bite might be enough to get him to back off.

Erik hissed at the bite, but tightened his grip on Mia’s neck and, to add even more to the equation, he bent her backwards, straining her back and forcing more of her weight on his arm. She started to wheeze, to struggle for air, coughing; worse, the pressure on her broken arm brought tears to her eyes that mixed with the blood from her head wound. She didn’t have much time. Swinging with desperation, Mia finally caught Erik’s nose; unfortunately, she didn’t break it, but her wild swing brought her fingers close to his eyes. She dug in, scratching at his face, aiming for anything. At this point, she didn’t care if she truly hurt him; she just didn’t want to lose. Again. Or worse.

Crying out from the scratches, Erik let go and Mia rolled out of his way. She struggled to her feet and turned, composing her body into as much of a defensive stance as she could muster. Her body hurt, her arm hurt worse, and she was rapidly running out of energy. At this point, it just felt good to breathe, even if Erik seemed to have gained energy. No wonder he’s a Chemist. He can’t even tell a friendly fight from a real one! At this point, without use of her more powerful fist, Mia was left with only her feet and knees. And the only kick that was coming to mind was something she couldn’t even use properly.

Wait. The last time she had tried the scissor kick, she’d ended up knocking the man out, even if it hadn’t been what she’d wanted to do. It would have to do, she figured. She had to win this fight, for herself and her own self-esteem. She wanted to be the best, and that meant being worthy of learning from the best. If she lost, Laras would hear of it and refuse to teach her again, judging her and abandoning her. The thought of it left Mia with an emptiness that she couldn’t quite understand, something her subconscious refused to delve into. She would not ruin everything for herself.

“Fuck you, Erik,” she whispered, gathering whatever energy she had left and launching herself free of the concrete; everything slowed, and Mia found herself watching her legs cross, one aiming for Erik’s face and the other for the small of his back, trying to bring him to the ground. If she kicked hard enough, she could at least knock him unconscious. Amazed at herself, Mia brought both feet down hard, hearing a crack as Erik’s cheekbone broke and hearing a loud grunt as the man collapsed to the ground, his head cracking against the concrete. Her victory, however, ended sharply as she realized that she didn’t know how to land a scissor kick and ended up sprawled on top of Erik. Damn, she thought as her energy gave out. I won, but this whole unconscious thing has got to stop. Any more of this and I’m going to do major damage to myself. Then all was black.

*****


Mia heard voices as she gained enough consciousness to be aware of the world around her, but she couldn’t make herself wake up. “What happened to her?” That was Phelps, sounding concerned. “She looks like she’s been attacked by mobsters.”

“She fought with Erik Mitchell.” Laras? Why was he here? “Good learning experience, but I wouldn’t have started with him.”

There was a pause and Mia could sense both men looking at her. “We need to get her to an infirmary.”

“No,” Laras replied. “I’ll take care of it.” He sounded concerned. “I watched the fight. Stupid girl executed a perfect scissor kick and couldn’t figure out how to land it. What kind of idiot starts a move they can’t finish?”

“You watched the fight? And you let it go on? For God’s sake, Laras! She’s got broken bones and it looks like he tried to choke her to death.” Phelps sounded more worried about Mia’s condition than angry at Laras. Mia, for her part, was singularly glad that the Russian had been there. He’d seen her win. He’d seen her prove herself worthy of him. And he’d obviously cared enough to carry her somewhere because she felt like she was inside.

“She was doing fine until she actually drew blood. And then he got angry, like he does. I’m going to kill him if he’s done lasting damage to my student. The only one who draws blood on her is me.” Laras paused for a moment and she felt his hand, cool and smooth, brush across her cheekbone, applying what felt like Camfrey salve. “You’ll want to go back to Harold Courtyard and get Erik. He needs to go to the infirmary. I didn’t want to leave her and go back for him. She’s far worse than he is.” Nothing in Laras’ voice indicated anything but a disinterested, medical perspective on the entire situation. Mia was disappointed. She’d hoped to win his approval.

“Well, did she win?”

Laras must have nodded because the next words were Phelps’. “Well then. I’ll leave you to it. Call me when she wakes up. I’ll want to hear her justification for this. She told me it was just a training session.”

“You can bet I’ll get the answer out of her. I didn’t take her on as my student for her to nearly die at a student’s hand.” Mia felt a cool cloth against the side of her face, dabbing at what she supposed was the blood pouring from a multitude of gashes. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

There was a long pause. “A student is missing. Mia’s dissembler. I think they mean to find out why Mia’s here. Worse, it means they have someone inside the school. Someone dedicated to them.”
A Non-Existent User
S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria sanza più scosse;

Ma però che già mai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
sanza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.


He was dreaming the words. He had cried once, reading those lines, translating them for a paper on ancient civilizations a year ago. He was thinking of his sister. Dante’s Divine Comedy. No coming back from that “deep pit”…

For all his life, Shlomi had disregarded religion while still living under its curious influence. He paid no heed to dogmatic traditions and ancient texts—they had been interpreted and rethought and translated enough to render their original meanings useless. Religion was only relevant to the people of its own time; a change in history meant a change in religion. Claims of a “true” faith fell on deaf ears if directed at him. Most of them didn’t even seem to know what they were claiming; it was all irrelevant.

Sometimes, despite the conclusion he always reached in his private musings, he wanted a soul to exist. He wanted to know that there was some remnant of a person after they had died and decomposed, something besides photographs and childhood drawings and fading, idealized memories. She was only 16 . She was brilliant. It was her who had deserved to be at Oxford. But she was so short-sighted and had gone to that demonstration even when he’d warned her… they identified her body two days later. He’d never seen his father cry before.

And that was when whatever scraps of faith to which his parents clung finally ripped. How similar Islam and Judaism were in that neither of them were attractive enough to be turned towards in a crisis, how easily each parent flung aside their religious identities, identities which had long been weakened by the heavy compromises they had made for one another. Maybe it was like this with all religions, with some people not being strong enough—or too strong?—to have faith. People like his parents, whose love for their children was greater than their love for a god that, at the end, they could only hope existed.

Shlomi had dreams every now and then of talking to Zara’s ghost. She would ask him how people were doing, what Oxford was like, and he would tell her. There was one dream when he told her about Jerry, and she laughed and teased him. Another when he told her of being a spy, and she laughed and teased again. Another when he tried to touch her shoulder, but his hand would float right through, and she wouldn’t tease, only stare sadly with large, dark eyes.

He was dreaming of her. She was sitting on her grave, he was beside her, and she was reading from the Inferno. Her voice was bold and healthy, sliding over each phrase and touching each nuance in the original Italian. Had she really spoken this beautifully, or was he idealizing what he remembered of her again? He leaned over her shoulder—something tugged at his sleeve. Shlomi tried to ignore it, but the tug returned, stronger and faster. It turned into a burning jerk, ripping his arm away and causing him to squint his eyes against the pain. When he opened them, Jerry was sitting up beside him, gently tapping his arm. The imagined remnants of the pain still lingered.

“Shlomi… you were talking in your sleep again.” Her face wasn’t worried like it had been the first time, when she claimed he had shouted so suddenly that she thought someone was in the room with them. Dull, grey dawn was seeping through the small, arched window beside the bed in this old part of the building. It was cold. Jerry held the blanket against her chest as she sat up, but the slope of her back was bared to the early light. He could see goose bumps.

Rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, Shlomi sighed. “What time is it?”

“About five. Didn’t you say you had to meet someone early today?”

“At seven. One more hour and I’ll go. Fuck, it’s cold,” he muttered, clenching his body and curling onto his side. Jerry eagerly lay back down, and this time it was she who put her arms around him.

“You’ve been worrying again. I can tell,” she whispered. “We’ve got an hour—just relax a bit. Don’t think about anything.”

“I wish I could do that,” he grumbled.

---------------------------

As expected, he used that hour not for sleep but as one long period of awakening, convincing his body of the need to get up. He dressed in the clothes from the night before, having meticulously cleaned the sleeve (and his breath) of vomit before the walk to St. John’s. Sunrise was getting later and later, the sun itself traveling farther south on the horizon each morning, and only now was the pale orange illuminating the university as he walked back to Balliol College. A rhythmic sound bounced within his head; at first he thought it was his heartbeat, but then the pitch grew higher, the attack of the sound sharper. He raised his eyes to see Laras running between the two buildings in front of him. The man was gone in a flash, appearing from behind one wall only to disappear behind the next, like a fleeting deer in a forest. Shlomi frowned—Laras must be bothered, too.

He quickly changed in his own room and quickly flitted down the stone, and then concrete steps, into one of the many new underground chambers that accompanied most colleges. Along the back of a winding hall he found Naomi Martin’s office. Being a few minutes early, Shlomi waited outside the door until, promptly at seven, she seemed to magically materialize behind him. Naomi loved punctuality.

The meeting was brief, but thorough. Every detail he had observed, every person’s name that he could remember, where exactly he was sitting, the time it took to get the drinks, the process of purging the synterine were all accounted for. Each tidbit she transcribed effortlessly into a vocal recording and automatic text document, storing them in the thumbnail-sized space that contained all his files and information, with plenty of room for more. Each student at Oxford had such a tiny little chip of a file. Only the student and selected instructors could access them.

“Mia’s is relatively empty at the moment. You don’t know how publicly she contacted Laras?”

“No. But she was staying in the washroom too long, so I told her to leave. Too suspicious already.”

“I’ll call her and Laras in separately for their own analyses of the situation. Thank you,” she said calmly, flipping the switch beside the tiny box on which the personal file sat; the glow of the transfer process ceased. “You may go now. But keep in mind, we have a potential mission in place. I’ll need to talk with you later.”

Shlomi nodded, rose, and left, not allowing the sudden shock of an official placement to distort his face until he was out of sight.

Placement, the most anticipated and dreaded word for any of the would-be spies. It meant a mad dash, a frenzy of last-minute dissembling practice and the memorizing of fake identities and building plans and official documents. Ideally, one would have a year before a mission went out. But given the thickening, almost palpable tension in the University and now the fact that they were almost certainly infiltrated, a mission was necessary.

He’d suspected it since the waning days of summer, just before the official, publicly noted terms began, when the spymaster had casually handed him a pile of usually mundane documents—troop movements and the names of the revolutionaries among them—with an curious little scrap of paper slipped in between. “The princess will join us,” were the only words. That was the moment when he’d been informed about Mia, the action that triggered a cascade of thoughts that led only to the conclusion that his studies were about to end. Mia’s arrival carried finality with it. The crowning achievement, the confirmation that the confidence of Earth rested with the rebellion, the most supreme, symbolic sacrifice that the highest class of Gaian could make. One of their own. And although her enrolment was intended to boost morale, which it did do for the most part, it was what had prompted Shlomi to visit his parents for the first and potentially last time since he’d made another home at Oxford. A tentative goodbye.

The meeting never came, but Shlomi was immediately drawn away from all his regular studies. No more languages, no more philosophy. He remained in the basements, being fitted with dissembling cloak after cloak, directed to assume rapid successions of identities. A few others were with him, Martin Lee and Carla Gianna, two very solid spies in their own rights. But sometimes their identities blurred together, for some days they disguised themselves in the images of one another, directed to study and then affect each other’s mannerisms. For a full-time dissembler, this would have been much easier. As amusing as the charade was for the others Shlomi never liked becoming shorter and never liked gaining breasts. He didn’t understand how someone like Carla could live with such a huge volume taking up space on her front. It threw off his balance, got in the way of his arms and hands when practicing the martial arts and self defense that all spies were required to know. It would be much easier to be a girl like Jerry, he thought with a silent laugh. He didn’t see much of her during this time, either. No Tada, no Paige, only a brief nod or two from Mia as he sought out Laras for one of their private talks that he needed so badly now and happened to find her lurking about the area. Any form of human contact outside of the spies was like fresh water in a sea of stagnancy.

There was one evening, as he was removing the cloak, that he was summoned for what he assumed was the meeting she had hinted at. So soon? He wasn’t ready. Not yet. For the first time in years his knees actually felt unsteady because of his nerves. However, he pulled himself together and shuffled down the hall, back into the office where Naomi Martin sat at her familiar desk, two chairs opposite her. Shlomi both relaxed his fears of placement and assumed a new anxiety over what he saw.

Jerry sat in the far chair, her hands folded in her lap, the blue gingham of her shirt flecked with blood. In this light, her hair looked black as coal, hanging from her bent head and curtaining all but her nose and mouth. She didn’t move, didn’t even seem to breathe, didn’t look up when he took the chair beside her when directed to do so. She looked so horribly small. Naomi sat across from them at the darkly smooth table, her hands calmly placed in front of her, collected and quiet.

“We’ve had another very interesting incident, it seems,” Naomi began. “I take it you know Ms. Turnitt?”

“Yes. I’ve known her since last year. Why is she here?” Shlomi couldn’t hold back the nagging thought.

Naomi cleared her throat. “We’re about to find out. She was just bustled in here by Professor Stephens, who is now at our emergency medical facilities with a student he believes to be you.”

“But… Professor Stephens knows me. I’ve taken two courses with him. Why would I be at the infirmary?”

“He says that Ms. Turnitt shot you in the stomach,” she said in a measured but uneasy voice. Jerry looked up nervously, her small mouth wanting to speak but finding no air to carry her words. “However, I’ve not heard a word from her, seeing as she got here literally seconds before you did. We need to know what happened,” she said, turning to face the girl.

Jerry swallowed hard and took a gulp of air. “I was finishing a paper—it was for Stephens—in my room… He knocked on the door…”

“Shlomi?”

Jerry’s eyes remained on the floor. “I thought it was him. But now I know it wasn’t.”

“And how did you know?” Naomi pressed. Shlomi was growing more and more uneasy with every word.

At this, Jerry’s pallid, startled face flushed pink. “Well… he—he wanted to fool around some—“ Her words rushed together with shame.

“And this is not something Shlomi would do?”

“Well, no.”

“So you two don’t ‘fool around’?”

“No, I mean, well. Yes. We do.”

Naomi sat back in her chair slowly. “Often?”

“Yes.” Her voice shrank. “We usually talk more, though.”

The older, sharply dressed woman lightly and patiently drummed her fingers on her elbow. “Did you resist this, then?”

“No. I thought it would be okay. We’ve not,” she said, glancing quickly at Shlomi in the other chair, “We’ve not seen each other much recently, so…”

“I see. So what was it exactly that told you this was not Shlomi?”

Jerry’s cheeks were beet red at this point. She was clearly lacking the training at emotional suppression that he’d had as a spy, but he admired the fact that she didn’t break down or cry or suddenly clam up. It was humiliating what she was being forced to do, but she took it with as much grace as any munitions expert could manage. “I was pulling off his jeans, and he has a tattoo. Way down low on his hip. This person didn’t have that tattoo.”

“And so you shot them?”

“I keep a gun with a silencer under my bed.”

“You shot this person immediately?”

Jerry lowered her face, staring at her knees. “I knew it wasn’t him. I was scared. But I didn’t know who to go to, I couldn’t think straight afterwards, so I ran straight to Stephens with the paper. He asked me why there was blood on it.” She paused and sighed. “It’s all blurred now.”

Naomi turned her face to Shlomi, her eyebrows slightly arched. “Let’s make sure she didn’t shoot the wrong person,” she said, nodding to him. “I’d like to see this tattoo.”

Shlomi felt the corners of his mouth twitch slightly as he pushed himself up from the chair. His fingers nimbly undid the button of his jeans and jerked down the zipper. With one hand he pulled up his shirt, with the other he pulled down the side of his briefs. A small, black peace sign sat along the lower portion of his hip bone. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jerry lean forward and glance, her shoulders betraying the sigh of relief as she turned away again. Naomi nodded, and Shlomi promptly zipped himself up once more, sitting eagerly.

“When did you get that? We have no record of it on your original physical exam. And I’m sure you remember how thorough that was.”

“At the end of my first year. ”

“You should have updated your file,” she said, raising her brows again. “We need to have as much information on you as possible.”

“Someone here probably got into those files. Maybe it was a good thing that I never reported it,” he said flatly.

“That was lucky. And I understand. But what I am trying to get at is that it has become apparent to me that you’ve not been as open with this program as you need to be.”

“How much do you need to know, then?” he said, almost aggressively.

“There are some things about you that remain a bit elusive. Good for outsiders, but not for us. Your political opinions, for example–”

“I think it’s pretty clear that I’m on Earth’s side.”

“No, more than just taking sides. I understand your family background is very interesting...”

“How are they relevant?”

“You know perfectly well. You’ve got an aversion to war and conflict because of them, because of your sister’s death. You’re a pacifist. And while it’s perfectly fine to want peace– we all want peace– you must be fully aware of the commitment you’ve made in our spy program.” She let out a sigh. “All this training, all your progress can’t just go to waste. At some point, you’ll have to get your hands dirty.”

“I can do it. Anything else you feel I’ve not been completely honest about?”

Naomi remained cool and stony. “For one, all your relationships. We already have on tab, from observation, your preference for the tutor Laras, the circle of students you frequent, your very promising alliance with Ms. Godwin. And it has become clear you spend more than enough time with Ms. Turnitt.” Jerry moved only slightly at the mention of her name. “I know that you have heard this before, but perhaps it’s been a while, and you’ve felt that your excellent performance– and I assure you, it has been excellent– entitled you to a bit of mischief. I understand that I can do nothing personally to stop you from finding a way to continue this,” she bitterly conceded, “but I have a duty to warn you– and you, too, Ms. Turnitt– that things are going to be moving very quickly in the near future. When deployments happen, when missions are sent out, when we suffer attacks, you must be prepared to be separated.” She caught Shlomi’s eye straight on. “I am sure you understand me when I say that a separation should not be left to the last possible moment.”

Jerry was immediately dismissed, but Shlomi was detained. Naomi’s voice became heavy with worry that she had suppressed, thankfully, not to unnerve Jerry any more that the girl had already been. “Impropriety aside, this isn’t the only compromising thing that’s happened today. Mia was badly injured, fighting another student—“

“That’s to be expected, though, isn’t it?”

“The real problem is that with her in such a state, she can't be supplemented now: her dissembler is gone. We have someone within the school impersonating students without our knowledge. The synterine was only the beginning. What am I saying? The synterine probably wasn’t even near the beginning.”

“Something gone wrong with a placement, maybe? Did a graduate’s origins get traced back here? Do we know of anyone that we’ve positioned who’s been discovered?” Shlomi offered, equally perturbed now. He’d never seen her frowning so determinedly.

“You’re going to be cloaked full-time,” she ordered. “You and Martin Lee will switch appearances. I’m sending orders to examine this other Shlomi for a cloaking device and remove it—if we’re lucky enough that he’s still there.”

“If we’ve been so thoroughly infiltrated,” Shlomi mused openly, “I doubt he would be. But does that mean we then start looking at…?”

“Stephens? Investigating him would mean blowing the entire school’s cover, he’s such a prominent figure here. We simply can’t do it. And I’d doubt it, anyway.”

Shlomi chewed his tongue. “What about Trusko?” The sharp glare he earned in response forced him to elaborate. “I’ve heard that he’s a double agent for us. But what if he’s not?”

“It’s not Trusko,” she said firmly.

“Well, if they’re using dissemblers now… not Phelps. But the staff he trains. Collins, Pickerby, and, what’s the other’s name?”

“Glossinger. I can’t imagine the motivation right now. But it’s the most logical start. Go find Martin and resume your dissembling."

Laras noticed her eyes flickering beneath their lids as Mia began to regain consciousness; Phelps was still talking, mentioning the infirmary.

"No, I'll take care of it." He answered, frowning at the girl before looking up to his friend, "I watched the fight." And of course Phelp's blue-eyed concern turned to dismay when he mentioned that, so he had to explain why he let it go on…
He'd carried Mia up to his room because he hated the infirmary and the way that they mollycoddled the students who had acted of their own volition. He also didn't trust a couple of the staff there; after all it was a renown rumour mill and if he had taken her there, dressed the way she was, looking 'like she'd been attached by mobsters', he'd be accused of attempted murder by the end of the day. Not that that was such an unlikely occurrence anyway. That Phelps had noticed him, had been a mixed blessing though, since the man was obviously able to help as well as capable of taking the Chemist to the infirmary in his stead. There was no way he was going to leave Mia in her state… Then again she had brought it on herself with her half-complete thoughts.

He tried to summerise… but in his head the whole action seemed to reply, the ways she had fought… he ways she had lost.


Because… watching his students fight was something of a habit these days; seeing them competing against people of their own skill always showed much more of their abilities than fighting solely against him. It also revealed whether or not they were actually taking anything away from their lessons with him and using them practically. That had been the reason he'd followed Mia, since she was officially now one of the best fighters he would train at the university this year… Which pained him because secretly he was wiling to acknowledge that they needed more of the 'naturally' gifted and less of the puppyfat and banal smiles which malingered around the ancient buildings like parasitic waste in their free time. He was actually quite proud that the princess was going out of her way to do something extra. Not that she deserved praise and admiration for it… but it was… heartening… considering the uselessness of some of his students, namely those who dropped out and went to study under someone like Dr Whittam or Madam Josalie.

Now as he stood in the shadows, disinterested smirk on his face, he couldn’t help but watch Mia more carefully than he might a normal student. He could see the focus in her eyes, the anticipation and calculation which she would need to mask in the future. It was too easy to read what she was thinking, her eyes gave it away. Of course, he was also slightly concerned at her choice in opponent. Erik Mitchell was not someone he'd have pitted against her so soon after arriving; even if he was a Chemistry student, he was bullish and had a streak of aggression which was more of a hindrance than a help in many if not most situations. He was disappointed in her for not finding a more suitable partner.

But it was, so far, a rather mundane sparring of friends. Erik had just brought Mia down with a swiping kick which had clearly taken her by surprise. He imagined she'd thought herself lucky not to be faced with the same moves that he used, only to be knocked back by something much easier to avoid, had she just thought a little further a head. Mia flipped herself upright, chest heaving as she regained her fighting stance.

He caught the little smile that crossed the boy's face, "Good recovery."

He snorted. What a pitiful attempt at flirting. Though it seemed to be working on the princess. Maybe it was true and virginity did leave a girl devalued. If she was going for a block of brute strength like him then there was something truly wrong in the hierarchy of the world. Nevertheless, the circling, predatory look in Erik's gaze was matched perfectly evenly in Mia's. He could see the dark eyes flickering over the shirt which stuck to her skin with a transparent sheen… her skin was glistening… and the boy was most definitely aware of it, she had an advantage over her opponent which she ought to take.

"Come on; hit him whilst he's distracted…"

But she took it further. With a smile which left his skin crawling she slid her fingers underneath the edges of her top, lifting the edges and exposing the flat expanse of her stomach and the feminine curves which he'd so often felt below him as they fought. Then it was off, flung to the side as she bounced on the balls of her feet causing her breasts to taunt the hunter, the Mitchell boy who was unable to tear his eyes from their hypnotic allure. Rapt attention was inevitable now, that bra… it was a dark blue with a red stripe across the bottom… the swell of shadow swayed as she began to attack and he realised, that just like Erik, he'd missed her move. Up with a right hook. Down with a butterfly kick. The boy went reeling. Laras merely stared, trying to regain his composure but failing to stop the comber of triumph that washed through him as he saw blood spurting down the chemist's no longer straight and English nose. As Mia wobbled, her balance lost as she landed, he ignored the criticisms that rose up in his mind, instead relishing the fact that she had scored the first significant point.

Erik looked less pleased.

And it was no wonder: what sort of opponent apologised for drawing blood?

He guessed the fight was doomed from the start. Any sensible person knew that Eric Mitchell was a man that would never be able to become a tutor, no matter how kind hearted and gentlemanly he appeared on the surface, he was very much a man who believed in his own superiority over whatever opponent or challenger faced him. It was an Oxford trait, but it was most pronounced in people like him who believed they were the top or, in fact, were very close to being the best in their field. A bruised ego to those students was akin to being told that they were only receiving a 2:1.

"Come on, bring it."

He snickered at the puerile masochism that was so blatantly displayed. If Erik was only a little less consumed with the feral anger that now transformed him from Jekyll to Hyde then perhaps it would have really made him laugh. Instead he saw his girl's hesitation and wanted to shake her. It was a challenge and she had to stand up to it. Just because the stakes had risen didn't mean she could back out. And it wasn't like she wasn’t used to competing for dominance. If she couldn't fucking defeat this plebeian then how could he stand to teach her considering so many had already heard of her point on him. She had to uphold her position as one of his worthwhile students. As her hesitancy lost her the upper hand, Erik swung himself into a flying back kick which he instantly recognised as half thought out. By not tucking in his arm he had left his side open as well as risked his balance. On top of that the twist of his spine meant that had he not collided with Mia's solar plexus, had she only moved slightly to the side, he would have wrenched the tendon connected to the fifth metatarsal and snapped it from the bone. But Mia seemed to thin the kick perfect and took the blow like the beginner she was. Growling, Laras felt his leg twitch, wishing he could show both of them how it was really done.

Instead he heard a shocked, painful cry rise from where she was tumbling, rolling like a rag doll, not trying to tuck herself in and use the momentum to find a new attack but just careening into the concrete. The crack of bone was barely audible and he lurched forward, hanging back only because he wanted to see how she'd handle injury. It'd be a good lesson after all and her 'friend' certainly wasn’t stopping. Instead he wrenched her upwards by the arm with it's wrist twisted at a bad angle and tugged her towards him, revealing the bloody side of her face that he hadn't seen before. This time he couldn't help but feel fury rush through him. That was his student being damaged up there and he could almost imagine the position she was in.

Did he help? She was a fighter battling a demonic, doctor-like chemist. She shouldn't be losing. He didn't want to help her. But she was clearly injured to the extent that she'd need medical help…

As he paused on the threshold of revealing his presence she twisted her head roung and bit the soft flesh of Erik's hand. He grimaced, trying not to imagine what sort of chemicals might have been on those hands. She wouldn't be able to breathe unless she did something more, which she was obviously trying to do with her flapping free hand. She looked like an idiot but atleast he now had a lesson for her. How to get out of a headlock. It was the sort of thing a boy learnt at school but that girl's ignored until it was too late… and he couldn’t help but feel a wry sort of humour at the banal actions both students were now taking. It was infantile and yet effective. She broke free. Erik howling and nursing the scratched jellies of his eyes and he watched as she rapidly tried to reassemble at least an illusion of composure to cover the panting, wide eyed relief at her escape.

It seemed she was just becoming aware of why Erik wasn't a good choice of sparring-partner. He couldn't tell a Dekhlan battle from a student-student fight. He almost sabotaged key fighters out of pride and idiocy.

Watching students had become routine, it gave him something to think about. But what he saw next was a mixture of all the things he hated and loved about tutoring at the university. As Mia collected her thoughts, as her mind raced and planned, he saw fear take over from rationality and the outer calm negated in lieu of mindlessness. The potential potency of her move was undeniable. She had few options with a broken wrist but her leap, her flight and her connection with the chemist was perfect… it was as if time had slowed and she was something else, a professional from a by-gone era of rings and gladiator muscles.

Another crack rang out. This time as Erik's face was shattered and his head struck the ground. The hollow groan of the unconscious forced his feet to move, for as the boy was downed, Mia failed to land, her body betrayed her and she collapsed, skull just protected by her shoulder which took the brunt of the fall and broken arm falling limply at an angle which reminded him oddly of a rhombus.

He didn't run, just walked to her side, ignoring the boy entirely. He would survive, not that he deserved to after attacking royalty in such a way. Maybe they could hang him for treason… that would be satisfactory considering the damage that had been afforded his student. Carefully, he searched her back, along the naked contours of her spine, for any breaks which might have resulted from her inability to land. He wished Phelps was around, he was much better with the injured, perhaps because he cared more for them.

"Well, Princess, you certainly proved you're not just a pretty face." He shook his head, "You're pretty and a masochist."

He lifted her chin, noticing that blood was trickling from her nose now as well from the scrape across her eye. Ridiculous girl. They'd have to keep watching her for hours in case of concussion. He'd long a go learnt that there was only risk involved in a head injury and though the graze didn't seem deep, he guessed she'd be dizzy and most likely nauseous.

Gently he made up his mind, since he couldn’t leave his student here for another student or tutor to find, he'd have to take her with him. Lifting her would only be a problem because she was undeniably a dead weight in this state, but he'd manage. With only a moment longer, checking her over to see if there was any other lasting damage, he pulled her up by her non-broken arm and heaved her onto his back in a fireman's lift. He supposed if anyone saw they'd assume he did this… well let them and be damned, it should have been him, after all.

*

In his rooms, with Phelps however, he was going to continue to make sure she was mended before he sent her anywhere. Brushing the blood matted hair to one side, he applied first a salt balm to the cut on her forehead before spreading a thick layer of Camfrey across her cheek to combat the bruise. If she was lucky, he'd have applied it soon enough to stop it from swelling. Fluttering lashes, twitch in her eye, she was definitely waking up…

Phelps seemed tense, watching Mia carefully, and yet he turned quickly to leave at his whim. “Well then. I’ll leave you to it. Call me when she wakes up. I’ll want to hear her justification for this. She told me it was just a training session.” Something was wrong, normally the man would make much more fuss over a tudent in Mia's position.


He paused, not knowing if he should question it but he saw the twitch in his friend's hand and felt cold, recognising the nervous tick as a warning, “You can bet I’ll get the answer out of her. I didn’t take her on as my student for her to nearly die at a student’s hand.” He turned his attention to Mia's cuts, trying to seem dismissive… “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

There was a long pause. And then he heard the line he had anticipated since her fateful arrival and the syneterine disaster, “A student is missing. Mia’s dissembler. I think they mean to find out why Mia’s here. Worse, it means they have someone inside the school. Someone dedicated to them.”

Phelps left in a hurry after that, probably seeing the hardness that had crept into his face at his words. He'd felt Mia stiffen in his arms, giving herself away as fully wakeful and just eavesdropping. But he said nothing, letting himself react to the knowledge first.

If they had Mia's dissembler then someone now almost certainly had access to knowledge that was terrifyingly important. No wonder Phelps was tense… this meant there were people working in the ranks, who had access to things which were secret… this meant that it was people like them, or at least the people who worked for them, who were suspects. He had to talk to Stephans at some point. But he had to sort out Mia first.

Brushing his fingers across a graze that adorned her temple he turned his attention to her arm, "No point pretending to be asleep now, he's gone."

She made a small, disgruntled noise in the back of her throat, "My dissembler?"

"Taken."

Blearily she cracked open her eyes and peered up through the dark brown lashes framing them, "So what happens now?"

He shrugged, not looking at her, "We have no one to cover for you and you can't fill in for yourself looking like this. Why did you choose someone so inappropriate? A third year was always going to be better than you."

She frowned then winced, "I knocked him out first."

"And you passed out right with him after performing a move that you couldn't complete. Foolishness won't ever be rewarded and if that had been a real situation against a real enemy you'd have been fucked. He wasn't as injured as you and therefore the likelihood that you would have been captured…" He refused to look at her face, knowing she'd be upset that he wasn't rewarding her for what had been a fair win, "Your wrist is broken about two point six millimetres up the radius along here," He traced a finger, gently, over the swollen joint, "It's an intra-articular fracture… you hit the ground with some force…" He glanced up to find her watching him rather too intently for his own comfort and he continued, "I've got ice if you can keep still whilst I get it."

She managed a wan smile, "Are you being nice?"

"I think we already had this conversation."

"Don't worry, I won't get used to it."

He would have smirked but that would have seemed too amicable. Instead he crossed the room, leaving her on the sofa in his main room with her arm carefully placed at her side. If he hadn't used an ice pack earlier that day for his own muscles he would have been able to treat her faster, instead she was certainly going to have a swollen wrist for a while. Unless he could find arnaka oil which she could continually apply for the next couple weeks. His kitchen was a mess, as usual, too many empty mugs of coffee littered the surfaces for it to ever look organised or clean, which was how he ended up having to clear the top of his freezer of mugs before rummaging though the almost empty food preserver, struggling to identify the white ice band he kept for strained muscles and aqua therapy. It would be too big for her wrist unless he wrapped it round a few times, which would, unfortunately hurt. But he couldn't splint it until the swelling was reduced. Unavoidable pain. He shook his head, this girl was more trouble than she was worth. Even as an icon.

Returning to find her exactly how he had left her was startling; he'd expected her to have played the fool and moved just to spite him. Instead she was staring past his desk and bookshelves to his piano. The music was rustling slightly in a draft and he scowled, he'd need to retune it soon if he didn't sort it out…

"I thought you played the violin?" She murmured as he sat down again and drew her attention away from the Bosendorfer semi-grand that sat in the sunlight.

He said nothing, wrapping the ice around her wrist like some elaborate bangle and trying to ignore the way her breathing hitched by his ear.

"Do you play piano?"

"Not only is your conversation irrelevant but it is also distracting. Do you want me to be able to salvage your wrist and prevent the chance of you eventually getting arthritis or would you like to continue?"

"You can salvage my wrist." She mumbled.

There was a silence, intermittently broken by a hiss or catch in Mia's breathing as he began to put pressure on the ice pack, feeling for the position of the break. As he reached over to the open medical kit he'd used to tend her cuts, he realised the next bit would need to be unanticipated or she'd become tense. He needed her to stay as she was. Distraction…

"Tomorrow you're learning to finish that scissor."

"It was good right?" She made a face, "You're going to splint it aren't you?"

"As I said before: I don’t want you be useless in a few years."

Wincing, she nodded, "I get it… Do it then."

He looked at her and for the first time, did exactly as she bid him.

*

Stephans was his usual self when Laras burst through the door. Calm and smiling, he offered a soft palmed hand and ushered the Russian tutor into a seat in front of the grand, dark wooden desk that he'd salvaged from the Old Oxford. It was one of the largest studies in Brasenose, though it didn't have inhabitable rooms attached like his did, and the older professor was proud of its upkeep. There were no dirty mugs here or old, scratched instruments or battered, paperback editions of Nietzsche or Mill. It was a room of neatly filed papers and tidy piles of essays and electrosolars bleeping from various corners.

"The dissembler. No one mentioned it to me." He snapped, throwing himself into the offered chair without any of his usual grace or fluidity.

"Dissembler?" Stephans began, looking puzzled for only a moment before seeming to realise, "Oh you mean Mia's dissembler."

"Who elses? None of my other students have people pretending to be them."

"It only happened earlier today."

"And I should have been the first to know. Mia is my student and for that reason I should have been informed."

"I can't believe that you weren't. Have you been checking your pigeon hole?"

Guiltily he acknowledge he hadn't for several hours but he wasn't going to admit that, "For godsake Stephans this is getting ridiculous. We know that someone is acting within the school and yet no one is investigating much of anything, let alone uncovering anything which might be useful to figure out what is going on here."

"What are you saying now, Laras?"

"I'm saying that I'm sick of watching these fucking useless agents leave Oxford only to come back empty handed. We're in danger now and nothing is being done. I want to do something. I want to fucking know what the fuck is going the fuck on with those fucking bastards."

"So eloquent, my boy, but I concede your point. We are in a precarious position."

"Let me go. I can use the contacts I already have and-"

"No, no. We need you here. You're one of our best. We can't put you at risk."

"I'm one of the best. So use me." He leant forward as he bit out the words, "I'm prepared to die for this war. I'm prepared to defend this earth and this school until I can no longer do so."

"And that is an admirable trait in a revolutionary but you should realise that this is not yet a war and callous behaviour now will risk much more than just your own life."

"Mia is my responsibility though and right now she's in danger-"

"The loss of Mia's dissembler is a shame but it is not… catastrophic. Wars are about losses as much as they're about winning and Cara is just one such loss. You cannot risk yourself every time someone you care about is put in danger. One life is not worth another."

"I do not care about Mia. She is my student and as such-"

"I do not refer solely to the royal, though you seem to have rapidly overcome your prejudices, I refer also to those such as Mr Phelps. What would you do if he was compromised? He would certainly not want you to act as you are now."

"Phelps would understand."

"But I do not. You are too valuable, at this stage, for us to lose. I am not going to let you leave."

Laras flopped back into his seat, "Then what the fuck do I do?"

"Wait it out. Everything will be resolved without your personal involvement. Enjoy your Friday evening, find a book or play your piano, hire a hooker if you must, just make sure you don’t worry about things so much. You know what we say about worrying, my dear Nikolao."

He nodded reluctantly, "Just don't."

"Exactly. Just don't."

But Laras couldn't help but feel the frustration.

*

Laras sat, feet up on a low stool, staring at the piano as if it was some demonic apparition which had just materialised into his room complete with horns, pitchfork and sulphurous smoke. It was nearly midnight and all the lights were out with the exception of the light from the solar ball in the small kitchen which was only just beginning to dim.

Outside he heard footsteps, towers really were infamous for their echoes, there was no way to be secretive in these places. Finally there came the knock at the door that he'd been waiting for. Laras downed the last of the scotch in his glass, stood and stretched. Petty as it was, he hated waiting for anything, now he'd make her wait… whoever they had sent this time. Hesitating only a moment at the door before opening it, he let the hinges creak and let in the dim glow from the corridor with a sardonic smirk.

The girl in the doorway was beautiful, tall but with curves and bare arms which were pale and delicate looking in the shadowy light. She smiled, a coy little lift of her rouge painted lips, "I'm Fey."

"Hello Fey." His dry response seemed to amuse her as she let out a small laugh which bubbled like spring water between the tower walls.

For a moment a look passed between them of curiosity and veiled dislike, "How you doing then?" She asked, voice low and sultry, "You work here at the college then? Or are you something a little more-"

Questions. He didn't want to snarl but he lifted an eyebrow in unconcealed contempt, "I'm looking for a distraction." He said with an extra hiss on the s of distraction, making her shiver as he did so, "You don't need to talk to do that, do you?"

Fey smiled again, shaking her head as she slid around him and into his rooms. Laras closed the door behind her with a last cursive glance around him. It was empty, just as it should be. No need for any of the whining brats to know what he was up to off duty.

Following the dull stilettos, he wondered if it was something innate in all women like Fey to hold themselves the way she did, with her breasts rising much more dramatically than necessary for someone who had hardly walked twenty paces. The blond hair tumbled in straight waves, Rapunzel like. Even enshadowed, her profile seemed to have been carved from a book of ancient fairytales, perfect in its fragile, feminine beauty. As he led her from the main room to his bed, he let her undo his shirt, his carefully mastered façade, before he slowly unwrapped her, removing the lace-lined chemise and skirt, leaving her body to tremble in the cool night air. He noted her eyes were always upon him, watching him as carefully as any of his students might when practising their spy work, but with none of the subtleties, it was refreshing to see such human bliss.

She was soft beneath him, all curves which quivered beneath him. She was nothing like the girls he taught day by day; as one hand traced her sides, the other held her wrists together above her head and she didn't struggle, she panted and moaned, giving herself without a fight. Yielding skin, supple and pale as daisies shone with a sheen of sweat which made him recall a different skin, different breasts. The ache in his navel was building as he moved within the delicate girl beneath him but she was too delicate, too soft and too much made of butterfly colours. Her hair, splayed beneath her was too blond, her lips too red and her legs, wrapped round him, were too weak. He caught flashes of darker curls between the blond; Fey's jasmine scent which now mixed with the musk of perspiration seemed to blend into a different citrus smell; the curves became more toned, as if from years of physical training and then violet eyes seemed to darken and shift…

Mia!

In his head the name rang out as Fey clenched about him, her mouth pulled open in a delicate O, he lost himself completely.

Minutes, hours… long moments of heavy breathing and the shallow gasps of the satiated spanned out quietly as slowly he gathered himself and began to realise exactly what he had done. With Mia's image… with her body but to this body… this paler, more girly body… He had let himself lose control. Folding his face into its usual flat facard, he pulled away and rolled off Fey, moving quickly away from the bed and from her, tugging on loose training pants as he went to leave the bedroom, barely thinking of anything…

"Not a cuddler then?" Came the teasing, sedate call from the whore that still lay wrapped in his sheets, "Should I expect cash on the table then?"

He turned cold eyes towards her, "There's a shower should you desire to use it, otherwise I think it wise that you leave. Your payment" He sneered through that word, "will be with me until you stand outside my door."

Fey merely smiled as if she knew him and stretched, "Don't worry, I didn't figure you as the Bogie and Bacall type."

Giving her a last disgusted glance he left the room entirely, finding his way to the piano out of habit more than anything else. There was nothing else he could think of which would alleviate this new tension, this incurable realisation that he had willingly envisaged his own student. His student who happened to be the second in line to the throne and who he hated almost as potently as Rochester hated his inbred wife. It must have been a trick of his mind; an event which only occurred due to the over stimulation of his brain throughout the day… that fight, Mia and Phelps, Stephans and the infiltration of Oxford… things were beginning to spiral into the revolution he was dreaming of and yet he knew that the earth wasn't ready yet. He was ready… the students were preparing and nervously anticipated the beginning but even they weren't fully acquainted with the reality that they were all facing now. People were going to die. Stability would be nonexistent.

Earth would be free.

But the Gaians, earthlings…. humanity wasn't yet willing to fully submit itself to that war.

Popular support was the key to any revolution. He wasn't sure they had it yet.

With these thoughts tumbling so easily through his conciousness he didn't doubt that it was merely exhaustion which had thrust Mia into his mind whilst he was with Fey. After all, she was as ensnared within the Cause now as any other, if not more because of her position.

Hands drifting from loud, complicated trills and clashing chords, he began to sink into slower, more peaceful rhythms. Calm. Calm.

A door opened and closed. Fey had emerged wet haired and suddenly childishly pretty rather than seductive. Her red lips were gone, now a neutral, natural colour and the smudges around her eyes were barely there. He paused playing with his left hand, letting just single notes of a painful tune tinkle over the air. Pound notes with the queen's head on one side and the Dehklan insignia on the other exchanged hands.

She gave a sad little smile, "Good night. I hope you sort things out with whoever she is."

He closed his eyes and turned his face from her, pretending that he didn't care for her words as he resumed the full melody. A door opened and closed. Fey had gone.

*

Laras awoke, stiff and groggy, leaning with his forehead on the piano and one arm tucked around his stomach. There was a snort and a mumble to his right. Glancing towards the sound he managed a wan smirk as he saw the bulk of Phelps standing in the kitchen. He guessed he'd entered whilst he was sleeping though he hadn't been aware of much whilst he'd been playing… but he wasn't sure why the man was here now.

"Morning sunshine." Phelp's wasn't a stranger to sarcasm, but it wasn't often it sounded so vindictive, "Good night?"

"Ungh… coffee?"

"When was the last time you thought about breakfast?" Phelps was talking from the kitchen, "A proper breakfast, Laras. Seriously. A breakfast that's come out of your kitchen and not your café machine. It's a Saturday, work week over, no students: the day is yours."

"What the fuck are you on, Ed?" He asked, just catching the flicker of wry amusement that moved across his friend's face as he came to lean on the counter top.

"Start with a decent pan. Good butter." Phelps was… teasing… him…? With a faux maternal humour? Or was that anger? "So is it a perfectly runny omelette day or perhaps fried egg? With cracked black pepper speckles… What about a mushroom day? Big mushrooms on big bread with a big pot of tea. Or pancake day? More than one, obviously, blueberry with maple syrup." Then his friend turned around with a glare firmly in place, "But how could I forget: you don't own food."

Laras managed a groan, "And you had to talk about every food I like before you told me this because…?"

"Because, I'm going away next week, visiting some old friends up in Wycombe."

Laras felt his jaw clench and his heart stop beating before going into over drive. After what Stephans had said to him yesterday, the thought of Phelps going off without him… even if it had been done a hundred times before, hit a nerve he never usually let himself acknowledge. He wasn't meant to be jealous about being left here. He wasn't meant to worry about Edward Phelps. And the idiot certainly wasn't meant to tell him about it. What if he had been the oxford infiltrator and he'd just told him what he was doing? But then it was Phelps and they knew each other well enough to know that the other wouldn't be doing anything stupid any time soon.

"I can look after myself."

"Of course you can. That's not-"

"It's not like you haven't been sent off before. I can deal with your absence." He was almost snarling, but not quite.

"By becoming the equivalent of Baba Yaga. You're already taking stupid risks just because you're cooped up here. I don’t want to come back to find your students outside your door too scared to knock and come in for their tutorial. And I definitely don’t want to return to find people like Mia, who you routinely attack rather than teach, has been eaten alive by your-"

"For godsake how did you get from my eating habits to that ridiculous waste of time?" He half shouted, glowering, clenching his fists and quickly erasing the thoughts of the night before when Fey had so easily become… her… "I haven't been so terrible in a long time, whilst I'll admit I hate being stuck teaching, I'm not going to jeopardise our revolution and I've hardly been a danger to myself for years." He would have continued but:

"Yes and hiring hookers in the middle of the night doesn't sound familiar?"

"Fuck off."

"What so you can fuck some whore? We're all in danger right now Laras, and you just let a stranger stroll into your rooms! What if she'd been a dissembler? What if she had been one of them?"

"There's nothing to find here."

Phelps scoffed, "You're so fucking arrogant. That girl could have found anything once you'd let her into college and you know it."

"Fuck off." He said again but less vehemently. He had known the risks and ignored them out of spite. Phelps was right as usual.

Charon stared at the ground with a frown. The woman standing behind him didn't feel so patient. "Are you going to tell me what you called me here for, or shall we just stand and wait for the ground to get tired of holding us?"

The professor pointed at the pair of twigs, seemingly fallen to the ground at random. "What do you notice about those two bits of wood, Naomi?"

"They are both bent and twisted, and point vaguely in the direction of the trash bin." She frowned as she looked back up at Charon. "And they're live wood. They couldn't have just fallen from a tree, they were removed, and recently. Now what does it mean?"

Trusko's voice was quiet. "This message wasn't meant for me. It was meant for someone else on campus. Those two sticks would have been the signal to check a dead drop spot nearby for instructions. I happen to know of two dead drops for Omega in the nearby area, and neither was accessed any time recently." He narrowed his eyes, turning to Naomi. "This is not something done regularly. There is someone here in Oxford receiving new instructions regularly through multiple channels. Whoever this message was for, I am not meant to know they exist. I wasn't supposed to walk this way today, I decided to try and relax with a walk. Someone is getting orders directly from Omega. Not a middleman."

Naomi crossed her arms. "You don't know what these orders are, do you?"

Charon shook his head. "I need a better idea of what's happening to even guess. The only notable event I'm aware of right now is the student paper getting uppity."

Spymaster Martin was silent. "I need to know what just happened, Naomi. If they ever actually tried to get information from me you know how quickly I'd end it."

"A student is missing."

Charon swore. "One of ours? Or a dissembler?"

Naomi nodded. "A dissembler. Mia Godwin's to be exact."

Professor Trusko's eyes widened, arms falling to his sides. "Dear lord... If they've grabbed Mia's dissembler they already at least suspect why she's here. How did they manage to take our highest profile dissembler like that? Cara was one of our best, she wouldn't have made it easy."

"We don't know how they got to her."

The silence following spoke volumes. "So these orders were for someone much higher than I'd guessed. We don't just have a traitor... We have a full-fledged Judas."

"Officially, I am in charge of finding this traitor personally. Unofficially, everyone is. You know as well as anyone what a traitor in our ranks at a high enough level could do."

"Rebellion must be managed with many swords; treason to his prince's person may be with one knife."

Naomi nodded. "Thomas Fuller knew what he was talking about with those words, at least. We have a great deal to get done."

Charon reached out to grab her arm before she walked away. "If there is ever any information you specifically don't want me to pass on, no matter what, tell me yourself so that I can't possibly confuse it. I'm willing to fight. I'm not willing to pull everything down because I don't know what the Dean thinks I can't be trusted with."

*****

Charon sighed to himself as he raised his hand for about the fourth time. At this point, either I knock, or I come up with a tremendously good excuse to have collapsed on his doorstep. He forced a polite smile, then let his hand drop in a quick, cordial two-strike knock. His hand brushed lightly at a stray hair that had found its way onto his suit jacket, then straightened as the door opened.

Laras never looked truly tired in Charon's eyes. He had his days like anyone else, and at various points in time looked bored, annoyed, angry, exhausted, eager, and any other adjective the English professor could imagine, but he was never tired. He was never ready to give in or quit.

Charon liked that.

Laras looked around, then let a bit of annoyance onto his face on confirming that Charon was alone. "Is there something you need? I don't recall us sharing any lectures anytime soon."

Or ever, Charon couldn't help but silently add. "Actually I just wanted to speak with you for a while. There are a couple of issues on campus right now that I think deserve closer attention by the faculty, and I think you'd be able to help."

The door opened a little wider, Laras stepping aside. "All right then. Let me hear what you think is going on."

It was the first time Charon had been in the place, and he smiled a little. The students are always so prone to exaggerate with the meaner professors. He stepped into the first chair he saw, taking care to watch Laras for any sign of disapproval as he did.

"Thanks for inviting me in."

"Why wouldn't I have?"

Charon checked his next words at the slight defensiveness of Laras's tone. "Because you don't much like being stuck here, and I'm busy enough that my own students barely see me for class." Laras narrowed his eyes. "That said, you are about the only person I am certain will understand my frustration when I say that I don't know what's going on right now."

The two men stared for a moment, then Laras nodded and crossed into the next room, returning in the time it took Charon to rise from his seat with a pair of glasses and a bottle.

"In the middle of the day?"

"If you're frustrated enough to try and talk to me about being frustrated, you need it."

The English professor took a long look at the clear liquid, swirled it in his glass, then leaned back, taking a deep mouthful of the stuff. He nodded, then cleared his throat. "Very good vodka. Top-shelf easily."

Laras huffed. "No one here knows good alcohol anymore. I have to get mine myself at ridiculous prices."

The two stared over their glasses in silence. Charon took another long sip, then shook his head again. "How do you deal with it? I barely get a break and it drives me insane whenever I do. How do you handle not knowing what is happening?"

Laras frowned in mild distaste. "By not having a choice. I can either take it or quit, and quitting isn't an option. Are you here for the secret to being left in the dark? Because I don't have it. You need to stop complaining and get the job done, so that you can go back to being useless again. That's what we're all here for. If you don't have anything to do, then things are going well. If you don't know everything, then be glad that no one can force the information from you. And if you still have a hard time dealing with it, then lock yourself in your room, shut off your phone, and drink yourself shit-faced. If you want more than that you came to the wrong motivational speaker."

Trusko stared into his glass, finished the liquid in it, then raised one eyebrow. "I think you've got something there." He rose, lowering the glass to the lampstand and straightening his suit. "Thank you for the talk, Professor. I'll keep in touch. No need to leave everyone in the dark, eh?"

Laras stared after Charon as he left, closing the door behind him. He shook his head, then poured another drink.
“Miss Godwin.” Mia looked up from her notebook, her bandaged left wrist grasping at a pen as she struggled to take decent notes for a class that she really didn’t need. For the two weeks since her dissembler’s disappearance, Mia had been forced to maintain ‘appearances’ for the sake of Deklahn. Lessons in Literature, History, Mathematics and even Science—by far Mia’s academic bane—had been added to her already grueling schedule of being a Revolutionary-in-Training. Ironically enough, she’d gotten her wish, so flippantly voiced, to learn Russian. Laras had demanded, rather vociferously, that she take languages with him; he’d, unfortunately, begun with French and had ended the session fuming as Mia corrected his pronunciation again and again. He was adept enough at sounding Parisian, but struggled—not that he would admit it—with the southern dialects, something that Mia had been trained in since birth. The man had gotten his revenge, though, the following day; he’d switched to Russian without warning and dictated like a generalissimos from the old Soviet Union. It had been all Mia could do not to punch him.

“Professor Trusko?” Brushing an errant curl from her face, Mia looked at her professor. Charon didn’t look well; there was something pulling at him, slowly sucking his vitality in another direction from his body. Understandable, she supposed. Deklahn had another agent within Oxford, something Charon had thought was his dubious honor only. And, worse, he had no idea who it was. No one did. It was only then that Mia realized that the classroom was empty. Apparently, her beginner’s Literature course was over and Mia had been so lost in her own thoughts, she hadn’t even noticed. If Charon weren’t also her professor in Codebreaking and, thus, perfectly understanding of her preoccupation, she would have been rather embarrassed. As it was, she was merely perturbed. Now she would probably be late to her lesson with Laras. At least he couldn’t kick her in the Language Lab.

Charon smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach his eyes. “I understand that you might still be distracted from your automobile accident, but I must ask you to remain attentive in my class, Miss Godwin. If you feel you need more time to recover, please let me know.” A considerable effort had gone into staging a car wreck, all for the sake of creating a cover story for Mia’s rather noticeable injuries. Laras had done a superlative job in preventing excess swelling and bruising, but extensive damage had been done to her musculature and her wrist, obviously, would take some time to heal. It hadn’t stopped Laras from forcibly teaching Mia to slip from a headlock; memories of schoolyard brawls had swum before her eyes until she’d finally remembered how to dislodge an attacker whose arms held her head immobile. She’d even managed to throw Laras on his back and pin him. That had been a good day.

“Yessir. I apologize, Professor. I’m still a little shaken up from it. Erik was really hurt and he’s still in the infirmary with that infection…” That part was true. Erik’s broken cheekbone had shattered, sending pieces of bone into the bloodstream; it had become painfully infected, forcing Erik to spend the last two weeks lying in an infirmary bed. Ironically enough, he had apologized to her for his ‘prickiness’, though it must be said that a lot of this wouldn’t have happened if he had remembered to keep the fight within the boundaries. Laras was angry with her for overreaching herself, but there had been a change in the man, something that Mia couldn’t put her finger on. He didn’t act any differently when they were together, still cocky and demanding, but…something was different. It was like hearing a dog growl twice; the second one, while still a growl, had a different tonality, it meant something entirely different. Laras had changed his growl.

“Mia, would you mind stepping into my office for a minute? I’d like to have a talk with you and, unfortunately, this classroom is needed for another lecture.” Charon extended his arm down the hall to the English Dept. offices. Mia nodded and followed her professor down the hall, pondering as she did that she knew next-to-nothing about the man walking sedately just a few steps in front of her. Next to Laras, Charon was the professor with whom she spent the most time, yet nothing but mild pleasantries and occasional conversations had ever occurred between them outside of the classroom. He was unbelievably private. Compared to Laras, who’d spent increasing amounts of time with her- punitive measures for immense stupidity, he’d said- and whose inability to hide his thoughts had become increasingly apparent to her, Charon was a veritable fortress of secrecy.

"Miss Godwin, I just wanted to make sure that you were alright following your incident," Charon said, his hand resting just slightly against her back, a smile on his face as he escorted her into his office. For a moment, Mia was perplexed by the suddenly, remarkably demonstrative--at least in regard to Charon--politeness, but whispers and footsteps in the corridors assuaged her curiosity. Always the dissembler, always the hidden truths with Charon, whose life and so much more depended upon secrecy; of course he would anticipate a scene and preemptively diffuse the situation. It was widely known that Mia was "Laras' student". In fact, girls stupid enough to believe themselves infatuated with the Language professor—so few, Mia realized, actually knew his primary purpose within the ivory towers of Oxford—glared at her in the halls, jealousy evident in their green eyes. So many thought they could change him, could heal his broken soul. Mia wished their ebullient infatuation upon Laras, actually; it would serve him right. He wouldn't actually give in to their advances. Not due to some professional boundary—Laras showed no qualms in overstepping that bright line—mostly because Laras seemed so uncomfortable with basic human tenderness. Mia could imagine the man's eyes darkening, pupils dilating in discomfort. Humorous, really. Remarkably humorous.

Charon stepped into his office behind her, bringing Mia back from her thoughts...again about Laras. How often did she think about that damned Russian these days? Remarkably, a discordant melancholy had begun to strum its way through her contemplations, a deep throbbing empathy for Laras and his unaccountably difficult situation here at Oxford. A deep understanding of his inner nature had blossomed within Mia; she knew, instinctively, that his cruelty came from a thunderous despair within, a raging terror that he would be lost within the machinations of academia before the war ever began. Something had happened to Laras—something so dreadful, her English heart supplied—that he became unaccountably lost within the labyrinthine tracts of human experience, and such isolation, such apparent loneliness disguised as callousness and disregard, was beginning to break Mia's heart in two. Still, though, Mia could not help but hate Laras somewhere within herself, despite (or perhaps because of) the pain she felt on his behalf.

"You are lost in your thoughts, Miss Godwin." Pleasantries. That was something Charon always did with her and Mia found herself curiously divided about the man's continual ‘Britishness’. On one hand, it was easy to luxuriate in the familiar codes of behavior gruelingly adhered to as a child within Court; and yet, surprisingly, it became despicably annoying. Laras' influence again, Mia thought, forcibly shaking her head to clear more ponderings about "her" professor. She wondered if Laras were proud of her yet, somewhere deep down in that ravaged soul of his, somewhere he wasn't willing to acknowledge existed anymore. She thought he was, subconsciously, extraordinarily proud of her; it clicked that his imperceptibly subtle softening toward her was because of this deep down, not-yet-realized pride in his young, dare she think it, protégé. Inwardly, Mia cursed, biting her lip to acknowledge defeat; the insufferable Russian had won again. Mia Godwin, Princess of the Realm, was obsessed with her arrogant, self-righteous, rude, insufferable Professor who, loathe as she was to admit it, had taken over her life.

"I am," Mia replied after a few moments of awkward silence between herself and Charon. "My apologies, Professor Trusko. I-I'm..."

Charon nodded, waving a hand dismissively. "Preoccupied. I understand. Believe me. You are in a rather precarious situation here, Amelia." Mia hid the wince so automatic as a response to her full name. "With your dissembler gone, it becomes obvious that you are no longer here under any pretense of a traditional Oxford education. Omega must know why you are here." Mia nodded, rather more curtly than she had intended, pleased that Charon did not continue with nonsensical pleasantries within their current mode of conversation. "Thus, we are in the...unenviable position of figuring out what to do with you. With Phelps out of the country..." On mission Charon did not add, did not need to add, "Laras has been deemed your official guardian at the school."

No wonder the man wanted her with him at nearly every hour of the day. If that was true, Mia wouldn't be surprised if Laras had her room moved closer to that dungeon he called an apartment. And, if so, he either knew about the meeting between herself and Charon or would, even now, be combing the campus, desperately, and with increasing savagery, searching for his 'ward'. If Stephens had entrusted Laras with this mission--as ridiculously ludicrous as Laras no doubt thought it was--Laras would rush at it with bullish ferocity. Stephens. The one administrator at the school that Laras seemed to trust, maybe even like. Laras would not take a charge from him lightly.

"Ah." Charon whispered, coming to some conclusion within himself. He allowed himself a small smile, twisting the ring that Mia had always seen on his finger, and stood. "Miss Godwin, Professor Nikolao seems to think that you can handle yourself if Omega were to ever question you. As a Royal, a visit to the Doctors," Mia squirmed in her seat. No one talked about the Doctors so openly. Mia had always called them White Faces, for the white surgeon's masks they wore as part of their uniform, but no one really spoke of them, not even in hushed voices. To hear Charon speak their name so casually...it seemed blasphemous. "A visit to the Doctors," Charon repeated again, evidently annoyed by her squeamishness, "is out of the question. Further, Laras is certain that you should be able to stand up to a Deklahnian soldier within a few months."

If Laras didn't think that fighting a Deklahnian soldier was like fighting a deaf-mute with no arms or legs, Mia might have been flattered at that statement. But that he thought she could handle herself in questioning, well, that was a surprise to her. He was unbelievable, that man; couldn't he have told her this to her face, rather than have Charon blindside her with the first praise she had gotten since her arrival? Maybe he was too much of a coward, afraid that he'd lose face if he admitted that he could, actually, be pleased. A little bit of praise wasn't going to bring Mia's drive crashing down. She wasn't going to declare herself a prize fighter for the Rebellion because she could trust in her diplomatic skills to not say anything stupid during an interview with a Deklahnian official or hold her own against a paean of the Imperial Bureaucracy. What an insufferable man!

"So?" Mia asked. "We continue on like this, or do I abandon any pretense?"

Charon chuckled. "Are you sure you shouldn't be a spy or an analyst?" Mia smiled. She'd heard that more than once since arriving at Oxford; that maybe she should have entered as part of the spymaster program, working with Shlomi (whom she hadn’t seen since the fight) and even Phelps more closely, instead of finding herself thrown into the lion's den with Laras. Mia had a natural disposition toward rhetoric and analysis, it was true, but she did not have Shlomi's depth of vision; she was very topical and lacking in subtlety. When Mia felt something, everyone knew it. When she thought something, it was apparent. And she rarely thought things through, thinking in terms of the complexity of the long-term. The deep-laid plans of spymasters and strategists, whose twists and turns and depth perplexed her very soul, were not for her. So, though it required more work, more physical pain, and the psychological torments of learning from a tactless version of herself, Mia remained in the salon with Laras. Because, really, being able to write impassioned words would not make her a good spy. Something that she had explained, in depth, to Phelps and which had, invariably, gotten back to Laras.

Phelps told her, when the two got together to have lunch one day, that Laras had smiled (when he thought Phelps wasn't looking) at the news of Mia’s loyalty. It was Mia's proof that Laras was proud of her, even if it was on some level that Laras could not, or would not, truly acknowledge.

"We're training another dissembler. Laras is becoming increasingly irate that your performance in the salon is dropping because of what he calls 'the pointless ramblings of madmen and poets'. I fear that one was aimed at me. Still, though, your double life is clearly taking a toll on your health. You're losing weight and, frankly, you look like a snuff-ridden Romantic these days. As such, and just between Laras, Phelps, myself...and now you, Phelps has decided that a new dissembler will suffice. No one, not even administration knows, so secrecy is beyond important here. That insufferable Russian," now Mia grinned openly, "is surprisingly concerned with your well-being. He has left no doubt in our minds what will happen if something should happen to 'his student' while she is here at Oxford."

"Aw," Mia said, sarcasm dripping in that one syllable, "He so cuddwy. I almost feel like I don't want to kill him right now. Almost, but not quite. Frankly, Professor Trusko, I'm not really interested in talking about Laras again. I feel like I have yet to experience a Laras-free day here at Oxford."

"Miss Godwin, he is your primary professor. At a very interesting school. As such, you will not go a night without having heard his name or heard his opinion or seen his face at least a dozen times during the course of the previous day. If you should, it means that either he or you are dead. Remember that." Charon walked toward his office door. "Miss Godwin, Laras is waiting for you at the Language Lab. I informed him that you would be late today. You will continue taking general courses for another two weeks while your new dissembler is being trained. After that, you will go underground again, and take care to be less obtrusive than Royals usually are."

“Obtrusive?” Mia snorted. “I’ll be like the rats in the gutter. Gone with the light.” Standing, Mia walked toward Charon’s office door. “You’re sure that Laras knows I’m late? I honestly wouldn’t put it past him to take a swing at me in revenge.” Charon nodded. “Good. Two weeks. Anyway, when is my next…um…assignment due?” Codebreaking had proven to be an interesting subject for Mia, though she had no natural talent at it.

Charon scratched at the back of his head. “Next week. I will be going out of town again. Another conference. Have a good day, Miss Godwin.”
*****


“Charon kept you long enough,” Laras grumbled, leaning against the desk with his arms crossed against his chest. “What could he possibly have to say to you that it took you half an hour to get here?”

Mia shrugged. “We talked about you and how handsome you are. He thinks I should just declare my everlasting love and throw myself at you.” Language classes gave Mia a chance to be provocative, knowing that Laras wouldn’t be able to do anything. He would, of course, remember for their next training session, but Mia had thus far gone two weeks without passing out. Since her fight with Erik, it was as if something had been released within Mia. She hadn’t won a bout with Laras yet, but nor had she lost badly enough to be seriously injured.

“Yes, well, when time comes to that, I’ll work out how much your mother thinks your worth.” Laras pulled himself off the desk and beckoned for Mia to come closer. “I want to see how your wrist is healing. Until it’s in proper condition, I can’t continue with your training as quickly as I would like to. Given how compromised your situation is, we must assume that Omega has something planned for you. If you are ever captured, I want to be sure that you can take care of yourself long enough for someone to get there.”

Stretching out her wrist, still wrapped in a soft cast, Mia watched stoically as Laras’ unexpectedly sensual hands prodded the injury, probing the knitting bone carefully. “I doubt Omega will do anything openly just yet. Capturing a Royal, even on suspicion of espionage and sedition, is pretty much an act of open warfare. It’d guarantee that the revolution heats up really fast. Until they have enough evidence to strike at Oxford directly, I doubt they’ll kidnap me. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if they all-of-a-sudden took a surprising interest in the school. Turning up suddenly and combing through everything.”

”Yes, I am forced to agree with you, Mia.” Laras held on to her hand just a fraction of a second too long, his blues probing Mia’s with an intensity that took Mia’s breath away; then, with a flash of loathing (Mia wasn’t sure to whom it was directed), he practically threw her hand away from himself and turned away. “Since you arrived so late, I have no wish to work on your Russian with you. No point, really.”

Mia perked up. “Can I go, then? I haven’t really been sleeping…”

“Of course not.” Laras turned back toward her, his hands locked behind his back. “I want to have a talk with you. A serious talk.” He sat on the desk, looking down at the floor beneath him. The man was dressed casually for their language lessons—he never seemed to put much effort into himself whenever he met with her for classes—but his body seemed far from comfortable. His muscles tightened and loosened in a syncopated rhythm that Mia could not discern. This was far more than a different growl, Laras was acting…very strangely. Mia was beginning to become concerned. Then, Laras looked up and Mia almost burst into tears at the despair she barely glimpsed before the Russian wiped his face clear of emotion. “I am in charge of you while Phelps is gone, as Charon has told you. But, it’s beyond that now- Stephens has told me that I am now your permanent advisor. This, of course, means that I am stuck with you.”

No wonder he seemed so desperate. Here he was, stuck on campus with a student who, to him, must seem so much more trouble than she was worth, when all he wanted was to go and help the Revolution. He must be sick with the knowledge that Oxford was compromised, not knowing who had betrayed him—for he would see it as a personal betrayal—and now not daring to trust. Ironically, the very student that had him trapped on campus had become one of the very few people Laras could be sure had unquestionable loyalty. Mia found herself, once again, sympathizing with him; it was odd, she thought, feeling both hate and sympathy for a single individual. “Of course. But what do you want, then?”

“You’re moving out of 2-6 and somewhere much safer. In two weeks. Your new dissembler will move in there in order to maintain appearances with Deklahn. You will be moving in to the teacher building, staying with Phelps, so that we can keep an eye on you.” Mia sighed. So much for just being a regular student. She had known, somehow, that her position as a Royal would undermine her stay at Oxford. Now, it had compromised the entire school. And they couldn’t kick her out or else Deklahn would take her and force her to spill the secrets she had learned during her stay. The situation was impossible. Still, living with the professors? No one else had ever gotten that. It was…unfortunate.

“Yes sir.” That surprised Laras somewhat. He was used to sarcasm and argument from her, not obedience. But Mia knew that she could not argue this point. Charon and Phelps would both have worked very hard in order to ensure that Mia was kept safe. And, remembering what Charon had said about Laras’ concern, she was sure that Laras had steamrolled over the other two, demanding that he get his way. It was almost heartwarming.

Laras nodded briskly, coming to stand just inches from Mia. “You are more trouble than you’re worth, Mia Godwin. But I will not fail to protect you. Not if it means the Revolution.”
A Non-Existent User
A smooth, handsome Korean face stared back at him from the mirror, a soft lock of black hair just brushing the brow. He felt the skin of his new chin, chewed a fuller lip. Martin Lee was definitely a better looking man than Shlomi Assad.

“I never realized how hairy you were.”



Shlomi almost laughed. “It’s not me that’s hairy, it’s you that’s a naked mole rat.” He turned to face himself, or rather, Martin. Dissembling still played with his head. They were in a restroom finalizing their appearances; Shlomi couldn’t help but imagine this was somewhat like girls putting on makeup together. He straightened up and smoothed out the flannel shirt. “I have a favor to ask you, before we go. Just to keep up appearances.”



“Hm?” Martin was busy rubbing at his new stubble with great interest.

“You know who Jerry is?”

Martin stopped playing with his face. “The one who shot you?”



“She didn’t shoot me-”



“Yeah, I know. Dark hair? Kinda short?” he asked. “I’ve seen her every now and then, when I’m finishing my weapons classes. Seems nice enough, but a bit odd,” he mused.

Shlomi ignored the latter part of his comment. “Not that you really would hang around her normally, but... just keep your distance for now. She doesn’t need to be around any more people who are pretending to be me. She knows I’m doing this, anyway.”

“Good, for a second there I though you’d want me to sleep with her or something.” Martin was clearly trying to joke, to make light of the situation as he always did. Usually it was a welcome trait, one that had made him popular over the past few years among the spies, seeing as every day they practiced lying and cheating while trying to reconcile their probable deaths. But Shlomi was in absolutely no mood for that, not after all that he had just learned. A swell of anger bubbled up within his own body compressed behind the cloak.

“If you so much as fucking touch her, I’ll kill you.” The finality of his own words shocked him, though he hid it behind his new visage. The thought of the impostor and her together still made him feel ill.

Martin, wearing Shlomi’s face, immediately wiped any trace of humor away. He flicked his eyes downward. “You really care about her, don’t you?”



“It’s not like that.”



“Yeah, it is. Cut the bullshit,” he said through the cloak, looking Shlomi dead-on. “I’ve learned to read a person alongside you, the whole time we’ve been here.” He sighed and picked over his next words carefully. “You’re worried you’ve let yourself get in too deep. And you probably have. You’re beating yourself up over it, but,” he paused, “don’t think you’re the only one in this school with that problem.” He cracked a small, odd smile, using Shlomi’s mouth in a way the real student never would. “If we don’t fuck up the rebellion, that policy will remain the school’s biggest failure.”

Shlomi met his own eyes and understood. “You don’t have to tell me who it is. I don’t want to know,” he said softly before giving a strange half-laugh, half-sniff. “I want to pretend that other people are being a bit more responsible than me.” He briskly left the restroom and went off to live Martin Lee’s life at Oxford.

------

It had been a few days, with several mistakes that almost gave him away. But by now he had mastered Martin’s daily routine and circle of friends. Several components fit his own schedule, namely the work in the basements reading files and sifting through pirated information. What was new gave his tense, restricted life a breath of freshness. Different people to size up and analyze and deceive; it felt like a wonderful game again, the way it had been in the beginning of their training. Like children at a theatre retreat. More exciting still was that Martin Lee had taken some training in firearms and other weapons. It meant he crossed paths with Jerry from time to time. Sholmi both dreaded it and hoped for it. He would have to refuse to acknowledge her, though. On the whole, however, he could do with some review of his weapons knowledge.

He wondered how Martin was holding up. A few days per week, Shlomi would sometimes help instruct a fresh set of spies in their physical training. He loved the doubtful looks on their faces when his relatively skinny frame was given the task of putting their usually more solid bodies to work. It was then that he could teach them their first lesson as spies, and the one that he had learned best: deception. Everyone was deceiving each other in some way, whether it be intentional or by natural disposition. He could hold himself so that he looked weak to them, and then he’d surprisingly outrun and outperform even the strongest among them. He reveled in the mandatory martial arts; he was not an overtly ruthless fighter in the way that Mia’s recent opponent had been, using up energy with large shows of strength. Rather, he was ruthless in his precision and efficiency, attacking pressure points and taking advantage of balance and weight. It was cunning, sly, and arrogant. The younger spies all hated him for it at first. Hopefully, Martin would be wily enough to deal with their discontent and the rigors of the routine.

It was all just another step in erasing who he had been. From thin bookworm who wanted revenge, to lean trainee who wanted revenge, to disguised spy who still wanted revenge while doubting he’d ever get it. Oxford had turned him from a passionate ideologue to frustrated cynic. He was feeling a bit like Laras now that he was cooped up in another body, kept in someone else’s life and plans and unable to seek out information the way only he could. Shlomi was beginning to feel that nagging, even burning thirst for action. One way or another, no matter who struck first, there would be action. He knew it would happen eventually. But the anticipation was torture.

There was a knock one day on the door of his room- Martin’s room. The image of Professor Trusko standing calmly in the doorway confused Shlomi at first. “Who are you looking for?” he asked, certain that this had been a mistake. 



“Mr. Assad, I think you should come with me.” The words were voiced pleasantly enough, but there was a clamminess about the double agent. “I’ve just found something that might interest you. Professor Martin can’t meet with you right now, she’s trying to get a hold of Professor Phelps.”



Without another word, they left. Instead of going to the usual basements for meetings that involved the spies, they found their way along corridors to a dissembling office. Glossinger, one of the men Shlomi had suggested to suspect, was busily hunched over a desk and connecting wires to something incredibly small.

“I don’t want to talk about how I got my hands on this. It was supposed to get back to Omega somehow,” said Charon, gesturing to the wires. “But I am confident I did a fair enough job covering my tracks just now. No one else knows yet,” he said, and Shlomi resolved to not ask, avoiding the can of worms. “Have you confirmed it?” he asked Glossinger, a mild man with premature patches of grey in his hair.

“It’s pretty obvious by now. The frequencies don’t match up to our encoding. It’s a signature of a nearby Deklahnian facility.”



Shlomi stepped forward. “What is it?”

Without saying anything, Glossinger twisted a tiny seal on the cloaking device he had been examining. “Here is the preview function,” he said, stepping away from the table top. A dim holographic image emerged from his hands, taking on shape and features like a ghost appearing out of the darkness. It was only a figure from the shoulders up. The hair darkened and curled, the sharp eyes began to peer. The face was long. A scar had been carefully included over the right eye, something that would have taken observation and wouldn’t have been included in a stolen genetic profile. Shlomi was looking at a copy of himself, again. He was getting rather tired of that. But suddenly, a wave of thoughts crashed violently through his head. He didn’t care that Glossinger heard- there was no way this man could have been responsible- all the things that he addressed to Charon, stated as fact. He knew it. He knew there was logic behind it all, although he couldn’t immediately point to it. The words that spilled out of him held some sort of truth, he knew they did.

“To create a cloak of me, they needed two things: genetic information, and observations of me as a person- how I walk and talk, what I’m studying, where I sleep, who I know. The genetic information would come from the university files, and those can only be accessed directly from the school itself. And to observe a student, you’d have to be here, watching, for a good chunk of time. Like a professor."

“And what makes you think one of the staff or faculty is involved?” asked Charon, mildly amused at the analytically excited tone.



“I’m not certain that it’s a teacher, but I think it’s very likely. It would be easier for someone established with access information to simply open the files. Maybe they’d need help covering their tracks when finished...”

“Opening the files is the hardest part of stealing the information, the way it’s all been encoded,” supported Glossinger before turning back to the cloak.

“So there’s the issue of practicality,” Shlomi said. “And then to be able to know the behavior and whereabouts of someone I know... Jerry Turnitt and I keep to different circles of friends, we’re in different years and areas of training. But they knew something about her as well.”



“So you thought a professor or a course could have connected you,” murmured Charon, turning the tiny cloaking device over in his palms. “Whom do you have in common?”



A sudden rush of embarrassment stopped him for a second. Charon would think he’d gone mad, but the words came out anyway. “Russian with Nikolao, and French literature with Stephens.”

Charon only raised an eyebrow. “Do you really think that one of them could actually betray us?”



“I’m sorry, I know it sounds strange-”



“Don’t apologize. I’m genuinely interested in what you have to say. Go on,” he said, giving a little tilt of his chin. Glossinger waited with a stunned expression on his face and muttered to himself in disbelief.

Shlomi gathered his words together.

“I really can’t believe it would be Laras.”



“So you think it’s Stephens?”



“No, I don’t know that. But I know Laras better-”



“And he undoubtedly knows you better than Stephens, so perhaps you gave yourself away...” Charon’s voice trailed off when he saw frustration quickly flit across Shlomi’s face. “I’m only trying to make all sides of this clearer. For the both of us.”

Sighing, Shlomi turned away a bit. “I know. What I’m trying to say is... I think a high rank like that could be something to look for. I can hold my own around Laras, in the bizarre case that it actually is him. But I know comparatively little about Stephens. Whoever it is has gone through all this trouble to monitor me as someone of interest- I know things, I’ve been privy to all kinds of information and submitted official analyses. Even before Mia got here, they knew about that.” Shlomi’s heart was racing. “And now that she is here, that’s just more incentive to dig deeper into this school.” Eyes bright and imploring, he locked his gaze with Professor Trusko. “The Omega liaison you don’t know about isn’t someone who was planted here during this term. They’ve been here since last year, at least, monitoring any students they found dangerous. You thought you knew all the others that were here, but-”



“Omega has purposefully kept me in the dark about this one. I know. They don’t trust me,” he said, smirking a bit ruefully. “And I guess they shouldn’t. We’ll keep an eye out. Professor Martin instructed me to tell you that you’ll be called for as soon as Phelps gets time to contact us. She also told me to tell you not to do anything rash. Not that you would, of course.” His eyes shone with something between terror and resignation.

----------------

The weather had turned quite cold that day. Icy daggers of air whipped and tousled their hair the way a child knowingly plays with something dangerous. This would most likely be one of their last talks in the gardens before spring arrived. It brought Shlomi a great relief not only to be outdoors again, so stimulated and responsive to wind and light as he was, but to also be in his own body. He and Martin had given up the disguises that afternoon, which only had seemed to complicate the situation, making the task of being alert and investigating too difficult and tedious. The spymaster would just have to deal with their decision when it came back to her.

“So the lackeys can’t figure it out?” sniffed Laras after hearing of the efforts with Glossinger. “I’m not surprised.”

“I thought you wouldn’t mind breaking protocol and trying to call Phelps even while he’s gone.”



The tutor chuckled to himself. “You know me a bit too well, I’m afraid.”



“So will you call him?”



“Right now?”



“Right now.”

Laras paused and looked to the side mischievously. “Perhaps it’ll allow us some time to work outside of the school. Even so, I don’t think he’ll answer.” But he indulged Shlomi and dug into his pocket, drawing out a thin, smooth phone. A series of effortless taps, some to disguise the source, others to make contact- clearly, Laras had done this many times- and he waited for a moment for the other end to pick up. Suddenly, he frowned at the device. “I can’t get through.”



Shlomi tried to shrug it off. “We’ll try later, he’s always running around doing a million things at once.”



“No, listen,” said Laras sternly, pressing the speaker against Shlomi’s head.

“-has been temporarily terminated by a Regional Republic Authority. This contact has been temporarily terminated by-”

Their eyes met dead on as the automatic message continued to play.



“Maybe I should try again?”

Shlomi looked at him as if he were slightly mad, but those words ‘temporarily terminated’ rang through his head over and over like some sort of mantra, only it wasn’t inspiring. It chilled him.

“Do you think you got the number wrong?”

“No I know this number.” Laras looked at the phone, the opprobrious message repeating again, “Stephans will know what’s going on.”

“Stephans.”

“Who else? He’s the one that all information goes back to.” Laras glared at the young man beside him, “He’s the one that stopped me from going with Phelps in the first place…”

“You knew Phelps was going on mission?”

“Of course I did.” The fool tells me everything even when he knows the university is compromised. He didn’t feel the need to say the last part, he knew Shlomi would figure it out. Guilt leaked into his consciousness for only a second. There had been no way to prevent Phelps from being sent last night, it wasn’t like he could influence who was sent on missions.

“I’ll talk to you soon. I want to find out what’s going on.” He curtly nodded at his outdoor companion, dropping into French, “Il vaut mieux faire que dire.” He pushed his shoulders back, kept his chin upright and let the phone in his hand drop, still repeating the message to his side, “I have to find out.”

Shlomi didn’t say anything as he strode away across the lawns of the Fellows Garden and through the bluebell lined gap between the chapel and the newest tower. But then, Laras didn’t give him much of a chance to he supposed, more like ignored any attempt the younger man may have made to stop him by rushing off, carefully looking unhurried and aiming for the Turl Street exit. It was important to keep up appearances and disappearing down the secret tunnels would not have been sensible. He thought back to Mia earlier that day, their conversation and her acceptance of her move… What would she think if Phelps was lost? Trying to shake his head of her, he worked his way down the cobbled street, turned left onto Brasenose Lane and dodged out of the way of a student on a bicycle with a snarl which nearly sent the unfortunate victim reeling out of pure shock.

The walls of Brasenose were the same old grey stone of Exeter, the same quadrangle of grass greeted him, the same porter in his red blazer nodded a cheery welcome as was his role. It was a man that Laras had actually taught for a term in his first years as a tutor, Ted Wallace, if he recalled correctly. An almost useless recruit except as someone who could remember names and faces perfectly, he’d been mediocre at defence though, Laras rubbed his jaw in remembrance, he did have a mean kick when he’d been drinking. Each the arches were almost identical to Exeter, though the college was smaller and had suffered more damage in the previous wars. Scowling, Laras found his way to the only tower that he ever really visited here and descended into the cream painted halls of the English seminar rooms. He could hear the liquid voice of the man he wanted to talk to himself, letting the letters of John Donne.

“…But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew. You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne…”

He almost entered, willing in that moment to break protocol. Edward Phelps could be in danger, which was all that really mattered. But it didn’t, he knew that. He knew that this had been a possibility, everyone knew this. Perhaps it was because of the fact that there was someone in Oxford who was trying to bring down everything from the inside… perhaps it was because no matter how many times he succeeded in drinking himself shit-faced, as he’d told Charon, the drink and the hangover only moderated the ache of curiosity and desperation, it never cured it. Flipping the phone over and over in his hands, he redialled once more and let it ring and the message repeated and he didn’t shut it this time. Just listened and waited for Stephans to be free.

*

Mia entered his office as she usually did, flicking her eyes over the room and taking in details that he knew, though he wouldn’t acknowledge it, would be compared to details she had noticed last time. Phelps had told him that she had a decent memory, that she had the abilities of a dissembler if she ever changed her mind or he managed in finally scaring her away completely.

“You need to wash up some of these mugs.” She said in a slightly thoughtful tone which made him frown, “That one’s been there since last week.”

“And the reason you know that is because you managed to snap your wrist and bust yourself up badly enough that we’ve had to curtail your progress and focus on what we both know you can already do.” He drawled, letting her look up with a mixture of surprise and anger. She said nothing so he coldly added another snipe, “Well done, you’re wasting even more time.”

Lines formed around her mouth as she scowled and came to sit on the green chair that Phelps usually sat in… admittedly it was also the chair she always sat in for their language lessons, but this wasn’t a tutorial. He slid a piece of paper towards her across the coffee table as he moved around to sit in his customary place half facing her, half turned towards the fireplace.

“This is going to be your new timetable as of next week. Your new dissembler is going to cover certain aspects of your day, but not all to try and reduce the chance of them realising that you’re not the one playing you.”

She nodded and took the paper from him with her curiosity inevitably peaked. Curiosity. There was that damned word again. He’d been face with it when he’d finally spoken to Stephans… it seemed to be his curse. Foolish man. Foolish girl for being so much like him in that respect. Mia was saying something but he hadn’t been listening.

“What are you blathering on about now?” He snapped, “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Sir? I heard about Phelps.”

“Oh good. It’s nice to know that gossip is still as potent today as it has ever been.”

“I just wanted to know if it was true.”

He looked at her, hard and analytic, he wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her about his conversation with Stephans, about the opinions this gossiping had created and the guilt that shredded him apart from the inside. “You know I’m not meant to tell you anything until you graduate.”

She gulped and looked down, the look on her face a mixture of unreadable things, “I know. But it’s Phelps. I know what he means… I know that he’s a good friend of yours and I know that if he really has been…”

Scowling, Laras made a non-committal sounds to indicate his anger, trying to avoid her eyes and the recollection of seeing her during the night with Fey. He didn’t want to recall that at a time like this. It was hard enough to do so when he saw her so frequently as her official guardian in the university. He would look at her and see supple skin and soft lips and lithe curves. He couldn’t think of her like that if he wanted to retain any semblance of sanity.

“There have been complications. What has happened is not of your concern and will not affect anything to do with your studies.”

She stood hurriedly as he rose to his feet and began to move to the door, the low growl that could be heard in his words leaving a heavy awkwardness in the air which was rarely present with them. A stray strand of hair falling over her forehead caught his eye and he half reached out to brush it away before he caught himself, turned away and opened the door for her to leave. She dutifully did.

*

Having waited and waited for the last of the twelve English students to leave their ‘Answer Back’ poetry seminar, Laras was beginning to become frustrated again. He’d redialled, despite his better judgement only to find himself presented with the same message, only it ached all the more in his chest the second time… It dashed any hope that it was a misdialled number.

"What the fuck is going on?"

Laras burst into Stephans' office without any thought for protocol or what he would look like at this point. His voice was a low hiss, the Russian accent thicker and more pronounced than ever. His eyes had become dangerous; the usual bright blue turning cold and hard in his fury. Something demonic seemed to have flared up in him, something which was uncontrolled, raw and undeniably human.

Shlomi had followed him, he was certain, but hadn't entered the room. Perhaps because he had some sense of self preservation and any one could tell that this meeting could go terribly wrong if Stephans didn't handle the impassioned Russian carefully.

"Listen to this!" Laras held out his phone, its slender delicacy looking like it might break in his grip. The message was still playing. Automated. Clinical. "This contact has been temporarily terminated by a Regional Republic Authority. This contact has been temporarily terminated by-”

"Temporarily fucking terminated." Hissing the words, he retracted the phone, shutting it with a snap, "What the fuck is going on?"

Stephans, for once, didn't smile but indicated with one softly palmed hand that Laras should sit down, "Neither Mr Phelps or his partner are responding?"

"No."

"And this message-"

"Has been playing since I tried to call him ten minutes ago."

"I see." Stephans slumped his shoulders a little in his chair and pressed the tips of his fingers together, "Well I have heard nothing from the people tracking their progress since this morning when they clocked in their arrival. It was not, however, a complicated mission, I do not believe that anything can have gone wrong."

"But something has."

"It seems like it may have."

"May have!?" Laras was standing rigid, arms at his side with his fists clenched, "Phelps is one of the best, he doesn't make mistakes and even if something had gone wrong he'd find a way to contact us immediately it's-"

"My dear boy, everyone makes mistakes. Even the best." Stephans did smile this time as he spoke, although it was sad, "Or maybe it was his partner-"

"Let me go. Let me go and see if I can find out what's happened. I can-"

"Didn't we already have this conversation?" Stephans raised an eyebrow and shook his head, "You are not going anywhere. If Mr Phelps was compromised what's to say, you wouldn't be too."

Laras longed to say that he wouldn’t be compromised because he was better than that… but that was a lie, he wasn’t any better at what he did than Phelps was at what he did. They were experts of their individual fields and both completely different in what they did. It was impossible to truly compare.

“Listen, my boy,” Laras grit his teeth at the patronising Englishman’s words, “I have nothing to do with Mr Phelps’ movements, I have merely been watching what has been going through channels as I normally do. You want to know more, take it up with Professor Martin or the Provost of Balliol. They are the ones pulling the strings this round.”

Laras felt his hands balls themselves into fists and he quickly uncoiled each finger to try and regain his composure. The dismayed sympathy on Stephans’ face made him feel sick, it was unnecessary and uncalled for. He growled.

“Don’t worry my boy. Just don’t.”

Nostils flaring he slammed both hands on the table and glared straight into Stephans’ eyes, looking for something and only reading in the pitying gaze something he didn’t know or understand. A look that seemed oddly akin to satisfaction but which was gone so soon, he knew that he’d mistaken it, blaming his paranoia before he shoved himself roughly away and stalked from the room, hands shoved into his pockets to disguise their shaking.

*

For the second time that day he sauntered down Turl Street, having turned left from the college he’d arrived by the Covered Market, next to a renovated store where he bought all his tea. The smell of people was unmistakeable, swelling up on the breeze from the market stalls, detergent and sweat and leather and raw meat and fish. He sniffed, keeping his face cold as he made to walk through the crowds, ignoring any of the faces which he recognised. Being so antisocial had given him an excuse to avoid this sort of place most of the time, it meant he was rarely in plain sight of the Dekhlans here. He headed for Georginas, a coffee shop that was only the size of his office on the top of a florist and a dress shop. The sign indicating his destination was still painted the bright pink it had been in the twentieth century, the posters on the walls and the ceiling still dated from 1920 to 1980 and never beyond, the tables were still old oak and creaked and groaned as they were sat on. He smiled, this place was a momento of a world when the Earth had been free and the students of Oxford had really been students. The nostalgia was almost enough to make him turn away when he’d first entered it all those years ago, had it not been for the traditional food it served and the coffee that it served in white crockery mugs with no handles, he’d probably have never returned. Now it also embodied the place where he’d be able to find a poison-free coffee, since the girls that worked here were students of Phelps.

“You heard what they’re saying?” He could hear the usual gossip about the university as he climbed the stairs, “You heard about Mr Phelps?”

He paused, hand on the banister, still invisible to the room above.

“God, yeah, I heard he was got.” A girlish voice responded, slightly southern in tone as if she’d lived in Cornwall and was now trying to remove the accent.

“That’s what I heard. Got by them. Down in London.”

Wycombe. Not London. Laras glanced behind him and saw he was still alone, he could wait and see what they said.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, like, he and one of the others, dunno who though… Got caught, apparently they found the other guys bloodied jacket at the place they were staying.” There was a dramatic pause and and the slurp of coffee being drunk, “And a chunk of his skull, with the flesh and hair still on it.”

A nervous giggle, “You’re making that up, aren’t you?”

“Nah, that’s what they do. They take off your scalp and break open your skull so they can attach like, electrodes to your head and like, you know, make you see things that aren’t there.”

A new voice entered, nasal and cut-glass “That’s bollocks Maxie.”

“No it’s not!”

“Whatever, Phelps isn’t even the point here. Oxford is basically discovered from what I’ve heard. That Princess girl has been moved to teacher’s quarters and she’s attending lectures and tutorials not class.”

“She’s got Professor Nikolao as a tutor right?” There was the girl again.

First voice cut in, “Yeah, poor girl, doesn’t even realise that she’s got the biggest bastard of the school as her-”

“Again, that’s beside the point. She’s got Nikolao as her tutor. She’s the Princess of England, right here, her presence is a show of blatant defiance of Them and if she’s ever revealed to be one of us…” Nasal interrupted and Laras could imagine the smirk on the student’s face as he stated what he probably thought was a new and interesting fact to be reporting, then he continued, “Of course, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the only one who’d be willing and able to betray the university is the Russian. First Cara goes, then that dissembler with the Indian guy, then the disappearance of Phelps and his partner. What connects them? Nikolao. No one else would have the information he does on all of them.”

Laras’s grip tightened on the rail, his knuckles turning white. They thought he was the one who… They believed he could… Surely the people with him would realise what shite this was that they were speaking.

“Oh my god, you could be right!” Girl replied, “Have you told anyone?”

“I gave my observations to Trusko.”

Trusko… Charon Trusko had been in his rooms asking him questions… Charon Trusko who had complimented his vodka and asked him for advice, much to his displeasure and discomfort. The fucking bastard, had he been snooping for answers, something that might have given him away as the last spy? Could they really suspect him?

“What did Trusko say?”

“That he was already aware of all suspects.” The smirk still lingered in Nasal’s voice, “They all think it’s him. Now we just have to wait until he slips up.

Fighting down the urge to dash up the final few steps and force the student to recant what he’d said, Laras felt his stomach clench and he forced calm back over his features, dulling his despair and dragging back up the mildly simmering anger at Stephans’ he’d felt before. He felt like rubber, suddenly almost too weak to hold himself in the glare of lunchtime speculation. He was used to dislike and scorn and even repudiation from students, but he couldn’t accept that they could genuinely think he’d betray all that he lived for. He strolled up the remaining stairs, not glancing at the seated students whose gaze instantly landed on him, aiming for the counter and finally ordering his coffee and tomato soup to go. He didn’t want to hang around any more.

*

“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to get a hold of you earlier, Lisa,” Laras spoke softly into the phone as he sat by the fire in his room, “I left you a message at home but I guess you didn’t get it…. I’m afraid I have some very bad news that I feel would be best told in person… Yes, I’m sorry… It’s about your husband… I know… I’ll be over as soon as possible… Are the kids at home? Yes?... That’s good, they ought to be there for this,” He felt despair and guilt rising in his gut, he couldn’t believe his own actions. It was necessary now that Phelps was gone, but to do this to his own friend’s family. It wasn’t quite the same as doing it to a complete stranger, “Thank you Lisa, I’ll be sure to bring some more Goji Berry Tea for Greg. See you soon.”

Slowly he rose from his seat and moved to his desk, opening the top draw and pulling out a thin, black tinted revolver that had, once upon a time, belonged to his father. He put it into a holster inside the pocket of his jacket before he turned and left the room, locking the door behind him.

*

He shook his head, staring into the fireplace in which only embers continued to flicker like bloodshot lizard eyes amid the black curls of scorched wood. He’d nearly contemplated telling Mia all of that. The fact that he was shot to pieces, drink and sleeping pills not being enough to dampen his insomnia tonight, his piano having no allure and his violin, hanging from his hands at the side of the chair, seemingly not powerful enough to express the way that he felt in that instance. It was like his skin had been turned inside out and the nerves, the blood vessels and the organs were all exposed to the cold and the light. He was acting like a lovesick fucking girl who’d lost her soul mate; only he’d merely been cooped up so long that inactivity was driving him insane, everything he was working for was on the border of collapse it seemed. Things were so at risk… The delicate balance that he’d constructed was –

A knock resounded on his door. Three sharp knocks.

The figure that stood before him was a shadow of the man that he knew as his best and only friend. His eyes were tinged pink and bloodshot, tight creases pulled themselves around them, a ‘v’ shape drawing his forehead down and tugging the eyebrows into make a furious expression of desperation. The eyes darted back and forth. Breath coming in ragged rasped through his nose. His cheeks were stained red with emotion. Anger. Phelps’ mouth curled into a furious grin

“What are you doing here?” Laras managed to gasp out before a fist slammed into his jaw, so unexpected and swiftly executed that he didn’t have time to react, leaving him sprawled on the floor, mouth filling with blood from where his teeth had bitten into his cheek.

“How could you do it?” Phelps was swearing, hollering at him without even thinking of the echoes of the tower, “How the fuck could you do it?”

Phelps had pinioned him to the floor, arm across his neck making it almost impossible to spit the blood from his mouth. He didn’t understand nor how to respond so he did nothing, looking up with dazed eyes at the one man whom he had believed could be called a friend. He could see the lack of rationality in the older man’s eyes and refused to attack him, knowing that it would only confirm his guilt in this situation.

“Don’t play idiot with me. I know you better than anyone.” Phelps roughly pushed away and slammed Laras’ head into the ground again, causing him to choke slightly, “They’ve taken Lisa, they’ve taken my wife. They took the twins and Greg.”

Laras rolled onto his side and spat out the bitter tasting fluid into a mug that he really would have to wash up now, “Ed I’m sorr-”

“Don’t even try that.”

“I get home. There’s a message from you saying that you’ll be there at 4 o’clock with a message from the university. There’s blood on the kitchen sink. There’s a bullet hole. Across the other side of the room are your keys. That’s some pretty damning evidence Nikolao.”

“I went to see Lisa to tell her that you were MIA. I gave her my house keys, saying it was better that only she had spares in case anything happened which might put her and the kids in danger I didn’t-”

“Bullshit. Bullshit!”

“You know I’m speaking sense. Don’t dismiss my words. There is someone on the inside working against us. They obviously are trying to get at you, don’t let them-”

“Amis is dead.” Phelps’ voice became very soft, much calmer and much scarier to Laras. His friend was back and yet it seemed he suspected him too, “Amis is dead. They tore his head a part. If I hadn’t been outside on the fire escape I’d be dead too. My family is gone. They’re trying to erase me. Who needs me gone? Who would go to such lengths to remove me?” He fixed his wild eyes on Laras, “Only one person, truly needs me out of the picture. And that is you.”



So this was the room. Professor Sofia Ortrun from Germany. One of the most revered tacticians in the craft was behind this door. Tada had heard that she was a severe Chiraptophobe and never made physical contact with anyone at Oxford. Tada stood there for just a moment hoping there wouldn't be some off the wall test as soon as he entered the room. He noticed the soft smell of some kind of perfume. Lilac. He turned the knob and opened the door. The room was empty. There were only three desks here so Tada guessed that aspiring field generals were short in number. With a casual wander Tada ambled about the room taking quick mental note of what was where and where what was. Just as Tada prepared to take a seat a tall woman in her early thirties entered the room. She had brown hair and eyes with the strait locks tied back letting a few loose bangs hang in her eyes. She was quite attractive and had a pretty expensive looking ring on her right hand,
"Ms. Sofia Ortrun I presume?" Tada asked extending his hand as she set her bag down on the desk. She locked eyes with him and shook his hand politely. He refrained from cracking a triumphant grin,
"Yes, and you must be Tada?" asked the woman giving a slight smile. Tada nodded confirming the fact and finally took his seat. She strolled over to her desk which was only a few feet away from his. It was made of fine, smooth, mahogany wood and had been very precariously organized from what Tada could see.
"So Mrs. Ortrun, I'm surprised to see that you shook my hand. I've heard you didn't like germs. It was misophobia wasn’t it?," he stated flashing a penetrating gaze into the woman's eyes. They shook slightly for a second before she stood back and raised an eyebrow,
"Oh? Well…yes but dammit! I thought I may be credited on facing my fears for that and here you just call me out on my cowardice!" she whined with a childish stomp on the floor. It was joking and coy, "Phooey! I need to wash my hands anyhow. You must be crawling with germs to be such a nasty boy," she continued,
"Okay okay, I'm sorry ma'am. I was just...surprised is all," Tada said with pseudo-severe sincerity. Not for a second did he buy it. That look in the eyes told him that handshake had been a slip up, but why was he being tested like this? This seemed like some kind of dissembler training or something. More spy stuff than tactics and strategy like ordering troops and military action. Ms. Ortrun laughed,
“It’s fine. I’m not worried about it. I’ve just gotten so sick of that going around and then several students try to see if it’s true and attempt to touch me which is awkward and makes me want to scream. Anyhow, aside from that it’s time for your first lesson,” she said. Tada smirked again,
“Ms. Ortrun, I’ve already come to understand that the mysophobia wasn’t what you supposedly had. That’s a fear of germs. I’ve heard you had an admitted fear of being touched and that’s chiraptophobia. Didn’t you teach psychology for four years here ma’am?” he asked still looking at her confidently. There was a brief pause as his supposed instructor looked at him seeming slightly amused,
“What are you getting at Tada? You think I’m a fake or something? What do you think this is spy studies? I’m training you for tactics, strategy, and leadership. We’d have no reason to try and trick you,” she said walking over and leaning over his desk showing off breasts comparable in size to Mia or even Paige’s. They pressed up against the wood of his desk tightly calling for Tada’s attention, but he’d resisted worse. His eyes retained contact with her’s, “Unless, you’d like to study something else?” Tada raised an eyebrow,
“So, if I reply by saying I’d like to study under the real Ms. Ortrun are you going to take that as a dirty comment?” he replied. Ortrun rolled her eyes,
“You’re too suspicious Mr. Tada,” she said, “Maybe espionage would do you some more good than this since you’d rather deduce than strategize?” For the first time during this ordeal Tada’s confidence wavered a bit. What if he was wrong? It had happened before. What if he pissed her off and she did send him to be a dissembler? Of course, maybe this was the point at which he was expected to falter. No, he’d seen that look when he’d called her on the handshake. She’d messed up and early in the game too. It had been a genuine ‘Oh shit’ look even if just for a second. Tada stood and stared at the fake,
“Please, go get my real instructor,” he said in a demanding tone. The facade broke. Reaching behind her head the woman touched something and in a brief flicker of image manipulation her hair shortened by about four inches turning darker and more wavy without a hair tie. Her eyes turned green and her body lessened dramatically from a toned physically trained body to a soft paler thin body wearing a black t-shirt and khaki shorts. This girl was closer to Tada’s own age with a fair dusting of freckles on her cheeks. She grunted gawking at Tada unbelieving,
“Jeez! You’re relentless! You couldn’t even give the benefit of the doubt? You act like doing anything out of character is just unforgivable! God you’re cute though…” the girl said. She held out her hand to shake his, “I’m Jess by the way. Not Jessica, not Jessi, just Jess,” she said. Tada shook her hand,
“Well nice to meet you Jess. May I ask, why am I meeting you?” Tada asked examining the girl’s flirty attitude. She was looking up at him through her bangs with a coy smirk. Her swiveling body language was drawing to the eye and she was obviously not trying to fool him anymore,
“Oh, well I’m training to do some spy stuff,” she explained in an accent a thick as Paige’s when she was frustrated, “I’d yet to try one of those cloaking thingies and they since I’d had to study Ms. Ortrun they told me to try and fool her new student. I heard you were good though, I just didn’t think you were that good. Ah well, anyway I think I should go get her now since-“
“No need,” came Ms. Ortrun’s voice. The door opened and a woman walked in with a briefcase at her side. It was the REAL Sofia Ortrun this time or a dissembler of Shlomi’s level of expertise. Her walk was confident; her ring was not on the wedding finger. Tada could have kicked himself for passing that detail on the fake. How could he not say anything about that? It was just like him to look past the obvious to shuffle through the details, “Well, nevermind, she’s here I suppose. Nice to meet you Tada,” Jess said winking and leaving. Tada rolled his eyes after she exited. Ms. Ortrun set down her briefcase and closed the door coming over to him without shaking his hand,
“Sofia Ortrun, and you’re Tada?” she asked,
“Yes ma’am,” he replied noticing the roughness of her hands as they released the doorknob. They looked strong and healed many times over,
“What’d you study? Martial arts wise?” Tada asked curiously,
“Muai Thai and BJJ,” she replied smirking and looking him up and down, “They were right, you’re quite handsome. Talented too from what it seems. Most newbies don’t pay attention enough to catch even the worst of dissemblers. You’ve done your homework as well. You would only have known about my phobia had you asked around about me. Smart smart boy,” she said grinning. Tada smirked a bit,
“Well thank you. That’s a great compliment coming from someone as prestigious as yourself,” he replied. Ortrun walked toward the back of the room to a wooden door opposite of the entrance and opened it motioning for Tada to follow. He stood and approached, “So, lesson one?” he asked. She grinned and nodded,
“We’ll see how good you are at your current level. I don’t want to teach you baby steps when you need leaps and bounds or visa-versa,” she said. Tada entered the room. It was white, chrome and metallic. It was the size of a bathroom and held a large computer and a glass tank tall enough for a human being, “Here wear these and nothing else,” he heard the instructor command. Tada turned looking at her seeing her holding a blindfold with wiring in it that seemed to be made of thin rubber, two technological looking wrist bands, and two matching ankle bands. He raised an eyebrow,
“You’ve got to be joking,” Tada said. Ortrun’s own eyebrown finally raised,
“Excuse me?” she said with a hint of attitude. Tada backed down,
"Nothing, so I don't get pants or anything?" he asked. Ortrun smirked,
"What? You think I've never seen one before?" she asked. Tada sighed and took the objects. Just as they exited his instructor's hands she pulled up a pair of tight black shorts from under the desk. Tada's eyes rolled as he grabbed those as well.

Moments later he was wearing only the things handed to him by his instructor and standing in the tank. It was warm inside and the floor had a squishy yet firm covering like standing on a gummi candy, "You look comfy," said Ortrun, "Well, I'm going to start it. You're going to be submerged in suspension gel and the wires on the objects will feed my computor all your mental and physical data from your subconscious. Soon after a simulation will begin. You'll instantly understand so don't worry, just use what you know." Tada nodded not being able to see anything. He heard rapid pressing of keys on the keyboard outside the tank and then a spray. Gas was filling the tank. A part of him became anxious. It felt like his legs. They shook and had sharp jerky motions as if wanting to dash. Gas? Hadn't she said suspension GEL? The smell of lemons filled the tank. What could this gas be? A wet coating covered his body, "Don't open your mouth or anything by the way. That tastes terrible. It's just something that will keep the gel from sticking to your skin. Right aftet that a thick goo rose up from the bottom of the tank soon covering Tada's torso. A mask attached itself to his face like a breathing device as the gel covered him completely. He began to see computer text in his vision:

SUBJECT: TRAINEE

NAME: Unknown, Tada, Konsen, Freedom, Without name, NA, ERROR, 738//BEGIN...
...
ERROR RESOLVED
...
AGE: 19.6
Height: 6'0.432"
Weight: 84.4kg
HAIR: BLACK/EYES/HAZEL-YELLOW
...
STRESS LV: 21%
ADRENALINE RISE: 14%

CLASS: FRESHMAN
STATUS: HUNGRY (68%) THRISTY(3%) NERVOUS (2%)
PAIGE SUMMERSTONE/ SUSPENSION GEL
COMPUTER TEXT(?)
CURIOUSITY//BEGIN

Suddenly lots of words flew by his vision. Tada caught the words MENTAL, SEX, ANALYTICAL, GENIUS, and ERROR. The last word came up more than once. He had a feeling his instructor got to see his stress rise. The word ERROR couldn't be good, but the other words in that order were humorous. A strange floating, weightless feeling hit him, and then-

"Honey, are you awake?" came Paige's voice. Tada's eyes opened. He was looking up at her. Her naked form was straddled upon his body loosely covered by white sheets that lie on her swiveling curves. Her breath was heavy and sweat covered every inch of her. Tada felt himself throb below. Inside something tight, and warm, and wet. Paige let out a low moan. her breasts rose as she writhed subtly. Tada smiled,
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just enjoying myself," he replied. Paige donned a devious grin,
"Oh?" she asked pushing herself down on him. It felt good. He grabbed her waist and swept her under him mounting her firmly and leaning down pressing tightly against her body,
"Yeah," he replied. Paige bit her lower lip. Grabbing her thighs Tada pushed deep again and again.

"Two hours..." Paige moaned cuddling up against Tada's side. He stared up at the ceiling,
"Really? Wasn't paying attention," he said. Paige smiled rubbing his chest beneath the sheets,
"I know. I'm just amazed. Say, we're not going to get in trouble are we?"
"Don't think so,"
"And you're sure no one knows we're both here?"
"Yes"
"During class?" Tada smirked,
"I got sick and you went to do a driving course," he said. Paige gasped,
"You devil!" she said, "You told me different!" Tada laughed sliding out of bed,
"I know, but there's no harm done. Even if they know, no one cares. Who's going to tell on us? Mia would laugh and ask how it went, and Shlomi's in the same boat as us. Anyone else pays little to no attention to us."
"It sounds to me like a bunch of excuses," Paige replied sticking out her tongue as Tada got dressed. He put on a pair of black jeans, a white t-shirt and his navy blue jacket,
"Relax babe, nothing bad's going to happen because we snuck off ONCE," he said sticking a pen into his left pocket with his keys and a piece of gum. That's when a steel clad boot crushed the door sending it sprawling upon the ground as a soldier dashed in carrying a standard pistol. Tada's mind raced,
Deklahnian soldier. Standard infantry he thought. How'd he know that? His hand gripped the pin in his pocket as the soldier shouted at him to drop to the ground. He heard Paige scream. The soldier was in range of melee. Tada moved--
...................................................................
COMBAT EFFICIENCY RATING: ERROR
GRADE: 61 D
ERROR
GRADE: 87
ERROR
GRADE: ERROR//BEGIN
...
...
GRADE: 103%
COMBAT EFFICIENCY RATING:
GRADE: 96 A

Sofia Ortrun stared at the initial 61 to the new 96. That was on par with some of the best fighters ever out of Oxford,
"How the hell?" she whispered. She picked up her phone dialing a number, "Don't ask, come see this..." she said staring at Tada in the tank.

The pen sailed hard into the first knuckle of the soldier’s right hand. His index finger snapped backward unable to pull the trigger of his weapon. He let out a scream as Tada grabbed the weapon by the barrel throwing a front kick into the man’s gut sending him sprawling backward. The pistol spun into place in Tada’s hand as he aimed letting loose a loud shot that tore a red hole in the head of the assailant. Falling through the doorway, the soldier landed flat on his back unspeaking in silent fatality. Tada looked to Paige who stared at him dumbfounded and awestruck,
“Tada…baby…where’d you…” she stammered,
“No time, we have to move!” he shouted tearing the sheet from the bed off of Paige. She grabbed a pair of shorts and a tank top that belonged to Tada running to her nightstand and grabbing a pistol out of it. The two heard loud sounds coming from downstairs thumps, thuds, and gunshots. Loud cries echoed through the halls. It was a full out assault. Tada’s breathing increased as he and Paige slowly made their way along the walls of the seemingly empty hallway. His heart pounded against his chest. It hammered unremittingly against the walls of his breast. He then realized it was all adrenaline. Why wasn’t he afraid?
………………………………………………..

STRESS LV: 67.5%
ADRENALINE RISE: 63%
STATUS: CONTACT ALLIES, BEGIN//

STATUS: PROTECT PAIGE SUMMERSTONE/FEAR (?)/MEMORY/ STRATEGY IN PLACE/ BEGIN?//

COMBAT EFFICIENCY RATING:
96 A

COMMAND INPUT: Compare to previous//Top 3 CER//Tadacompare

Initializing………

SUBJECT?

COMMAND INPUT: Laras Nikalao(HIGH TIER TOP 3)

Tadacompare/Nikalao RESULTS:

96.8 A/ 101.6 S

COMMAND INPUT: Compare to previous//Top 10 CER//Tadacompare

Initializing………

SUBJECT?

COMMAND INPUT: Ross Weeks(MID TIER TOP 10)

Tadacompare/Weeks RESULTS:

96.8 A/ 95.5 A
………………………………………………………..
“Yeah, I just compared him to Ross Weeks. He graduated two years ago. Captured and currently MIA, but assumed dead. He was my last graduate and 95.5 was his score on completion. Does Tada have any previous combat training Mr. Greywall?” Ms. Ortrun chewed on the end of her pen staring at he data onscreen as the television screen to her right played out Tada reaching the end of the hall, “No? Are you sure? Wow, I can’t wait to see how he handles this. The first sim is supposed to be a flat out failure to get the trainee used to shock and surprise. Oh, but you’ll never guess what his sex proficiency level was!” she continued with smiling eyes that suddenly dropped with the voice on the other end of the phone’s response, “Of course it doesn’t matter to me! I just use it to torment my students is all. Just in good fun…and a test to see if they can focus on the important instead of the details. I just dangle the mystery in front of them and-“ she paused, “Okay okay, I’ll tell someone else then. Wait, whom are you calling? Well, I don’t want everyone and their grandma knowing about this. Especially with all this traitor mumbo bullshit happening,” Ortrun continued on the phone, “Well if you really think it’s a good idea, but I’d keep it as under wraps as possible.” The phone call ended, “Whatever, I wouldn’t tell Charon about this. What does he need to know for anyway?” Ortrun asked herself. A worried look took her visage, “Damn I hope my hunch is wrong this time. Not trusting one of our own is…it just sucks.”
…………………………………………………………
Tada’s phone was to his ear,
“Get the fuck down here, we need you on the field! The infantry invasion was a fucking fluke, their sending in artillery after another surge! Now do you want to lead this fucking battle or do I have to?!” Laras shouted on the other end of the phone. Tada stared out the window seeing a radio tower in the distance along with a few units of Dek soldiers approaching. Damn right this was a distraction. They’d probably wait until everyone tried to pursue the small units and hit with a blitz of some kind. Tada smiled at the radio tower. That was one big key to victory. A few charges of C3 would be more than enough to scramble the enemy lines, and no commander would be dumb enough to order troops to fight uncommanded. Which, of course, was a big weakness for the Deklahnians. They had no real field officers. Their field general was just a radioman with a loud voice, “Hello?! TADA!!!” Laras shouted. Gunshots were heard over his voice, “Dammit kid answer me!”
“I’ve got a plan. Fall back behind the turret line and send two units each around left and right enemy flanks. Do we have chaff?” Tada asked,
“Plenty why?”
“Attach some to an RPG and launch it near that tower. By the time that’s done I’ll be down there,” Tada finished,
“Good, hurry your ass up!” The conversation ended. Paige had her gun pointed at the door opposite where they stood in the hall,
“It’s okay Paige, there’s no one in there. Come on, we gotta get downstairs. It sounds like the incursion was cleared out. A high pitch signal came from Tada’s phone again,
“Yeah?”
“Tada, is Paige with you?” came Mia’s voice,
“Yeah why?”
“I thought so, there’s a vehicle ready down here. You’ll be needing it I’m guessing?” she asked. Gunshots popped in the background,
“Of course, great work Mia. I’ll have to-“
”Laras get down!” there was a loud bang and a gravelly series of curse words and bullets from who Tada assumed was Laras. Mia’s voice chastised him for a moment away from the communicator, “Yeah okay Tada that’s fine, just hurry up!” she yelled over Laras’s much louder voice. The call ended and Tada continued toward the stairs with Paige. On the way they passed an assault rifle that had been jammed with a knife, which a dead student lay by. Paige gasped staring at the bloodied man full of bullet holes,
“Get yourself together Paige. It’ll be okay. Come on,” Tada said grabbing her around the waist with one arm and pulling her along. They’d gotten lucky. That rifle must’ve belonged to the Dek soldier that’d charged into their room.
………………………………………………………………………….
STRESS LV: 50%
ADRENALINE RISE: 50%
STATUS: FOCUS/PAIGE SUMMERSTONE/DOORWAY/HURRY/MIA GODWIN/LARAS NIKALAO/RADIO TOWER

STATUS—WORRY/SHLOMI ASSAD
…………………………………………………………………………
“I-I don’t know. I haven’t seen him either,” Paige said still regaining composure,
“So Shlomi’s missing right now?” Mia asked looking at Tada with her brow furrowed,
“I suppose so. Laras, do you know how many casualties there were in the building?”
”Only about four from what I saw. They chose a bad time to act,” he replied,
“Oh? And what brings you to that conclusion?” Tada asked grinning and unfolding a pair of binoculars to look around the radio tower,
“Because, I’m still here,” Laras said. Everyone was behind a stone wall, which had steel centered inside it unseen until recently when bullets and mortars whittled away the rock coat. Laras leaned above the wall and took a few shots before ducking back down,
“Hey!” came a familiar voice. Paige looked behind her to see Shlomi running ducked low to the ground behind the wall, “If you’ve been wondering where I was I was evacuating people to the sublevel. I came to get anyone who’s not up to being out here,” he said,
“Well, I’m pretty sure anyone who’s not up to it’s not out here,” Tada said still looking over at the tower, “Glad you’re safe though,” he continued. Shlomi shrugged looking around at the unit sitting there with guns and ammo staring at him,
“Okay, then I’m dropping back into the sublevel. Good luck out here,” he said. Tada didn’t budge his gaze and gave him a thumbs-up. Moments later he saw two rocket propelled grenades whizzing towards the tower. It’s electronic shield came up exploding the two rockets and releasing the chaff. The pieces of metal fluttered through the air jamming radar and electronic signals and sensors,
“Perfect, one more of those should do it. Okay, where’s that vehicle Mia?” Tada asked finally looking away from the binoculars. She pointed under a small barricade right next to the school. There was a camouflage colored jeep sitting there covered in dirt. Tada sighed. How’d he miss that? It was jungle camo in the middle of an urban setting. Obvious. Luckily, just as he though, there was a pulse signal underneath that disarmed proximity mines. “Okay, that’ll work. Paige, once the last chaff bomb hits I need you to drive Laras and Mia into that radio tower,” Tada instructed. He took a few C3 charges out of his jacket tossing three each to the aforementioned warriors, “Drive around behind the unit to the east. They’ll cover you. Head straight back to the tower and pick these two up. I’ll inform those units to cover your escape and retreat back here to regroup,” Tada looked to Mia and Laras, “You guys should have no problem raiding the bottom floor of that tower and setting these charges right?” he asked,
“I guess we’ll know soon enough,” Laras said looking at Mia, “Don’t screw up. This is the big time you know.” Mia smirked,
“I’ll try not to slow you down,” she said hopping up before him and jumping in the passenger seat with her rifle. Two soldiers mounted a turret on the back of the jeep, which Laras jumped on. Tada looked at Paige as she headed for the jeep and grabbed her wrist. She turned towards him meeting eye to eye,
“Be careful,” he said. She smiled and kissed him,
“Of course love,” she replied quietly before jumping in the driver’s side. Her resolve had recovered and she watched the last chaff bomb head toward the tower. A turret near the top aimed and shot down the missile but the chaff exploded as well. Lots of the soldiers near the base began to pool inside. Undoubtedly going to the top to mount turrets. They expected more missiles to assail their precious tower while its shield was defunct. One of the other soldiers handed Mia his RPG after Tada’s order. Right after, the jeep revved and sped off toward the tower. The turret blazed to life gunning down anyone brave enough to try and take pot shots.
…………………………………………………………………
STRESS LV: 70.5%
ADRENALINE RISE: 45%
STATUS: WORRY/ TRICIA PAIGE SUMMERSTONE/ SAFETY/ DEATH/ WORRY/ SEND ORDERS/ TURRET IS EFFECTIVE/ WORRY
………………………………………………………………….
It was all going fine. Tada had sent the orders to cover the retreat. He saw Paige drop off Mia and Laras with Mia letting fly with the RPG inside the tower to help clear it out. Paige drove a ‘U’ around the east unit and came back. The two got back in the jeep quickly while Tada’s heart beat even faster. Something wasn’t right. He looked to the top of the tower again and it hit him,
“Put some fire on that tower!” he shouted at his unit,
“We can’t sir we’re the ground cover!” they shouted. He couldn’t radio the west unit from here. The chaff still blocked his signal, and the east unit was the ground cover up close,
“Fuck ground cover they’ve got the unit behind them for that get some fire on the top of that tower!”
“Just blow it!” cried a soldier,
“Listen to me dammit! They’re too close to--just fucking shoot!” Tada snapped. The unit began firing at the top of the tower,
“It’s no use sir, the tower’s too far!”
“What happened to the rest of our grenade launchers?”
“Rpg ammo’s tanked and Mia’s got the last!” cried another soldier. A rocket fired from the jeep toward the tower’s top quickly getting shot down while the jeep’s turret continued to spit lead. Tada contacted the turrets behind them,
“They need cover fire! Shoot the top of the tower!” he shouted into the radio,
“Yes sir!” came back. Tada’s nerves wouldn’t calm just yet. The jeep was drawing closer, but he needed a few second more before he could detonate the charges safely without immolating Paige and the other two. A turret from the tower aimed down. Tada’s heart raced as it unleashed a flurry of bullets down on the jeep. No one was hit. No one was hit. No one get hit. No one get hit. He prayed. Just one more…

Blood. Red and black spattered against the windshield,
“No dammit no!” Tada cried hitting the detonator. Flames poured from the base of the tower along with a heavy shockwave. The massive structure came crashing down. The jeep skidded to a halt hitting the wall in front of them. Tada dashed to the side of the barrier. Who was hit? He couldn’t lose them. Who was it? Mia? Laras?
“Tricia…” he whispered seeing Laras and his former student hasten around the wall carrying a bloody Paige between the two of them. Tada ran over and grabbed her kneeling to the ground.
……………………………………………………
STRESS LV: 97% [UNSAFE]
PROGRAM WILL CEASE WITHIN TWO MINUTES OF UNSAFE STATUS
02:00
ADRENALINE RISE: 88% [DANGEROUS]
01:00
STATUS: [STATUS HIGHLY UNSTABLE] TRICIA PAIGE SUMMERSTONE/ DEATH/ NO
……………………………………………………..
“Tricia! Tricia!” he shouted shaking her. Her head was almost limp. Her torso was covered in blood, which poured from an open wound in her abdomen. Paige’s face was pale and stained with red. Her eyes shook and tears streamed from them. Her mouth barely moved as she mouthed, “I’m sorry.” Tada swallowed hard grabbing her hand as he stared at her speechless. He hadn’t prepared himself for this. Why was this happening? No, it was just a simulation. Tada screamed this to himself in his mind, but his eyes showed him his failure clear as day. Had it been real…
”Paige, I’m…” he began. Her hand gripped his tightly and her body shook for a moment then went still,
“Tada, they’re regrouping. We’re going to be heavily outnumbered soon. Now is the time to finish this. I know it hurts but let’s make sure she didn’t die in vain,” Laras coached, “Come on. What should we do now?”
……………………………………………………..
STRESS LV: 100% [CRITICAL]
00:26
ADRENALINE RISE: 11%
STATUS: LISTLESS/ TACTICAL KNOWLEDGE WAINING/ MORALE DROP CRITICAL

Ms. Ortrun sighed staring at the television, “Jeez, Greywall you’re always too busy to come see anything of interest. That’s further than any other of my students has gotten. He could have actually won that battle. Well, of course he also had different people. Hm, still…” A red light blinked on the top of the tank making a high-pitched beep every blink as the timer continued running down.
…………………………………………………………
Tada’s mind was reeling. He felt sick. Thinking was the last thing on his mind,
“I don’t know…” he finally said. Laras stared at him,
“You don’t…know?” he said with his voice getting a little more hostile, “Tada…I understand your anguish, but there’s no time. We can do this, but-“
“I’m sorry,” Tada replied. There was a long silence before several shouts came from beyond the wall.

SIMULATION TERMINATED

PROFICIENCY RATINGS:

COMBAT: 96 A
CONTROL: MIN-0% F/ MAX-91% A
FOCUS: 97 S
TACTICAL: FAILURE/ MAX-98 S
MORALE (ALLIES): MIN-61% C/ MAX 100% S
MORALE (SELF): MIN-0% F/ MAX 100% S
CASUALTIES: FAILURE
IC (IN COMBAT) CASUALTIES: 1
RESULT: PROGRAM TERMINATION
VICTORY %: 97 A
TACTICAL ERRORS: 1 (NO HIGH COVER)

PROGRAM PROFICIENCY: FAILURE

OVERALL PROFICIENCY: ADVANCED

COMMAND INPUT: Sex proficiency

SEXUAL PROFICIENCY: Processing…

Ms. Ortrun smiled and chuckled as the statistics loaded. She wondered if Tada would be curious. The tank opened after the gel was drained. Tada walked out of it completely dry except for sweat,
“So you wanna see your scores?” she asked. Tada was still shaken,
“Uh, yeah…” he said quietly. His eyes skimmed down the list. He smirked a bit. It was just a simulation. Nothing more. Still, he got a pretty accurate reading he supposed. The word ADVANCED made him proud. Still, he’d made a rookie tactical error. Something so obvious and yet he’d missed it, “Wait what the-“ he began when he saw the words SEXUAL PROFICIENCY. Just as the number came up Ortrun covered it with her hand,
“Hey now, that’s not what’s important. Pay attention to your flaws so you know what to fix next time,” she said. Tada’s heart was still racing. He felt a little sick,
“Yeah. Got ya,” he replied still hoping for her hand to move. It didn’t. Ortrun seemed to sense the unrest within him,
“It’s okay. It was just a sim Tada. It’s called the Fall of Oxford. There’s a reason. It’s to give you a real sense of what it would feel like to be suddenly thrown into combat,” her eyes shined, “You pulled off some interesting stuff. Everyone tries to take out the tower, but most fail or lose their entire unit. You actually could have won that skirmish. Well, possibly. Anyway, you’ve definitely shown an advanced concept of what a tactician needs, but a leader is more important than a strategist believe it or not, and a leader needs more than a quick mind and a large vocabulary. You have to be able to control. Not just you, not just others either. You have to learn to control the entire situation. I’ll give you a small written assignment. Tomorrow, when you come in let me know if you can lead. If you’re just a strategist, then your lesson won’t be the same.”
“So, I’ll be switching classes if I can’t control my nerves in those situations?” Tada asked. He’d accidentally let some apprehension slip into his voice. Ortrun sighed smirking,
“Tada, I know your type. You’ve got a gift. A very potent gift. You’ve lived by it and honed it into something more powerful and precious than a gift. You’ve created a talent. With that, you’ve vowed to yourself to change something. Now, you’ve thought long and hard about how you’d change something and the way you decided it could be done was to become a commissioned officer in the rebellion. Tada, something you have to accept is that…” she stopped looking away from him for a moment, “Well, this revolution may not even happen in our lifetimes,”
“I understand that,” Tada replied,
“But you haven’t accepted it. You’re holding on to this ambition too tightly. Stop trying to fight for your dream, and fight for your cause. They’ll fall in line I promise. You really want to be liberated right? Then do what best fits you so that you can benefit your and all our causes to the fullest.” Tada stroked his upper lip where his mustache used to be and was starting to come back in,
“So…you don’t think I’m cut out for leadership?” he asked. Ortrun rolled her eyes,
“That’s not what I said. Just don’t answer the question for yourself until you’ve given both possibilities fair consideration.”
“I see,” Tada responded smiling, “So about that sex proficiency level. Can’t you just go ahead and tell me?” Ortrun donned a devilish look,
“Well, we could find out couldn’t we?”
“Oh jeez,” Tada scoffed rolling his eyes. Tada’s instructor laughed out loud turning off her screen as her student tried to look yet again.

That night, sleep was difficult. The written assignment had been basic and inexplicably easy but he hadn’t seen Paige for the rest of the day. He’d gotten a brief phone call from her so she could test his new cell phone (which he’d been forced to get on the grounds of having an ‘ancient’ model) making sure the number was right, but she’d been busy. Scarily enough, Tada hadn’t known what to say when he talked to her. He just knew he wanted to say SOMETHING. His cool was slipping.

The dream Tada fell into was darkness. It felt like he was still asleep, but voices swarmed around him. There was pressure on his head,
“What is your name?” a smooth voice asked. Tada’s own voice replied, but mechanically, drearily,
“7…3…8.”
“Good,” said the voice, “Let’s check his motor skills. Open your left eye,” it commanded. A bright light poured in through a slow opening slid in the left of Tada’s vision, “Good. Close it.” The eye closed, “Now the right.” The right eye opened until commanded closed, “Left arm, then down, then right arm, then down,” said the voice. Tada felt his left arm go up hanging in the air for a moment then hitting something solid like a table, which it seemed he was lying on. The right did the same, “Was that difficult?”
“No,” Tada replied,
“Good. Let’s bring her in. Check his natural reactions,” said the voice. Something clicked and a low hum could be heard. Something burned his right hand. Tada jerked away from it with a groan, “Okay good.” Something cool was draped over his left arm. He grabbed it with his right to cool the burn. A chuckle was heard, “Ah, perfect here she is,” said the voice. A female voice seemed to be struggling. The original voice got loud for a moment, “Hey hey! Stop that. Bring her here.” Something soft pressed against Tada’s bare skin. There were two soft yet firm globes tightly bearing down on his lower abdomen all the way up to his chest. The softness was warm, “Ah, there there,” said the voice. The thing against him was a female body. His hands shot up gripping hips, “Whoa, okay. That’s enough; he’s normal for the most part. We don’t need him feeling the inside of a woman just yet.” There was a chuckle as the female was wretched from him and began struggling again, “What is your name?”
“7…3…8,” Tada replied
“What is your goal?”
“…”
“Good. Who am I?”
“I don’t know,”
“Where are you?”
“I…don’t know…”
“Good,”
He was awake again. Confusion seeped into his brain gradually like a slow dripping faucet onto a dry sponge. Lying there staring at the ceiling Tada felt utterly alone. He closed his eyes and imagined. Paige lying there next to him. Her breath was on the side of his face, her hair softly splayed about her form and the surface of her pillow. Tada imagined her hands around his arm as she slowly rose and fell at mercy of her diaphragm taking in air. Once it felt so real he wanted to roll over and embrace her, he imagined her going away. Gone. Never to return through pain of death. His heart felt cold and an empty feeling immediately settled in his stomach. Why couldn’t he fight through that? He’d been expecting war. Tada’s mind reeled. Why? It made no sense why he couldn’t handle it. He understood war perfectly. Life, death, love, hate, all of it. Then it hit him. There were always aspects of these that he did not yet accept, and maybe he could not.

ONE MESSAGE RECEIVED
Tada awoke. He rolled over seeing red blurs where the numbers on his clock should be. 7:38am
He threw his pillow at the clock. On the floor by his bed was his cell phone blinking red as well with a yellow envelope displayed by the words ONE TEXT MESSAGE. Tada picked up the phone flipping it open and stared at the letters until they translated from morning vision to English,
“Hello handsome! U up for class yet?”
Tada stared at he message and was sorely tempted to send Paige a dirty pic to teach her a lesson for texting him so early. His classes started at ten. Though, if he sent one, she may reply with one of her own, and he already had that special thing that happened to guy’s in the mornings going on. He texted back,
“Page, seriosely? I do not wantto be ur right nouw. I dont’ hav to go to classuntil 10.”
“It’s PaIge Mr. Freedom. Ur? Wantto? Seriosely? Nouw? Jeez, Tada I’ll have to teach u to text later Wink”
“K fine paIge. How’s that? I’m awake now. You happy?”
“Poor Tada. You want to get some breakfast with me?” It took Tada a while to answer. Was it a good idea? He wasn’t sure if he’d recovered enough to hide this little worry from her,
“Sure thing.” Had he declined, she would know something was up. Tada loved breakfast food. “Just let me shower.”
“Ooh, take pictures!”
“Stoppit.”

Fifteen minutes later he walked outside his door clean-shaven yet again and wearing a white button-up shirt and black slacks. He really needed to wash clothes tomorrow. That or buy the uniform, but that wasn’t happening until someone actually asked him to,
“You know you’d look good in the uniform Tada. You should wear it,” came a playful voice behind him. Tada’s eyes closed as he looked up at the ceiling,
“Dammit Paige.” She giggled grabbing his left arm,
”Hehehe! Shall we?” she asked.
A Non-Existent User
“Jeeze Tada, you look horrible today.” Paige teased as they waited for their food.

“Oh?” Tada asked slightly listlessly as he stirred his orange juice with the straw. His head rested in his hand with his body slightly leaning towards the window of their booth.

“Yea, you’ve got ten pound weights hanging from your eyes.” She giggled. “Haven’t seen someone look this bad since last year during finals.”

Tada sighed heavily. “Didn’t sleep well last night. Don’t worry, I’m fine.” He replied, keeping his gaze on the orange juice in front of him.

Paige raised an eyebrow, smirking to herself. So this was what zombie Tada would look like if the world were overrun by the undead. She smiled to herself. With him acting like this she had the sudden urge to throw him on a bed and make him go to sleep and if he refused… she’d give him something that would ensure he’d fall asleep afterwards. It made her want to mess with him all the more. “Well that’s good. We wouldn’t want you going to class zoning out like you are.”

“I don’t ever zone out in class.” He replied flatly.

“I see. Then should I dress up like a teacher and give you a lesson you’ll never forget?” She asked coyly.

Tada raised an eyebrow. “Is that supposed to be dirty?”

She grinned cocking her head to the side and giving him a most angelic expression. “Of course not Tada. Its far too early for that.”

He grinned. “Good because I’m pretty sure the school would frown on raping people via breakfast.”

Paige did a dramatic gasp as if in shock, even going so far as to make her cheeks flush with heat. “Tada… you wouldn’t.”

“You’re right but it’s not me I’m worried about.”

“Silly. I’d never do such a thing. Promise. You’re safe as long as I’m around.” She replied as she held up her hand in a scouts honor, placing her other hand over her heart.

“Huh, glad to hear it.” Tada said coolly as he turned his head, staring off into space.

Paige gave a sigh of her own, the worry finally setting in. She figured he wouldn’t want to talk about whatever was bugging him. If he had he’d have told her by now. She could maybe ease into the subject slowly but she doubted she’d get the full story whatever it was. “Bad dreams?” She asked.

“What?”

“Is that why you didn’t sleep well last night? Bad dreams?” She wondered.

Tada hesitated. “Well… no, not really.”

“Not really? What’s that supposed to mean? Sort of yea?” She teased, leaving her tone of voice lighthearted even though she was quite serious at the moment.

“Not ‘bad’ technically but definitely confusing. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. What about you? Where were you all of yesterday?”

Paige sighed and decided to ease up on him for the moment. “Oh nothing really. Mr. Kenneth is still trying to get my aim better. He had me firing at all sorts of targets all day yesterday.”

“So did it get better?” It was Paiges’ turn to look away this time. Tada chuckled. “So that’s a no?” He asked as he finally took a sip of the orange juice that had remained untouched this whole time aside from his constant stirring.

“Well it’s not my fault. Those blasted targets keep moving so bloody fast how’s anyone supposed to deal a fatal blow?” She pouted.

“How many did you miss?”

“…”

“So I guess a better question would be how many did you hit?” Paige’s reply came in a low mumble as she slouched in her seat and crossed her arms. He hadn’t been able to make out the number. “What was that?” He pressed with a small grin forming at the corners of his mouth.

“Forty-nine.”

“Out of?”

“Well I was going at it all day.” She grumbled.

“Out of?”

There was a heavy sigh before Paige blurted out the embarrassing number. “200 sheets and 350 dummy’s.”

Tada lowered his face and continued drinking his orange juice but not before saying, “Wow.” Paige didn’t have to see his face to know he was trying to hide a smile.

“Shut up Konsen! What do you know anyways?” She pouted even more, her embarrassment shining through in the expression on her face.

Tada’s smile faded away. “I know my combat efficiency rating is somehow at ninety-six. That’s out of 110.”

“What? That’s amazing. So I take it you’re first class with Ms. Ortrun went well then?”

“I guess you could say that but, don’t you think it’s strange considering I’ve only been in two fights my whole life- one being the day we met and the other being when I was a child?”

Paige paused and realized he was right. Paige had been in a few skirmishes when her parents had first died. She’d been angry back then and hadn’t known any other way to release her hate but to kick and scream at anyone who came close enough. Even with that, she was an average fighter at best by Oxford’s standards and a horrible shot. That was unless she could get Mr. Kenneth to give her a bigger gun. She decided she wanted to find out what else had gone down during Tada’s first lesson. “That is pretty strange. Maybe you turned into super mom for a moment.”

“Into super mom?”

“Yea, you know, when a mother’s child’s in danger and all that adrenaline’s pumping through her she can do crazy cool stuff like pull a car off them and stuff like that.” It took everything she had to hold back her laughter.

“Paige… seriously? I’m not a female and I’ve never- ever given birth to a child. Nor will I ever.”

Paige just grinned mischievously as if she were thinking of one of her usual comebacks. Something like, “Really, that’s too bad. I think you’d make a great mom.” Or “Really? Cause I noticed you’ve been eating a lot more. I think you’re starting to show.” But instead all she said was, “So how were your other scores?”


“Pretty high. Apparently I’m advanced but…” Paige could see him tense.

“But what?” She asked.

“My leadership skills need work. Basically…” Tada sighed, leaning back in his seat as he looked away.

“It was a simulation. I fucked up and you died. So I failed.”

Paige stared at him in disbelief at what he might be saying. “Failed because I was the last one in your party or just failed after I died?” She asked carefully.

He ran his hand through his hair as he smiled at her in hopes of reducing the look of worry planted on his face. “Doesn’t matter. I just failed. Don’t worry though I’ll get better. I’m sorry.” Paige’s eyes became wide with something that looked like shock and horror before she slumped forward, her head falling limp onto the table as she stared at nothing. Without moving or failing in her first class performance Paige inwardly smiled. Any minute now he’d say “Paige, that’s not funny.” Or call her a dummy. She made sure to remain as still as death itself as she waited. Yet that was not what she heard. Instead a ruckus went off on his side of the table as he jumped up out of his seat. “Paige are you-” He began in a panicked tone.

He’d almost thought she was serious. She quickly shot her head up giving him a big cheesy grin and a peace sign. “Sorry, couldn’t resist showing off my talents as a great actress.” She teased as she searched his face for a reaction. There was a split second of horror and fear in his eyes but as soon as she recognized it, it was gone just like that. “…Tada…” Tada merely closed his eyes and sat back down- his face unreadable. He’d gone and pulled the curtain over his emotions- something everyone at Oxford seemed good at. It wasn’t hard to recognize. She’d done it plenty of times herself. She felt silence creep in and settle over them. Paige stared at Tada realizing that he really did care what had happened in that simulation. Or perhaps there was something else to it as well. He sure wasn’t eager to tell her his dream either and she could tell he wasn’t in the same room with her anymore. No, his thoughts had whisked him away from her.

She was right of course. Tada sat there realizing just how irrational he’d acted. He hadn’t intended to overreact like he did and, he wasn’t even sure why he’d jumped up like that. Tada took a deep breath as he came to the conclusion that Paige’s simulated death had gotten under his skin much more than he’d realized. When he finally looked up at her he kept a flat expression planted on his face. It was his voice that gave him away. “It’s nothing Paige. Really.”

Just as Paige was about to call bull shit Tada’s omelet was placed in front of him. They’d been so wrapped up neither of them had noticed the waitress coming with their food. Tada still didn’t give the woman or the food any sort of acknowledgement. So instead Paige clapped her hands together, breaking Tada of his deep thoughts. “Food’s here! Let’s eat.”

“…Yea, right.”

She let him finish his omelet. She devoured her French toast and strawberry’s in half the time but the size of his meal compared to her own was much larger. As he took his last bite, Paige downed the last of her milk. “Well then, now that that’s taken care of- I say its about time you come on and talk to me. What’s bothering you so much?” She asked staring at him with an intense patience.

Looking up, Tada realized she wouldn’t let him leave his spot without getting what she wanted. “I don’t know Paige. I guess I’m not all I’m cracked up to be.” He explained to her. “I broke down. I couldn’t deal with failure. Especially since it was you I failed. You’ve never failed me.”

“Tada, you’re not super human. I don’t expect you to never fail. Haven’t you figured it out by now? You haven’t stopped impressing me from the moment we met. So don’t let something as silly as loosing a pretend me throw you off course. Learn from whatever scenario you went through so that when it is time for me and you to fight side by side you’ll know what to do.”

He smirked, "Well that's the plan. I just...well I don't know what I'd do if anything..." he paused looking up at Paige who was listening intently, "...if anything happened to you that I could have prevented."

“Huh, careful. You might make me think you’ve got a thing for me.” She teased.

"Oh yeah of course I do," he said sarcastically, "I wouldn't worry about you otherwise. There's no way I'd ever worry about someone I wasn't romantically interested in..."

“So what else is bugging you? Yes, that's right. I'm not so dense to not see that there's something else. That dream you had?"

"Okay, well don't overreact...” He paused, expecting her to say something playful but she didn’t. Instead she just nodded and waited for him to reply. “It really didn’t make much sense. I was lying on a metal table or something; there was this strange type of pressure pushing down on my head. It felt like I was asleep but wasn’t. I heard a voice telling me to open my eyes and lift my hands. I only moved when and what he told me to. He asked for my name but all I gave him was a number.”

“What kind of number?” Paige asked. Truly interested in what he had to say.

“7…3…8. That’s what I said. Then he asked me who he was and where I was… my function… I didn’t know the answer to any of those questions…. But before that, they brought a woman in.”

“A woman? What did she look like?” She wondered.

“I don’t know. All I could hear was her struggling to get away. They put her on top me to see what I’d do.”

“And what was that?”

“I placed my hands on her hips. They pulled her off as soon as I did, saying they didn’t want me feeling a woman just yet. The dream ended with him asking me where I was. When I told him I didn’t know all he said was good.” His words trailed off as he relived the dream again in his mind. It took five minutes for him to speak another word. “You don’t understand Paige. It was like my body wasn’t even my own. It was like someone had erased everything about me and redid it all in their own image and for some reason that scared me.”

“I’m sure it did.” Her response surprised him. He’d expected a polite blow off. It was a dream after all. Not many people bothered showing any sort of compassion towards a nightmare- not unless you were a little child anyways. “Do you feel like it meant something?” She asked.

“It was just a dream Paige.” Tada stated without much thought. “It just unnerved me is all.”

“Yea, I know it was a dream silly.” She agreed. Tada looked up at her. “That’s not what I asked though. What I want to know is if you feel like it’s important to you in some way. Do you need to hold onto a dream that scares you that bad?”

“Do I need to hold on to it? No, but I can’t do anything about it holding onto me.”

“So what are you going to do then?” She waited silently for a few moments, letting him think over what she’d asked.

Tada casually sat back in his seat. “I guess I’ll just block it out and ignore it.” He replied nonchalantly.

“Oh yes, that’s productive. Just ignore the problem. That’ll help.” Paige couldn’t help rolling her eyes and laughing.

“Well honestly, I don’t know. I’m not used to having things bother me this much. What do you do to deal with your internal problems?”

Paige froze, tensing for a moment. The memory of her running up to her father with her arms outstretched flew across her mind. The fact that she had long forgotten how comforting it had felt being scooped up in his big embrace stung her in that moment. “I’m sorry Tricia, sweetie but, mommy and daddy need to talk in private tonight.”
“What’s wrong?” Her mother had asked.
“Something’s happened. I think we’re in trouble.”


Paige blinked away the memory and refocused in on Tada. “I carry them with me when I need their weight to give me more strength and I hide them away when the burden becomes too great for me to bear.” She said honestly. Tada smiled and gave her a warm thoughtful gaze. She could have sworn, looking into his eyes, that he was thinking something. Something he had no intention of saying.

He stood and side stepped out from the booth and walked over to Paige, patting her on the hand. “You know Paige, you’re pretty strong. I hope you’ll share some of that with me one of these days.” He replied as he began walking towards the front door. “Thanks for breakfast. I’ll repay you as soon as I can.” He added without turning to look back. If he had, he’d have seen a red faced Paige staring wide-eyed at him. She wondered if he might ever know just how much those words meant to her. No one ever sees just how strong they are. It takes someone telling you to for you to be able to look back and see just how far you’ve come.

Realizing he was leaving, Paige quickly pulled out a twenty and, slapping it on the table, stood up quickly to catch up with him before he completely disappeared out of the building. “Hey where are you going?” She called out.

“I’ve got class in five minutes.” He replied before stepping outside.

When Paige finally made it out, he was already a good ten paces ahead of her. “Hey, wait up!”

“What is it?” He asked as he turned and waited for her to run in her heals to catch up with him.

“Did you hear what They’re saying about Laras?” She wondered.

Tada looked away and sighed. “Yeah”

“Do you believe it? You know, that he’s the T word?”

His only response was a raised eyebrow, no doubt in regards to the phrase ‘the T word’. “Not sure. Don’t quite know the guy but I’ll definitely keep on my toes around him.”

Paige sighed. “… You know, its funny. He’s the one teacher at Oxford that everyone knows to steer clear of but the fact that they’re saying he’s the traitor is really depressing. For as big of a stick he’s got shoved up his butt, he’s one of the best teachers you could have and he always makes sure his students come out learning as much as possible. I hope none of it is true as much as I’d hate to say it.”

Tada just shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know what to tell ya. They were talking about putting me in his class but with all this going on I doubt that’ll happen. Besides, I’d rather not train with an elephant in the room.”

Paige smirked. “It’s just like you to say something like that.” She laughed.


She tipped toed down the stairs, the long dress of her nightgown brushing up against her legs as she slowly made her way to the door to their room. “Where is she?” He asked in a tone she’d only heard once when she’d played in the car and pushed the wrong thing sending the car rolling into the street. He was scared.

“She’s fast asleep Jonathan. Now what’s wrong? What happened tonight?” She could hear him shuffling around in the room. She thought that if she’d have been able to open the door by just a fraction she’d have been able to see him packing.

“I think someone leaked what I’ve been trying to do. It’s not safe here for us anymore. … Here, pack some of yours and Tricia’s things in this.”

“Jonathan!” Her mother exclaimed. “You’re telling me one of our friends gave us away to the Deklahnian soldiers?”

The shuffling stopped. She imagined her father turning, staring at her mother with a sad sort of look. “Yes. I’ve got a few leading suspicions but no proof. That’s not what matters now anyways. The Doctors- they’ll be here tonight.”

“What?” The woman cried out in pain. Tricia’s own eyes widened in fear. She wasn’t so young to not know what happened when the Doctors came to visit a family. “Tricia.” Her mother whispered sharply. “She’ll be all alone.”

“No she won’t. Not if we leave now. Tabby, it’s too late. It’s over. I’m sorry. I was always so careful with who I chose to incorporate into the plan. The differences they could have made… it was too important not to take the risk.”

“We need to go. I don’t care if we’re caught. I’m no Oxford graduate like you but I believe in everything that place stands for. I made my own choices just like you made yours but Tricia… she’s just-”

“I know.”

A knock on the door.

Everyone’s hearts skipped at the same exact time. Father, mother, and child. A whimper. Tricia couldn’t tell if it had come from her or her mother. “They’re here.” Her mother’s voice shook with fear and sadness.

“Maybe not.”

The door flew open and the hallway flooded with light. “Tricia Paige Summerstone!” Her fathers voice bellowed.

Then another knock… and the front door burst open with people dressed in all white accompanied by Deklahnian soldiers. “Jonathan and Tabitha Summerstone- you’re under arrest.”

She saw her father’s white shirt with light green pin stripes as he stepped in front of her. “On what charges?” He asked defiantly. A soldier used the handle of his gun to hit him across the face. He spun around falling to one knee. She saw the blood and screamed.


Paige shot up out of bed gasping for air. It was like she’d been holding her breath. The oversized white button up shirt she always wore to bed stuck to her skin, her body sweaty. She wiped her brow as she looked around the dark room. The only light was shinning in through the window. Her heartbeat was racing in her chest so fast she thought it would burst. As soon as she was awake enough to regain her bearings she collapsed on her side, curling up as she gripped the pillow next to her. She hated being alone on nights like these. Daylight would be her only salvation, and with that knowledge nothing would get in her way of a good day.

Dead sleep was a comforting thing… no dreams. Yet, something began to cut through her sleep; a noise. It was constant and unrelenting. Paige moaned and buried her face further into the pillow. “Paige! Paige are you in there?” A familiar feminine voice called out.

“No.” She groaned, rolling onto her side.

“Paige, come on! Open up! It’s Addie. It’s important.”

“What’s so important that you’ve got to wake me up?” She growled, still trying to get back to sleep.

“Omega, that’s what! Now open this freakin’ door!” Addie yelled.

Paige’s eyes shot open. What did they do now? She thought to herself as she rose up onto her hands and knee’s, sliding out of bed and walking over to the door. Addie was a freshman but she was serious about taking down Omega. Almost obsessed. Her brother had gone ‘missing’ when she was a kid because he’d started openly talking down about Omega. He wasn’t anyone special. Just some high school kid who had a big mouth and wasn’t afraid of anything. That was what had killed him. Paige opened the door. “What happened?” She asked; completely awake now that Omega was in the picture.

Addie let herself in and went straight to the TV, turning it on and began flipping through the pages. Paige sighed and shut the door. She noted that Addie was in her journalist state. Whenever she was ready to fight using her words- a trait she picked up from her brother no doubt, she always carried around her notebook and had her brown hair twisted up in a bun and secured by a pencil. “They’re challenging us.” She replied, clearly angry. “They’re practically begging us to revolt against them. They attacked three different locations last night. Look.” She said, finally finding a news station. Paige walked over to the TV and crossed her arms, standing behind Addie who was practically glued to the computer screen.

“You’re right. Grenade In My Hand hadn’t informed anyone that last night at their concert they’d be giving a sneak preview to their latest sound track. Even their Agent Nick Setel hadn’t realized that they’d be doing this.” A woman in the top right hand corner of the TV replied.

“That’s the problem. These kids were young and stupid. What made them think they could release such an outlandish song to the public and not have consequences?” A man replied. He was in the top right.

In the center the reporter finally spoke. “Now is it or is it not true that directly following the premiere of Falls the Thorn, forty- seven people attending Grenade’s concert disappeared along with the band member’s who wrote this song in the first place.”

“That’s correct.” The man on the right replied. “Kevin Sync, Diana Ferra, and Arthur Nedgings. It’s believed that they went missing between the hours of two and three in the morning.”

“Why hasn’t their been a formal search on these three?” The reporter asked.

“Well it is quite common for these three to go missing after such a big show. It’s believed that they were heavily into drugs. It might just be that they’re passed out somewhere from a crazy night.”

“That’s nothing but an allegation towards those kids and even if it weren’t true why hasn’t anyone gone looking for the people who’d gone missing after attending the concert?” The woman on the left demanded.

“It was stated in a police report that there was a loud disturbance after the concert.”

“What police report. There’s no record of that. What are you trying to pull here?” The woman yelled.

The man however, ignored her completely and continued talking. “People who’d clearly had too good a time were starting to get loud and chant the very lyrics that are clearly a verbal attack against the Republic.” He answered, pulling out a piece of paper and flatly repeating what were obviously the lyrics to the bands newest song.

“Let fall the thorn in my side.
The wound that festers and tries to hide
All the damage burned into my mind.
A resting peace I’ll never find.
Deep now is the hole that is my Hell.
A dagger at my throat says I’m doing well.
Until that thorn is ripped away.
Curse you every night and day.
Long live freedom,
May freedom fade.”

He made eye contact with the woman, staring at her image through his own monitor. “Then I believe it was Kevin who was so blatant to say at the end, and I quote- ‘Fuck the Republic and fuck Omega! Goodnight!”

“Well obviously these kids didn’t know what they were doing. They got caught up in the moment.” The woman argued.

“No, they were stoned during their performance and felt that they could get away with such a brutal attack on our Republic. They’re stoners and alcoholics. No doubt their fans were as well and were simply incarcerated. They’ll no doubt be released sometime this evening.” He replied confidently.

“That’s bullshit and you know it! These people were-”

“Were what?”


Paige could see the warning look in the man’s eyes. ‘be careful with what you say if you don’t want to end up like them’. Addie changed the channel again. Her lips were pursed together and her eyes squinted in a glare. Still she didn’t look away from the TV. “She’s right you know. I did a quick search. Not as detailed as I would have liked but there is no report of that many people being arrested by the police last night. In fact there were no arrests in that vicinity. Not a single cop car patrolled those streets. It was like they were told to steer clear of that area. Like they didn’t need to be there. You think that’s bad though, check this out.”

“What else did they do?” Paige asked. That alone had been a pretty public display of power. Everyone who watched the news or talked to a friend would know what had really happened to all those people and it wasn’t incarceration.

The reenactment of the fall of Earth’s Republic ended tragically when seven hundred actors playing Earths soldiers were arrested and found guilty for conspiring against Omega. The remaining actors are being investigated under allegations that this large club of historical reenactment actors may in fact be a rebel group.”

Again the channel was changed. Addie kept her eyes fixed on the TV. “Over seven hundred families without fathers and brothers now. I’m sure the count will rise over the next few months as well. Arrests at first, maybe even accidents.”

Professor Jenggis Hong was arrested after the board discovered his illegal practices not only outside the classroom but within. Professor Hong was found with copies of books that have been banned and deemed inappropriate for the world populous to read. Copies such as The Art of War and The Art of Peace, along with Rise of Freedom and the original constitutional rights of America. He has already been arrested and charged with acts of treason and the act of corruption. Luckily after each child was tested by one of the governments best psychologists they were happy to report that any sort of brainwashing or mislead teachings by Professor Hong will have no long lasting effects on these children’s lives. It is assumed they will grow up to be healthy productive citizens of the Republic. A new government assigned teacher will be in charge of the class. They’ll be able to undo the damage the late professor did. In other news-”

Addie turned off the television. Paige was angry but Addie was seething. “They don’t care who you are anymore Paige… they’ll find you and either make you disappear or some other twisted punishment that’s even worse than death.”

Paige thought of her parents. She hoped they were dead because if they weren’t, that long in Omega’s care would have been enough to send them into madness. “I know.” Was all she could say.

“I’ve talked to the rest of my journalism class. They all agree that tomorrow Omega will be the only topic in the Oxford newspaper.” She said in a somewhat flat voice though Paige knew Addie enough to hear a mocking sense of justice in her words as well. She even saw the smile on the younger woman’s face.

“What? You’re kidding!”

“No… I’m not. Omega will be featured from front to back.” Addie replied, finally turning and grinning at Paige with joy and excitement.

“Are you crazy? Do you have any idea what repercussions will come from that? You’ll expose Oxford. Omega will take that as a public statement that Oxford is waging war on them. We’ll be swimming with Deklahnian Soldiers by lunch!”

“But Paige it’s our duty to-“

“It’s our duty to keep Oxfords secrets just that. Secrets. Don’t you dare think of doing this Addie. I will report you and your class to your teacher. Don’t think I wont.”

Addie’s eyes widened. “…Paige?” But Paige’s only response was a glare and crossed arms. Addie finally caved in. “Fine. I won’t do it… but I still think it’s a good idea.”

“Of course you do. You just got here at Oxford a few months ago. Give it another year or so and you’ll know that was a dumb idea.” There was a moment of silence before Addie nodded and politely excused herself.



Paige leaned in slightly. “No. That’s not it Paige. What the hell? How many times do we have to go over this? Your stance is all wrong. Your legs are too far apart, your arms aren’t high enough and really, your muscles are too tense on the trigger.” Mr. Kenneth moved her limbs until they were in the right place.

Paige smiled at him. “Come on now Mr. Kenneth. This isn’t as simple as it looks.”

“Yes, it is. Especially with how many hours you and I have been putting in.” He was getting annoyed. She didn’t blame him. She hated that it came this hard for her.

“I’m telling you if you’d just let me play with some of your bigger toys. What about a Tommy gun? Then I wouldn’t have to aim.”

“Absolutely not. You’ll stick with this handgun until you learn how to use it properly. Until its an extension of your body. You’d best not miss this target otherwise I’m going to make your life a living hell for the next week.”

“What?” She pouted. She knew he wasn’t kidding. He’d put her through his version of boot camp until she needed a wheelchair to get around the school.

He smiled, crossing his well-chiseled arms. He wasn’t in perfect physical condition for nothing. His intense training lesson would be hers if she wasn’t careful. “Don’t give me that. It would do you some good- less curves and more muscle.”

“But-”

“Don’t bother. Just aim and shoot. Whether you’ll be even more busy this next week or not is up to you.”

Oh joy. I missed 501 shots two days ago and 489 yesterday. I’ve already wracked up 475 so far today and he wants me to magically hit this target? Oh please god- don’t let me miss this shot. She thought to herself as she focused on the white sheet of paper with the black target printed on it. She aimed for the chest. It was a larger target and she was more likely to hit that than the head. Don’t look away. She reminded herself for the hundredth time. Slowly, Paige took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. Then she blinked, feeling her hand shift ever so lightly. Damn it all! She mentally kicked herself for that mistake. With very little hope felt, Paige wishfully looked up at the target to see if she’d skidding by just enough to avoid Mr. Kenneth’s punishment. The bullet nicked the corner of the paper- missing her target completely.

Mr. Kenneth made a noise that could have been taken for either a cough or a snicker. Judging by the tone of his voice she figured it meant the latter. “Looks like we’ll be spending more time with one another outside of our one on one lessons.”

Paige slowly lowered the gun to her side, rolling her eyes. “Oh joy.”

“Come on then, you’ve still got fifteen more minutes until class actually begins. Keep practicing.”

Paige nodded. “Right.” Then, looking back at the target, she once again got into the right stance and began firing.



“Anybody in here?” Paige lost concentration yet again and missed her target as she looked over her shoulder.

“Tada? What are you doing here?” Paige asked.

He looked over at her and smiled. “Oh, Paige. I only had to attend Ms. Ortrun’s class yesterday. Today I’ll be attending all of my classes.”

Mr. Kenneth came out from the back room. “Dammit Paige, I’ve never had a students waist so many bullets. You’re-” He paused, seeing Tada.

“So you’re the kid Sofia was talking about huh? Tada isn’t it?” He asked.

Yes. Mr. Kenneth I presume?”

“That’s right. Here, why don’t I show you what to do and see if you can’t catch on? I’ll know if you’re any good by the time you empty one of your clips.”

“Alright then.” Tada nodded.

A few minutes later Mr. Kenneth stepped aside, handing the gun over to Tada. “Just like I showed you then. I doubt you’ll have as much trouble as Paige.”

“Hey… let’s focus on Tada and not me.” Paige half pouted half teased.

Tada tried to mimic the stance Mr. Kenneth had showed him and looked straight down the barrel, aiming for the chest. He took deep breaths, clearly concentrating on the target. Paige watched as he stood there. Tada’s gaze seemed she mirror something beyond focus. It was almost unsettling the way he stared. Slowly, she noted how he shifted his weight, his arms came in, closer to his body then he’d started off with. Then his aim shifted. He raised it ever so slightly. She took a sharp inhale. He was going for the head- no… directly in the middle of his eyes. The gun fired. Paige jumped slightly. I really need to stop doing that! She yelled at herself before looking to see how bad Tada missed. He’d never used a gun before. He’d told her that himself.

“Excellent. Perfect execution. You’ll be a refreshing rain after the drought that Paige’s brought on.”

Tada smiled, lowering the gun. “Yea, too bad I can’t drive to save my life. What’s this gun called again?”

“You mean you don’t know?” He asked.

“Nope.”

“Tada’s never shot a gun before today.” Paige replied before looking at Tada. “This ones your basic hand gun 9mm. When you’ve mastered this, he’ll work you up to the shot guns, riffles, and some of the bigger, more dangerous babies.”

“Huh, I see. Well I’ll learn whatever you have to teach me sir.”

“Sorry I’m late.” A voice called out as it entered the room. It was Mia. “I was told I needed a weaponry class.”

Mr. Kenneth smirked. “Yes, they switched your schedule around again, didn’t they?” He asked.

She nodded. “Yes sir.”

“Have you ever shot a gun before?” He asked.

“I did. Before coming to Oxford I trained in many different things with the help of the royal guard that protected me and my own private tutors.”

“Alright then. Show me.” He said, handing her the same basic handgun Tada and Paige had. She emptied her round, hitting every target with a death blow.”

“Impressive.”

Tada smirked. “Wow Mia, that was pretty cool.”

Paige noticed that the tone of his voice was slightly off. “What is it?” She asked, making sure to lean in so only he could hear her.

“She’s got the very same stance Mr. Kenneth teaches all his students. I would have thought that Mia would have a slightly different stance with a completely different teacher. I wonder if she’s the real Mia or her dissembler.”

Paige blinked and then stared at Mia. She didn’t see a single thing out of place. Which probably meant that his hunch was right. She had a feeling Mia was a little less normal than usual.



Paige spotted the real Mia in the cafeteria. She looked to be steaming over something and Paige figured she knew what. “Hey Mia, it’s been a pretty long time, hasn’t it?”

Mia looked up. “Paige, hey, it has been a while.”

“So what have you been up to? I hear you had quite a fight a while back.”

“Yea…” Mia seemed irritated. “Did you hear what they said about Laras? That he’s the traitor?”

Paige sighed. “Yea I heard. I really hate to think about it.”

“But Paige, it’s not even true. I mean really. This is just ridiculous. He isn’t the traitor.”

“I hope you’re right. Still, this isn’t some rumor started by a bored student body. The faculty- our teachers are the one’s who started talking about it.”

“It doesn’t matter who started the notion. The fact that it’s completely false is what’s important. I was hoping I wasn’t the only one who thought this whole thing was absurd.”

Paige caught movement in the corner of her eye. She glanced to her right and saw Tada almost at the table. He’d overheard the last bit of what Mia had said. Paige assumed that was why he was giving her such a funny look. “I assume you’re talking about the T-word?”

Mia looked over. “Tada,” She exclaimed. “It’s been a while.”

“A few hours to be exact.” He added with a small smirk on his face.

Paige noted Mia quickly correct herself. She smiled at the attempt. “Well it just seems like forever with how fast things are going.”

“Right… well, again, good shot.”

“Yea, thanks.”

“To answer your question yes, we were talking about the T-word. Mia’s angry people are saying all this stuff about him.”

“I’m not angry. I just think it’s ridiculous that everyone’s so quick to assume that it’s him.”

Tada sat down beside on the opposite side of the girls so that he could see them both. “I don’t mean to play devil’s advocate but are you saying that because he’s your teacher or because you truly believe that?”

Mia turned red. “What does him being my teacher have to do with anything? Of course I believe he’s not the traitor.”

Tada just shrugged. “Well you know how bonds go between student and instructor.”

Mia got a little more flustered. “I’m not just going to believe something because of rank and status but because of the content of his character.”

“Well how do you know he hasn’t fooled you as well? Let’s just say for instance that he is the traitor. He’s been fooling the entire school this entire time. It wouldn’t be too hard for him to fool just one more person, don’t you think?”

Mia looked away. “I’m not fooled so easily. Besides, you don’t know him that well.”

“You’re right, I don’t know him very well but I’m not against you. I’m just trying-”

“I know. I get it. I’m the only one who thinks this way. That’s fine. I guess I’ll just have to find a way to prove he’s not the traitor.”

Paige jumped in knowing all too well what that would entail. “Alright, let’s not go that far. We’re not saying it’s not possible he’s innocent but Mia, it would be foolish to not at least consider the notion that it might be true.”

“Yea… yea you’re right.” Mia said in a not too convincing tone of voice.

“So,” Paige decided it would be best to change the subject. “I hear that starting tomorrow you guys will both have an Omega intelligence class.”

Tada nodded. “Yea, its important to know your enemy.”

“It’s one of the only classes they actually let me attend myself.” Mia replied with a sigh.

Paige grinned. “Well its also one of the only classes we have together. It’s the last class of the day. Before that I get a jump start on my new training that Mr. Kenneth’s made for me.”

“New training?” Mia inquired.

“Yea…” Paige sighed. “I didn’t make the shot… now I’m being punished. It’ll be horrible…” She playfully whimpered. “He’s almost as bad as Laras. If not worse in some cases.”

“I doubt anyone’s worse than Laras.” Mia replied.

“Yea, you’re probably right.”




The next morning Paige walked down the hall in her light purple jogging pants and the white tank top. She was stiff. Mr. Kenneth had woken her up at five O’clock in the morning to run a mile and do a massive workout session that could kill the toughest marine trainers. He told her she’d be doing the very same thing every morning until further notice. “Great, that means at least a month.” She grumbled as she continued walking, just beginning to catch wind of the chatter going around campus. Everyone was talking up a storm, more so than usual and nearly everyone had a campus newspaper. Paige’s eyes widened. “Addie!” She hissed and turned to the nearest person with a paper, snatching from their hand. “She wouldn’t have.”

“Hey!” The person complained.

“Shut up. I’ll give it back to you in a second.”

Front-page title printed in bold enough words to read from across a room. “Omega’s Gone Too Far!” Paige growled angrily and flipped the page. When Will The Republic Fall? Third, fourth, fifth- the whole bloody thing was about the republic. Paige threw the paper down onto the floor, bursting into a dead run towards where the campus paper was sold and distributed. I’m going to kill her. If the teachers don’t kill her first that is. As she turned the corner she spotted Addie gleefully passing out the papers. Then she spotted the girl’s Journalism teacher along with Mr. Greywall, and a few other faces she recognized including Mr. Stephens. “I don’t think so.” Paige whispered to herself as she slowed her pace down just enough to not gain their attention while remaining fast enough to get to Addie before they did. She walked right up to Addie and grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around.

“Paige wha-” Addie began but didn’t get to finish. Paige wasted no time in delivering a left hook right into the girl’s face. Addie cried out in pain, falling back, down on the floor.

Paige didn’t stop there. Instead she jumped onto the girl and continued delivering blow after blow. “You idiot! I told you not to do it! Do you know what you did? They’re going to come now! You might have killed yourself and everyone else here because of your damned pride and stupidity!”

“Paige!” She heard Stephens call out.

She ignored him. “Bitch! You ruined everything.” Paige cried. “You’re not the only one with a cause! How are we going to ever get this strong again? How are we going to avenge everyone who’s died for this?” She yelled, tears filling the corners of her eyes. Finally strong arms pulled at her, so instead of punching, she clawed, and pulled and anything she could to keep the punishment going. Then she was on her feet.

“Ms. Summerstone, that’s enough!” Stephens demanded. Then he turned to Addie. “Addellia, are you alright?” He asked as Greywall and her journalism teacher helped her up.

“Yes.” She replied through a steady stream of whimpers and sobs.

“Good. Come with us. We need to talk to you about all this. What you’ve done is very destructive towards those at Oxford.” Stephens demanded as they guided back towards his office. Stephens looked back. “And Paige, I’ll be seeing you later to find out what exactly you have to do with all this as well.”

Paige’s eyes widened. She should have told Addie’s teacher what she’d said even with Addie telling her she wouldn’t do it… but she thought she’d gotten her to understand… “Yes sir.” Paige sighed. She stared at them, and watched them until they disappeared down the hallway.
“Need help moving, Mia?” Shlomi lounged against her doorpost, looking anything but amused or relaxed despite the casual tossing about of his rubber limbs. If anything, he looked relieved to be back within the confines of his own body, filling out his skin rather than Martin Lee’s as he had for the past fortnight. Mia was relieved, herself, to have him back as her ally; someone who believed in her abilities and supported her continued stay at Oxford, even though voices of dissent had begun to sing out of the hallowed halls of the university. Smiling to herself, Mia realized that she hadn’t even thought of Shlomi as her friend; like so many, their relationship consisted of allied support and mutual belief in the cause. She’d never really made friends with anyone except Paige and they rarely saw one another these days. As upsetting as the thought was, Laras and Phelps were the only friends she had; and with Phelps…out of commission, Mia was stuck with the one she not so secretly hated. And the Russian remained tethered to his sanity by increasingly frayed threads these days; the whispered barbs that followed the both of them stuck deeper in his flesh than hers. Years of practice had inured Mia to the pain of words from the faceless masses.

“Not now, no, but I might when I need to get myself to the teachers’ dorm. These days, I’m never sure what Laras has in store for me. The other night, he woke me up in the middle of the night to train. And by woke me up, I mean he climbed through the window and tried to strangle me; he’s convinced Omega is going to try and take me, and his new obsession is preparing me for any possible attack. I, personally, think the whispers are driving him nuts.” Mia sighed and sat on her bed, surrounded by boxes and suitcases. “How could anyone think he’s the leak? He loves the rebellion! It’s his only reason for existence…how could anyone even…he would never, ever betray us! It would go against everything…everything he is!”

Shlomi raised an eyebrow, but otherwise betrayed no emotion. “Mia…everything points to him. He was the last person to see Phelps’ family alive and now they’re with the Doctors! The students are right. Laras is the only thing connecting everyone. I hate to say it, Mia, he was...well, we were friendly, but all the evidence points to Laras. Even Phelps, his best friend, thinks it’s him.” Shlomi looked up now, his eyes illuminating his confusion and betrayal. “Mia, you’re the only one left who’s adamant that Laras isn’t our leak. I know it’s hard thinking that Laras is a traitor, but…”

“Shut it.” Mia snapped. “My professor is not a traitor, Shlomi Assad. Something you well know. He is an ass and he has done things that by rights are incredibly morally corrupt. When I first got here to Oxford, I hated that man. Now, I feel like I’m the only person at this blasted school willing to support him! And it…angers me that people are willing to take advantage of his frustration and turn it against him. They’re using his anger with being stuck at Oxford as proof of motive. How many people must feel just like him, like they’re trapped here in the very walls that are meant to protect them! He’s not the only one, damnit. All of us are. Laras is an ass and the world’s biggest prat, but he is not a traitor. He would never.”

“You two are so much alike.” Shlomi sighed and stood up. “Mia…I came here to warn you. Several of the professors are worried about…the influence that Laras might have over you. Especially now that Omega probably knows why you’re here. They think he might…”

Mia silenced Shlomi with a look. “I am no traitor, either, Shlomi. I appreciate that you’re trying to help…but, for God’s sake…you can’t believe the rubbish they’re spewing! People looking for a scapegoat always pick the easiest target!” Mia turned away and picked up a book—Dostoevky’s Crime and Punishment—before putting it into a box, struggling to hold back the tears building in her eyes on Laras’ behalf. “If you can’t believe me, just go until you can. I know it’s a struggle for you, Shlomi, or else you wouldn’t have come to warn me. Search your heart and come back to me when you can believe me.” She didn’t look up, but heard her door closing as Shlomi wisely took his leave.

Looking up and around at her room, Mia took a deep breath against the tide of panic and uncontrollable impotency that built up and pulled the floor out from under her. Everything was falling apart! She’d wanted to join the rebellion to do something for Earth, to give hope to the people. Instead, she’d gotten a girl killed, compromised thousands of others, and now everyone thought she and her guardian were traitors. She was a Princess of the fucking realm! She would gladly give her life for this country. Hell, she had put her life on the line every day since coming to Oxford. And they thought that Laras had…influenced her? To treachery? It was one thing to whisper maliciousness behind her back…it was quite another to accuse the Duchess of York of treachery! Mia, frustrated in a way she had never been before, screamed into the silence, shoving everything off of her bed and burying her face in the pillow.

God, how she had managed to fuck this one up!

Wait. Mia sat up, wiping the tears from her face and the snot from her nose and upper lip. Shlomi had said something about Phelps. She knew that he’d gotten back the night before and that his partner had been killed during the mission. She’d even heard that his family had been taken hostage—she’d been one of the first to pay her condolences, which he’d accepted with something akin to appreciation—but Mia had not heard that he thought Laras was behind it. Laras…his best friend! Hell, Phelps was possibly Laras’ only friend. Why would Laras…?

“Fuck this,” Mia choked out. “Fuck all of this.” Standing, Mia used an old towel to wipe her face and grabbed her bag. If Phelps truly believed Laras was the traitor, Mia would personally rearrange his face.
*****


Mia pounded on the door to Phelps’ office. He was in there, she knew it. What she didn’t expect was the force with which the door swung open. “What do you want, Laras?” Phelps stood at the door, his chest heaving.

“Phelps.” Mia couldn’t remember ever being angry with Phelps. This was a complete reversal of everything she had ever felt; usually, she ran to confront Laras and was in sympathy with the man standing in front of her. “Doesn’t Laras just walk in, usually? Since you two are such friends?”

Edward Phelps had the decency to look shocked. For a moment. Then… “Yes, well Miss Godwin, everyone makes mistakes.”

“Yeah, like thinking your best friend is a fucking traitor to Oxford! Have you lost your mind? This is Laras Nikolao you’re thinking of. The man whose entire existence has been the rebellion since he…oh, wait…since he lost his family to Deklahn!” Mia shoved the bigger man, surprised that he actually toppled backward. “You fucking prat! You blind fool! You’re taking everything out on the one person who is least to blame!”

“Get out, Mia. Just get out. Return to your room.” Phelps didn’t raise his voice from a whisper, waving his hand vaguely toward the door.

Mia shook her head. “No. No, I won’t. You’re going to listen to me, Professor Phelps. I am pulling rank, mister. I am Amelia Elizabeth Lynn Chesterfield Godwin, Duchess of York, Princess of the Realm, and more titles than I care to admit. And you are going to sit down and listen to me, damnit!” Pointing to the chair, Mia pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow, waiting as Phelps pulled himself together and walked toward his office chair. “Good.”

“This is beyond ridiculous, Mia. The evidence all points to Laras. The fact that I can admit that—I, who am his best friend—is testimony enough that you’re deluding yourself. Don’t feel badly, Mia. He had us all fooled. We’ll have you transferred to one of the other professors.”

“Shut. Up.” Mia sat down across from Phelps. “I don’t want another professor. You yourself have said I am too much like Laras to survive with anyone else. Hell, you thought I was him when I knocked on the door. And, like him, I am feeling especially violent right now.” Leaning forward, forearms resting on the big man’s desk, Mia smiled her special, paparazzi smile. “Mr. Phelps, I understand that you lost your family. And your partner. But, for God’s sake, so did Laras! If you’re going to blame anyone, you might as well blame me! I compromised the school with my presence.”

“That is ridiculous, Mia. You are no more to blame for a leak than…” Phelps’ voice choked off and he thought deep for a moment.

“Than Laras is.” Mia finished for him, impatient now. “You child. Children punish those nearest them. You two are both fucking children! And here I was hoping that you would prove a good influence on him. Instead, you take someone that you must know is miserable and take away the one relationship that he relies on. Way to go.”

Phelps’ face twitched. He was angry—furious even—but even he didn’t dare speak as long as Mia had decided that she would play the Princess in the most literal sense of the word. “He was the last person to see them.”

“That you know of. Since when has Deklahn been stupid? Laras is far too unsubtle for Deklahn. He’s the kind of person they choose as a front while someone else is doing the real work. Saying Laras is a spy is like saying Charon is a tap dancer. If Deklahn could sneak up on you and Amis, don’t you think they could come in after Laras and blame him? Laras couldn’t betray someone if his life depended on it. He’d rather die and go out in a blaze of glory.”

“He is the only one that would want me gone!”

Mia laughed at that, a sharp, bitter laugh that tasted funny on her tongue. “Are you for fucking real, Phelps? He is the only one that would want you anywhere but gone. He needs you. You’re his only friend.”

Phelps sat back. “And yet you’re the one here defending him. I thought you hated him, Miss Godwin. Or was that an act?”

Mia raised an eyebrow. “What, exactly, are you implying, Mr. Phelps?”

“Doctor. Doctor Phelps, Mia Godwin. You show up and, all-of-a-sudden, Deklahn is all over us. Your dissembler disappears, I am attacked, Shlomi is attacked…Who’s to say that the English crown doesn’t like the power they’ve recently won for themselves?”

Before she realized it, Mia had launched across the desk and, heedless of her still healing wrist, slammed into the professor, bringing him, the chair, and herself crashing to the ground. “How fucking dare you, you son of a bitch! I am not a traitor!” Mia still couldn’t use her broken wrist, but she wailed on the professor nonetheless, no tears this time, just a burning rage that Shlomi’s warning should have come true so soon…and with someone she had respected so much. “You’re a traitor more than I am! At least I don’t prove myself to be a hypocrite.”

Phelps was a good fighter. Not as well trained as she was, or even as skilled, but he had more experience. And he was big. And Mia was injured. Quick as lightning, Phelps had flipped them and brought his hand to Mia’s throat. “I am going to ask you one more time, Princess. Get out of my office. If you do not, I will report you and have you expelled. While your devotion to your professor is sweet, you are the single most naïve individual I have ever met. He has been pulling the wool over our eyes for years. Get over it.” With that, he released Mia.

“I can’t believe you’re such an ass,” Mia whispered, all anger gone, replaced now by a deep, flowing sorrow. “A traitor to everything the rebellion is about. There is a leak here, Phelps, but it isn’t Laras. And the longer you think it is, the longer the real leak is out there causing damage and completely undermining the school.” With that, she straightened her jacket, grabbed her bag and walked out the door.
*****


Mia knocked on Laras’ door, softly this time. He hadn’t been in his office, but Mia knew that he would be in his rooms. “Laras, open the door please.” Silence. Then, a shuffling and the door opened slightly, just enough for Mia to push it open and slide in. Laras had already headed back toward his living room, where he’d evidently been sitting all day.

“What are you doing here?”

“Hiding from Phelps. This is the one place he won’t come right now. And when he realizes that I broke one of his teeth, he might be a little angry. So I’ve come to join you. Got any coffee around here?” Mia dropped her bag on the table and smiled as Laras turned sharply.

“Broke one of his teeth?” Laras stood and crossed the room, taking Mia’s chin into his hand. “And why do you have a ring around your neck?” His gaze hardened and he grabbed her shoulders, shaking her almost violently. “What the hell happened?”

“Phelps accused me of being your accomplice. I found myself rather angry. Personally, I don’t like accusations of treachery, especially when I know I’m not a traitor. You’ve really pissed him off, by the way. He thinks you’re a traitor.” Mia finally noticed the bruise on the side of Laras’ face. “And he has, apparently, already told you this.”

Laras growled and turned away. “No matter. What were you two doing talking to one another in the first place? He wouldn’t just come out and accuse you. What did you say?”

Mia stayed silent for a minute, watching Laras as he scuttled back to his chair. She had never seen him so deflated. Every positive feeling she had ever felt for him rushed into her, and Mia sighed softly. How everything had changed since she’d arrived at Oxford. And it seemed so quick, too. It’d only been a few months. Not that she’d fallen in love with him, or anything. She’d just…softened. And no longer hated him.

“I accused him of being a complete moron for thinking that you would ever betray Oxford.” Mia looked down, feeling Laras turn and stare at her. “For forgetting that you more than anyone here are devoted to the cause.”

“Nosy as ever, Mia. I presume that Phelps was able to overpower you…and rather easily. You still have no idea how green you are. And coming off of an injury. Your training is already behind and you get into a fight…with a professor…and jeopardize any further training that you might have received. If you continue like this, Mia, I will drop you as a student.”

Mia flinched. “Why, when I’m the only one at this school who isn’t convinced that you’re a leak for Deklahn?” Mia crossed the room and, after a slight pause, kneeled at his feet. “Laras, I believe you. And I trust you. I came here to tell you that. And to let you know that you can trust me, even if you don’t want to.” Mia reached back and grabbed her bag, reaching into it for the camphrey salve that she kept in there since her fight with Erik. “Here, let me put this on.”

“Not necessary.”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course it is. Or else it will swell and you won’t be able to talk for days. And I know how much you like to talk.” Mia took a generous amount onto her fingers. “Careful, this will be cold.” Bringing her hand to Laras’ face, Mia smiled as he hissed when the salve touched his skin. “Told you.”

“Just be done with it, Mia.” Laras loosened, however, betraying the comfort of the salve going to work on the damaged muscle. His hands no longer clutched at the chair in a death grip and his breathing slowed to something resembling normalcy. “Thank you, though.”

“It’s nothing. I owe you for putting me back together after my idiotic fight with Erik. You did a good job.” Mia rubbed into the discolored muscle, careful not to put too much pressure on the already swelling tissue. “I just want to return the favor. How are you doing?”

“What kind of stupidly irrelevant question is that?” Laras tensed again. Mia sighed.

“You’ve been touchy and depressed since the rumors started. Who knew I’d finally find something I’m better at than you, hmm? But, given today, I guess I’m not as good as I thought I was.”

Laras sighed. “You’re rambling.”

Mia nodded. “I know. I’m done. Feel better?”

“Adequate.” Laras sat forward in his chair. “I’ve got to admit, loathe as I am to do it, that you’ve got good fingers.”

“When my wrist isn’t shattered in fights with lunatics, yes I do. We Princesses have some secrets up our sleeves you know.” Mia laughed and looked up at Laras. His eyes had softened and even he seemed not to have realized it. It took his already attractive face and made it absolutely breathtaking. Mia’s heart suddenly started pounding and her awareness shrunk to him and just how close to him she was; she realized that she had to get away before she did something stupid. “Alright, I’m going to go practice. I’ve got to get this wrist back in working condition. We might want to do something about my living arrangements, since Phelps probably won’t want my presence.”

Laras nodded, eyes returning to their typical disdain. “I will figure something out.”

Mia stood, throwing her bag over her shoulder again. She was glad she had dragged the blasted thing around with her, if only for the fact that she had gotten such a nice reaction out of Laras because of it. Maybe he was going insane. Or maybe desperation made people do strange things. “I believe in you, Laras. And your loyalty. And I will make sure everyone else sees it, too.” Then, on an impulse, Mia leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on Laras’ lips. “Have a good night.”
*****


Mia sat on her bed, staring at the boxes and the mess she had created earlier. She knew she had to pick it up, but she didn’t have the heart for it. Laras was miserable. And slowly breaking down under the pressure of a thousand scornful hissings. It was heartbreaking to see, even if some part of Mia did relish the fact that he was finally getting a taste of his own, cruel medicine. No one deserved to be called a traitor, though. Unless, of course, they were a traitor. Which Laras definitely was not.

There was a knock on the door and Mia called out for the person to come in. She hadn’t locked the door yet because, frankly, she didn’t think Phelps would want to come to see her. He really wasn’t the kind to get revenge. That was definitely more Laras’ MO, but she couldn’t see Laras coming to visit her, either. He’d probably still be sitting in his chair, refusing to believe that his personal burden had actually kissed him and gotten into a fight on his behalf. And probably still fuming that she’d tried to fight in her condition.

The door opened and Shlomi slipped in, looking even more disheveled than usual. It’d only been maybe five or six hours since he’d left and Mia wasn’t exactly sure she wanted to see him. Greeting him with a raised eyebrow, Mia stood and crossed her arms. “Yes?”

“I’ve been thinking…and I can’t believe Laras is the leak. I really can’t. There’s too much going on here for me to think that Laras has betrayed Oxford. A great many discrepancies and too much lack of protocol. Something doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t know what it is. But I believe you.” Shlomi sighed and stared at Mia with bloodshot eyes.

Mia felt the weight of the world suddenly fall off of her shoulders. Thank God for Shlomi Assad! What an ally and, eventually, what a friend and comrade-in-arms. Grinning, Mia ran across the room and threw her arms around the man’s slight form. “I’m so glad, Shlomi! You have no idea how good this makes me feel! How relieving it is! Don’t tell Laras, though…I think he’s got enough on his mind as it is.”

Shlomi nodded, face tight and focused. “I figured as much, Mia. I’ve got a good year on you in dealing with Laras, remember?”

Mia chuckled, wiping away tears of relief. “I know. But I just gave him a bit of a shock, attacking his best friend and all…”

Raising an eyebrow Shlomi looked down at Mia’s neck, seeing the bruising there for the first time. Her long hair had kept it from view until then. “I…I’m not sure I want to know, Mia. I’ll just assume that you went to have a chat with Phelps that ended poorly?”

“Understatement. He all but accused me of being Laras’ accomplice, so…yeah. But, enough of that, there are more pressing matters.” Mia looked at the clock. It was almost two in the morning. “First and foremost, we need to prove that Laras isn’t the leak. Or, at the very least, convince Phelps and Charon that Laras isn’t the leak. Then…then the hard part.”

Shlomi nodded grimly. “Right. Finding out who really is the leak. God bless us all. We might actually have to infiltrate Omega. And who knows if we’re actually ready for that?”
Emilie was wary of Laras from the moment he entered the coffee-book shop. He was an old regular, coming for volume after volume, cup after cup of whatever was going at the time. She could remember the first time he turned up, alone as usual, but vibrant and excited, a first year she’d assumed… She always did like the first years, no matter how serious they thought they were, no matter why they had turned up, they always exuded a sense of life – perhaps no one more so than the eager young man who’d stepped into the world of Oxford years before he rightfully should have. She’d smiled. He’d scowled. But today there was nothing. Looking upon Laras this cool and crisp Saturday afternoon, one might think that he was pondering the next theological conundrum… But not today. Today he wasn't even contemplating his next cup of coffee.

His usual table was on the mezzanine level of the quaint establishment. It was a small and intimate table, but one that gave him a complete view of almost the entire store, particularly the entrance. Laras hated anyone to sit behind him - unless it was in a classroom - that was different. He slouched over the table, his coffee long cold, staring at nothing in particular - his chin held up on one arm, his other hand drawing circles around a knot in the timber tabletop. Woe betides the fool who snapped him out of this stupor.

Emilie had seen that look on the young man's face before, and knew that it was going to be a long while before he was seen looking his usual grumpy but not miserable self...

“Here you go lovey, paper and another black’un. On the house, mind.”

She’d heard the rumours too of course, about him and the university. But she knew he wasn’t up to anything. He was too good hearted for that. Call her naïve or foolish but Laras Nikolao was made of the same stuff as her son had been, god rest him, and that was enough for her. She knew it’d be hard, as she moved away she noted that he hadn’t recognised her even coming over, but she knew he’d come out alright, even if it was only for the revolution. Sighing, she left, wondering how long it would take for him to see the headline of the paper and bolt for the door… she wondered how long it would be before even lambs blood in the shape of a cross on the door would fail to save them from the storm that was coming… because there was a storm… inevitable and inescapable… and she knew in her elderly bones that it would be sooner rather than later.

*

Omega Has Gone Too Far

‘… Berlin, May. 10—The elected second government of Berlin bravely, although perhaps foolishly, called a halt to campaign of violence against their universities and intellectuals after the disappearance of seven professors at a single university, the city library burned, book shops and secondary schools were wrecked and thousands of teachers and students were officially arrested by the mysterious and insidious ‘Night Doctors’. Today three ministers and two high profile governors have since vanished.

It has since been claimed that there had been no order from the Dehklans for the closure of these universities nor were there any records of the people who have disappeared being arrested or, in fact, being a part of there system at all…

…An official speaker said Dekhlan's "further answer to rebellion" would be given through laws and decrees.’



It’s Time To Fight Back

By the time you are reading this no doubt you will be able to look around yourself and see the surprised and horrified faces of your fellows or your friends or your teachers. You will recognise the O-shape of their mouths, the pin-prick pupils of shock and fear, the blotches of blood on their embarrassed cheeks and the sudden, clammy pallor of their guilt.

You will not understand why you are reading this. Why would any writer expose themselves such to the omniscient, omnipotent dictator that governs us? Why would I write this when I know what reactions I will be invoking? Well, the answer is simple, my compatriots. It’s time to fight back.

For too long the Earth has been forced to obey a malicious and supercilious tyrant, a rule and regime that is not our own. Our leaders, our presidents and our monarchs are puppets, the strings they dangle from being tangled into an unbreakable binding which can only be untied if cut straight through. We are pawns, blood monkeys. We can be called into the ‘empires’ army, we can die for their causes but we cannot live for ourselves, vote for a true democracy, love the people we desire or die for our own caprices.

For too long…


Dekhlan Dictators Doom Rock’n’Roll

A List of Lies and Liars – Treachery and Tyranny

Earth – The Puppet Planet

Will We Take This? No We Won’t!


Laras felt sick, he skimmed the articles, read headline after headline, not quite believing what was before his eyes. His jaw clenched, his teeth ground angrily against one another, his eyebrows furrowed together, his neck became so tense that veins seemed to rise from below the skin in fury… The editor – what was she thinking. He saw Emilie out of the corner of his eye. Her son had disappeared… if she’d read the paper then she’d know what it meant. It was war. Open and obvious and irrevocable and in Oxford.

He rose from the table and offered her a half hearted nod and she smiled. At least, it seemed, she did believe the rumour mill. He’d feared that someone would have written some defamatory article about him, but it seemed that his ego had simply been too great and his vanity was wrong… but his relief at his non-inclusion had quickly been destroyed when he’d seen each and every title of each and every story. It was insanity. Undiluted idiocy.

He strode from the second-hand café and launched himself into a run across the fields. He’d go through Wadum College and cut off the circuit to Exeter. If he went underground it’d be even quicker but he knew that using those tunnels would be even more dangerous than usual now. In normal circumstances he’d have thrown his weight around, found Stephans and demanded that the students involved be removed from the premises and that everyone was put on alert. But of course he couldn’t do that now. There was no way that any one would listen to the traitor… they’d probably assume that he was running the entre thing himself and do the opposite of whatever he said. He felt even more useless than he had done before… it was almost as if… he was guilty… being this pariah…

Well they said that you became what others thought of you.

And sometimes Laras truly hated the person he had become.

*

In the end, he’d done nothing. He’d flown down the stairs once he’d reached Tower Four and dashed towards what was meant to be Mia’s classroom only to come across a tearful, bloodied looking girl being escorted away from an equally tearful and disgruntled Paige. Stephans had caught his eye and shook his head… he’d obeyed and come back to his rooms.

Usually he might have found Shlomi, had an impromptu French conversation lesson, or he’d have done some active – gone for a run or practised his shot. Instead he sat down, unable to tear his mind away from everything. Unable to play his piano or the violin or to do much more than poor himself a glass of vodka and sit.

Hours had passed… Mia arrived. Mia laughed a little, tended to his sore face, told him she believed him. Mia kissed him. Then she left.

He poured himself a couple of drinks. Good Russian vodka.

He’d had a shower… tried to wash away the confusion, the deluge of questions. He wrapped himself in a towel and then got dressed again, carefully avoiding his reflection because he didn’t want to see it…

He already knew how he looked with his body, hard and marble like in the dimmed lighting of his rooms. His eyes in the glass were cold as a lizard’s, his expression unreadable… He thought to himself of himself… He smiled rarely, he laughed even less. Even as he walked the passages of his college and the underground halls of the secret university below, he could feel himself withdrawing and pushing up his shields, trying hard to maintain his emotions: the clumsy, miserable emotions from shamefully revealing themselves on his face. He was used to the rough world of petty university politics, he was used to being involved in the arguments and the scandals, he’d toughened his skin and let the universal dislike which people felt for him roll off him. No one had questioned his method except his students and even they had grudgingly admitted that it worked. It turned them into fighters.

People called him a machine before they called him a traitor. It wasn’t true, as much as he’d wish he couldn’t feel. Sometimes, as Phelps knew, the silent, isolate façade would crack. The wall he’d erected would crumble down. The sarcasm would slip, the anger and bitterness and wry humour would abandon him. It wasn’t often. Boredom usually meant that keeping up appearances was the only way to find some form of entertainment.

Despair usually wasn’t what plagued him. Yet now it surrounded him like a dark, ominous lake. It felt like it had always been there, hidden away, rushing out silently and suddenly, chilling every cell within him. It almost felt like he was drowning, gasping for some respite in the torrent.

Everything was beginning to hurt. His body ached from the excessive regime he’d been putting himself through whenever he had a spare moment. His head pounded and his throat raged, desperate for a drink. His mind hurt from too many thoughts and too many questions. His chest hurt every time his breath caught when he heard someone talking about the leak, the Russian traitor, him. Things hurt. And for once it seemed that there was no respite in the huge, empty space that made up the world.

When you seek a voice you will only hear silence. When you seek silence you will only hear the voices. Only these voices carried the weight of classical omens, the prophetic heaviness of Calchas or Cassandra , and pushed the secret, hidden switch deep inside his raging heart.

Only one person truly needs me out of the picture.

                              I believe in you Laras.

          A chunk of his skull.

That’s some pretty damaging evidence.


Laras understood the voices though each one was wrong. A different voice saying the words that someone else had spoken. His mother’s voice was there, his father’s and Shlomi Assad. Phelps was growling the only kind words he’d heard over the last few days, his mother was blaming him. Amis whispered in his ear. The wind howled around him.

                   …With the flesh and hair still on

                              And your loyalty… I gave my observations to Professor

Blood on the kitchen sink.

          I have nothing to do with Mr Phelps’ actions.

                              Just waiting for him to slip up...

Treachery


Laras wanted to sleep. He was trapped in the middle of a terrible, metaphysical storm. A violent, symbolic tempest made up of falling words and thundering accusations that, despite being part of a distended reality which blazed in the back of his mind, struck like lighting and cut like thousands of tiny knifes. He felt as if he was bleeding, catching his blood in his hands as it dripped down from his chin. The stuff that made him the person he was slowly was being torn away. His loyalty. His pride. His heart.

And that is you.

And then god, on top of everything else there was Mia. Princess Amelia, second in line to the throne, a student of Oxford University, who ‘believed in him’ and also apparently either harboured some sick desire for her tutor or was playing some ridiculous joke or… he paled, they could be testing him, trying to goad him into making a mistake. Snarling, Laras launched himself from his bed at last, ripping himself from the tangle of sheets and the deflated pillows and heading for the kitchenette.

He was beginning to recall with rueful admiration, words his father had once told him: to ignore the English roses, the flowers of the world, the soft sex, women. He’d told him that they were an unnecessary distraction. That there were two types of women and both of them were like flora…They were sultry, beautiful and addictive; their skin and their scent and their lips like a laburnums silken petals or the wafting aroma of gerberas, they drew in men like flies. How easy it would be for a flower to kill the bee once it had crawled inside looking for hidden nectar? Women could be weapons. Like Fey or maybe even, Mia? Would Phelps use someone of her status and experience to dig into his life, to maybe extract any evidence of treachery in his veins? And what if she wasn’t? What would it mean if she really did have some twisted interest in him? What would it mean to him? This was the second type of woman to his father had warned him away from; despite the beauty a flower possesses very few protected themselves, they made weak attempts at dissuasion, thorns and poisonous leaves but if you took away the barbs, flowers were defenceless and simply waiting for an inevitable end. That had been his argument. That women were weak and needed to be protected and there was no time for someone like Laras, a child born to battle for Earth, to feel for a woman. In his father’s eyes, Laras didn’t need to feel anything at all.

His mother had bowed her head and lowered her eyes during that conversation, demure but smiling to herself as only Laras could see from where he sat perched by the fireplace. He could remember the shadows cast across her cheeks from her long lashes, the curve of her mouth. She had been killed only weeks later. He could understand his father then.

If there was something with Mia then she was nothing like his mother. She was– But why was he even entertaining these thoughts. He felt nothing for her even in lieu of her apparent infatuation. The likelihood of it not being a trick seemed minimal. Edward might not have it in him but Charon almost certainly did. It had to be a pathetic attempt at deception.

Or perhaps it wasn’t… and if it wasn’t then she wasn’t part of the first category and she certainly couldn’t be cast into the latter. She was too strong minded, too wilful to ever be cast-typed into the passive role of a flower. She was more like a pomegranate or a fig. An ingrown flora, still oddly attractive and baring an equally desirous scent and allure when opened but more resilient. Mia had the ability to protect herself. She was strong. She wasn’t a Fey but flowers might be beautiful but there was a reason why pomegranate and fig were used by artists to allude to sexuality and –

He groaned, realising where his thoughts had taken him, albeit without noticing. He was comparing his student to a classical sex allusion. What the fuck was he doing?

Tipping his head back into the chair so he was slumped resignedly into the plush cushions that he usually let Phelps occupy, he realised that seeing Mia in his head as he’d thrust into Fey, his irrational possessive protectiveness, his rambling thoughts pertaining to the princess could only really mean one thing… He liked Mia Godwin. Even if he hated to admit it.

*

Laras lay on top of his bed, still dressed, one arm draped over his eyes so that all that could be seen of his face was a smile.

It didn’t matter what Omega might do tomorrow. He fully expected to pay dearly for all the thinking he’d done tonight… and the drinking… she almost certainly expected him to be furious, to still hate her, to reject, ridicule, and tear her to pieces. But it didn’t matter. That was tomorrow.

He sighed. It was, as she had made it quite obvious, his move. He couldn’t just wait and see what happened. He expected, though, that he would have to go back to avoiding Phelps, pretending he was not the topic of conversation, that he felt nothing. Would the memory of tonight make that easier, give him something real to hold on to for comfort when he felt that aching loneliness that kept him awake? Or would it make it just that much harder to pretend. Either way, he knew he would have to walk away from it eventually, one way or another. He and Mia could never really have a relationship. There was no future for them together. Her family, the war…
Mia growled softly, almost a purr under her breath, and slammed the paper down on the table. “Is she nuts?” Shaking her head, Mia felt her lips purse as she exhaled heavily and looked across the table at Paige. The other girl glared back at her, a clearly ‘don’t even mention it to me’ look in her eyes. Paige was still bloodied from her brief entanglement with one Addie—the reporter too stupid to realize that she’d basically guaranteed all out war with Omega and Deklahn very shortly—but she appeared to be well enough in control of the situation. A piece of bandage hung from between her teeth, the other end slowly wrapping itself around the bruised knuckles of Paige’s right hand. “She’s going to get us all killed!”

Shlomi looked at both girls and then the paper. “We were already well on that path, ladies. Addie’s just confirmed that it’s going to happen a hell of a lot sooner than anyone had planned. At least the writing’s alright.”

“Oh yeah, if we’re going to die, at least it’s not because of mediocre journalism.” Rolling her eyes, Mia leaned back and watched as Tada rushed up to the table. The boy, normally very self-contained, puffed as if he’d run from London itself to deliver whatever news pressed against his lungs. Paige, uncharacteristically, did not smile at his arrival and Shlomi seemed to sense that something was wrong. His shoulders straightened slightly, unfurling from their habitual slouch, bracing himself for the next wave of the storm. “Tada. I take it you’ve read the papers, too?”

Tada leaned against the table, elbows locked and taking the full of his slight weight. He gulped air like a drunkard at Happy Hour, chest rising and falling like the tides. “I…yeah, of course,” he gasped out between pants. “Mia. Turn on…turn on TV. Mother. Interview. Omega…threatening to…remove from power.”

“What?!” Mia jumped from the table and sprinted toward the Professors’ mess hall, where the nearest TV blasted news all day long. She’d spent the entire day in the underground halls and corridors of Oxford’s more…rebellious program and hadn’t heard much in the way of news beyond the school’s very own rabble-rouser. Behind her, Shlomi loped, long legs allowing him to keep pace more easily than Mia would care to admit. Paige and Tada took up the rear, the girl still bleeding and Tada jogging to cool off his overworked leg muscles.

If Addie had caused something to happen to her family, Mia would kill her. Her body would turn up dead in a ditch by day’s end. And a great deal of Oxford would be made to suffer for it. “Mia! Mia, calm down! Don’t overreact!” She could hear Shlomi behind her, trying desperately to stem the panic he could clearly see in every muscle and sinew of her body. Mia ignored him.

“Princess Amelia…I would have thought you’d be with your family.” Stephens looked up in surprise as Mia burst into the professors’ mess hall. Phelps steadfastly ignored her, but his fingers brushed against the puffed and bruised tissue around his eyes. Charon was absent, but there was nothing surprising about that. He’d spent more time than not off-campus. Likely trying to find Laras’ supposed link to Omega.

Mia heard her name and stopped cold. Her brain finally kicked in and she realized what Shlomi was trying to do. Laras wasn’t the leak, but that didn’t mean that another of the professors couldn’t spy for Deklahn. “Sir, I am a student at a prestigious university. My mother would be more upset that I took this silly threat seriously and lent it credence by going home than she would be at my absence. Many have tried to remove her from the throne using malicious lies and political barbs.”

A small part of Mia’s mind registered that Laras was also in the room, albeit alone and in the back corner. She could feel his eyes on her. Feel his judgment and scorn. By all the gods, why did she get it into her head to kiss him? Now he’d have even more fuel with which to humiliate her. It was clear that he couldn’t stand her and any action that could be construed as a childish crush would only provoke him. She allowed herself to look over at him and was surprised at the subdued pride smoldering in his glimmering eyes.

“Very well considered, Miss Godwin. The interview is on now.” Stephens turned and indicated the television. By now, Paige and Tada had arrived as well as Shlomi and the four of them made their way toward the back of the mess. Mia kept her gaze glued to the screen. Her mother looked so beautiful, even under this great stress. Everyone always said that Mia had her mother’s glorious sea-blue eyes and sultry mouth, but she’d inherited her late father’s high cheekbones and dark tresses.

“…ridiculous to assume that the Crown is, in any way, implicit in the actions of a group of rebellious University students attempting to sew some very ill-considered wild oats. Our daughter has nothing to do with these absolutely scandalous actions at Oxford. She is continuing in the traditions of educational excellence that has long been the calling card of royal children. Omega and Deklahn are welcome to visit her there and ascertain the veracity of my statements and her innocence. The Royal Crown of England has long been loyal to Deklahn and lives to serve the Republic.”

Mia couldn’t help but smile. Her mother had always been so poised, so erudite. Deklahn could not even think about removing the crown from her head after this. She and her dissembler would have to find somewhere secret to meet. Not too many people could tell their differences, but even one was too many at a school where people didn’t know who was loyal.

“Your mother is a wonder.” Mia looked over and up at Phelps, who’d apparently ambled over during the Queen’s speech. “Passionate and loyal. You are very much like her.”

“And neither of us are traitors to the Cause...” Mia spat. “Or choke Princesses.”

Phelps’ face remained impassive. “I am also sure that your mother never called her professors idiots and jumped across a desk to attack them.” Looking at the still-healing bruise around Mia’s neck, Phelps winced slightly. “But, I suppose, she was also never accused of being a traitor by an idiot.”

“So you’re willing to admit that you’re wrong about me…but not about your best friend? Hell, you’re his only friend, for Pete’s sake. And you can’t forgive him?” Mia looked over at Laras, indicating him with her chin. The man looked down at his lunch, chewing slowly, though his body tensed just enough for Mia to know that he was listening to every word.

Phelps pursed his lips. “I don’t want to talk about it, Mia. Suffice it to say that administration is looking into the matter of Laras Nikolao. That is all I will say on the matter. Until then, you can move your things from the adjunct quarters into my rooms.”

“Oh good. Now that you think I’m not a traitor, we’re totally good. I’m cool in the adjunct quarters, thanks.” Mia crossed her arms and raised her eyebrow. “When Laras proves himself innocent, what are you going to do for him? He can’t exactly move into your rooms now, can he?”

“Enough, Mia. I’m sure Laras is well aware of your support for him. Arguing with Professor Phelps isn’t going to help anything.” Shlomi’s hand descended onto her shoulder, squeezing slightly. In the corner, Laras looked both relieved and strangely pleased, his eyes smoldering with an unidentifiable emotion that softened his entire face. No one saw it. And, if they had, they would have recoiled in shock. Because Laras looked almost…happy. Whatever he was thinking about was a good thing, indeed, and everyone had always assumed that the Russian was too busy being miserable to ever have a pleasant thought cross his mind.

Mia sighed, and nodded after a minute. “Of course. No point arguing with those who don’t want to hear the truth. My mother is up there, Mr. Phelps, because of someone in this school. They’re threatening to remove her crown and, well, I can only…imagine what would happen…and, if Laras is the traitor, he is a big reason for that. Because he would have been giving information to Deklahn for years. But it isn’t him. So it means that someone at this school has no problem destroying my family to get what they want. And I mean to find them. Even if I’m the only person looking.”

“Professor Stephens is aware of your concerns.” Phelps eyed Mia. “Why do you think there hasn’t been an arrest? Because Stephens wants to make sure that whoever is the leak, we have incontrovertible evidence. Stephens won’t allow anything to happen without it. It is just a matter of time until it adds up.”

“Fine.” Mia looked over at Laras and smiled softly. “But I believe him. And when the evidence lines up, it’ll line up in a different direction. Until then, I’ve got an appointment at the infirmary. It’s time to get this cast off.”

Phelps nodded, his eyes traveling to Laras along with Mia’s. The Russian looked down at his food, but not before both of them saw that he had been watching them. Phelps opened his mouth to speak, but something on Laras’ face must have surprised him because he closed it again before saying anything and walked away. Mia looked over at Shlomi, eyebrows raised. The older boy shrugged. “Come on. Why didn’t you tell me you got that cast off today?”

“Well, it wasn’t a big deal. Go to the infirmary, stare as a saw of some sort is brought dangerously close to my arm, and then punch something as soon as possible. Practically a typical day with Laras.” Mia grinned. “You wanna come with me?”

Shlomi shrugged again, the action as eloquently different from the first as if he’d actually spoken. “Sure. Anything to make sure you don’t get into trouble. It seems to follow you like your personal doppelganger. No wonder your mother sent you here.”

Mia laughed and punched Shlomi playfully in the shoulder. Paige and Tada, who still sat by the door, looked up and smiled to see Mia obviously feeling better. Unseen, Laras looked up and frowned, blue eyes darkening as he watched the students leave together. At the door, Mia turned around and found his gaze, lips just slightly upturned, waving slightly as she stepped out into the corridors. She missed Laras looking down at his plate, a mirroring smile on his face.

*****


“So the nurse biddies finally got that cast off of you?” Laras didn’t turn around as Mia sidled into the salle, a smile on her face as she flexed the fingers of her newly freed wrist. “Now you’ll go right back to being merely mediocre once again.” Mia stopped crossed her arms. So it was going to be like that today? He must be feeling sorry for himself. “You do realize how much time you’ve wasted because of this?”

“Stop being such a baby, Laras. I’m the only one still talking to you; you can’t afford to piss me off.” Mia smirked as Laras’ head snapped up and he turned around. “Since we all know how much you like to talk.” Hands on hips cocked to one side, Mia stared into Laras’ face. “I am not in the mood for your psychological bullshit today.”

“Psychological bullshit?” Laras advanced, muscles coiled, primed for attack. Mia saw it and shifted. She knew that an attack was coming. “And what, pray tell, do you mean by that?”

Mia nearly laughed, shaking her head in disbelief. “I mean that you have a tendency to take out the injustices of the world on the people who would help you. The people who love you the most. And, right now, that’s me, since Phelps seems to have finally broken under the onslaught.”

Laras looked almost injured and Mia regretted the statement. She knew he was falling apart inside, unfairly accused of the one crime he wouldn’t commit. Disloyalty. But Mia was tired of letting this man take his bad feelings out on her. “Laras…let someone in. Let me in.”

“You are a student, Princess Amelia, and you are dangerously close to overstepping your bounds. If you are quite finished, I’ve got weeks of sloth to work out of those atrophying muscles of yours.” Laras turned around and walked to one of the weapons racks, grabbing two pairs of boxing gloves from a hook on the side. He stood there for a few moments, squeezing the gloves between his hands, and Mia could sense he was gathering control over himself. Since being accused of treason, Laras had lost something. Mia couldn’t help but wish she had the old Laras back.

Sliding into her warm-ups, Mia twisted backward, feeling the muscles pulling beneath the material of her training wear. Laras hadn’t worked on any of the movements she did now; she’d learned those from the guards back at the palace. This was the first time she’d ever thought to use them in front of Laras, but it was time. If he was going to fall apart, then it was time for her to get much stronger.

Capoeira was not something Mia thought she would use for combat, but as a training regiment it worked perfectly. Graceful, beautiful, and challenging, it was largely responsible for keeping her in shape over the years. As she stepped into one of the cartwheel flips, Mia noticed that Laras had turned around and was watching from the sidelines; probably had been for most of the last few minutes. Coming down, Mia stepped back into the most basic step and then flipped backwards, landing squarely on both feet before turning to her professor. “Ready, Laras?”

“Since when do you know capoeira? It is part of your responsibility to let your teacher know what your skill set is prior to beginning training.” Tossing one pair of gloves her way, Laras set about taping up his knuckles, expecting Mia to do the same thing. She obliged, not taking her eyes from his the entire time.

“You never asked. I showed up and you assumed I knew nothing. I just never cured you of your delusion.” Mia shrugged. “You know what they say about assuming.” Slipping the gloves onto her hands, she set about stretching her arm muscles and bouncing her feet along the floor. She patently refused to rise to any of his bait that day. “Let’s fight.”

Mia’s eyes were hard; harder than Laras had ever seen them. Without another word, she pulled her gloves hands in front of her face and took up a boxing stance. It was up to Laras to attack. She wanted to see just how much of the Laras she knew and loved still remained behind that fragile mask of calm. If anything could bring him back, an unadulterated challenge would.

“Confident today, Amelia. What brought this on?” Laras smirked, sauntering around her, all broad-shouldered swagger and false confidence. “No matter.” He swung, a quick jab with his right that would have surprised most anyone. But Mia knew. So, instead of landing a blow to the side of her face, Laras met only a gloved hand and a lightning fast left hook to his gut. He blocked, but Mia couldn’t help but notice a glimmer in his eye. Laras’ face might be impassive, but his gaze said somewhat different.

Something had changed in Mia. She was not, and likely never would be, a better fighter than her teacher. Laras was a master in every sense of the word and Mia was an amateur. A well-trained and highly skilled amateur, but an amateur nonetheless. But today, Mia was determined to be the master. And Laras’ gaze acknowledged the shift, even if the rest of him couldn’t.

They had never boxed before. Mostly, Laras preferred to grapple. It tested everything and allowed people to fight with no rules save victory. No salle rules would stop one of Laras’ students from fighting the good fight. But even Laras believed in variety. And boxing would test a whole different kind of fighting skill. Mia fell back, covering her face and head, allowing Laras to rain blows along her arms and little else. Occasionally, when Laras left himself open (because no one, not even a master, could attack without leaving an opening), she would sweep in a quick jab to his chest and sides. She fought defensively, waiting for Laras to tire himself out somewhat. She doubted that his days of excessive coffee and booze had helped much.

It was a quiet fight. Neither of them felt like talking overmuch; Mia because she was concentrating and Laras because, whether he wanted to admit it or not, was impressed with both her strategy and her skill. Mia waited for her opportunity to kick. She didn’t expect Laras would stay within the bounds of boxing much longer and looked to attack first. Then, unexpectedly for them both, the door to the salle slammed open. Standing in the corridor were Charon and Phelps. “One minute, gentlemen,” Mia exclaimed, sweeping down into a windmill and knocking Laras, who remained distracted just a second longer, onto the ground. “Now, what do you want? Can’t you see I’m training?”

Charon raised an eyebrow. “Princess Amelia, no need to be rude. We’re here to speak to Professor Nikolao.” The man in question stood, not even attempting to repay his student for her stunt. It was, after all, what he’d taught her to do from the beginning. Mia shifted to stand in front of Laras, unconsciously moving to protect him.

“Anything you have to say, you can say in front of the Princess,” Mia replied, adopting her haughtiest tone and shifting her gaze to Phelps. “Especially since I’m not entirely sure anything you two have to say would accomplish anything good. Unless, of course, you’ve realized that you’re barking up the wrong tree entirely.”

Phelps sighed. “You’re becoming entirely too much of a handful, Mia. Now is hardly the time…”

“And when is it the time to stand up for the people you love? Oh, that’s right, it’s abandon the people you love time, isn’t it? Sorry, I’m a little backward. You’ll have to excuse me, though, because I’m not in the habit of turning my back on people.” Mia crossed her arms as best as she could, given the bulk of the boxing gloves. “Now, go on.”

“Mia,” Laras growled. He moved up to stand beside her, pulling the gloves off and wiping the sheen of sweat from his forehead. “What is it you want?”

“You’re coming with us,” Phelps replied. “We’re going to find my family—“

Charon cut him off. “No need to tell Mia anything, Edward. Princess or no, she is still a student and does not need to be kept abreast of everything that goes on. Laras, grab a weapon. We leave immediately.”

“But…” Mia choked out. This was unbelievable. They were going to Omega to go after Phelps’ family, whom they both believed Laras had kidnapped. So, obviously, they were bringing Laras to keep him from sharing any information about the attack before they left. Keeping their enemy close. “You idiots! You’re bringing the wrong man! They’re already going to know you’re going, anyway.”

“Enough, Amelia!” Phelps snapped. “I have honest to God had enough of your arguing. You’re twenty-one years old and a first year student. Allow those of us who know something about things to make the decisions.”

Mia pursed her lips, but didn’t argue. “Fine. Take him. But if anything should happen to him while you’re gone, I will personally see to it that you suffer. I assume Shlomi is going, as well.” Neither man replied, which was as much an affirmation as anything else. “Take care of him, too. Since they obviously know you’re coming.” Without another word, Mia tossed her gloves aside and stormed out of the room.

*****


Mia sat alone, a cup of Irish coffee in her hands. She’d snuck up to Laras’ tower after they’d left (she’d watched that, too, from the air ducts like Shlomi had taught her) and picked her way into his rooms. He would no doubt know she’d done it—she was still a newbie lockpick—but she didn’t care so much now. She needed to be here.

They’d brought him because they thought their mission would be safer that way. But Mia knew Omega expected them. Phelps, Laras, Shlomi, Charon, Paige, they were all in danger. And she worried immensely for them. But especially for Laras, who would no doubt do anything in his power to prove that it wasn’t him. And throw himself in danger to do it.

His scent was everywhere and it comforted Mia. In his absence, being surrounded by his things was the closest she could get to feeling safe. To feeling happy. To feeling…

Mia looked up sharply, aware of where her thoughts had taken her. She knew she found him attractive; hell, she’d known that from the first time she’d seen him. Smiling, Mia remembered her first glimpse at him and how she’d been afraid her male façade would reveal just how attractive she found him. And she could even admit that she wanted him. She’d kissed him, even, wrapped in the embrace of those urges. But this…

“Oh, Laras, what are we doing?” she whispered to the room. “And why do I miss you so?” Mia didn’t want to admit anything. Admitting that Laras had won her was just one too many victories on his end. But there it was. Not only did she want him, she wanted him all for herself. And she wanted him to want her for himself.

“Oh Laras Nikolao, when did I fall in love with you?”
He’d figured it out when Phelps had asked, no more like demanded, that he be allowed to take on the control centre where Omega were meant to be keeping his wife. He had smiled, stating that suche decisions were not up to him but to Charon and that whilst he was pleased that his old friend had sought him first, there wasn’t a lot he could do without the agreement of their fellow ‘professor’. It was a lie. He had the power. But it was best to downplay his status as the true potentate when they were looking for a man with power on whom to blame the ‘leak’. He knew that they would discover that he was the mole if they looked too closely, which why he made sure that they didn’t. But that had been figured out a long time ago and it wasn’t what he’d realised this time. As he’d browsed the file on Phelps’ last mission and carefully piecing together the nature of this latest reconnaissance mission, he began to question which of his reasons for staying in the university mattered more. If this had just been about his own comfort, well this task wasn’t so bad. True, they had their own dramas and issues bubbling dangerously close to threatening his delicately brewed plans, but where in the rebellion didn’t eh? He wasn’t looking for Utopia. And it also had people that he was starting to enjoy, people that willingly bowed down before him and eagerly slipped into their servile roles. And he wasn’t foolish enough to dismiss that simple pleasure. He might not be the same idealist he’d been once upon a time, but he hadn’t given up the old idea that power over people mattered. He’d cast it aside in joining Oxford but he had retrieved it when he betrayed them.

If he were the ambitious sort, he might think now was a good time to take over England. The English people were just waiting for a force to come and lead them, a powerful figure that could take the reigns and fight back against the persecution they suffered.

But he was loyal, not a degenerate. World domination wasn’t quite his area of expertise, he left that up to his masters. Still, it did make a nice daydream. His life goals were a little more moderate so whilst someone with his skills in this sort of world could make things happen, he restricted his aims to simply being the ultimate leader of the Earth once Dekhlan had destroyed their little erudite problem. Once he was more powerful than any other human he would more than happily let those even more powerful that humanity rule over him. He quite liked being submissive to those with true power. It gave him a sort of thrill. And now it looked as if three of the more problematic of the rebels were all going to ‘tragically’ die on a doomed rescue mission. He’d send word a head, finally remove the bothersome British goon that was Phelps, the churlish Charon and, of course, the Russian.

All and all, it had been years since things had looked as fortuitous for Stephans.

He did consider his original reasons too, how could he not, but the outcome was the same. He still wanted revenge for himself on the country and the people who had made his life so difficult. That was why the precious princess was here. But more than that he wanted the glory he deserved so whilst it was inevitable that he would only every witness the guaranteed death of Laras Nikolao and Charon and Edward bloody Phelps on a temporary file on an eighteen inch screen but it would be worth it to see that door closed. Their eyes would look so much more beautiful when lidless and blindly terrified.

He grinned to himself, straightened his tie and his face then tucked his lecture notes under his arms and headed out of Brasenose.

*

The group was a small one, but a brilliant one, if you ignored the possible traitor. Three ‘teachers’ and a top student, each of which were either the best or close to the best in their field. If they could trust Laras then that meant that they were even more well equipped for the task they had demanded.

They had all been students of the University, some of the first and brightest, and more importantly, all had continued seeking a way to help their fellow Gaians. It almost felt like such a strike force seemed to be the only thing keeping the war between humanity and Dekhlans from spilling over too soon and thus blistering the world in its wake, constantly trying to stop a war which seemed determined to come. That wasn’t true, of course, but it felt like it.
Shlomi was a new and uncertain addition. Over the years a few students, past and present, had lent a hand in an operation or two but this was the first time someone such as him had been used with such a core unit of men. Unlike the others he had no real experience in this sort of infiltration but that wasn’t why he was there. He was there because he was sharp, he could see things that others couldn’t and had been trained by each and every one of the tutors present. His own philosophy seeming to teeter between Phelps’ methodical planning and Laras’ offensive. He’d been an asset to Charon over the years and was well recommended by all of his teachers. Yet they worried that if ever a plan involved any of the few people that he had allowed into his life, then he would lose focus. Laras didn’t agree with the criticism, he felt that Shlomi would only become more impassioned if he lost someone close to him, not that he wanted that to happen.

And of course Professor Nikolao had been brought along, but was it to help or was he merely trying to assuage the claims that he was a traitor or maybe he was just waiting to have them killed? His allegiance was anyone’s guess and that made some members a little hesitant to include him in the current mission, Phelps especially. It had been Stephans’ idea. Now they were bouncing across the country in a slightly battered but otherwise non-descript SUV.

“-Not to mention he still hasn’t trained with us, I doubt he’s even capable of working with a team,” Phelps stated, “You can’t let him know what we’re doing or-”
He spoke to Charon, ignoring the topic of his diatribe, sat in the back of the car, who was growling in a manner that did his reputation proud.

“Say that to my face, Eddie,” Laras said, clenching his fists as if he’d like nothing better than to strike out at the man before him.

“Shut up Nikolao, you’re in enough trouble as it is,” Higgs reminded Laras softly. Resentfully, the Russian looked away and took a breath and decided to stifle his own anger, for now.

Charon nodded his thanks. They did indeed need Laras’ intergrity to be intact if the ultimate mission was to be successful.

And it had to be.

“As I was saying before that little interruption,” Charon continued, now that Phelps’ protests had been silenced. “I recently received a message from an American renegade group I’ve been in contact with. Their leader was able to discover the location of a covert military facility, perhaps the northern one that’s been rumoured for such a long time.”

Charon paused, rubbing absently at his face with one hand..

“The information isn’t as detailed as I’d like,” the professor allowed, “But I was able to get positive proof that prisoners are being held there, along with a few others vital to the rebellions internal structure.”

Phelps however looked unimpressed, “And?”

Charon sighed, “No. There’s no guarantee that they’re there but there’s a very strong suggestion that they are... I believe, from all the evidence we’ve collected, that they are.” He stilled, his face having the barest hint of a frown. He seemed to allow the possibilities to flash before his eyes, which deepened the frown, before he spoke.

“There are no real words to explain the importance of this mission though, you realise that if this is the ‘northern’ base we’ve been told about then this could be their undoing, this could be the certain of their UK operations. The tumult after this loss would be catastrophic. There are some very powerful rebels who have remained in check only because of it... perhaps hundreds more would try and strike back at the current government if this place was taken out and the prisoners released.”

Shlomi spared a glance for Laras, from what they had spoken of during their few misadventures in Oxford, he knew that Laras had been trying to find out more about this base of operations for months from the cage of his office and yet here it seemed that the university had had information all along. That had to hurt.
Laras ignored his glance.

“This American group, the rebels, are they trustworthy?” Higgs asked, ignoring the interplay between Shlomi and the russian.
Charon nodded. “The leader was one of Maitland’s contacts, I met her several years ago in fact, although she wasn’t a part of the group then. I learned that she managed to avoid being discovered after the crisis in the USA three years ago, you remember, when that group of vigilantes tried to bomb several Dekhlan embassies. However I think it best if we leave her out of any plans. Her role...” Charon looked thoughtful, “I think her aide in garnering information may be the best use for her at the moment. Any more might shine an unhealthy light on her current position.”
Phelps and Higgs nodded.

“So, we storm in, knock out the guards, circumvent the electrical gadgets in place and free the prisoners before bringing them here for safe keeping. Sounds like my kind of mission,” Laras surmised with a sarcastic sneer twisting his lips.

“You mean reckless,” Phelps muttered under his breath.

The others ignored the interplay, answering Laras’ plan with a wry smile from Higgs. “Something like that. Although,” he lit up a laptop screen that showed several lists “I think it may be a little more tricky than it seems.”

The few scraps of paper looked to be from a building’s planning phase. It listed guard numbers, specific types of locking devices being implemented and some decidedly dangerous countermeasures. As they skimmed through these pieces of information the group grew more solemn. The number of guards were far greater than those that had been at any of the smaller facilities they’d targeted in the past. And, if those soldiers had been any representation, it would be wise to assume that all would be well armed.

“We don’t have any more time?” Shlomi asked, his eyes were focused on the screen. “What about actual building plans?” he inquired.

“Not unless we want any chance of my family being alive to slip through our fingers.” Phelps growled, again ignored.

“I’m afraid this is all that was available, and even this was locked down in such a way that if it hadn’t been for our contact’s skill we might never have had this. We do however have a general area for searching.”

“You don’t know where it is?” Higgs asked hesitantly, sharing a glance with his teammates. They seemed as hesitant as he did, Laras particularly, but his emotions were always a little difficult to guess.

“We have a localized area, and it’s probably an underground structure. I’m afraid that is all we have,” Charon looked a little tired as he gazed up at the picked over information.

“It can’t wait? Get some more information? How many are being held there?” Shlomi asked again, his practical side made him feel a little daunted but he was trying to keep the emotion out of his voice.

Failing if the challenging look on Phelps’ face was any indication.

“Based on the most recent information, no. It can’t wait. There is more than enough evidence to assume that some very disturbing experimentation is occurring. We must do all we can to free these people before things go any further. As for the current numbers. That is very unclear. Our contact was able to reach some former rebellion members, about 25% escaped the initial attack and have been accounted for. Of the 75%, it is not known how many are still alive, imprisoned, or have been killed. Some of the people unaccounted for are— fairly young. Some not even old enough to enter Oxford.”

The implication was clear. Children as young as Phelps’ own would have been taken, perhaps for the same reasons. The group nodded, there was no hesitation now. Although, the looks of distrust on their faces when they looked at Laras was even stronger than before.

“Lets go over it again,” Phelps repeated. There was a certain lack of humour in his voice and his face seemed emotionless almost mask-like. The idea of experimentation on children had gone a long way in steeling his resolve.

As for the others, protecting their country and their futures was a duty they took very seriously.

Charon nodded, “Alright, first-” then he looked at the Russian, then at Higgs, “Do it now.”

Laras looked alarmed then a prick on his neck made him stiffen and look to both of his fellows in shock and dismay. He wasn’t trusted with the entire plan it seemed. He was still guilty until proven innocent and as he succumbed to deaf, blind darkness, he felt his heart constrict, contort and break.

*

He’d tried to figure it out on the journey to the targeted control centre. Of course, he’d known from the start that they were only taking him along to discover if he was the mole, but that wasn’t what he had figured out this time. As he’d sat in the back of the car, carefully piecing together the nature of this reconnaissance mission, he’d eventually come down to questioning which of his reasons for staying mattered more. Then as they’d discussed the reasons behind the mission, more than just a rescue of Phelps’ family, he had realised that he couldn’t leave it all behind because of their distrust, he had to prove he was worthy and the best way to do that was on this mission. Then they’d knocked him out to discuss the details of their little plan, he’d never felt so sickened by the Oxfordians.

Even if it had only been for a minute, he still would have felt the same wave of disgust as he did, waking disorientated and groggy in the dark with Higgs hovering over him with the antidote, several hours later. He snarled and pushed the man away only to have Charon pass him the equipment he was ‘allowed’ to have. At that point he’d tensed up and slipped automatically into the mode of thought that made him so deadly, the mindset of a trained killer, which was exactly what he was.

They were crouched in the tunnels, five of them, Phelps and Charon and Shlomi and a Fellow of Oriel College, the supposed ‘expert’ on this particular Omega base, called Higgs and then Laras. He was, for the most part, ignored. After all, he was only there so that he couldn’t pass on information. Occasionally Shlomi would send him a look that both angered him and consoled him, not everyone on this mission believed he was about to dash off to tell the alien scum that Oxford had pierced the impenetrable walls surrounding them.

Now they were waiting. Waiting for something to happen that the others had obviously all been told about but they hadn’t told him because it was a test, if he knew what was about to happen then it could be a sign that he was the traitor. If he didn’t... he just hoped it wouldn’t kill him. He wanted to die having made sure that everyone knew exactly where his loyalties lay.

But this waiting, he’d never been a fan. It was like going to one of the showings in the reconstructed Louvre: every single show began late, half an hour, an hour. Waiting was part of the event, the whip of anticipation. The signal for the start was music: then the lights would go down. The music usually appealed to the epic, spacey, Sibelius and Wagner, having been casually integrated into Dekhlan propaganda, whilst Haydn and Scarlatti were even more casually forbidden. In the past the penchant for wild animals in the big beyond was essential; the Berreta’s and ‘Castelbajac’s or Montana’s – they were all integrated within the music. Now, it was technology, the whirring of transport, the stamping of marching feet, the siren of the soporific that dictated London curfews. The scale was still set by the music, only now it was all about the support of the Empire before Earth. It was untruth. This waiting, had that same suspense, the same tedium and thus the anticipation. When would they move forward, what was the next move?

He didn’t ask. He crouched in the dark, waiting for one of the others to give a signal that would tell him what they were planning. He could guess a certain amount from the fact that each man was armed. In his hand was a Resin X2341 Rifle, held close in to his chest with his black gloved hand concealing the red glow of the electricity that hummed through it. Holstered across his body were two, flintlock-type pistols, refills were tucked into his left boot along with an adamantium-tipped, glass blade and in his right he had four electro-magnetic tags which could be used to open doors or walls or anything that was in his way. Phelps had handed him the weaponry with a frown and he’d taken them with a slight grimace. It was a rare thing that he used weaponry that distanced him from his enemy. Everyone knew he fought up-close-and-personal.

It didn’t matter. He was out. Wasn’t this what he wanted anyway?

“GO GO GO!!!”

The harsh whisper cut across the darkness. A pinprick of light, the flashing of molten metal and Higgs had burned a hole in the metal walls that they protected the underbelly of the alien beast.

He half expected there to be a sudden onslaught of fire and bullets but there was none. Without prompting the five of them came together out of the dark, backs facing inwards so every angle was made visible to them as they moved into the bright metal corridors of Omega’s Northern Base. The walls were grey steel, glittering in the white light, there were no doors, nothing to signal that this was a place where people worked or lived or died. Laras grimaced; this place was
definitely Omega’s.

Phelps was the first to break the defensive circle, stepping out towards the left with a caution that reminded him of a wolf sniffing the air for prey.

Whizz

Something flew past Phelp’s ear only to clatter against the wall, a dart of some sort, filled with a liquid that looked unsurprisingly like Synterine. Laras saw Shlomi shudder as he too put things together as they suddenly found themselves in the middle of a storm of tiny poisonous darts. Charon started running; they all followed.

The clatter of the little things was almost as distracting as the whizzing of their attack. They dodged, ducked, it looked like Shlomi had been caught in the arm but he’d roughly torn it from himself with a flickering glance back at Laras. For his own part, he was just relieved that they were wearing standard issue Kevlar which would protect the main bulk of their bodies from the onslaught.
As they ran he expected to hear an alarm, they’d triggered a trap so surely... but he wasn’t in on everything and he wasn’t one for useless speculation.
Laras dived over a dart that sprung from his right, tucking and rolling to avoid the next and spinning to the far side of the corridor as he found himself having to manuever between two diagonal shots. Gritting his teeth he saw Higgs forced onto his belly, Shlomi bat away one with his gun, Phelps jumping upwards, plunging one of the adamatium knives into a grey slate in the ceiling.

Silence.

Panting, they all picked themselves up, reformed the group. So they had known how to stop that trap... presumably one of the things they’d talked about before. No matter, he suspected there were more things ahead and they were probably watching him, testing him. Interesting. He grinned to himself for a second at the adrenaline rush only to realise that everyone was looking at him. He could see the accusations on their faces and tried to put it into words for himself.

They weren’t waiting. The Doctors aren’t here. Nor the junior guard nor even a small mission to take us out. Just some basic booby-trap.... They’re thinking that this might be a sign that they were right. That I’m the liability, the leak...

“Let’s move.” Charon’s low voice seemed dark and dreadful in the glare of the lights and the metal, “Laras with me.”

Laras obeyed. Prowling after Charon as the dark spy began to make his way towards a doorway that was barely distinct from the rest of the panelling. Phelps and Shlomi crept after Higgs, breaking the small group up and quickly disappearing around a corner. Charon pressed a sonic manipulator against the door, listening for the right code until the door swung open.

Cold spilt from the door and Laras shuddered as Charon led the way forward. Shuffling into the room, warily checking for hidden enemies, Laras’ eyes saw something which made him halt ubruptly.

“What the fuck?” He hissed.

Charon turned and looked at him in horror, “This was meant to be a holding cell.”

“It’s a holding cell alright, just a different sort.”

Both of them stood, staring at the rows of upright, man-sized tubes, filled with a blue-green fluid and the bodies of numerous humans. Each was clearly dead. Each was clearly killed. The central tube contained a woman and Laras couldn’t help but feel sickened. She was hideous. It had nothing to do with greyish pallor that was emphasised by the liquid around her, nor the blood shot, lidless eyes that matched each of her companions in the other tubes. He supposed she must have been ugly in life, but the sagging skin around her bones, the protruding belly of pregnancy that had been torn open and emptied, the agony on her face... If he hadn’t become so accustomed to death in Russia he was sure he’d have been fighting the same nausea that was obviously plaguing Charon at that precise moment. But then, the sight of a child in a similar state, fingers clearly broken at each joint made his pulse race and his blood turn cold.

“Laras...” Charon began, eyes focused off into a dark space behind the tubes, “It’s...”

“Lisa.” The moan slipped from his lips before he could stop himself. She lay on a table, dead and colourless. Tiny pinpricks dotted her arms, a tube was forced into her throat and he could only imagine what had been force down it. Her eyes too were lidless, the pupils tiny and the irises bright green in the midst of the blood of the cornea despite the film forming across them. Quivering, angry throbbed through his body, his hands clenched, his eyes narrowed. If that dirty alien scum had so much as touched his godson he’d tear them apart with his hands and god-spare the fucker that had come up with such a set of ‘experiments’. He snarled.

“We find the others. Find Greg and the twins.”

“Laras-”

“Don’t fucking argue with me, I’m not in the god-damned fucking mood to take your bullshit accusations right now.”
He turned on his heel. Nikolao, the best fighter the university had seen in generations, was in control and was furious, the weaker side, the emotional side ignored as anger seared through him. His body tensed, coiled and ready like the figure of a wildcat, he found the flintlocks and drew them, ready to take on the enemy.

In his fury he missed the relief that fleetingly caught his companions eye.

*

When Phelps had worked his way into the central chambers the onslaught had been instantaneous. Soldiers of the Dehklan army were waiting. The rooms behind them, supposedly the prisons in which his children and the other victims of the fascist empire were contained. They couldn’t escape. There were only twenty or so of the enemy, they’d plunged ahead, killing as many as possible but ignoring those that were merely KOd. Shlomi span and kicked and fired his weapons as skilfully as either of the other two, although the number of soldiers he killed was less. Phelps admired the amount of training the boy had undertaken, the success of it, even as he took out another faceless drone.

More and more of the soldiers appeared.

Were the three of them done for? What had become of Charon and the Russian? He wondered if they’d found his family as he let the last of his distracted thoughts drown in lieu of the chaos.

*

They were sprinting, Charon apparently had directed the others to go the other rumoured holding cells but the directions were useless since none of the passages other than the first one was anything like it was meant to be. The current hallway was a little more interesting than the last, lined with the almost invisible doors. There was another locking mechanism, located at a point near the elevator, and the spy waved the sonic manipulator at the device, sighing as all the doors clicked open.

Laras shared a glance with Charon, “This should be interesting,” he commented.

There was silence for a moment until a curious head peered from behind the doors. “Who are you?” the head asked.

“Nobody,” Charon said quickly.

Laras chuckled darkly, watching with some amusement at Charon’s uncomfortable stance. His comrade shot him an annoyed gesture before straightening up.

“That is to say, The English Rebellion sent us to bust you out.”

Laras snorted, “That’s our title these days?”

The head emerged more prominently now, it was attached to the thin gangly body of a boy who didn’t look to be out of his teens. He was very lean and tall, his blond hair hanging straight as a pin. A few more heads emerged as well, and Laras had a feeling that quite a few individuals were waiting to see how well things played out.

“The rebellion, I’ve heard of it,” there was strong Scottish accent attached to his words Harry noted. The man glanced at the other cells, speaking louder, “Oxford based right?”

Laras nodded. “Something like that. This all of you?”

Another figure emerged from a little further down the hall. “No,” the elder man answered. “There are some of the older ones, the proper insurgent types on another level.” He wasn’t as lean as the first, nor as tall either, thick curly grey hair hung like a curtain entirely shielding his eyes from view.
“If they are still alive,” the first blond boy offered negatively.

A small sob escaped another room at this pronouncement.

“Don’t talk like that,” the small voice begged.

Laras crossed to one of the cells and opened it with a sharp tug.

“He’s just being a prat Cam. Mam’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

A small girl with a blur of matted brown hair was hugging an older boy around the middle, her sobs chocked by the fabric of his shirt, on the other side of the boy was another child, shivering and crying silently as he held onto the elder’s hand.

“Cameron? Charlie?” Charon asked before Laras could finally get out the name of his godson, “Greg?”

More prisoners were emerging now. Most seemed to be over twenty, the elderly man might be the oldest but it was hard to tell how old that even was. Their faces were a pale and most thinner than healthy, some sported bandages and most had small bruises at the crook of their arms, likely from IVs or perhaps inoculations of some kind. Neither invader liked to think about how young some of the children looked.

“I heard some of them tried to escape,” one young woman who had ears that looked like they’d been crushed said softly.

“When’d you hear that?” Charon asked.

“Few days ago,” she answered. “I’m pretty sure they’re a few floors down.

“There is no escaping this,” the blond stated dourly, “It’s like hell, even now we aren’t getting out alive. Not with just two of you.”

The Scottish man’s comment did draw the attention back to Charon and Laras, although the others seemed to be trying to squash the other half of his statement.

“No, we can do it,” Greg piped up, standing with his siblings, still having not acknowledged that it was his godfather to the rescue, “If they broke in then they can get us out. If we all work quietly, there has to be a way to manage it.”

“Greggo?’ Laras asked at last.

The child turned hesitantly, glancing his way for the first time only to end up staring at somewhere to the right of him. “Er...do I know you?” he asked curiously.

“Its me, Laras. You’re dad’s around here too...” Laras forced himself to look away. He remembered what colour eyes Greggo had only days ago, the total black that now shaded not only his iris but his pupil and even the whites of his eyes had made his want to growl.

Greg was blind.

*

Chaos reigned, they had heard the commotion as they’d sprinted through the stark corridors, the gunfire and the yelling. Hellfire and darkness, the flashing of bullets, of lasers and electricity flashed through the room.

Charon had given the elder man the map he’d had in the SUV and told him to lead the prisoners out of the complex via the hole that they’d created on the way in. Now accompanied by two other able-bodied youths, armed with the resin rifles they had both previously carried, they burst into the room where the book of revelations lived in true existence.

“EDDIE!!!!” Laras bellowed, seeking his friend with his eyes amongst the chaos. He could see Higgs in the centre and Shlomi still near the doorway, protecting the exit by which they had entered. Smart kid.

Charon fired off two shots over his shoulder, striking a soldier in the chest, knowing that the helmet would protect his head.

Laras threw himself into the fray. He knocked helmets aside, snapping necks and breaking jaws, beat the scum to the ground, crushed ribs with his high kicks and spinning assaults. He mimicked Mia, channelling the move that she’d so spectacularly half perfected against Eric, and completed it so that the individual in front of him lay unconscious on the floor. He casually crushed the man’s bared throat, content knowing that he wouldn’t breathe again. Edward Phelps was struggling with a group of men, fronted by someone oddly familiar and yet strange at once.

He was too far away.

Charon had made his way through to Shlomi, his back protected by the two freed prisoners. Whatever they said was lost in the noise but he could see that they were firing at the enemy, watching both him and Higgs and Phelps.

“EDWARD!!!”

He kept going, deciding to try and open the doors of the cells the guards were in front of. There were plenty of weapons scattered by the dead, if there were any capable of escape then they could fight their way free with them. One shot, upward punch, elbow, spin, shot. Again. Bang, thwack, mmph, crack, downed. Man after man. Foul, despicable vermin. He threw one of the electro-magnetic tags a door, seeing it stick, vibrate then burst the door off it’s hinges. Moving back Laras fought again, desperately trying to reach the next door.

Charon was still fighting. Fighting like an animal beside Shlomi. One of their helpers was downed or injured or had fled, Laras couldn’t be sure. There was a victory cry from across the room, Higgs was trapped against a wall, manically battling those around him. Laras prayed that the man escaped.

Phelps was there. So close to him.

“ EDWARD PHELPS!!!” He cried out again, reaching forward and catching the man’s attention at last, “WE GOT THEM OUT. WE GOT GREGGO AND THE TWINS!!! THEY’RE OUT!!!”

Phelps’ eyes met his, an expression of such relief, guilt and happiness wrenching at them both. He knew. He knew he was innocent, his best friend was true to him, to his country. They were fighting side by side then back to back, Laras moved to fire -

“Big mistake, professor.” A low drawl, familiar and haunting cackled through the haze of noise as an arm caught at his neck and tugged him backwards.

But Laras reacted immediately, firing his gun at the foot of his attacker. The man sidestepped but was forced to let go as Laras span away, turning to face him.

“Templeton.”

“Still too proud to call me Alex, sir, I thought we were becoming friends.”

Alexander Templeton was armed, clad in the uniform of the Dekhlan Army, the Omega Defence. Laras snarled launching himself into an attack. Only to be met with someone other than his target. His student had grabbed Phelps and pushed him in front of him, catching the man’s arms so his weapons were lost and his ability to struggle curtailed. He had been taught by the best.

What happened in the next few seconds would haunt Laras for months. Edward Phelps nodded, smiled slightly and then his eyes rolled back in his skull and his body slumped. A taser having knocked him unconscious.

Higg’s body crashed through the scene, disrupting Laras’ horror and forcing him into action only for a stranger to grab his arm and drag him away.
Charon and Shlomi met him, struggled with him and forced him out of the chaos.

Twelve prisoner’s ran with them, crammed into the truck and Laras sat, despondent in the front, covered in blood and knowing that not only was his best friend in the hands of the Doctors, he was also in the hands of his best student (with the exception of Mia). He had trained the enemy. He was to blame for whatever happened to Phelps from now on. How was he supposed to deal with that?
A Non-Existent User
Paige shifted in her seat as she scanned the windows and mirrors again for the twentieth time in the last five or ten minutes. "Relax." Nick offered. "We managed to find a safe location. Besides, even if something does go down, we've picked a spot with plenty of cover. They'll have to come in close if they want to get rid of us." She looked over at him. He'd been a part of Oxford a year longer than she had. He had a nice little scar running down the side of his face and one on his lower lip. If anyone asked he'd have told them he'd been born with a cleft lip and as a kid he'd gotten into a little dirt biking accident that had left the other scar, but it was obvious where they'd really come from. It had come from his training with Laras and a few other teachers like Professor Guilders or Evan's. Nick had been trained for these kind of missions. He was in charge of keeping the get away driver alive so there was still a way out. His muddy brown hair was slicked back and his black leather jacket was unzipped partially. She gave him a half smile and tugged at her leather gloves.

"Maybe so but I'm not taking any chances." she purred as she looked again.

He chuckled, holding on tight to his own gun. "That's why I like you Paige. Me and you got a lot in common."

"Is that so?" she asked as she spotted movement in the rear view mirror. She put her hand on the door handle instantly, waiting for a second move with every bit of confidence that Nick was looking too. "Why is that? Because we both take advantage of the fashionable yet usefulness of leather? That's no so uncommon. Light armors better than none at all right?" she asked as she spotted blond hair hiding behind a large cement pillar.

"Looks like they're here. Come on, let's give them a warm little greeting." he said playfully as he opened the door and hopped out, looking up at her. He held his gun at the ready.

Paige smiled and nodded as she followed suit. She hopped out. Her heeled biker looking boots had a combat knife tucked in each of them just in case. Of course, even she'd be able to hit the enemy at this short of a distance. She walked to the back of the van where Nick met her and looked into the distance where they'd spotted the movement. An old man poked his head out from behind a pillar. "It's alright. We're here to take you home." she offered him a reassuring smile, seeing the fear and anxiety in the old mans eyes. For a second she was worried he'd been all the others could free and that he'd be too scared to even make the last few yards to the van that'd be carrying him home to safety. But something seemed to click in the back of the old guys eyes and he turned behind him and nodded. The next thing a handful of people were rushing towards the van and then another handful- all of them looking weak and tired. They were pale and more than half starved but they were alive and that was all that mattered.

"Welcome home folks!" Nick offered as he opened the back door. Paige couldn't help scanning the faces, half hoping to see her mother or father rushing towards her with tears in their eyes. She hadn't even realized she'd been doing it until she felt her heart sink a little.

"Get them situated back there will ya?" Paige called back as she spun around, heading towards her door. She only had about 2.57 minutes to get to the designated exit to pick up the remainder of her team before she entered the red zone of her field. The red zone being the point where teammates started getting overrun by the enemy. The red zone was when she could start loosing people. Of course that had never happened even once to any of the missions Paige had driven for. Though she'd only done a few. She had every intention of that number staying the same till the day the Republic fell under Oxfords crushing blow. They were small but they were a force to be reckoned with. Paige paused when she reached the door. Her heart skipped a beat and before she knew it time had begun to slow down for her. She saw the blur of black with her peripheral vision and felt a shiver run up her back as she felt the presence come up from behind her- an arm reached around her with the intention of either choking her out or- most likely- snapping her neck and dragging her out of Nick's view when he came up to meet her in the front of the van. Then, just like that, things sped back into real time and before the Deklahn soldier's arm could wrap completely around her neck, Paige brought her hand up by her face, gripping the soldiers wrist as she spun around and pulled his arm behind him as she twisted it painfully and reached up through the folds of his uniform, under his armpit where she found the right spot and pressed as deep as she could into it, hearing something crack and feeling the soldier go limp and collapse to the ground. "they found us!" Paige shouted as two soldiers rushed at her, firing their guns.

Paige pulled the door open and hid behind it. Glass rained down on her as the window shattered. She could hear the heavily enforced door just barely manage to stop the bullets and quickly peeked her gun out, firing it. "Hey! Biker boy!" she shouted at Nick. It took her an extra few minutes to figure out that he was already covering her.

"I'll take up back here! Don't worry. Just get us to the second pick up location!" A few more sudden bursts of fire told her there were more soldiers coming from behind them. Paige glanced back seeing the doors close. She jumped up and almost let out a sudden cry of surprise seeing a soldier so close to her and another two rushing forward. She used her gun to take them out, along with a few others before she tossed it into the passengers seat and hopped up into the van. She turned the key- her lucky rabbits foot dangling from the key- and put it in drive, putting her foot on the gas. She'd run the rest of 'em over if she had to. Heck, even if she didn't have to- there was nothing quite like playing chicken with a Republican without a car of their own. She grinned as she turned the wheel sharply hitting a couple soldiers and watching another do a dive to get out of the way.

"Hope you guys have your seat belts on!" she called back to the new passengers. "This'll be a bumpy ride so keep your eyes shut and hold onto to your lunch." she heard a few gasps and a couple screams when she sped up even more and let the back wheels slide around another corner. "Just think of it as a roller coaster!" she offered, nearly screaming herself when a soldier managed to grip the mirror and pull himself up to her window- pointing their gun at her. Less than a second later she pulled out the combat knife from her left boot and stabbed him in the neck- jumping slightly when she heard the gunfire go off above her head.

"What's going on up their?"

"Relax Biker boy! Just thought we could do with a roof skylight." she teased as she finally cleared their hiding place and sped down the street. She looked at the clock. Less than 42 seconds left before the red zone, she thought as she passed under a yellow light and cut through some green grass and flowers. There was a gate up ahead. Paige reached down between the seats, grabbing the small round shape. She used her teeth to pull out the metal ring before she tossed the thing out the window. A loud explosion went off and Paige cut through the smoke, happy to find the gate gone. She raced down the road towards the large building. Eighteen seconds. She could hear Nick in the back picking off more soldiers. Almost there... she thought to herself as she got closer. Less than ten now. Paige pushed the engine even harder as she drove up the stairs and broke through the front doors, taking a couple more soldiers out and pushed on the brake. She heard the back door burst open and waited for the passengers to board. Seconds later Laras hopped into the front seat, bloodied and looking more deadly than ever. She heard the doors slam back shut and heard Nick pounding on the front to indicate that that was everybody. Then she put the van in reverse and smashed her way back out of the building, spinning the car around so she could see where she was going and putting it back into drive before she sped off. "Seatbelt sir. Don't want you being flung out the window." she offered, glancing at him only once. His lips were pierced together and he was holding on tightly to the handle above his head. Paige looked in the mirror. They were following them, of course. She grinned, leaning forward and cranking up a rock song. She bobbed her head a little as she went faster, taking a sharp corner and feeling the back tires lift up as they drifted. She glanced over at Laras, her smiling disappearing. He had a look somewhere between annoyance and frustration and it was directed at her. Oh, that was right- he liked classic. She shrugged her shoulders and turned it down just a little. Rock always made her drive faster and thats what they needed most right now- speed and driving that was border line genius and crazy. The music throbbed in her chest as she drove on, taking the previously planned rout.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Laras shouted at her as she turned down a subway. For a moment all Paige could do was look at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh yea, you don't know the whole plan." she said in a tone too low for him to hear.

"What? Turn this shit off. We're trying to make a get away- not alert all of London of our presence!" The smart thing would have been to tell him, but Paige couldn't help smiling as she put her foot a little further on the gas, honking her horn and watching as people dove out of her path. She looked at the clock- just 3 seconds behind schedule. Still, everything should be alright. The tricky part was getting the van on the tracks without wreaking it so bad it wouldn't get them where they needed to go. Luckily she managed to make it and had to turn the music up to keep the sound of a woman's shrieks in the back from getting to her. Laras was cussing up a storm beside her and there were a few more uttered as well. It got worse when Paige and Laras spotted the train in front of them in the distance. Not even the music could drown out his obscenities as he shouted orders at her. Paige glanced in the side mirror, seeing the Deklahn vehicles following behind her. This really would be close. Paige leaned forward, turning on her brights. The light from the train was making it near impossible to spot what she was looking for. Ignoring Laras, she leaned forward, searching the dash for what she needed.

"Aha!" she popped her head back up, putting on a pair of sunglasses and slipping them onto her face.

"What the fuck? You want to look cool when they find our corpses?" Laras shouted. "Well I hate to break it to you but they won't be able to tell with our bodies splattered on the sides of the tunnel!"

"Paige..." Nick called out from the back nervously. "You trying to cut it this close?" There were a few more complaints and screams before Paige replied.

"Relax." she offered over the heavy fire both the Deklahn and her team were giving off. A few more seconds passed... where was it?

"Paige!" Shlomi shouted. She smiled and turned the wheel sharply towards the right, the train just barely nicked the back of the van as it cut into an old tunnel that hadn't been used since the beginning of 3000. The sound of metal crashing and bending into more metal rose above the pounding rhythm of the song as it disappeared into the tunnel. They drove for twenty five more minute in near silence; aside from the sound of the music playing and the van moving along through the tunnel. A few moments later they reached their final destination.

Paige leaned forward, turning the music down and smiling as they drove into the underground garage. As she put the van in park and pulled her key out of the ignition there were already people escorting the rescue-es out f the van and into the best of care. Paige smiled and looked up at Laras who had come up from behind her. "Looks like it was a successful mission, huh sir? Mia will be happy to hear that your name's been cleared." but instead of returning her smiling and nodding in agreement he simply looked down at her- no... he was looking through her. Then he turned and left. Paige looked at him quizzically before she realized something. They were down a teammate. Shlomi walked up to her and confirmed it.

"They got Phelps." he said as he approached.

"Damn." She'd been three seconds into the red zone. If only she'd have made it on time. She looked over her shoulders and understood what was up with Laras. First he was suspected as being the traitor and now this...

"That's not all either. Phelps' wife... Laras and Charon found her dead." Paige sighed, slouching slightly in defeat. It no longer felt like a victory. Of course, anyone could tell her there were no winners when it came to this sort of thing. So all she could do was nod and walk off. She was tired now that she was coming off her adrenaline high. "Paige, where are you going?"

"Need some sleep. You guys don't need me anymore." she called back in a much more cheerful voice than was actually her mood. "I'll be in my room if you guys need anything." she offered as she walked past a medical group that was escorting a little boy away from the van. His eyes were completely black. She winced and walked past them. Would Oxford's team of doctors be able to fix something like that, she wondered. They were smart- the best of the best as was custom at the collage but still... there was only so much a man could do.

Paige walked down the halls of Oxford, unzipping her own leather jacket and pulling off her gloves, pulling the band out of her hair as she headed towards her room. "Paige!" she turned seeing the princess approach her.

"Mia..." Paige smiled.

"You're back. Is Laras alright?"

Paige smirked. "Yes, I'm in one piece. Thanks for asking. For a second I thought that might be my last speed chase through the streets of London." she chuckled before adding, "Why so anxious to find that little tidbit out?" she couldn't help teasing. Of course the princess was far too well trained for the color on her face to last very long or getting any darker than the blush she was wearing.

"Well he's not exactly on everyones good side. I half expected to hear that he was accidentally shot in the back during the mission."

"Oxford's not that harsh Mia. You know that. Laras is alright... he's a little worse for wear but the whole team is."

"So the mission went smoothly?" Paige's involuntary flinch told her the truth and Paige was too tired to lie about it. Besides, the princess was as much a friend as one could get in this place. She explained what happened and excused herself shortly afterwords before Mia had a chance to do the same. She'd want to console her teacher... whether or not she would or not wasn't really any of Paige's business. She barely remembered making it to her room and shedding her clothes, crawling into bed, and snuggling up against a pillow as she curled up in a ball.
...

Paige groaned to the sound of knocking disrupting her pleasant dreams. She rolled over and tried to ignore it but the person on the other side persisted and was as stubborn about not giving up as she was about returning to her dream. Finally Paige gave up, kicking off the sheets and blankets and forcing herself out of the bed. It wasn't until the door was halfway open that she remembered all she was wearing was the button up pin striped business shirt that had seen better days. Only the lower half was buttoned. She ran her fingers through her hair and leaned against the door frame, looking out at Tada. "What are you doing here?" she asked with a slightly playful tone.

"I want to know what happened on the mission." he replied as he walked in, seemingly unscathed by her appearance. The game was on again. Paige pouted inwardly as she shut the door.

"Good to see you too."

Tada walked into the middle of the room before he turned and looked at her. "I didn't see any bruising or cuts and you're not in the infirmary so you must be okay... right?"

Paige noted the not so confident tone in his voice that forced him to ask her to clarify what he'd already figured out on his own. "Yes, I'm alright." he nodded and sat down in the chair next to her bed.

"So, what happened?" he asked.

"Why so curious?" she teased.

"I don't think I need to explain."

Paige sighed. "No, I guess not." she walked over to the bed and sat down, the shirt coming up a little higher on her thighs. "Alright then..." she explained, knowing Tada soaked up every word she said. She smiled to herself. Maybe next time he'd have made enough of an impression to be able to come along with her. He had the skill. When she finished there was a small moment of silence that felt awkward to her. "So, that's what happened." she added, looking at him.


Charon smiled and nodded at his class. "All right, essays due by midnight Friday, you all know by now how I react to 'mysteriously' corrupted or deleted assignments. I'll see you all on Tuesday."

He kept the smile up as his students rose, catching a few eyes. Mia got the hint and took her time putting her books up, which the other students had gotten used to by now. Sooner or later he'd need to actually at least start a rumor that something was going on there or it would start to -be- suspicious rather than allaying suspicion. The princess kept her facade up even after the room was otherwise empty. Good girl.

"Do you still have students try to send corrupted files or claim the file deleted while en-route?"

Charon couldn't help but let a bit of his genuine smile through. "Yes, as a matter of fact I said what I did because one of my students in another class 'warned' me that his email had been ruining files it sent recently. I informed him that if such was the case, I'd be happy to accept a hand-written copy of his essay in my mailbox in the department office, and that I'd even give him an extra hour to write it out."

Mia's laugh was almost perfectly scripted, though a bit of her genuine improvement in mood showed through. Laras being innocent had certainly improved her attitude.

Charon reached down, pressing a button on the laptop he kept for his classes. A faint electrical whine filled the room, audible even to the human ear. "It's a high-frequency garbler. We can be frank now."

Mia nodded. A garbler would fill any electronic bug or listening device with impossible amounts of static, simultaneously scrambling sounds in the area while shifting them. Charon's was also programmed to include bits of garbled conversations he'd had with close to a hundred people, Mia included. Even a really good scrambler who knew what he was listening for would take days to pick through it, if they skipped sleep and meals. And it was still dangerous to rely on. Omega -would- decode it if they wanted to, regardless.

"I wanted to talk to you for a minute about Laras."

Mia's smile dissolved into a roll of her eyes. "It isn't a very ladylike thing to say, but I told you so. All of you."

The professor/spy nodded. "So you did. I wanted to talk very briefly about why." He kept his own smile, moving around his desk and leaning back. He was clearly using a cheap garbler, cheap because it could be heard, to cover his attempts to hit on the princess. So far as anyone walking past would know, of course. "So how did you know?"

The answer was immediate and very matter-of-fact. "Because betraying Oxford is the last thing he'd ever do. He's the last person to suspect of anything like that."

"So you believed in him because you know him and his character?"

Mia nodded, anger in her eyes even as she twisted fingers behind her back and put on a smile again. Not responding overtly to any flirting, but enjoying the attention at least.

He reached a hand out to brush a stray hair from her face as he spoke again. "Grow up, Mia."

She tensed at the words, the anger in her eyes practically exploding. He pulled his hand back. Obviously she'd felt the touch too forward of a flirtation, but he clearly was not intimidated. "Every single person at Oxford now, even those not in the rebellion, has someone else on campus, normally several others, who can personally vouch for their character. Everyone. You, to be blunt, were one of very few exceptions, in that you were allowed in with very few people here having met you or gotten to know you. And most people are wrong to vouch so fervently, Mia."

She was relaxing again, the professor's smooth-talking quickly overcoming the liberty he'd taken in touching the princess. "There's nothing wrong with trusting someone."

"No there isn't. But trust is a complicated thing. We can't afford to trust others, but we all have a need to be trusted. If you know Laras at all it isn't hard to see what effect suddenly being distrusted by so many people had on him. Trust for its own sake, however, is not something we can afford here. The stakes are simply too high."

Mia turned and put her books on the desk, hiding the frustration she wasn't sure she was hiding well enough with embarrassment from one of Charon's compliments. "If we don't trust each other, we can't fight, though. This isn't just a resistance, it's a group of people who all feel one thing very strongly. Strongly enough to risk their lives."

Charon wandered over to the door, glanced back and forth, then pushed it a bit closer to closed. More serious flirtation inbound, apparently. "And we are risking our lives, and the lives of every person on the planet. It impossible for people so involved and so driven to avoid trusting, but we can't let that trust override our purpose." He held up his hand, raising fingers as he ticked off names in his head. "Oxford is built specifically so that no single person can bring it down completely, but there are a handful, a bare handful, who can come very very close. Of that handful, a handful of them, despite all precautions, just might be able to actually end us altogether. Laras is most definitely in the former category, possibly in the latter. Do you have any inkling of how few people could even -possibly- have given away the information that led to Phelps's wife's death and son's blinding in order for Laras to be even a suspect? And even those very few names had nothing to gain from it."

Mia turned her head to the side, finally letting her temper show on her face now that no one could see it. Never mind the tenseness in her neck giving it away. This was important, Charon would remind her of that later. "Oh, I suppose I should start distrusting you too, then. Why, was your name on that list?"

Charon almost, almost let his face slip. Mia's eyes widened a bit. Even a heartbeat of hesitation from Charon was enough to give him away anymore. "Yes, as a matter of fact, my name is on most any list like that, Mia, which you have no doubt figured out by now. The number of names on that list now that Laras isn't on it, the number of people who could even possibly have leaked that information in time for such a counter-response to come from Omega like it did is five, if you include Phelps and Amis, the two who were actually on the mission. We are not careless, Mia."

Mia closed her eyes, moving her hands behind her back, twisting her fingers together. Charon's flirtation seemed to be paying off. He could have kissed her for real for remembering to keep the act going. "Why are you telling me this? Am I supposed to just not trust people I know I can?"

A heartbeat of waiting, and then Charon stepped closer, placing one hand on her shoulder. At least he could do that much without breaking character for all the world to see. "Because you are still angry at all of us for distrusting him. Especially Phelps."

She swallowed. No one particularly wanted to think about what he was going through right now, not the least of which because for whatever reason, no one was saying anything about what was being done about it. "If he'd trusted his own best friend a bit more, maybe he wouldn't be... There."

Charon nodded, and leaned in closer, his voice quiet. "Phelps lost, in one day, a friend, his feelings of safety, meager though they were at Oxford, and his family, with only one person in the world who could possibly have gained from it. He was angry precisely because he trusted Laras so much. Phelps was a very unhappy man, Mia. I'd wager that he's beating himself up right now at least as much as Omega is."

Mia nodded, then turned and put her smile back on, collecting her books and playfully swatting his hand away, the flirting once again all anyone else could see. "I just wish someone had found out sooner."

Charon nodded and waved, keeping his smile, fake and perfect, on his features as she walked to her next class. "Don't we all?"

*****

Charon crouched again in another stretch. He'd have to go before too much longer if Laras didn't show. He did have classes to prepare for, after all, but the only place to effectively guarantee running into Laras by 'accident' was the gym, more specifically the sparring mats. A pair practiced savate on the mat beside him, and his was otherwise closest to the door. Laras would have to walk right past him.

So Charon thought while his hands moved through another warm-up exercise. Laras was not the traitor. None of the other very few names who could have betrayed that mission had a single thing to gain from it, except, of course, to throw suspicion of betrayal on someone else. On top of that, his contacts at Omega had told him nothing of the mission being betrayed before it was over, which meant either the information was sent and acted on immediately, his sources were even less-informed than he was on the other traitor at Oxford, or Omega didn't trust him. There wasn't a reason for the third, he'd not given them any reason to think he was any less loyal and they knew exactly what they at least thought they held over him as assurance.

The thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the Russian professor. Charon straightened and bowed to him respectfully, as though starting a bout. Laras didn't bother hiding his glare, but he stepped onto the mat. The savate practitioners decided another mat would be safer if Laras was starting a spar glaring so hard, which meant Charon would be able to speak freely.

The Russian professor started stretching, keeping his eyes on the English professor. "What do you want, Charon?"

"A good spar, for one thing. I can't very well invite one of my students on the mat, now can I?" He considered mentioning one in particular, but decided Laras had enough reasons to hospitalize him. "And to clear up the bad air between us."

Laras narrowed his eyes, coming out of a stretch and already into a ready stance, loose and light on his feet. "Bad air? You were one of the main people looking to condemn me, and you call it bad air?"

Even then, as angry as he was, Laras didn't lash out. Charon admired such self control. The Russian was a fantastic fighter, but was even better for never forgetting that even the best could be beaten by an amateur if they stopped paying attention to themselves. Charon extended on foot slightly forward, hands before him again, and started to slowly, smoothly circle around the outer edge of the mat.

"Baguazhang is hardly something I'd expect you to have time for."

"I was not always so busy, and it is not so hard to find places to walk around in a little circle to keep in practice. Now, would you like to honestly tell me that you, when faced with such evidence of treason, wouldn't have taken actions similar to mine?"

He jabbed out, was met in kind, both professors testing their opponent's guard. Charon hoped they could at least finish talking, if not the spar itself, before people started to notice. He was popular with his students, and was using a rather exotic and, he thought, beautiful martial art against the premier melee combatant at Oxford. He'd almost be offended if they didn't draw at least a small audience.

Though from the look on Laras's face, they'd watch from the other end of the room.

Charon stepped closer, the two clashing for real, the English professor twisting to avoid a snapped punch, Laras batting aside a close palm strike, a sweeping kick, an answering roundhouse. Almost a dance. Laras was even throwing in a few moves from baguazhang, which surprised Charon more than it should have once he thought for a moment.

They separated, and Charon started circling again. Laras kept his voice low. "I never questioned the reasoning behind anything. That's not the same as liking anyone who pointed the finger at me. Least of all you."

The English professor winced slightly, and Laras attacked, this time trying to switch his first contact from a punch, which Charon was blocking with one palm, into a grapple. Charon likewise grabbed, and swept one leg, catching the Russian's leg and with a twist, lifting him from the mat. He nearly smiled in triumph, ecstatic to be able to let his self-control go for at least as long as it would take to pull Laras, no longer touching the ground, over him and into the cushioned floor once again. It always came back to the same thing. How dare you, of all people, mistrust anyone? You, a double agent that no one knows they can trust?

His triumph faded rapidly as he felt Laras twist as he passed above Charon. Too late now, the Russian had him. Laras's feet touched the mat, and immediately he heaved, pulling Charon around sideways, using the momentum of the throw to send him down with a knee pressing him against the mat in the middle of his back.

Charon could barely breathe, but he spoke with what air he had. "There's almost... no one... that Oxford can trust... that Oxford -knows- it can trust... You weren't trusted absolutely... no one is... But now you are proven loyal... You're a pillar now... A symbol... Trust is powerful... Oxford needs it... You have to be... the unbreakable man... your students believe... you to be... Not spiteful..."

Laras let him up, the point in his favor. Charon stretched, tested himself, then bowed and dropped into a stance again. "There's still a traitor, Laras. You know well enough how catastrophic an unknown traitor at the level there seems to be means. Oxford is in danger, and you're proven loyal. People will look to you now, when they don't know who to trust. When things get bad, you represent trust now. Don't let the injustice done to you hurt that. Oxford needs you now more than it ever has before. Trust an English professor to tell you how important that symbol is."

The Russian didn't answer him in words, but he could see the stance change subtly. Charon sighed. He was going to walk away from this spar on his own feet, but he'd not escape the bruises he was due.

But so help him he'd give the Russian a few of his own. He had his own stress to deal with, after all.
Yesterday

The past few lessons had been a struggle. He'd been given some very tough exercises to do. Mostly real-time strategy time simulations. One had several resources and was more like military force versus military force. This one he aced. Next were several in which it was a small more covert faction up against a giant colossus of a power using guerilla tactics. Being followed back to the base of operations was absolute destruction. This scenario was much harder and mimicked more aspects of Oxford's situation.

"You have to make sure you don't act during this phase," Ortrun said pointing out a few numbers on the screen in reference to Tada trying to act again immediately after a small mission. "If you do, there will be retaliation, and it will be impossible to escape without losses and possible following. Remember, if they discover your base, you'll enter the AIL phase." AIL stood for All Is Lost. It was one of the first time's Tada had seen 'is' used in an acronym as one of the capitalized letters. In this phase, one would have to choose to keep fighting and try to fight their way through to victory (odds were about 0.2% of success) or destroy base and regroup. Obviously, this was to be strongly avoided. She'd run him through these drills for hours. During his break from them, she made him train his body.

Sofia Ortrun smiled at him as she slipped on a pair of small black boxing gloves. They were more Thai in style as they probably weighed next to nothing and were more for cushioning the knuckles instead of the blow. She wore a tank top and pair of long shorts. She had knee braces and wrapped ankles. It was obvious that her Maui Thai experience was going to going into this little sparring session. "In our little sim exercise on your first day you exhibited advanced combat ability. Of course that doesn't mean you're a great fighter. Your skills seem more like that of an assassin, but if you're met with a well trained opponent who sees through your quick lethal moves and you're forced to fight him on equal standards the tide may quickly turn for you. Tada checked his gloves by pounding them together while wearing them. They were sturdy and tied nice and tight. He swallowed hard. In truth, during the sim, those maneuvers just came out of him. He stretched briefly and then put on his own grey tank top. Not to mention, he really didn't like the thought of fighting against females.

"Ms. Ortrun, not that I'm questioning your physical prowess or anything, but isn't Laras the top fighter and melee instructor?" Tada asked not looking up at her as he did. He didn't want to meet angry eyes if that's what ensued.

"Tada, I'm sorry to say that if all you've got is some quick hands and hit quick and toss aside style melee ability that man will break you in places you weren't sure could be hurt that bad. Now come at me when you're ready." she said bluntly. Tada looked at her stance. It was intimidating. He thought for a moment about the few fights he'd been in. His strategy had always been to hit where it hurts and if you don't want to get hit, move. He steadied his breathing and focused for a moment. He started circling and she followed suite. He'd noticed she was right handed and so he circled outside to her left to easier avoid any oncoming power strikes from the dominant hand. Generally, dominant sides aren't just limited to hands, he thought as he took notice of her toned legs. Her kicks would hurt. Tada knew he was much more of a counter-fighter. Suddenly Ortrun pushed in with jab. His right hand snapped to the wrist instantly. Pushing up close, Sofia stopped him from initiating an adequate hold or throw. Suddenly she grabbed his active wrist with her other hand and turned his arm back behind him and swiveled once pulling him in a half-circle around her body. Shit! was his only thought as his body moved in it's own accord. He steadied his stance and just as he stood he found out he was right. Her kicks hurt like hell. Right as his balance was returned her shin (which seemed to be made of iron) struck hard into the side of his front leg's knee. He couldn't stop his forward stumble at all he the intense sting cut through his leg and buckled his stability. Ortrun's arm strapped straight across his chest forcing him back over her foot. The back of his head bounced off the thin mat leaving his head seeming to ring. She was already over him with her fist raised as if to finish him off and smirked for a second. "Tada?" she called.

"I'm here." he replied with a gruffness in his voice caused by the impact. Sofia stood and helped him up,

"Wanna try that again?" she asked. Despite the throbbing in the side of his knee and the embarrassment of being done in by a simple hard leg kick and an easy throw, this was good for him. Using his heart and muscles for a bit instead of his brain. He shook off his apparent shock and nodded,

"Yeah. Definitely." came his reply as he stood back in his spot. They readied their stances again. Tada realized, he was going to have to take this seriously. After a brief sizing up he saw it. Her front leg moved slightly, her foot flexing as her weight shifted. Tada moved forward and gave a slight turn slipping just past her opening jab. He took a shot of his own, but she stepped out of it quickly. His foot came up checking her coming leg kick and he followed with a left jab. He felt flesh on his glove as his head turned slightly from her hook. She'd gotten the better blow. Tada immediately ducked evading a following punch. As he rose so did his fist. Ortrun stepped back keeping away from it. He got a little hasty in his pursuit. Two jabs hit nothing but air. A third was pushed aside by Sofia's forearm and before he could even see them, her own double jabs became Tada's lunch and he backed out in retreat. She came forward with a front kick. It hit, but not flush as Tada prepped for it letting it slid under his reaching arm. He caught the kick! A brief moment of triumph came to him as Ortrun pulled in wrapping her arms around his head trying to stay steady. She pulled closer closing the gap to minimize her imbalance which pressed her chest against his face. Tada held his breath ignoring the breasts, but that's when he felt it. Her hands grasped the back of his neck just under the base of his skull. This was the Maui Thai plum hold. Before he could try to push her away she jumped bringing his head down with full whip and hammering her knee into his face. Suddenly he felt a bit numb. His legs loosened and he quickly let go of his instructor's leg falling low in hopes of ducking out of the hold. Ortrun grabbed his hair and her fist then hit him in a vicious uppercut. This had to look awful. Partially because it felt awful, and partially because he was obviously being manhandled. Tada reached up and looped his arm against her's and broke her grip even though it pulled out some of his hair. He grabbed the arm and wrist in both hands and spun under it. Sofia turned into him not letting him get into position for a strong throw. "Judo, Tada? That's impressive..." she complimented seeing what he'd tried to do just before he pushed his foot between her feet to halt her footwork as he slid closer hooking his right arm under and his left over her respective shoulders. She pulled him to the right trying to throw off his positioning for the next throw. Tada simply let his feet slide on the mat for a second and pivoted his body pushing his hip hard against Sofia pulling her body up throw her on the ground with the momentum. It was a koshinage, or a hip-throw, and he'd fucked it up. Just as Tada pulled her weight across his stable point, Ortrun predicted his maneuver however fast he'd done it. She'd slid just slightly of point of his hip letting him pull so she could use the same flip on him. Tada, before he'd even realized he'd been reversed, sailed in an arc over her hip and smacked the mat hard knocking the wind out of him and sending shockwaves all over his back an through his pelvis. Ortrun, poised behind him, dropped and wrapped her legs over to his front to try and hook them near his groin inside his legs to prevent hip movement. Tada quickly pushed her right foot out with his own before she could wrap her arms completely around his neck. His own hands scrambled untying the hold she was trying for as he turned over to slide up on top her. The ball of Ortrun's foot touched his chest as she kicked him off her body. He stumbled back and slipped falling backward as she stood quickly and moved forward. Tada's eyes shifted up as she came in close and he launched forward using his weight to push into her and knock her back. It was kind of a cheap thing to do to a lightweight female opponent, but she wanted to see what he could do. Not to mention he did take a sharp jab to the jaw in the process, but now she was open. Tada felt his body uppercut sink into her abdomen and could feel her body drift back off balance. He caught a glimpse of the whole picture as she was leaned back, almost fallen backward. He couldn't reach her head with a kick, but her feet were the furthest point forward. He threw his kick low and sharp taking her drifting foot out from under her completely and his instructor fell. A rush of adrenaline pushed through Tada's veins throwing him forward. He went to finish her and hold his fist above her as she did him, but she wasn't done, he'd have to continue. The pit in his stomach rose as he was uncertain if he could actually just strike a woman in the face like that. Sadly, he wouldn't find out. Just a he reached her she kicked the inside of his leg and then grabbed his wrist as he leaned over rolling backward and pulling him off balance and onto his back. Her legs wrapped over his arm and across his chest locking him in place as he felt pressure and then a sudden torque on his arm. An armbar. Tada then realized his pain tolerance was definitely nothing impressive as he quickly tapped her leg symbolizing his yielding. He and his teacher stood covered in sweat and panting. Sofia giving him an imagined round of applause,

"Definitely not bad Tada, but you need some work. I held back a little since you didn't really seem to want to hit me. Good match anyway." she congratulated albeit a good dose of criticism. Tada rubbed the sore spot on his head where she'd pulled the longer part of his hair. He'd be cutting that part immediately after class and before lunch after that experience.

"Yeah, thank you." he said switching his rubbing to his shoulder and then his jaw. There would be bruises no doubt. His lip was cut as was his cheek which he attributed to the knee and uppercut he took while being made Sofia's bitch on his feet. As he looked over his instructor drinking from a bottle of water he couldn't help thinking of Paige's jealous face at him rolling around sweaty on a mat with an attractive woman other than her. He smiled a bit before the worry kicked in again. It felt like his heart sank deep into his stomach. It didn't feel right without her somewhere around. He knew it was a dangerous feeling to feel that close to someone. To pray and rest so heavily on the safety of one person in times of war, but he couldn't help it. Tada unstringed his gloves quietly and tossed them down into a box without much thought of that. Instead his mind wandered to the spunky girl who'd lifted him out of nothing and into this life, this dream of his. In all honesty, his "addiction" to the term freedom came from something of a desire to end this turmoil. He wasn't sure specifically of a lot of things, but originally he just wanted to be free from restrictive rule and attacks on suspected 'treasonists'. If the theoretical war ended then so would these things. In all honesty joining Omega would have been the easier choice, but something in meeting Paige had swayed him. It drew a picture of the nebulous in what his life was worth. Her smile seemed to haunt him and it felt as if he'd already lost her. Tada closed his eyes for a moment,
"Heh, I'm such a wimp sometimes." he whispered to himself.

"Wanna go again?" Sofia asked squirting another spray of water into her mouth and looking down at his gloves in the box, "Oh. I guess that's a no." she answered sighing. This woman was a machine. She looked up at him for a minute, "Go get dressed and meet me back in the classroom."

"So what's on my student's brilliant mind?" she asked as she sat across from him glancing at the clock. She wouldn't let him cut into too much more class time. He had two more simulations to go through before the day ended.

"Nothing. I just slept somewhat poorly last night. I'll be fine, had a good breakfast." he replied casually keeping his face as confident as usual trying to force some assurance into Sofia Ortrun.
"Bullshit, now talk to me. You're getting distracted." came a harsh reply. Tada looked away,
"I just want to finish class Ms. Ortrun." he said staring at the wall. Sofia sighed weaving her fingers together and resting her elbows on the table. Tada looked over to her, "Please, can we just go on?"
"Aren't you curious how a chiraptophobe can do martial arts?" she asked. He was. It had only briefly crossed his mind before, but he'd gone ahead and dismissed it.
"Admittedly yes, but we probably don't have time."
"I'm not sure completely either. My brain just doesn't register combat situations as 'touching'. It's like I overcame part of my fear to learn more, but a bit of it staid. See, I could be angry that I couldn't conquer my fear completely, or I could take it as inspiration to strengthen my resolve and work harder to overcome that last part. So, did I even get close?" she asked smiling lightly. Tada looked up at her breathing deeply,
"You think it has to do with that sim I did my first day? Not really. There's just...a person very close to me is in a lot of danger, and I'm upset that I can't help her?" he admitted.
"Is that all you're going to tell me?" Tada sat quietly and then nodded,
"Can't really do much about it. I'm just going to man up."
"So what? You're used to this kind of thing?"
"No not specifically. Just things that aren't the most fun to deal with. I've gotten somewhat resilient over the years." responded Tada as his gaze shifted down to the table. He couldn't get his mind off what could come in the future from being a part of this.
"Sounds like you've at at least one traumatic event. Tell me about it. I'd like to see where this ingenious mind of yours comes from."

With a few more spurts of hesitation Tada explained in relative detail what happened at that damned orphanage. The words poured from his mouth like he'd been waiting to spill it to someone else. Paige knew already. She knew, but she liked him too much to tell him how fucked up he was. Cruel or not, those people were people and he'd burned them alive.
"I still can't believe I did it. It just doesn't feel...right. I shouldn't have done it. I spent two years there and I just snapped seeing that little girl." Tada finished in a voice that seemed as if he'd shrug and say 'oh well' once finished, but he didn't. He just looked up seeing Sofia mouth the name of the orphanage with a look of surprise on her face. For a moment he thought she was going over in her head how the man in front of her had burned several people alive as a child and managed to cover it up, but there in a gleam in her eyes he saw it. Suspicion. He couldn't help but think that she didn't believe something in his story.
"So, what did they call you back then?" Sofia asked casually as she stood and began to tamper with her laptop as bringing up more programs to run his sessions. It took him a moment to process the question still thinking about her disbelief. Tada's mind froze for a moment when he finally went to answer. He'd completely abandoned that name. He'd hardly been called it anyway, but it was gone from his memory. It felt almost like he never knew.
"Honestly, I don't really remember. I wasn't ever called my full name even at the Orphanage. They called me Hachi though so I assume it was short for something." he answered. He could tell she was still suspicious of something. What did she know?
"Hmm, Hachi, that's cute." she said with a smile, "I'm sure you only did what you had to do if that's really the case. Who knows, maybe if you hadn't you'd have ended up like her. Wonder what you looked like when you were little? Anyway, let's get back to the lessons shall we?" The words If that's really the case rang a little in Tada's ears. It sounded -yet again- skeptical.
................................................

Sofia had called Zack after Tada left. He was a friend from when she was a student herself, and now he was very capable computer whiz. Zack Steele had been from Massachusetts and came here as a nerdy, awkward, and shy fellow. He hadn't changed much aside from his now brace-less smile, a bit more confidence, and an inch or two. He came in scratching his blond hair forward as if it'd hide the fact that he'd forgotten to brush it earlier. He fixed his glasses as he stood behind Sofia seeing she hadn't noticed him.

Ortrun managed to look up Alpine Haven. Her aunt had worked and died there in that fire. The authorities said all signs pointed to a gas leak. Unless Tada was a criminal mastermind eleven years ago, under normal circumstances the authorities wouldn't make a misdiagnosis that big. Besides, Alpine haven had kept up an all female staff for twenty years. Well it would be twenty now had it not been extinguished. She took her time and found a picture of what appeared to be a mini version of Tada. It was after their rescue. He seemed to be the only one without tear stains all over his face. There was just something odd about this picture. Tada's face. He just seemed to be looking past the photographer. Maybe he was, it was a pretty traumatic event. She looked below the photograph seeing the names listed in order accordance with the picture. She spotted it. Hachiro A. Atherton. "Hmm, wow so he definitely went there. Why would he think he burned it down?" she wondered. Zack smirked raising his hands to put near her and shout, "Zack you should know better than to frighten me it could end badly for you." He stopped and stood straight again chuckling,
"Well good to see you too. So what's with this picture and such. Is that your student?" he asked. Ortrun nodded staring at the picture. Something was just so odd. She brought up a new page and looked up the list of children finding his full name. Hachiro Ash Atherton. "Heilige scheisse..." she began. Zack raised an eyebrow,
"Sophe are you cussing in German again? What's that mean? Holy shit, right?"
"Seven...three...eight. I saw that in his thought bank when I ran him through the Fall sim. Those numbers must mean something."
"Seven three eight? What are you..." Zack began as he straightened his glasses . Ortrun highlighted Tada's name on the screen and he counted the letters in the name. "Oh. OH!!! Wow, do you know what is has to do with?"
"Not in the least. Though, it could just be that he found this out and always associated these numbers with his name since that's their numerology value or something. I suppose I could be overreacting." said Sofia without any intent of stopping her dig.
"Definitely not their numerology value..."
"Well whatever. I'm just saying it's weird but I shouldn't overreact." Ortrun responded trying to keep her head level. She eyed the photo again.
"There's a visual filter over his eyes here in this picture. Notice how he doesn't seem quite focused on the same image as these kids? It's very minute detail, but you can see if you look. Yeah, I think he is seeing something else." Zack said looking closely at the picture. "Here, lemme on for a sec." he urged grabbing the laptop. Ortrun watched as he clicked and typed. Somehow he managed to hack into an administrator account and view the security history seeing all the edits made in the past eleven years.
"Man, he'd completely disassociated himself with his name. That's why it didn't even appear in his thought bank on the sim. Yet that leaves me to question the number. Something is definitely wrong. I'd hate to distrust him, he's a nice enough guy, and already my top student, but it's too big of an issue."
"Couldn't you just ask him?" inquired Zack as he scanned the long list of edits.
"Ask him? Nein. What if this is a big deal and he is some sort of spy? He's just going to know I'm onto him and put a bigger guard up. Though that's highly unlikely since he'd too smart. If he was a spy or something he'd never have slipped up this much. Ugh, something's just not right. Was bedeutet das bumsen davon?"
"Yeah you must be thinking pretty hard. You always go into native tongue when you're thinkin' hard." Zack said rubbing his widened eyes.
"No, if he's not aware of it how can he tell me about it? This may be something I have to find on my own. Well, with your help of course. I'm not exactly sure of what it could be."
"Well I found something here. His name was added to the roster exactly eleven years ago. This picture? Released eight years ago even though it was shot right after the fire. Sounds like some kind of-"
"Cover up." Sofia interrupted. Zack scratched his head,
"Man, this could be big. What did that German stuff you said mean anyway?"
"It meant 'What the fuck does this mean?' in English. Perhaps you should learn the language since you're a major member of our intel. I would think you'd know another language other than Spanish." Sofia scolded though still obviously deep in thought. She began writing things on a piece of paper and muttering in German as she scribbled things down.
"Oh, right. Maybe later. Oh, Sophe. You think you should come eat something before you decide to get engrossed in this project?" asked Zack as he stood.
"Nicht jetzt. Ich bin beschäftigt.." came the quick reply. Zack knew that one. "Not now. I'm busy." He sighed,
"So, you're going to send me that picture then?" Zack asked knowing only topics related to this 'mission' would permeate her focus.
"Of course. I want you to remove that filter and show me what you see in the reflection. Can you do that for me please?" Zack sighed,
"Yeah sure thing."
"Oh, dammit I forgot to send him his assignment for the next couple of days." Ortrun added beginning to email Tada on his secure account.
..........................................................
Tada fired three shots from the pistol hitting one target in the head and the other twice in the chest. "Move move move!" came the shout from Kenneth the firearms instructor. Tada moved forward again seeing three more targets pop up. Two civilians one target he noted seeing two of the fake targets looking shocked and not having guns while one had an assault rifle aimed at him. He took one shot knocking it down with one shell to the throat. He dropped the clip from the M9 he was using and grabbed the next magazine from his tactical vest he'd had to put on. Looking down for a second he pushed it into the bottom of the gun hearing three more targets come up from behind him.
"Three tangos on your six Freebird." came Kenneth's voice through the megaphone again. Tada was starting to catch on to Kenneth's out of date lingo. He was American and had taken into his vocabulary lots of their old military jargon. Apparently a tango was a hostile, and your 'six' was in reference to a clock with 12 being the direction you're currently facing. Something like that. As for Freebird. Kenneth had been calling him that every since he told him "Tada" meant "Free". Supposedly it was a really old song. Tada had big doubts he'd ever hear it. He whirled around taking three shots and making three kills. He took a forth even though the third hit the top of the chest. "Stop." Kenneth called. The shooting course shut down. Tada heard the small and large gears grind and stop with the dying hiss of the miniature engines used to raise the targets. He took off his ballistic goggles and flipped the safety on his gun looking up at Mr. Kenneth who stood on a high overlook.
"What? Something wrong sir?" Tada called loudly. Kenneth smiled a bit like he did whenever he was able to teach the gifted student below him something. Tada could tell he was a bit vulnerable to flattery and the like. He liked feeling big, and the bigger the better.
"You're gone and dead kid. Sorry, but you're still having some trouble with your cover. You're getting too dependant on that gun. When you got a handgun like that you need to be very wary of your ammo conservation and how to stay out of full on firefights. When you were reloading, you should have stuck to your cover. Ducking down isn't always enough like in this situation. Hit your cover, reload, map your targets, pick them off."
"Understood," Tada replied as Kenneth came down off the ledge and held out his hand to take the gun from Tada. He turned it around holding the barrel and handed it to his instructor grip first.
He looked over seeing Mia's dissembler, or at least who he surmised was her dissembler. Who knows how many there were. Though it did give him a wonder on what she knew about this mission.
.....................................................
"Not much, but I think it's to save people so I'm mostly for it. It's just..." she paused. Tada sat across from Mia. Her demeanor had quickly shifted from agitated and obviously worried to hungry and enjoying food as soon as she'd spotted him looking at her. He noticed a ceasar salad. He almost swore she'd been eating one the last time he'd seen her chowing down.
"Just what?" he asked before making a disappearing act of several fries at once. "You worried about how it might go or something?" Mia closed her mouth. She'd been about to continue, and he'd cut the thought short. He'd have to shut up a little more. She had a lot to say. Tada could tell by her positoning -tense and rigid; unnatural like she was uncomfortable from within- that there was a lot welled up. She looked away for a moment seeming to scope out the drinks in a large container of ice. Tada stood, "Would you like a drink?" Mia smiled politely at him and looked up at him confidently,
"That's fine Tada. I'm perfectly capable of getting one for myself thank you."
"I never said you weren't. You're gathering your thoughts. Besides, I just inhaled about a pound of fries. If I don't walk it off it'll all settle in my butt." Tada joked with a smile, "So what'll you have?" Mia sighed. Her good mood wasn't really increasing, but her tension was lessening just a bit.
"I don't really know. Something cold sounds good. Thank you." Mia responded. Seeing Tada nod in acknowledgment Mia couldn't help but think about how highly Paige spoke of him. Truly, he was a gentleman. She felt the skip in his sentence when he reached the word 'butt'. It wasn't his word of choice, but he was being polite holding his language. Also, he was noticably attractive as Paige stressed o so often. His hair was a tad shorter than when she'd seen him last. She could also tell he was perceptive just with how well he followed her paths of mindset without them having a truly decent conversation before. A condensating bottle of sweet iced tea slid in front of her upon Tada's return. Mia thanked him and opened it taking a few sips. It wasn't bad, she'd have prefered something with alchohol at the moment, but this would do to quench her physical thirst. Tada waited and staid standing. Mia realized he was waiting to make sure she liked it and he didn't need to go back.
"It's fine, thank you very much." she said so he'd sit down. He slid into his seat and take a good sized gulp of his own tea,
"So?" he urged though softly as to not seem too forceful. Mia's eyes turned down to the table again for just a moment before she let out an exhale and looked back to Tada's face,
"It's just that I never in a million years would have tried to pin the title of traitor on Laras of all men." she began as she leaned in lowering her voice. Tada slid a bit closer as well resting on his elbow. He appeared to be listening intently, but around the table it probably appeared to be a guy trying to a pay attention to a cute girls trivial worries. She noticed him perposely hood his eyes a bit. She was sure not to smile, it wasn't anyone else's business what her worries were. It actually wasn't even Tada's, but what could she say? Paige was right, he was easy to talk to. "I'd hope you don't believe the same, but it just makes me so mad." she paused holding her brow for a moment as if trying to hold back from exploding, "I don't want to know, but I am so sure. I just, well...trust him. He's the last person who'd do something like that. They dragged him along on that mission because of their suspicions. I swear if he doesn't come back-." She stopped surprised in herself.
"You don't know what you'll do do you?" Tada interjected. Mia met his eyes. There was a powerful stream of understanding in them. "I can't relate to someone I care about being pinned a traitor. It's not something I've experienced, but I'd imagine you're alone in your trust. I can't honestly say I believe either way. A cause is a cause, and peopel are people. The individual has a special power all their own, and sometimes the masses can't see that. One on one, it's clear as day. I believe in individuals. The fact that you know him from experience, and you believe so strongly in his innocence is more swaying to me than the whole school saying he's guilty of betrayal." Tada explained. He immediately looked down at his plate seeing a few more fries and, half a cold sandwich. He went for his own tea instead taking a few sips of it before he noticed Mia's face. She stared at him as if he was from another planet and had grown a third eye and then a fourth. At first he thought it was the battle damage from his cage match with the German tigress, but she didn't seem to care much about the bandage and cut lip. It was definitely something he said. The look almost made him choke, "Yes?"
"Do you really have a reason to trust anything like what I'm saying just because I'm saying it? You've barely talked to me, ever. How could you know me enough to trust me like that? What is this?" she probed. Tada stroked his face for a moment,
"Well, I saw the worry you had. It looked...well...how I feel. It was sincere. You wouldn't pull that off if you had a fake bone in your body." he managed to get out before a mild cough came up through his throat. He began to clear his throat,
"So then why did you really come talk to me? Was it just because I looked worried?"
"No. That's what caught my attention when I first noticed where you sat."
"So it was that apparent?" Mia asked with a hint of self consciousness.
"I'm afraid so princess. It's the bane of having a pretty face. Easy to see the negatives. How do you think I can read Paige so easily?" he asked playfully. Mia's suspicion began to soften at the compliment. He could tell she knew exactly what was going on. They were in the minority. Those who trusted people off of instinct (which using that word here was like trying to explain that you were psychic) and a general sense of belief. They had some things in common. How he picked up on that so fast she'd never know, but it was comforting. She'd play along. Mia glanced down again and then made eye contact again.
"Well, it's duly noted. You won't get to see it again. So, I take it you yourself are worried about Paige?"
"So it was that apparent?" Tada asked walking into Mia's counter. She smiled at him after taking another gulp of her tea.
"I'm afraid so Tada. It's the bane of having a 'pretty face' wouldn't you say?" Tada couldn't help but chuckle. He leaned back a bit in his seat,
"I suppose so." he smiled. Mia's eyes staid on him,
"So, are you two really an item? I know it's kind of taboo here, but it's not as if I'll acquaint everyone with your information." Tada sat forward again,
"An item? No, not really."
"Not really? Does that mean you are together in some fantasy?" Mia teased
"Not really because I've never made that kind of advance. Enough about me, what about you? Is your relationship with our friendly neighborhood fighting machine strictly student-teacher affection?" Tada asked seriously. Mia couldn't help but let her blush show if not for a split second.
"What you're implying is absurd." she responded frankly before burying her mouth in the bottle of tea again. As curious as Tada was as to how she'd respond to close cutting questions once the other fourth of that bottle was gone; he did have to get moving. He wanted to find out more of this mission. Though it wasn't his style to switch a subject he gained control over to roughly.
"Don't worry about it. The strangest part..." he started before looking away as if realizing something himself, "Well, the strangest part is that I don't remember when it happened."
"When what happened?" Mia asked noticing another clump of salad left on her plate and stuffing into her mouth after speaking.
"When I began feeling these feelings for her. I've always been attracted to Tricia -I mean Paige- but its not always been like it is now. I didn't always miss her y'know? I don't remember the first time she left and I felt a little empty. I just know, now; that..." he paused. Mia was unconsciously leaning in slowly as she chewed knowing something important was about to come out of Tada's mouth. She couldn't help but smirk when he couldn't continue. She swallowed smiling through her worries about Laras in spite of herself seeing what had just happened in Tada's mind.
"You just realized you love her did you not?" Mia whispered leaning in closer. Tada rolled his eyes away from her blushing just barely,
"No. That's not it..." he replied. He couldn't meet her eyes for a second. Mia sat straight beaming a little (like that's possible) and finished off the bottled tea,
"Of course its not." she teased again. Tada sighed. Mia was perceptive, almost as perceptive as he himself. Again, he sighed. Sighing twice in a row was just cementing her judgement on the situation. He couldn't convince her otherwise after that. Finally he looked up facing her again,
"Well, I'll tell you one thing. When you do fall in love -if that's your thing- you'll wonder to yourself: When? If you can figure it out, please let me know. There's gotta be a secret to it." Tada said nodding as he did. Mia's smile paled only slightly as she digested the thought. It made a click somewhere in her thoughts, but it disappeared quickly. He decided to go ahead and exit the topic before they continued down this road. "So, I'm thinking of finding out how this mission went. Once everyone gets back. I'm thinking about writing up an alternate plan or something. Y'know, like a different route way to have done it. Problem is, not sure if I can get them all to talk to me without a legitimate reason."
"Why are you trying to do that?" Mia asked glad to move from the sensitive topic.
"I want to see if I can. Personal testing or something. It's just that I want to be of use. Not six months in the future, but soon. I need to try and gather as much info on what goes on out there as I can." he responded. Mia tapped the lid of the empty bottle with her fingertips,
"Well good luck. I'm sure you'll find a way. If I can be of help let me know." Tada nodded,
"Thanks. Oh, here." he wrote his number on a napkin and smiled, "Since we're such good friends now. That's in case you do end up helping me, and I need to pay you back." Mia took the number.
..................................................................................................................... ..
"Sixty-two..." he counted sitting up and touching his right elbow to the left knee stretching and flexing the oblique muscles in his side and tensing his abs. Tada fell backward and jerked up again keeping his hands tucked behind his head. The left elbow touched the right knee, "Sixty-three.." he continued. Tada had already visited the gym, but by the time he got back to his room he felt excess energy still built up in his muscles. He'd be sore beyond logical reasoning tomorrow, but right now he needed to be as drained as possible. The more energy he used the faster he'd sleep and the less he'd have to think at the moment. His sit-ups got faster as he neared one-hundred. Sweat-coated his bare chest and dripped form his brow, but as soon as he said it "One Hundred..." he flipped over onto his closed fists and began doing push ups on his knuckles.
"Twenty-one..." he just needed to get through the night. Tomorrow, they'd all be back and Paige included. If she wasn't...
"Fifty-six...fifty-seven..." he wouldn't dare think about that. His muscles strained. Tada focused his energy on the burn he felt. The tension and release. The pain and effort. He pushed muscles straining against the floor and rose again. Then again, and again. "Ninety-seven..." He felt a sharp pain shoot up his left arm. It was ready to give out. "Ninety-eight..." he pushed again, "Ninety-nine..." he wheezed. Come on... he urged himself. He demanded more. One more. He pushed harder his muscles burning and throbbing shaking and trembling. He would do it. "Ugh...Fuck..." he complained closing his eyes and gritting his teeth. He was halfway. If he couldn't do this one lousy push-up how could he...

His arms buckled. Tada let out a loud grunt catching himself before complete collapse. Come on...it's just one more. Why can't you do one more?!

How could he hope to push himself to the limits if this is all his limits amounted to? His face burned hotter almost than his muscles. His heart pounded against his chest. He slowly heaved upward. Suddenly he felt the cold floor on his face. Hard. "Ugh..." he moaned rolling onto his back. His arms felt numb except for the fiery throb pulsating through them. They refused to move. "Niney...fucking...nine." he rasped lifting his head slightly and banging it back against the floor he lay against. Panting, sweating, in lots of pain, he lay there alone staring at the ceiling. Why the hell did he feel like such a mess right now? Tada's foot slid up onto the bed he should be in, and pinched the quilt between his toes pulling it down on top of him. "Paige." He said. The name itself felt beyond that of just a person. It felt like a safe word or some incantation that was meant to cure self-loathing or ease heavy burdens. He wanted her there. He needed her. Tada turned his head seeing himself in the mirror. His eyes were tired and his face was hot. He looked sweaty and dull faced. This was him. This was Tada without her. He wanted so badly to kick himself. "She'll be bad you moron. She could be right back tomorrow. You can go check first thing."
..................................................................................................................... .

Sore beyond logical reasoning was an understatement. His body reamed with pain and aches. He felt healthy, but he hurt bad. Tada sat up in bed trying to remember how he'd even managed to get there. He barely remembered the pain in his back and heaving himself onto the covers. His eye lazed over to the clock. 8:17 am. He slid out of his sheets and stood on sore legs ambling to the bathroom. It was about time to check. Just as he was about to finally walk out the door, he noticed on his computer had a message. For just a moment, he was going to skip it, but it was likely to be important since email was like some tool of the devil nowadays. He decided to plop down and check. It was from Ortrun. After the ridiculously tedious process of putting in six different passwords he managed to view the message.

Tada,

I've got an assignment for you. I'd like you to do some research and find a mission that's been recently undertaken here. Once you find one, gather information and come up with a strategy that could have a higher success percentage than its previous endeavor. I'll give you an update in our next class. For now, focus on your topic.

-Ortrun


He couldn't hold back a smirk. There was his alibi. These people he wanted to talk to would likely open up for an assignment instead of personal interest. Especially if they knew it was Sofia Ortrun who'd given the assignment. Backing out of all the windows he stood and stretched again, before quickly leaving the room.

Brisk. That was a good way to describe his pace; though anyone watching could tell that he was trying to get to his destination as fast as possible without embarrassing himself by breaking into a full out sprint. He told himself she was okay. She had to be, after all he'd heard nothing. Surely, someone would be yammering on about a student not coming back. Right? Before he knew it he was there knocking. Just before the door came open he realized what look he had on his face. That of one who was so relieved he could collapse. Hearing the springs in her bed creak was enough to stop his heart. He quickly wiped the look from his visage as she opened the door. There she stood with strawberry waves dangling in bangs over her shoulders and a bit in her face. He exhaled a little long and regulated his breathing. Tada wanted to wrap his arms around her, but it wasn't like him to be so dramatic. She looked coyly at him for a moment realizing who he was in her sleep deprived stupor,
"What are you doing here?" she asked playfully.
........................................................................
"So, that's what happened." Paige explained. Tada couldn't exactly respond right away. It wasn't okay. She'd actually had to fight soldiers. Paige was a valuable member of the resistance, but she was no soldier. That was dangerous. Tada was surprised to see she wasn't harmed. Her melee was decent, but had that grabble and execution attempt had gone slightly awry there's not telling what condition she'd be in. He noticed her eyeing the small bandage on his cheek and the scab on his lip.
"I'm going to work harder." he said before she could get off topic. Paige looked at him strangely,
"Work harder?"
"To get to your level. To get some recognition and be able to go on missions. Next time this happens I will be by your side." Tada continued confidently and firmly. Paige smiled at him sweetly,
"Tada, why's that so important to you?" she asked fiddling with one of the thin locks of hair that trailed down near her face. Tada had always thought it was beyond cute when she did that. A least she didn't bite her lip.
"Because Paige, what am I supposed to do if I lose you out there?" Paige responded immediately,
"I am not the revolution Tada. This isn't about me. It's about freedom. That's the most important thing in the world to you isn't it? That's what you've told me before." Tada paused and sighed. There were words behind the sigh, but he would not say them. He wouldn't even think them in case Paige's uncanny perceptive abilities kicked in and she caught the sentence that came to mind. He revised it for export and placed it in storage.
"Freedom is important, but I want to look out or you. When we win this thing, I don't want to have to look back and think about you as a distant memory. I want us to be able to hang out in the free world, together." Paige gave a near silent gasp. He could tell she liked the sound of that,
"Really? I'd like that too..." she looked up at him through her eyelashes and cocked her head to the side, "Don't worry about me Tada. Okay? I just want to make sure we both get out of this alive as well, but remember. We've got our duties." Tada nodded,
"Of course we've got our duties, and I want to be a real part of it. One of my personal missions is to keep you safe."
"Tada, I'm telling you I'll be fine. I'm damn good and you know it," she said playfully shifting her hips. Tada refused to look. Now wasn't the time to get distracted. His will was a little weak in his usual respects and he wasn't sure how the situation would turn out if he lost focus. Paige hadn't picked up yet that he was feeling off his game, but if he slipped too bad she'd see something was up.
"I don't know what I'd do if you weren't around anymore. I don't let myself think about that. I need to be there with you to protect you. How can I forgive myself if I'm not and something happens?" Tada blurted. There went his game. Paige blushed and paused speechless for a moment. Her eyes shot to his and then quickly away,
"Um..." she managed as she began fiddling with the long sleeves on her shirt. Again, beyond cute. "Tada..." she paused again regaining her composure, "I have faith in you. You'll be right there next time. You're brilliant. They'll see it I just know. So, don't fret over it okay?" she soothed. Tada eased a bit. That's what she wanted, that's what he would give her. She stroked his shaved chin, "Besides, how can you hope to stay away. Not only are like brave and loyal like a shining knight, but you've fallen a slave to my charms." she teased. Tada smiled just slightly and glanced at her,
"Yeah?" he asked. Before she could respond with "I knew it would happen eventually" he touched her shoulders and pushed her firmly back. She landed flat on her bed and instantly he'd pinned her. Her breath had instantly quickened, her shirt opened slightly more exposing more of her breasts. Her face flushed with red. Tada looked straight into her eyes. He wanted to see what she was looking at right at that moment. She wanted him. Something inside Tada was happy, another excited, and finally mischievous. He had her. For all she was worth, at that moment she was his. He smirked as she bit her lip, "Or, maybe it's you who's fallen for mine?" he asked smoothly. Paige turned darker red and gasped,
"Tada! What ever are you doing?" she asked smiling and batting her eyelashes. He felt her thighs rub against him teasingly. Quickly standing, Tada shrugged and smiled down at her,
"I've not idea what you're talking about." he responded playfully. Paige giggled and sat back up pushing her shirt back down over her black panties. Tada could tell she wanted to blush harder than ever and cover up shrieking like a little girl who saw a boy in the girl's bathroom, but she had this game going and was being very stubborn about it. Tada wasn't quite sure of the stakes, but she was playing hard.
"You awful thing you!" Paige piped surprised in him, "And here I was going to ask you to take a nap with me. I'm really tired actually." she cooed getting someone serious at the end before yawning. She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and looked up at him, "What do ya say? I know its strange to ask, but I really could use the company." she asked sincerely rather than playfully. Tada thought for a moment. No. He couldn't. She was just one account of the mission.
"Sorry Paige. I've got an important assignment. Maybe when I'm done I'll come visit you in bed." he said making it full well he was being dirty to get under her skin. The devilish look came back in Paige's eyes. She wanted to play some more, but let it go seeing Tada head for the door,
"Okay. Hey..." she said stopping him. He turned and she wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. It was Tada's turn to blush,
"Paige..."
"I missed you out there. Now that you're determined, I expect you to be there next time." He smiled hugging her back,
"Right. I will. I've got it all worked out." With that, he headed out.
The lights hummed, a delicate buzzing of communication between the protons dancing in their plasma tanks. Brightly lit in a manner like the fluorescent lights of old, the halls of Omega Station North, located some hundred miles north of Oxford, were anything but comforting, even for the people who belonged there. Gray and white, the walls exuded cold efficiency, the whirring of machinery, the tick-tocking of a clock mechanism. The robotic, emotionless churning of the Deklahnian tyranny on Earth.

From somewhere down the corridor, a door slid closed with a soft sigh and footsteps thundered, echoing through the hallways like the pounding of a hammer against an errant nail. First one booted step, then two, marching together in the syncopated rhythm of men dragging something between them. Listening carefully, a fly could just discern the sound of feet dragging, struggling to gain purchase on the shining, gray marble floors. It was the sound of mournful defeat, a painful effort to retain pride and dignity in the dehumanizing halls of Omega Station North.

Two soldiers of Deklahn, dressed so like the soldiers of Earth from beginning of the Republic over a millennium ago, marched, dragging a third man between them. This man, whose feet struggled to bear the weight of him, was dressed in all black, better to hide the bloodstains, and hooded to hide the wreckage of his tortured face. It was clear that he was a big man, big and powerful before facing the tools of the Third Brigade (called the Surgeons). And yet now he was brought low, hunched and broken, the weight of his sins heavy against his broad back.

Edward Phelps felt almost as if he deserved his fate; somewhere deep within his irrational soul, which had somehow become a monstrous thing threatening to devour what remained of his logical mind. Of course he knew, somewhere, that no man deserved the wracking pain and ripped flesh that he’d already suffered since his capture, but he could not help the searing, burning guilt throbbing within his already strained heart. His unspeakable acts, his unmitigated stupidity, his treachery.

Laras. His best friend. Whom he’d accused of murder and treason, when it had been Edward himself committing the ultimate treachery. A treason against friendship and love. Believing that Deklahn was right and had truly invaded Oxford, undermining the camaraderie and trust that had finally begun to develop within the hallowed halls of the ancient school. No doubt all of Oxford now wallowed in paranoia, for if the Russian was not the traitor, who was? Even Phelps did not know and he had spent the last two days strapped to a table, subject to knives and red-hot pokers.

And the worst had not even begun. For now, Edward knew, now he was on his way to the most fearful place in all of the Empire. A place that held only dread and insensible terror for any decent human being from Earth to Deklahn itself.

Now Edward Phelps was headed for the Doctor’s Office. And there the real torture would begin.
*****


In the great, cavernous space of the weapons’ salle, buried underground where no natural sun could reach, electricity—the kind used when Earth was still free—hummed an almost imperceptive and infinitely friendlier melody of light. Though most of the wall space retained the rough, uneven edges of the rock face, the portions that had been polished were covered with mirrors or weaponry racks. It was sparsely decorated, for what use was staring at the surroundings when the person in front of you meant to kill you, but its careworn glimmer bespoke of years of loving care and attention. Clearly, someone loved this room—many people had loved this room, in fact—and, though its purpose was grim, it was a place of comfort.

A place that many people would undoubtedly find restful, even as they threw their bodies at one another with the sole aim of injuring their opponent.

Above the humming, two voices whispered urgently, their words hissing from between their lips with harsh emotion, though the average ear would be hard pressed to determine whether the two involved argued from love or hate. There was depth of emotion there, certainly, the kind of which unhinged some people and tied others together irrevocably. They were the voices of two people determined to best the other, convinced that their opinion was the right one, their way the right way. And yet there was fear in each voice; a fear of losing the other person, a fear as yet unacknowledged by either party involved. A fear that built, burgeoning to the breaking point, pressing against their infinite control. When it broke, it would shatter into a thousand pieces that could only come together again as one to retain any sense of integrity. Without the other, though neither would (or could) admit it, they would fail.

“I don’t see what business it is of yours, Princess. I am sorry you feel that way, but you are, as yet, still a first year student. You have no right to access such information and certainly no right to accompany us on any missions.” Growing nearer, the whispers separated themselves into discernable voices, one male and one female, both young, both passionate in the defense of their feelings. This voice, the male, spoke with the forced restraint of someone speaking what they do not truly feel. Or, at least, someone who did not wish to admit the true reasoning behind their words. The discerning ear—one trained, perhaps, by the spymasters of Oxford or Harvard—could easily detect the worry tightening the air pipes in his chest, which this man tried desperately to hide. But only the discerning ear. The average human, and especially not either party involved, would hear nothing of the sort.

The voices switch, now, and a female speaks. “Bullshit, Laras. I have as much right as anyone to be involved in this! Phelps is gone, Oxford is in turmoil, and Omega is no doubt planning an attack against us. Whatever cold war reigned supreme is about to turn very, very hot. And that means that, student or no, we are all soldiers against Deklahn. Even me. Especially me because I have the added responsibility of being a Princess of the Realm.” A slight pause echoed throughout the room before the female voice continued, softly. “And I worry about you. You’re not well, Laras. Anyone can see that. And I am the closest thing you’ve got to a friend right now.” To the untrained ear, this was the voice of unrestrained emotion. It was clear that this voice worried for the other and had no qualms with admitting it. To the spymasters, however, this was the voice of healthy reason. Where the other swelled to the breaking point, this voice had come to a realization that it cared about the other and, as such, was the voice to be trusted.

The female voice was in control, even if the male voice couldn’t admit it. And, given the growl that tore its way into the silence, it was clear that the male voice could, would, and believed that he should not admit to any such thing.

“Fine. Be an ass, Laras. It’s your preeminent skill. No wonder everyone was convinced you’re the traitor. You never bother to show anything but contempt for anything.” Mia pulled her hair into a serviceable bun, not bothering to gather the tangles that escaped and fell in errant curls about her face and neck. She was here to train, not to argue with her ass of a trainer. It was an argument she’d already had with him every day for almost a week; since Phelps had been captured and Oxford had turned upside down. And all because of the man in front of her.

Laras Nikolao, Russian weapons tutor, the one everyone had assumed was the traitor, was not, in fact, the one. Someone else had betrayed them and gotten Amis killed. Someone else had gotten Phelps’ family captured, his wife murdered, his son blinded and, ultimately, Phelps himself taken to be tortured by the Doctors. Mia was surprised she could admit it to herself. It seemed heartless how easily she was able to cognate and reconcile Phelps’ fate within herself. But he had turned against Laras, after all. His best friend. Some part of Mia was still furious at him for that particular treachery. The irrational part. Because she knew very well that no one deserved that fate, even those who turned against their friends and comrades. No one deserved the Doctors.

For once, Laras remained silent. When they’d met, the man would have rushed to regain the high ground, to toss a sniping cut Mia’s way. Since he’d been accused of treachery, however, and especially since the failed mission to the north station, Laras had seemed patently unwilling to engage Mia in their usual fare. They continued to spar—he certainly hadn’t let up in that regard—but he seemed to have lost interest, even the disdainfully arrogant interest he’d had before, in the world around him.

And that, more than anything, worried Mia. Laras was not as strong as people thought he was. His strength came from his physical ability, not from emotional fortitude. And sure, Mia was the only one who saw it, the only one who’d truly experienced it aside from Phelps, but that didn’t make it any less real. And all she wanted was her Laras back. The one that was a miserable ass who used weapons training as a personal drug. Because, ultimately, that was the man she’d fallen in love with. Something she’d only realized a week ago and had decided never to reveal to anyone. Though if it meant getting her Laras back, she was almost willing to give him the high ground. There was no way he would pass something like that up, depressed or not.

Mia sighed and brought her arms up to spar. If there was one unfortunate side effect to Laras’ recent tribulations, it was that he seemed to have channeled whatever he was feeling into his fighting. Charon had received quite a beating from what Mia had heard—the man doing penance, no doubt, for his own part in the current chaos—as had anyone else stupid enough to challenge the man to physical combat. But, mostly, it was Mia who received the beating.

It was her own, personal torture session. And it happened every day. Because, unfortunately, being the only one close to Laras Nikolao meant being hurt the worst.
*****


“Mr. Edward Phelps.” The voice, disembodied and cold, rang through the all white room. Phelps, delirious and in pain, registered that there didn’t seem to be blood anywhere. An all white torture room and no blood. What was it that the Doctors did that the Surgeons didn’t? He laughed, a broken, shattered thing reflective of his own turmoil. No blood. And that was hilarious because it bespoke of something far worse than the physical cutting and slicing that had happened over the last few days.

“Doctor, actually,” he replied against his better judgment. He continued to laugh uncontrollably. A pool of warmth collected about his legs and he realized he’d wet himself, which only caused him to laugh louder. “I have my Ph.D in Psychology,” he choked out between great booms of laughter. Somewhere, his rational mind supplied that he was having a classically obvious psychotic break, but that was swept up with remarkable alacrity into the rising tide of sheer panic pressing every nerve of his body.

“Do you now?” The voice spoke again, this time accompanied by a form. A man, for it was clearly a man despite the white mask he wore over his lower face, dressed completely in white from head to toe. He sounded genuinely interested. “Then perhaps you and I can work together. I have, as yet, been unable to determine with any discernable shred of creditable evidence, the psychological effects of this particular serum on the human mind. It’s purely experimental, you see. Called Psycho-ocular Stimulation Serum officially, though we mostly call it the Pythia. You know, from…”

“The Oracle at Delphi, yes.” There was something beyond eerie about this entire situation. Here he was, broken and bloody, his muscles and skin flayed, tied to a white chair and about to be subjected to the worst torture Deklahn could devise, and Phelps found himself engaging in intellectual discourse. Disjointed, it was like his body and his mind found themselves at opposite ends of the earth. Phelps laughed again. It was absurd. But, his rational mind whispered again, it certainly feeds the fear.

“Very good, Doctor Phelps. Do forgive the earlier blunder. We are not as up-to-date on the goings-on at Oxford as we would like. Even our source, who was so kind as to deliver you to us, is not privy to everything. It is a particularly clever system you have devised over there, Doctor. No one knows quite enough. For, you see, to strike at Oxford would very much undermine our image in the rest of the universe.” The Doctor pulled white gloves onto his hands, snapping them against the skin. “Earth is still the spiritual center of the Republic, after all. To attack it, Omega requires very damning knowledge indeed.”

Edward nodded, wetting his lips. “I see. And you think I have this information?” Ironically, Phelps thought of Laras and Mia at that moment. Probably sparring, beating the snot out of one another, right now. And that seemed to make more sense than what was happening here. Such civilized conversation in such an uncivilized situation. Here he was, about to be tortured, having already suffered greatly, and he was practically having tea with his torturer. Edward laughed again. This time, however, it was a laugh of genuine amusement. Who knew the Omega Doctors acted more like professors than the professors at Oxford?

“No, sir. I do not. I believe, however, that you do possess information. Our source has named you as one of the highest-ranking revolutionaries in that little underground school of yours. I believe the information in your head will be most helpful in filling the empty spaces left by our man there.” The Doctor’s eyes crinkled, so Edward knew he was smiling. “Man being quite a limiting word, of course. You must know we have more than one.”

“Of course. As we have in Omega. It goes without saying that each side has spies. That’s just the rules of civilized warfare, is it not?” Phelps leaned back, prompted to do so by a hand to his chest. He waited, stock still, as the Doctor attached a peculiar looking headpiece to the crown of his head.

“This is the Ocular Device. It allows us to record the images that you see in your minds’ eye. You see, Doctor Phelps, you will have no control over whether you give us this information. It will be quite the natural reaction of your mind to this drug. The Pythia is very powerful. I imagine, Doctor, that you well understand the effects of the Pythia on the human mind, if just from the name alone. We have not, however, gotten out all of the quote unquote kinks from the system. I do hope you will be able to help us with this.”

Phelps wet his lips again as prods were pressed into his skin. Hands gripped the armrests until his knuckles turned white and then the freshly scabbed skin broke again. “Oh no, Doctor Phelps, that will not do. Blood will never come out of this fabric.” The Doctor pulled a syringe out of his pocket, checked it for air bubbles, and jabbed it into his chest. Within moments, the blood first clotted and then, before his very eyes, scabbed over once more.

“Amazing!” He let out despite himself. “Truly amazing.”

The Doctor smiled again. “Of course. Omega is quite advanced. This was developed, along with the proton lighting we use, on Pyurn. They’re quite a scientifically curious group of people. Descended from Gaians, actually. On one side, at least.”

“Yes, of course. I’ve heard of Pyurn. We study them at Oxford.” Phelps held in a scream as the prods broke skin and dug into the bone of his skull, but just barely. Under the ministrations of the Surgeons, he’d had no such compulsion, but it seemed somehow not to be proper under the current situation. This was far too civil a situation for barbaric screaming. And things were progressing rather nicely. If he managed to live, he’d have information of his own. That was, of course, if he lived. Which was getting rather ahead of himself, he thought. He’d not had the vision of the Pythia yet.
*****


“Enough.” Laras rolled out of the pin and stood. “You still need work on the sleeper hold, but you’re improving well enough. It is not a move I typically teach my female students.” Taking a towel to his sweating face, Mia noticed that the Russian had all but disappeared from his accent. It was something that had happened with increasing frequency in the last month, the ‘incident’ not withstanding. She wasn’t sure what it meant, except that it was the opposite of when his accent doubled, namely when he was angry.

Whatever it was, she hoped it boded well for her. She wasn’t sure how much more she could take of these poundings. It had been a while since she’d lost completely, but even her victories seemed like defeats when her body was scarcely able to move afterward. “You’ve taught me a lot you don’t typically teach, Laras. Is that a compliment somewhere in there, struggling to come out?” Mia was pretty sure he wouldn’t take the bait. He hadn’t recently.

“It is a compliment. It is also due to the extremely tight circumstances Oxford is in. Phelps knows a lot of information. I can only speculate that an attack will come soon, as you have said. I must have you prepared to fight properly.” Laras’ chest heaved as he worked on controlling his breathing. Moments like this were hard for Mia, who had to consciously keep herself from jumping the man. It was increasingly difficult to keep from doing so, especially since the doomed mission. It was a strange mixture of wanting to comfort him and address her own, burgeoning realization of her love. Either way, it was something she was forced to work very hard at. Every day.

Especially when the look in his eyes was the one he fixed on her now. His blues seemed almost tender as the anger and harsh defenses melted away to reveal a human of complex emotions, most of which seemed directed at her. And there was hunger there, though Mia was sure he didn’t mean to show so much. Hunger that multiplied a thousand times within her when she recognized it in him.

What had Tada asked? Is your relationship with our friendly neighborhood fighting machine strictly student-teacher affection? She’d implied that it was absurd to think that it was anything but professional, but Mia was increasingly aware that it had developed into something far more complex. Mia had always wanted him in some fashion. She remembered their first meeting, when she’d been in that disaster of a male cloak, and smiled softly. Oh, yes, she’d always wanted him. But now…now she wasn’t sure if she could handle not having him. And that was almost frightening.

“True. But, then, why the pause?” Mia wiped her own face and stomach, feeling Laras’ eyes traveling, following the course of the fabric over the tight muscles of her abdomen. A fissure of excitement traveled up and down her legs, settling in the very core of her being. It would be so easy to lean over and touch him, to take it where she wanted it to go, where he undoubtedly wanted it to go. But she didn’t. Instead she pulled a jacket over her sports bra and stretched her twitching muscles, cooling them off.

“Hydration. And food. You’re burning a lot of energy here, whether you think you are, or not. You need to keep your body fueled properly or you will crash. Which is not something I can have happening on my watch.” Laras turned and headed for the door. “We’re going to the mess. Keep up.”

Mia rolled her eyes. “I don’t need to follow you, Laras. I think I should know my way around here by now, hmm?” Her curls were plastered against her forehead, so Mia headed for a small sink in the far corner of the room. She noticed with some amusement that Laras stopped and waited, his arms crossed, by the door to the corridors. Taking her time, Mia washed her face and neck, gaining some control over her dark masses before sashaying over to where the Russian stood. “Oh, you’re still here? I could have met you there.”

“Don’t play the coquette with me, Princess. I’m not finished negotiating with your mother.” Laras turned and headed down the underground hall that led toward the mess. They were dimly lit things, a modern reflection of the palaces of Medieval Europe. It would not do to use an excessive amount of electricity and call too much attention to themselves. Plus, it was hard to get lost down one of those things. They all ended up in the mess eventually.

Mia smiled and followed her professor. It was the first time that he’d replied to anything since Phelps’ capture. This was progress for her. As the two walked down the corridor, Mia watched the man, the way his corded muscles flexed and stretched as he moved. He was clearly thinking about something and the contemplation had him worried or confused, possibly both. Probably both, considering that it was Laras doing the contemplating in the first place.

The two walked in silence, following the winding stone corridors for several minutes before reaching a large, metal door. This door, just like every other in Oxford, opened only with a code. Around the whole school, corridors just like this one ended in the Teachers’ Mess, which really wasn’t exactly for teachers at all. It was literally the center of the school, the center of the entire tangled mass of underground tunnels and classrooms. As the two fighters reached the door, Laras pressed in a numbered code and then muttered a phrase into the voice recognition microphone. Mia hadn’t been given the clearance to know those passwords, so she stood back as the door slid open, entering the mess only a few moments after her tutor.

As they entered, a slight hush fell over the entire room. Eerily, even the televisions seemed to quiet themselves, as if even the newscasters could sense Laras and Mia had walked in. Standing just behind him, Mia could see Laras’ muscles tense as he prepared for the gauntlet. Looking around, Mia could see that no one bothered to look at them for long; anyone who met her eye dropped their gaze immediately, staring at the table or their hands. Mia couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of smug vindication. These were the people that had scoffed at her, scorning her sense of belief in Laras’ innocence. Now it was their turn to eat crow.

Schooling her features to an expression of careful nonchalance, Mia followed Laras across the room to the kitchens. All of the food at Oxford was cooked above ground and then carted down using a heating system stolen from Omega. It was similar, Mia surmised, to the proton lighting system that they now used, but depended more upon the friction of an electron cloud. Admittedly, science was never Mia’s thing, but it did keep the food hot. And that was all that mattered to her.

Typically, she had a Caesar salad and a bowl of soup, but today she thought to eat something a little richer in proteins, if only to keep Laras from bitching at her about her deplorable diet. He thought she had a diet too heavy in roughage and fiber, which did not provide enough transmutable energy to the body. Mia had to admit that she’d dropped a fair bit of weight since coming to Oxford. She’d arrived the well-cushioned Princess. Now, however, she had the well-toned body of a warrior, developed over months of training with Laras. But she had never gotten around to changing her diet.

Unable to resist the chicken noodle, Mia supplemented the meal with a small bowl of fruit and an equally small bowl of lightly salted fresh edamame. Laras ate substantially more, but didn’t comment on Mia’s choices. He was still tense, his shoulders hunched just slightly, mouth held in a tight line. Together, the two snaked their way between the tables, each of them ignoring the whispers that followed them. There was certainly enough to gossip about between the two of them. Laras’ traitorous innocence and Mia’s growing relationship with Charon (despite its being not true) would no doubt be among the topics of discussion. Mainly Laras, though, since he was in the room.

“What do you want to drink?” Mia asked, putting her tray down on the table and gesturing toward the cooler. Laras sat for a moment as if putting up a shield between himself and the rest of the room. Then he looked up and answered.

“Water’s fine.” Pause. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Mia turned and headed for the cooler, keeping her eyes steeled before her, studiously ignoring everyone around her. The bastards. They deserved to feel every ounce of guilt or pain that currently wracked their godforsaken souls. In the week since the ill-fated mission, Mia’s anger had dissipated little, and only with Laras. Around him, she felt anew the worry and, admittedly, the tension that seemed to arise of its own accord in his presence. But, feeling their stares and recognizing the face of gossip, Mia could hardly keep herself from tearing the place up.

When she reached the cooler, Mia watched as everyone standing nearby suddenly cleared the space and returned to their tables, casting furtive glances behind them at the Princess. Gritting her teeth, Mia reached in and pulled out a bottle of water and a green tea for herself. “Sons o’ bitches,” she muttered, turning back to see that Laras was surrounded by a gaggle of remorseful-looking students. To his credit, the Russian merely sat quietly, chewing his food and staring straight ahead, studiously ignoring the penitents.

Mia worked her way back to the tables, glaring at students she recognized as the ones who frequented Laras’ favorite coffee shop. Sitting down, she handed Laras his water and delved into the soup, stopping periodically to dip a soybean pod into the broth. She tried to ignore the apologies, but she couldn’t. Ignoring people had never really been her forte.

“Professor Nikolao, I just want to apologize for ever believing that you were the traitor here at Oxford. It was abominably rude and unprofessional.”

“Not to mention stupid,” Mia supplied, taking a sip of her tea. “I could’ve told you he was innocent, but you were too busy looking for some idle gossip to listen to me. And now we’re screwed because we have no idea who it really is.” Smiling, Mia put a piece of pineapple into her mouth and chewed slowly. “Listen, I don’t think Laras wants to listen to this. Just go away and leave the man in peace, will you?”

The group dispersed and Mia returned to her meal. After a few moments, she realized that tensions had shifted and Laras was now staring at her. Looking over, Mia raised an eyebrow. “What, Laras?”

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“What? I am defending you, you ass!” Mia pushed her empty tray away. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m the only one who believed you.”

It was Laras’ turn to raise an eyebrow. “Please, Princess. You’re practically wet with excitement at the thought that you’re the almighty one. You did something incredibly fucking stupid that just happened to turn out right and now you’re crowing like a martyr on the cross.”

Mia stared. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m not. Your sacrifice, Princess. Your choice, your sacrifice, your forbearance. All of this seems to be about you and the shit you’ve dealt with. You forget, Mia, that I am the one that was accused of being a traitor. I apologize that you could not complete your martyrdom, but I could spread rumors that you are actually the one sending information to Omega.” Laras sat back. “Perhaps I could give you a cross. I hear it is the prop for martyrs.”

“You’re being absolutely ridiculous, Laras. I am the one that supported you. Why are you being such a dick to me?”

“Because you’re being childish. Instead of getting vindication for yourself and your feelings, why don’t we do something that might be actually helpful? Or are you having too much fun up on that pedestal of yours?” Laras stood and, without another word, walked out of the mess, leaving Mia to fume quietly. Ridiculous. It would be one thing if Mia relished the feeling of knowing she was right. But she didn’t. She felt anger at the others for hurting Laras and pain for Laras’ suffering. She wasn’t looking for vindication; it was more an unfortunate side effect. So, sighing, Mia stood and headed after him, finally catching up in the salle, where he was stretching.

“Laras, please. I only just wanted you to feel supported.”

Laras stopped and turned. “Oh. It’s you.” His face twitched slightly and Mia stepped forward, realizing something that nearly broke her heart.

Laras Nikolao, the bad ass of Oxford, had been crying.
*****


“Now, Doctor Phelps, we appear to be ready for the testing.” The Doctor stood in front of Phelps, adjusting the headpiece. It had been ground into his skull, where prods rested directly against the sensory sectors of his brain. Another shot of the miracle blood clot serum had stopped the gore, but it hadn’t stopped the agony radiating through every inch of Edward’s body. And he hadn’t even received the Pythia yet. “We are going to drill through the top of your skull and then insert a tube which will pipe the serum directly into your visual cortex. A steady stream will inundate your brain causing you to hallucinate. A similar stimulation to the memory centers will cause you to see your own memories.”

Now the Doctor slipped a set of goggles over Edward’s eyes. “These, along with the nodes pressed against your temples, will act as recording devices. If all goes well, your memories will appear on this screen over here.” The Doctor gestured toward a large computer screen that, as far as Edward could see, was black.

“Of course. Ingenious,” Phelps replied. He was beginning to suspect that the Doctor was not entirely humanoid. His words lacked inflection, and his eyes, while expressive, betrayed no sense of human connection. But, he supposed, antisocial tendencies probably made for a good torturer. “You mentioned complications, however?”

“Ah, yes. Well remembered, Doctor Phelps.” The Doctor set to work bringing the drill directly above Phelps’ head. Edward found himself trembling, every ounce of his formidable will directed toward keeping himself from breaking down into hysterics again. Terror washed through him and he forced himself to stop thinking about what was undoubtedly about to happen. As he did so, the Doctor began tying straps around each arm, leg, and his torso. “There is a reason we’ve named it the Pythia.”

“Oh, yes, I get it.” The Oracle at Delphi was said to have fallen into a frenzied state of writhing contortions as she delivered her prophesies. No doubt the serum caused painful side effects that led to a similar reaction in test subjects. Phelps swallowed, suddenly finding his throat and mouth dry and the blood draining from his face. “So this will be rather unpleasant for me, then.”

“Unfortunately, yes. But the images are the clearest we’ve ever seen in any of our experiments, which is a boon. As a bonus, I will stop the flow every five minutes or so. Any more and we’ve found that the visual cortex shuts down and we are no longer able to extract any information. And we would like as much information as possible from you.” The Doctor smiled again behind his mask. “Tomorrow you go back to the Surgeons to give your mind a break. No worries, Doctor Phelps, we will not destroy your mind. We are not so barbarous as all that, after all.”

Then he switched on the drill.

Phelps’ scream tore itself from his throat and crashed against the white walls of his room. The drill broke through the skin first, tearing it from the scalp and sending flecks of it flying against the white paint of the walls. So much for keeping everything pristine. Then it hit the skull, turning the bone into powder before it tore into the fleshy mass of his brain. That is when the real pain began. Not in his head, no, though that pain was almost beyond endurance. His entire body felt like it was being tossed into a thresher in the deepest pit of hellfire.

Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped. The drill was shut off and pulled out of his head. “All right, Doctor Phelps? We seem to have created something of a mess. But, c’est la vie, right? All in the name of science!”

“French. Are you French, sir?” Phelps could barely articulate the words. The question was absolutely ridiculous, but Edward found himself strangely unable to cognate. He could not formulate anything of any significance as the last strains of pain vibrated up and down his extremities.

The Doctor laughed. “Of course not. I’m straight from Deklahn. All the Doctors are. Omega doesn’t employ Gaians as Doctors. Not since the rebellion.”

“But that’s five-hundred years ago now. Surely you trusted Earth at some point.” Edward groaned and grabbed at the armrests again, unable to move much because of the leather straps. He strained against them, though, stretching muscles that seemed unwilling to loosen.

The Doctor shook his head. “No. We’ve always assumed you would rebel again. And we’ve prepared for it since the last time.”

Phelps raised an eyebrow. “You assumed we would rebel again? So you’ve been preparing for us for five centuries already?”

“Yes.” The Doctor replied simply, replacing the drill with a thin, clear tube. At the other end appeared to be a small bag full of an equally clear liquid. Phelps stared at it, not continuing the conversational tract that he had begun. On some level, he’d always known that Deklahn was prepared for their revolution and that their only advantage lay in their distance from the central government. Especially since the assassination of Awagabe. Lynz was not a strong leader and he would not be able to control the Empire near as well as his predecessor. That alone represented the pros of their rebellion.

The con list was pages long. Probably, the cons could fill a library full of books. But now was the time. Earth needed to be free from the Empire, from the tyranny of Deklahn. It had been too long since the Republic had failed and now the people of Earth suffered. It was time to free them. If they could do it.

And, sitting in this chair, watching the Doctor prod the bag full of the Pythia serum, Phelps was not sure they could.

“Now, Doctor Phelps. This bag holds just enough serum to pump it into your body for five minutes. After it runs out, the symptoms of the Pythia should stop almost suddenly. Then you will be wheeled back to your cell until the Surgeons come to get you. Sound good?”

Phelps nearly laughed at the absurdity of this entire scene. It was surreal, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. “Do I have a choice?”

“Of course not, Doctor Phelps. Do be reasonable. I am in charge of getting information for the good of the Republic. Your suffering is necessary to save millions from similar suffering.” The Doctor cleared his throat. “Well, Doctor Phelps. I am going to flip the switch now. The effects of the Pythia should be almost instantaneous.” With that, the Doctor switched on the machine and the pump went to work.

In the few seconds Edward had before he went insane, he took a deep breath and tried, desperately, to form fake memories. It was a symptom of the conversation that he hadn’t thought to do so earlier, no doubt lured in by the psychotic reason he’d found himself facing. Such emotionless, inhuman logic, almost machinelike in its efficiency. Quite the opposite of the very human passions and mistakes and blunders to be found within the walls of Oxford. And all around the world.

And then there were no thoughts because all Edward could see in his mind’s eye was Amis. A bullet was flying through his brain, sending skull and bloody flesh spraying against the walls of their safe house. Edward watched as a piece of scalp, still covered in Amis’ brown curls, floated to the ground. Then he jumped the balcony and disappeared into the night before he could be taken down with his partner.

He was vaguely aware that his body was shaking violently, convulsing against the straps, but the pain had not yet reached him. That came when the image in his eye changed to the house he shared with his wife and children. He burst through the door, shouting, searching frantically for them. But the house was empty and there, sitting on the table, Laras’ keys. Edward remembered the rage and the panic; it mingled now with the guilt and agony, the desperate feelings of loss and responsibility.

Edward screamed and his screams sounded like a rabid animal or the howling of a werewolf on the full moon. His head, held aloft by the Ocular Device, reddened, the arteries in his neck straining near to bursting; he gritted his teeth, struggling to breathe. Inside his chest, his heart pounded a tattooing rhythm, teetering on the brink of exploding; Edward felt this, but could not register the danger. Everything was memory. Everything was pain.

His vision switched now to Oxford. The Princess stood behind him, Laras in front. It was Mia’s first day at Oxford. Edward came to himself in that moment and pushed against the memory, changing it, desperate to keep the Doctor from seeing the truth about his best friend. The memory wavered. Laras began to speak in Russian and Phelps turned to Mia, translating. The tutor would teach Mia the Russian language and develop her understanding of Russian politics. Edward pushed and the image changed. The halls beneath Oxford, dimly lit like the medieval fortresses that still dotted Britain, stretched before him.

Edward loosened and gave up control. He had done what he could for Laras. If he were to die here under the ministrations of the Pythia or the tools of the Surgeons, he would have repaid his treachery to the Russian. He had saved Laras and the woman Edward was suddenly sure he loved. And he had paid his debt to the Crown. There was nothing else he could do.

The convulsions started up again and Phelps let loose another scream, losing complete control over every inch of his body. He watched as his memories, vague images not fully complete, danced and skipped before his eyes. First Charon, the two of them discussing the mission, and then Ortrun. Meetings with Stephans. An image of Mia, bloodied from her fight with Erik, lying on Laras’ floor. Laras himself, the two of them arguing over coffee, laughing occasionally, but rarely. Telling the Russian the Princess of England was a virgin.

A map stretched out in front of him, showing the entire layout of Oxford-town, including the miles of underground tunnels and rooms. Half of them were known only to a handful of people. Others had never had cause to be used; they’d been created as safety net against the inevitable attack from Omega. Edward groaned. He wished he could stop the marching of memories across his mind’s eye. But it had taken everything out of him to protect Laras. His body had nothing left and his mind was dangerously close to the same. The pain had stopped, but only because his body couldn’t feel anymore.

Edward knew he was dying and could do nothing to stop that. So he sat back and watched his body convulse, staring into increasingly dangerous memories. Training secrets, the identity of his best dissemblers. And he gave up.

Then, it stopped. “There now, Doctor Phelps, you have done very well. A little bit of wavering, but that is to be expected when memories are involved. Your details will add very well to the details of our informants.”

Phelps shuddered, crying out as the Doctor removed the tube from his head. “I am so very glad to have been of some service to Deklahn,” he spat out, anger finally getting the best of him.

The Doctor tutted. “No need for rudeness, Doctor Phelps. Now, now, I’m going to begin patching you up. Until then, you’ve got a visitor. I imagine that it’s someone you’ll know. We are not pleased at the idea of revealing him to you, but he can be so very insistent. It is only because you will likely be dead by the end of the week that we have agreed.”

Phelps nodded. “Wonderful. Show him in.”

As the Doctor placed a piece of metal stop Phelps’ skull, carefully tapping it into place, Phelps chomped down on the fabric of his shirt, straining against his restraints. The door slid open and someone walked in, hobbling slightly in his advanced age. Phelps’ eyes went wide and he spat out the fabric to choke a single word out through his agony.

“You!” This was disastrous. For, if this man was the traitor Oxford was doomed.
*****


“Laras!” Mia stepped forward and out of the doorway, hearing it close and lock behind her. “What’s wrong?”

“Wrong? I thought I made myself perfectly clear what’s wrong in the mess, Princess. Or is deafness a side effect of martyrdom?” Laras picked up a water bottle and squirted his face before taking a gulp. Mia sagged, both relieved and acutely disappointed. Of course Laras hadn’t been crying. He would never cry. That was the reaction of weakness.

“That’s not what I meant, Laras. You know perfectly well I am no martyr. I am worried about you because I care about you. Phelps is gone…”

Laras spun and faced Mia, closing the space between her with a few, rapid steps. “I know, Princess. I know Phelps is gone! In case you had forgotten, I was there when it happened. I saw his dead wife and his blind son. But that is war, Mia! People die, people are taken and tortured. I may very well be taken! You…” His voice choked off and he turned away. No doubt he hadn't intended to say anything, and certainly nothing so out of character.

“Laras. Look at me.” Mia reached up and touched his cheek, bringing his face toward her own. “I am well aware of what war is and what war does to people. But I am also aware of something else that you seem to have an issue believing. Humans cannot make war unless they care very deeply for something.”

The Russian took Mia’s hand in his own and forcibly removed it from his face, his jaw clenched. “Don’t preach to me, Mia. I care enough. What was it you said about me to prove my innocence? I am the most devoted to the cause, am I not? I care about this rebellion more than anyone.” His voice was tight, sarcastic, as he used Mia's own words as weapons against her.

Mia sighed. “That is true. You care more about the rebellion than anyone. But for what reason, Laras? A human reason? Or just because you can’t think of anything else to do with yourself? Because Deklahn murdered your family or because Oxford needed a warrior and provided a place for you to be the self-righteous ass that you are?” Mia circled Laras, relishing the sense of power she felt over him at this moment. He stayed still, watching her with fire smoldering in his eyes. “And why is it you devote yourself so ceaselessly to your physical prowess? Is it because being the best at something leaves you alone at the top? Gives you the imagined right to act like a generalissimo? To push people away? Or is it because you’re a goddamn chicken too afraid to care for anyone because someone, some day, might leave you and you have no idea how to handle that?”

Mia stepped in close, eyes flashing, breath coming quickly now. Her hair was falling out of the bun, cascading about her shoulders and face. She’d tied the jacket around her waist on her way back to the salle, convinced that Laras would strike at her upon her entrance. Her chest rose and fell as she sucked in air. The adrenaline coursing through her veins was both angry and aroused standing this close to Laras, him staring straight down at her, his face as still as if it had been carved from marble, but his eyes burning with a passion reflective of Mia’s. “Well, Laras, until you can admit that you care for someone—thing—you can kiss my ass. I refuse to work with someone that doesn’t see me as anything but a piece of clay to be molded in his image!”

She turned and stormed away, her body tingling with the need to turn back and dig her nails into his back, press her lips to his. They needed some release, both of them. Too much had built up, too much tension. Mia stopped and turned. “Laras, Phelps is gone. But what he did, he did because he cared for something. And that…” She didn’t finish.

“What?” Laras asked, stalking toward her. “That what, Princess?” His eyes darkened, his muscles tightening, his breath becoming ragged. It was inevitable now, Mia thought. Whatever demons had risen between them, they were to be dispelled.

“That makes him much luckier than you.” Mia spat, staring straight up into the face of the man she loved. “And…”

Laras grabbed her hair and tilted her head back. “Shut. Up.” He growled, lowering his face and pressing his lips to hers.

A feeling of intense need arose in Mia. This was not a polite kiss, or even a loving one. It was need. Pure, raw, passionate need for release. Mia reached up out of some long dormant instinct and ran her hands under his training shirt, rubbing up and down his half-granite chest. She moaned and kissed back, her lips parting just slightly. Laras took the opportunity to snake his tongue into her mouth, licking along the ridges of her teeth. His hand was still tangled in her hair, using it to yank Mia’s head back. As always, he was determined to assert dominance over her; why would sex be any different than fighting between them?

Eventually, Laras left off her lips and moved downward, kissing and biting—hard—along her neck and shoulders. He growled deeply, like a wolf, and wrapped his arms around Mia’s torso, bringing her flush against him. Mia breathed deeply, letting out a soft sigh of repletion, but otherwise there were no words. Her face felt flushed, as if the heat of her body had risen up against her skin. She moved her hands around to Laras’ back and finally gave in to the urge; she dug her nails into his skin. Laras bucked and let out a sound like a wounded animal, but his reaction was to pick Mia up with one arm and slam her against the nearest wall, pulling her training bra off with his free hand.

Mia wrapped her legs around him, feeling his attendant arousal press flush against her own corresponding flesh. With a certainty borne of millennia of instinct, Mia squirmed, rubbing against it as Laras turned his attention to her breasts with consummate skill. Laras groaned, biting down on her nipple just a touch harder than necessary. Fire rushed through her entire body and Mia tossed her head back, giving in to the rolling waves of pleasure rushing up and down every inch of her body. “Laras,” she breathed out, barely in control of her mental faculties.

The Russian looked up and smiled a feral grin, his eyes dark almost to the point of being black. Mia felt a rush of fear go through her. She’d never seen a look of such hunger in his eyes, and she was afraid that he might actually attempt to consume her. But then he leaned up and, using his legs to pin her, removed his own shirt. He then, without any ceremony whatsoever, went back to devouring her mouth.

Mia wished he’d bite her again. She really, really liked that and the delicious shivers it sent up and down her spine. There was something like a second heartbeat building between her legs, thrumming and insistent. It was easily the best thing she had ever felt in her life and Mia knew that she wanted more of it. “More, Laras. More,” she choked out. Laras tightened his hold on her, nibbling down her neck again and once more lavishing attention on her breasts. Everything about him seemed to have grown down there and Mia, who knew enough about physiology to understand what was going on, was struck by a sudden thought.

“Laras,” she whispered, and her voice contained sufficient worry that he stopped. “Laras, I’m a virgin.”

That struck home. Suddenly, Laras stopped and turned, carrying Mia—legs around his hips—to a boxing mat on the far side of the room. Carefully, as if he were afraid he’d break her, Laras placed her down and then settled himself on top of her. “Mia,” he said, the first word since the tide had broken between them. “I have to admit to something.”

“What? That you actually did pay my mother to do this?” Mia reached up and touched the side of his face, moved almost to tears by the tenderness she found there. Laras laughed, the first time she had ever seen him do so.

“No.” He leaned down and nuzzled her neck, nipping lightly. Mia bucked and let out a sharp cry, her blood boiling within her again. “She paid me."

Mia laughed and smacked at the back of his head. “Asshole. Now shut up and do something about it before I’m forced to put you in a sleeper.”

Laras grinned lasciviously and slowly reached down to divest Mia of her training pants and underwear, pulling her shoes off as he did so. Mia, down to nothing but her socks, could not help but feel extraordinarily exposed, but in a deliciously arousing way. “Your turn, now. I want to see whether this reputation of yours is deserved.” Plus, the thrumming wetness between her thighs was building and it needed some attention before she went mad with desire. “Now!”

“Aye aye, Virgin Princess.” Laras skated his way out of his own clothing until the two of them lay deliciously naked on top of one another. He kissed her, this one tender. In the future, Mia thought, she wanting more growling and biting. That was infinitely more pleasurable and this soft stuff. It just didn’t seem apropos for the two of them.

“Do it, Laras. Please,” she begged, wiggling. “Please.”

Laras spent a few moments adjusting and then, slowly, carefully, he pressed himself inside of her. Mia cried out and definitely not in pleasure. Worry evident in his blue eyes, he remained there, pressed to the hilt inside of her, unmoving until the pain subsided. Mia smiled at Laras and brought her legs around him, digging her nails into his back in what she thought of as revenge. It just seemed right that she get him back.

Slowly, and then with increasing speed, Laras pushed in and out of her, his breath and heart matching her own. There was no sound between them but heavy breathing broken by the occasional moan or sigh of pleasure. It was just the two of them and the salle. His eyes never left hers, not once, and Mia couldn’t help but wonder what it was that he was looking for from her. The pain had disappeared almost immediately, replaced once more by the magical heartbeat that rose in pounding intensity as Laras pressed against her. At the last, when she felt like she would break if there were no release from the building tension, Laras froze and shuddered, letting out a choked moan and soft curse. Mia felt a warm gush inside of her and that, coupled with Laras’ shuddering orgasm, pushed Mia over the edge. Crying out, Mia rode the waves, feeling Laras still inside of her, and it was his name she cried.
*****


Edward Phelps sat inside his cell, barely coherent, but desperately close to crying. He knew who the traitor was, and it was far worse than anyone had imagined. Far worse than Laras.

Oxford was screwed.
They lay there, a mass of heaving, panting limbs, entwined like the coils of a seaman’s knot. His face was pressed to the side of her neck, breathing in the scent of her sweat, feeling the damp of her skin and the rapid throb of her pulse. What had they done? What had he just done? But he couldn’t pull away, not as they lay flush against each other in the salle, two bodies in a secret, underground web of Oxford’s subterranean world. And god, she had felt so good: in his arms, beneath him, around him. It had been far too long since he’d felt so helplessly satisfied.

Briefly he thought of Fey... she’d seen this coming. He grinned, exhaling a small chuckle through his nose and Mia made a noise of exhausted amusement.

“So how was that, my deflowered princess?”

“Am I yours then now?”

He made a non-committal sound.

“Um... Laras... my stomach hurts.”

He rolled his eyes, “You’re not pregnant. Don’t panic.”

“Your elbow, Laras.”

“And there I was thinking that you were worried about little royal bastards making you fat.”

“You’re really not one for the after-sex glow are you?”

He made the same non-committal hurrumph.

“And you’re definitely not your usual snarky self. Maybe we should do this more often.”

Laras grinned and finally moved to look at his student in the face, “I wouldn’t object.”

She seemed to be surprised but merely wiggled again and he realised more fully that they were in a publicly used training room, not some quiet, private venue. He growled a little and rolled away from her, noting the erratic scatter of her clothes compared to the small pile that was his. It seemed to mimic their usual antics as much as what they had just done. The calm that lay wrapped in this room though, the heaviness that had dispelled, rolled through the air with the smells of sex and aggression, he didn’t want to leave it but... this was really not the place... even if it was ideal for the struggle it had seen. Their bickering... their... foolish, angry words... they were dazzling in this strange, surreal moment.

“We’d better move.”

With a sigh that he barely caught, Mia rolled onto her stomach and he saw a small wince in her eyes. He didn’t need to ask, she’d be sore no matter what he said, but he could take her back to his rooms and... and do what? Fuck her again? He grabbed his shirt though left it undone, pulled on his pants and then his trousers. If the look in Mia’s eyes was anything to go by... he must look suitably dishevelled. She looked far too pleased with herself.

He gave a wry grin, noticing that she had yet to put any of her clothes back on. The pale contours of her body had a glistening sheen in the light, her hair had fallen loose about her shoulders, tumbling in the waves that he so rarely saw but had imagined in his subconscious fantasies. She was stupid to have put herself in this position. He was stupid for having allowed it to happen at all. They were stupid for not stopping themselves. It was all one massive stupid mistake. But it had been a good and he supposed that they’d now go back to the way things were before, she wouldn’t love him, he couldn’t let himself love her. Sex was fine.

“Come on. Up.”

She glared at him, “I’m getting there.”

“I believe I already got you there.” He said it again and feeling strangely mischievous, he added, “Up. We’ve a lesson to complete.” He said it slowly, enunciating every syllable, it was all he could do to keep a straight face – for some reason unbeknownst to him, he felt like laughing, elated and happy. It was utterly foreign. When was the last time he’d felt quite as freely humorous?

But she was taking him seriously. Surprise flitted across her face, “You’re not joking.”

“Get yourself together. Just because we wasted half an hour fucking on the floor instead of training doesn’t mean the rest of the time needs to be wasted.” He started picking up on bits of clothing, tossing them over to her. But keeping his face from her to hide the grin he couldn’t quite suppress.

She must have heard the smile in his voice because she pulled her sports bra on with a searching look, “You are joking?”

She’d never seen him like this: this strange, effervescent man that moved like a giddy child. He’d already agreed to himself that they were stupid for doing what they had done. He was stupid for hoping that it wasn’t just a one-off whimsical moment. She was stupid for having put herself in this position, the peculiar placement of one at the mercy of his unrelenting euphoria. He was so stupidly happy.

“Laras?” She sounded so bemused as she sat with her knickers and bra on, training skins in her hand and t-shirt in her lap; he chuckled, just enough to let her know that he wasn’t totally serious. She threw the shirt back at him with a mock-furious expression on her face, “Oh come on, you’re serious about everything except for this?”

Turning back to her, crooked grin firmly in place, he replied in a purr, “I’m deadly serious, my dear.”

“Oh! Gah!” She apparently couldn’t be bothered with eloquence or words, just like him, she sat on her knees for a few seconds before tackling his legs out from underneath him, causing him to hit the mats again.

Growling, he jerked back and then laughed slightly, “I see you want to have a round then?”

“Oh you shouldn’t tease if you don’t want to perform Laras. You know that.”

“Well I don’t think we need any more practise on these mats.”

She rolled her eyes and pulled the t-shirt over her head, “I don’t think there’d be any objections.”

“Your pretty skin might disagree.” He mused a moment, running his eyes from hers, down her nose and her flushed cheeks, towards her lips, the small, smug smile, “How much do you think you can remember of capoeira?”

“Enough to take you on I’m sure.”

He laughed, a short bark of a laugh and flipped himself onto his feet, “Alright, realising that we’re treating it as a contact sport, you asked for this then, lets see what you really know.”

Mia grumbled, realising her humour had led a jest to become a real challenge but then she should hae realised by now that any challenge would be met and he’d only have suggested such a potentially languorous form of fighting if he was in a good mood.

After that they span into motion. Capoeira was almost a dance and to anyone watching, the initial moments could have looked like they were reaching towards each other. Rising, swooping down, curving their hands through the air, arching their legs, curling and twisting, advancing on each other as if connected by invisible threads. It was about control and the flashing limbs that could so easily drawn blood were beautiful in that control. Laras loved it.

He struck first, sending a fist slicing towards her throat. She retaliated almost in the same motion, swaying backwards and turning her weight onto her right foot, lifting her left knee to strike and catching his flank. Grinning, he sped up, curling away and round and back so rapidly that his fist flashed underneath Mia’s guard and slammed it into her thigh, aiming to deaden her leg. It worked but she used her momentum to flip round and bring that same throbbing leg into his back. Staggering slightly he rolled over his head and went for the next move but she was there already, attempting to drive him back, as their arms struck and blocked she panted through the onslaught:

“Do you think there’ll be a rescue mission?”

His enjoyment dropped almost instantly, his mind flittering back to Phelps, this was a dirty stunt to pull if she was trying to catch him off guard. He bit back, “No.”

Beginning to take the upperhand again as he caught her under her chin, he began to push her back and back.

“Laras, there should be one.”

“And what would you know about such things.”

“Phelps knows enough to really cause and issue if,” she caught another on the shoulder but blocked the follow up with her right leg in a swing up kick, “Let’s be honest, he’s worth a rescue mission.”

“As I said before. What would you know about it?”

“Enough o se that it’s driving you and Charon up the-”

He attacked harder and faster and then suddenly he was on the floor with her on top of him having caught a kick across the right as he’d been landing a strike with his balancing foot.

“Enough to know that you could save him.”

“Oh yes. Let’s follow the pretty young princess like lemmings into an enemy facility we’ve already lost people to. that sounds fucking intelligent.” He snarled, reversing their positions with a forceful arch on his back and a kick, springing away from her as he did so.

She should surely be able to tell that this was ust angering him. He let her rise more out of need to prepare his own head than honour, then he attacked again, furious once more. Knees slamming out, fists striking where they could, less and less beautiful as the flurry of limbs became ferocious, forcing her to defend and defend until with one last driving blow he sent her to the floor.

Looking up at him in shock and what could be seen as despair, she opened her mouth to add, “You and Charon could lead a group of us – take students, people you know you can trust because they’re not powerful enough to be a threat and- ”

He snarled, “Get your head out the clouds princess. People die. This is war. I thought you’d finally fucking grown up. No wait, you’re just deflowered.”

Not caring to look back he stormed from the room, leaving her on mats and the door crashing behind him.

*

Eddie Phelps had just moved into his first set of tutor rooms when he was only a few months out of university. He had chosen to stay and work directly with the new recruits, with the school of the organisation and the movement and the cause that he loved. Even though he’d had plenty of offers to work with some of the smaller, rebel factions including the London and Glasgow groups, he’d chosen to stay because he knew that Oxford was deeply entrenched in the rebellion and that it was the place closest to the surface world. Whilst it had its false exterior shining ever brightly to the world outside, there was a mutual understanding that everything was not as it seemed whereas the other groups were all nomadic within specific but nonetheless large, geographical spheres.

When he moved in the rooms were Spartan. The royal blue walls had slightly paler shadows where paintings had once stood and the light green carpet had a coffee stain in the centre. Other than a desk which sat beneath the wide, almost-french windows, there was only a barren bookcase and a table lamp in the room – all provided.

Laras laughed slightly at the room, “So this is where you’re going to be living instead of with me in halls.”

“Seems so.”

“Not bad for someone who wears his university tie everyday to work.”

“Hey I like this tie.”

“But what does it say about you?”

“I’m proud of my education?”

“No. That you’re a man that can’t chose anything for yourself and instead let the university chose for you. You are boring.”

Yes. The tie banter had started long before Laras became a proper professor.

“You’re the one that has nothing pinned on his wall but a calendar of naked girls from the twentieth century.”

“Audrey Hepburn…” Laras waggled his eyebrows suggestively, “Come on she’s…”

“…hot.” Phelps responded slightly grudgingly, “Still that’s all you have to decorate your room with.”

“So I have her on my wall. What else do you want me to pin up? You can’t pin up a piano.”

They were young and Laras hadn’t quite perfected the true snark that he’d now have used. Eddie was pretty much the same but with less frown lines and more youth in his eyes. He hadn’t been truly tested yet and unlike many of the other people who attended Oxford, his was not a personal vendetta, he was not inspired by some unspeakable tragedy but by the strength of his own humanity. He wanted to help people.

Laras continued, “Anyway, I bet you won’t buy anything yourself here. You’ll just get your mother to transport shit over from Surrey and have the same room that you’ve had since you were ten and you redecorated everything to look like it came from the naval barracks.”

“It’s better than being Spartan like yours.”

“No it just reiterates my first point: you are boring Mr Phelps.”

“Professor Phelps.”

“Oh yes. I forgot you were going to try and teach me and the other soon-to-be-graduates.”

“What do you mean by try?” Edward rose to the small jab just as Laras had intended.

“Well do you really think you have anything to teach me?”

“My god! Your ego is…”

Their bickering tapered into a squabble, a grapple and eventually two glasses of celebratory scotch that Laras had actually brought for them to share because he knew that the Englishman preferred it to vodka, even if his own less delicate taste buds did attempted to object.



Memories were everywhere thanks to that stupid, all knowing princess.

Laras Nikolao took his place in the fellows lounge of Exeter College that night with more than the usual amount of grimness lining his face. The ambivalence had faded and instead the tensed muscles of his jaw and small lines between his brows reflected the conflicting mood that had overtaken him. Usually proud, even when he was under suspicion, the change made the other tutors and deans keep even further away from him. Only Phelps had ever approached him whilst he dwelt under a cloud like this but now they majority of them figured... it was about Phelps.

“Ever wonder what he’s thinking about?”

“I’ll bet it’s poor Edward. They were such good friends.”

“Some say more than just good friends.”

“Everyone knows that’s pure poppycock – and how can you say that after knowing what happened to Lisa.”

“I still say he’d thinking about Eddie Phelps. No matter what they did or didn’t do as ‘good’ friends, they were two of a kind, been friends since I can remember and I been here a good long time.”

“Poor man. His only friend really. Life’s not been fair…”

“- to any of us Janice. Fairness got nothing to do with anything. Now shush, I’ve got to write a lecture on the English Civil War – bloody cavaliers again. Appearences. Pah.”

They were right. For the first time in their academic and revolutionary careers they had judged Nikolao correctly and this anomalous occurrence was, in itself worrying too.

He was wondering… wandering around and around in his head. The attack on Lisa and Phelps’ family was so violent, so personal and all the evidence had been deliberately staged to make him look more than just guilty of an infraction. And it was too much akin to the way that his faily had been chased out of Russia to be a coincidence. In the absence of burning houses and ruined streets and pavements littered with carrion fodder there had been a single targeted family and a destroyed home; instead of the townhall being decorated with the hands of the dead and a Dehklan flag, there was his gun and corresponding bullet holes; in place of the fear though… in place of the fear he’d felt determination despite the fury, hatred and despair. Back then, all he’d been able to do was run: to flee with his family and feel the hatred eat at him but he’d known who to blame, they’d flagged themselves, pointed directly to themselves. This time the evidence had pointed to him, but it wasn’t his fault. He’d proved himself as he hadn’t be able to the first time. Yet the questions were still the same.

Why was this done to us? Why did you pick me? Who are you? Why do you hate us?

In a flash, he recalled the slumped body of his best friend and the arrogant young face beneath its cropped tawny hair. The response was the identical.

I will not let you destroy me. I will not let you corrupt our cause. I am the avenger. I will follow you. I will plague you. I will destroy you. I will win.

But now… the question of ‘you’ was so much more complicated than it had been when he had arrived in England, a scrawny, untrained, half-starved immigrant. There were the Dekhlans, the filthy, alien scum that had been and always would be his enemy. There were traitors like Templeton, he felt the guilt and anger flame up in his stomach at that name, his ex-student’s name… There were spies… there was the spy. The traitor that they couldn’t identify, that had apparently been the one that had tried to frame him, had nearly lost him his position in the revolution and his life and had killed both his best friend’s wife and potentially his best friend. Were Greggo and the twins now orphaned? If so, they were meant to be under his guardianship although currently Greggo was in a pro-revolution infirmary in Horspath and Lisa’s sister had taken the twins in so that they were all closer together.

It was probably safer too… Whoever the spy was must have known precisely the relationship between the Phelps’ and Nikolao.

The rich greens of the common room were beginning to feel oppressive and he rose to draw the thick yellow curtains and open the window to let in the cool wind despite the irked and surprised faces of his fellows. Returning to the sofa, he resumed his pensive position, struggling to settle back into his train of thought. He needed to figure out who he could trust, who the treacherous little shit was… He sat upon his thoughts like a malignant mole metastatising, poisoning his body and destroying what semblance of safety he felt in the small world of renegade earth.

There was a list of people he could compile in his head.

Charon came first – he knew enough to be a threat. Though he could just as easily be scratched off for a number of reason, the most obvious being that they’d had to run for their lives only days before.

Eliza Edgely, the Dean of Admissions to Corpus Christi had access to a lot of things… but she was only involved in the chemistry labs really.

Sofia Ortrun had the potential to be a traitor. She saw almost every student, knew their statistics, weaknesses and pressure points. She analysed them. She was even more thorough in terms of moulding her students than he was and she made it a priority to get to know them. She was involved in high profile missions – although she hadn’t been in the last few years. Just like him, she’d been held back for reasons that had both frustrated and bemused her. He found it hard to believe but…

Naomi in the office of admissions kept profiles on students: the data from Ortrun, the information supplied by students when they were admitted, grades, appearances… she could have easily arranged something like the fiasco that had happened with Shlomi. If that boy hadn’t had the tattoo… He frowned… Naomi could be a candidate for that piece of sabotage but she had nothing to do with missions. She wouldn’t be useful enough to be the current spy.

Phelps could have been a consideration if it wasn’t for his current predicament and if he didn’t know himself and his own innocence he knew that his name would still stand up there with the rest of them.

He didn’t want to consider it but Stephans could be considered a threat it some circles. As a Proctor as well as a tutor and lecturer, he knew enough, was involved enough… there was the fact that he’d known before Laras about most of those missions. It would be ridiculous to consider. If Stephans was the issue then they’d be completely doomed already. There’d never have been any hope in the first place and there was no reason for them still to be in existence. Oxford had had Stephans in the same position for years. They would be finished by now. After all, he was rumoured to be the next Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Some might have, at that point, considered the actual Chancellor, but since the man holding the position was nearly eighty years old and had resigned from his duties as a revolutionary four years ago due to a fear that his age might be used against him in terms of forcing information thus meaning that whilst he still was the head of the university in name, he had nothing to do with Oxford ‘below’, only the facard maintained on top of it. He had cut himself off before he could be used.

So that left some of the slightly more obscure names. The Rectors, Provosts, Principles and Deans of each college – particularly, St Johns, University, Oriel, New College, Balliol maybe… All Souls College too, although the original buildings had mostly been destroyed, the twelve fellows of the college were now all prolific computer and technology geniuses and each had the power to hack through the university software and share files with the Dehklans. Though that would make more sense if the enemy was only being told after the attack who and how, not how, when and why which seemed to be the case.

He wanted to speak to Charon. The man must have also compiled a list, probably a more comprehensive one than his own, so they could compare arguments, disagree and agree, eliminate names perhaps. Laras sighed, God, they needed a miracle.

And all the while he sat there, he couldn’t help but think of Phelps again and again and again. Of what Mia had said. Of the potential to save his bet friend… Perhaps he wasn’t dead yet. Perhaps there was a chance.

Stiffly, he jerked to his feet and turned away from the common room, moved out into the daylight, ignoring the beauties of the small eleventh century quad and the spring light. He had a mission and this one was his own.

He was the avenger and he always would be.

*

Charon’s office was in Balliol, not too far from Exeter although it meant that he needed to tuck through the market crowds. The students whispered as he passed still and some even looked like they might approach but the withering glare he sent them was apparently enough to make them think twice. Grudgingly he respected the fact that Mia had noticed that both he and Charon were the least likely in the little group of those in-the-know to be guilty of treason but then there were rumours about those two being slightly too close. If only people knew the truth, the reality behind the complex weave of Oxford sex and scandal.

Balliol was much like Exeter, older and more medieval with crenellations instead of the sloping roofs and turreted towers. The quad was larger and the clouds of a traditional English cloud sent it sloping into shadowy tunnel-like hall ways. It should have been brighter, airier, but since the rebuilding of the left wall there had been an austerity in the college that he was sure wouldn’t have been there before the Dehklans. He made his way to the left of the Great Hall, where dinner would once had been served to the students but now builders struggled to reconstruct a damaged ceiling that continually collapsed no matter how much effort was put into it. There had just been too much irreparable damage done to the original foundations to salvage it but the rector disagreed.

He went down into the gullies then up the stairs, weaving through the narrow corridors that mirrored all the central colleges.

“Professor?”

He paused, turned on his heel.

“Shlomi. Jerry.” He heard a scuffle and he turned again, “Mia. Charon. Paige.”

“Sir, we have something to discuss with you and… we all want you to listen.”

He nodded slowly, “I think we maybe able to compromise. I have something to say of my own.”

“Perfect. Let’s go.”
A Non-Existent User
Tada walked down the hallway with his hands in his pockets. Fourth tower. Lara’s office was nearby. He knew what they said about the professor, according to his reputation it would be far from being a walk in the park, talking with him. He wasn’t sure how cooperative Laras would be even with Tada approaching him for an assignment but he had a few tricks up his sleeve in case Laras proved to be difficult. He stopped at the hard dark stained wooden door and brought his hand up to it, knocking firmly.

“He’s not there.” Tada turned to see a student with thick rimmed glasses and long bangs mixed with short spiked hair in the back looking up at him. She smiled. “He hasn’t been here for a while now.” she shifted her weight onto her left leg. She favored that leg more, he noted as he spotted a small scar on her ankle. An old injury that occasionally acted up would be enough to make anyone favor the opposite side. “Sorry.” she offered sympathetically.

Tada sighed and looked at the door. He wasn’t there. When he looked back at the girl he noticed the small bruise on her inner calf muscle. She wore shorts and a tank top with a thin windbreaker on over it. First year student like him, but she‘d been here at least three months before him judging by the calluses he noted. “Do you know where he is?” he asked.

“Nope. Not a clue. Though I’d imagine there’s not a very big list of places he’d go or people he’d be with.” No. There probably wasn’t.

“Thanks. I’ll see if I can catch him later.” he said, waiving as he turned to leave.


Charon opened the door to his office, allowing the students and his colleague in. As Laras passed him Charon smirked. “They came and found me, by the way. Said they wanted to talk to both of us. But then it looks like you had a similar agenda. Something you wanted to talk with me about?” he asked.

Laras entered. “It can wait. Obviously these four have something important to say.” he replied as he picked a leather chair and sat down in it, eying Mia first before giving the others similar looks that ended much more quickly than the first. “At least I hope so. I’m not interested in a repetitive lecture. I’ve been bored to tears enough today. Something of interest would be nice.”

Paige was the last one to enter. She smiled brightly, turning to face everyone as soon as she found a comfortable corner to stand by. “Mia asked for our help. I, for one, am interested.” she met the teachers gaze, first Laras. Then Charon. But something caught her eye and it made her heart skip a beat. An old photograph- from when these men were students. First and second years even. Laras was holding a glass of something- half of it spilled on his shirt. Charon was being dragged by his tie towards the center of the frame by Tada’s teacher. Ortrun… and in the middle was her father- drunk and laughing. Her mom was behind him- making faces at the camera while another girl seemed to be trying and failing to flirt with Charon. Paige looked away, feeling the knot in her throat.

“Interested in what exactly?” Laras didn’t lose any intimidation points sitting down. If anything he looked like he could shoot you down with his gaze alone.

“We’re gonna save Phelps.” Mia stepped forward, returning Laras’ intense gaze and staring at Charon with equal determination.

Shlomi and Jerry sat near each other but at a slight distance. “We’ve got the skills needed for the mission but not enough pull for you to worry about us being moles. Phelps is important. We know that. We want to save him… we just need you two to lead us.” Jerry looked up at the teachers. Charon walked the rest of the way in and leaned against his heavy oak desk.

“You’re serious?”

“ Do you really have to ask?” Laras asked his colleague in an exasperated tone. He sighed heavily and stood up, looking the students in the eye before focusing his attention on Mia. “They came here to talk us into saving Phelps. Why not humor them a little? After all it‘s not everyday a handful of kids elect to be placed on the slaughtering racks.”

“We’re not little children…” Mia hissed as she tried to shoot Laras with lightning bolts via her gaze. “You need a team with good enough skill to get the job done. The ones on the slaughtering racks wont be us. It‘ll be those Deklanian bastards.” Laras might have said something in retort but Charon managed to get something out first, eying Laras a bit.

“Alright then…” he stopped and looked at Paige. “So what’s your plan?”

Mia stepped forward. “Our plan is to hit them while they’re down. They won’t expect another attack after we just made one and right now their defenses are scattered from the last-”

“Wrong.” Charon sighed and shifted his weight. “They’re more prepared than ever. They would be prepared for this kind of a rescue. We can’t just go in and do what we did the last time. Who’s to say we’ll succeed or someone else won’t get captured? What if it’s me? Or Laras? Or one of your friends here?”

Paige looked over at Laras. He wasn’t looking at anything in particular but he was definitely thinking. “You didn’t put much thought into this did you? Tell me, did you even think any of this through- you coming here that is? How long did you talk to each other before you came up with that one? Or was it something you came up with all your own, princess?” Laras shot her a look. “It’s a reckless plan. Our last one was flawed. We would need time to come up with something far better and by that time things may be too late.”

“At least I’m doing something instead of hiding in a corner shoving everyone away while I wallow in my own mistakes.” Paige’s eyes widened as she looked across the room at Mia. She couldn’t believe the princess had just said that… well she could somewhat but it didn’t lose any less balls to say something like that to Professor Nikolao, no matter how often she did it, but the look he gave in return was just as venomous.

“What are you looking for out of all of this, princess? A happy ending? A bed of roses waiting for you at the end of each day? Life is filled with decisions. The choices we make effect everything. This thing we’re fighting for, it never ends so why add more distractions? If you’re looking for a someone to hold your hand you can forget it.”

“I never asked for anyone to hold my hand. I’m not some pampered-”

“What? Princess? But you are.”

“And you’re a dick who runs away when he gets scared.” Paige continued to looked back and forth between the two.

“Is this still about the mission?” Jerry whispered to Shlomi as she leaned in close enough for only him to hear.

“Something tells me they’ve gotten off track.” he was glad he could keep himself from grinning as he stood up and walked in between the two. He looked over at Paige wondering if she’d figured out what the two of them had finally done. She was still stuck on Mia calling Laras a dick judging by the look on her face.

“Please, you two… we’re all here because we care about Professor Phelps. We just want to bring him home safely and get them out of the hands of the Doctors.”

“Although we admire your courage, I’m afraid none of you have yet to offer anything new to the table. We still have no way of safely saving the professor.”

“Exactly. You’ve wasted our time.” Laras added, giving Mia another look.

Paige’s eyes widened before her usual cat like smile formed on her mouth. “Not necessarily gentlemen. I’m sure none of the newest batch of students to have arrived here at Oxford have made much of an impression on you but there is one student in particular who I think can help us. You might be hesitant but I can assure you he can give you a better plan of action in enough time for us to save Phelps.” Paige looked down at Mia who went from surprised to more than happy. “His name is Tada. “

“You seem rather confident in this student’s skills? What exactly is you’re relationship to him, Miss Summerstone?” Charon pushed off the desk and walked over to Paige, giving her a look she couldn’t quite read. She guessed it might be discouragement. Perhaps he thought Paige was trying to help a new lover out. Well that wasn’t the case. So his gaze did nothing to her resolve.

“I managed to be the first to discover his talent sir. I recognized his abilities and what he could do and knew he’d be right for Oxford. Just as much as Oxford would be right for him. I don’t know his IQ level but I can guarantee you he’s a genius at what he does. One whole year here and I know he’ll be the best there is.”

“And you think this fellow is good enough to go on a mission before he’s even gotten his feet wet in the semester? Good enough to not get us all killed… or captured and put in the same boat as Phelps is now?” Laras glanced at the small table where the crystal glasses set along with an array of drinks. If he’d been alone with Charon he might have made his colleague make him a drink but the thought of drinking in front of the students was enough to spoil the notion. Instead he shifted in his seat as he made eye contact with the student.

“No sir. I don’t think. I know.” the way she stood like that, shifting her weight and crossing her arms, Staring back at him defiantly… it reminded him of her father. Thank god he wasn’t the one in the room but fuck, she was almost as bad.

“You shouldn’t put so much faith in someone, Miss Summerstone. It’ll get you killed.” he retorted before looking away as if the conversation were beginning to bore him.

“Can anyone else vouch for this student? What did you say his name was? Tada…?” Charon waited for a last name but Paige wasn’t about to spill Tada’s past to the lot of them.

“Professor Ortrun can most likely let you see his transcripts. She is his teacher so I’m sure she’d be able to give you an idea of his level of usefulness for our current situation.”

“I’ll vouch for him too. He’s smart.” Mia nodded, smiling at Paige.

“I’d wager on him as well. He might have something up his sleeve that could help.” Shlomi added in.

“This is Oxford. Smart is worth a dime a dozen, princess.” Laras seemed even more indifferent to what was going on which earned him a glare from Mia. He ignored it, looking at Shlomi. “and we’re not interested in cheap magicians. Name someone here who doesn’t have something up their sleeve?”

Paige walked in front of him, giving him a cold look that was very much intimidating in its own right. “We understand what’s at stake here sir. Really. We do.”

“It’s why we’re here.” Shlomi said as he look around the room at everyone. He was trying to keep Mia from getting into it with Laras again. Jerry nodded in agreement with him.

“If you really do want to save the professor- your friend- and you want a plan that can get us there and back safely, then I suggest looking Tada up.” it was the hesitancy in their eyes that bothered Paige the most. If only she’d been able to get a hold of Tada before getting here, but Mia had collected everyone, told them her plan, and brought them to Charon’s office. If she’d have been able to get Tada she knew things would have gone differently. There was really only one thing she could do to try and make this whole thing work. Only one thing any of them could do. She walked over to the door and opened it.

“Where are you going?” Paige didn’t have to see the princesses face to know what look she was giving her. She turned around to face the others.

“We should leave. There really isn’t anything else we can do or say.” she looked at Laras then Charon. “If they want to help Mr. Phelps they’ll have some discussing to do.” she was glad to see Shlomi nod and get up. He got it. Jerry followed and Mia nodded.

“Alright. You guys go on ahead. I’ll stay behind.”

“And why is that?” Laras asked.

“Thought you’d like the company. Why do you think? Someone’s got to shove some common sense into that thick skull of yours.”

“Mia, I can’t really tell you what to do but I don’t think you should stay.” Shlomi stopped and turned to look at her. “We’re students Mia. If our professors even want to begin thinking about what we said or discussing whether Tada could help or not, they’ll need to be alone. We don’t have the right to stay behind. None of us do.” Paige was glad he said it. She almost had a heart attack, hearing Mia say she’d stay behind. That was a horrible idea. At least if they wanted the results they were looking for anyway.

There was a small moment of silence before Mia nodded. “Fine… but we need an answer as soon as you have it.” Paige almost felt an undertone of ‘or else we’ll go ourselves.’ Not that she didn’t love danger but she wasn’t in the mood to go on a suicide mission just yet. Maybe some other time when a statue built in her honor was guaranteed.

“Yes princess.” the sarcasm was so thick Paige thought Mia might turn around and hit Laras in the face with it, but she didn’t and Paige was relieved. Still, Paige had to reach out and shut the door behind Mia.

“Alright then,” she smiled and took a few steps away to give the teachers privacy. “We give them a few hours. They won’t need much more time than that. We can wait in the Experimental Psychology building. That’s where Miss Ortrun’s usually found.”

“Give me five minutes.” Mia said as she turned towards the door.

“What are you doing?” Paige whispered.

“I’m going to find out what they’re talking about. Wait outside at the door we came in and I’ll meet you there in five minutes. Ten tops.”

Paige was beginning to get annoyed. She didn’t work well with stubborn people- mainly because she was one herself. “Would you just let them talk? Trust me Mia, I didn’t say what I said or do what I did for no reason at all.” she was slightly insulted but she supposed there wasn’t anything she could do about. Mia was on a mission and either she knew what Paige was betting on and didn’t trust it to work or she wasn’t seeing it at all and needed a mallet to the head.

“I wont be long. Relax. Just go to the jeep and wait for me there.” she knelt at the door and put her ear against it. Paige glared and took a step forward. Mia was coming back if she had to drag her to the jeep kicking and screaming. Shlomi, the voice of reason, put his hand on Paige’s shoulder, making her look over at him. He shook his head and nodded for them to wait in the jeep.

Paige wanted to let out a growl and spin around but instead she chose to take the higher road… even if she didn’t want to. She let out a sigh, hoping any and all tension that had begun to build inside of her would leave along with the exhale. “Okay. We’ll wait for you. Just make sure they don’t see you.” she turned and left. Shlomi and Jerry were right behind her.

When they passed through the doors leading outside Shlomi chuckled, “You did good.”

Paige glared at a bush for no reason other than the fact that she wanted to glare at something but she wouldn’t do it to her friends. “What are you talking about?” she asked in a somewhat pouting tone.

“Back there with Laras and Charon. It was quick thinking.” Paige responded with a grunt as she pulled out her keys, rubbing the lucky rabbits foot out of habit. She stepped down off the curb and headed towards the jeep. She’d cleaned it out earlier that day. In a way she’d done it as preparation to retrieve Phelps, not knowing whether or not they’d be getting permission from the school or not. If they didn’t get clearance they wouldn’t be able to bring the van they’d used the first time… but then her jeep was too small for six people, gear and a seventh on the trip home… the only way she’d be able to bring her baby with her was if they needed a distraction vehicle. Which she was more than up for. It’d be her best get away by far regardless. She pressed the button, unlocking her jeep, and got inside. She could hear the other two follow into the back.

“Guess I better get up there. Don’t want her getting spotted when they come out.”

“Just knowing the teachers reputations could tell you they probably already know she’s out there. Especially Laras with him being her instructor.” he went to say something else but almost bit his tongue. Paige turned so hard Jerry fell into his lap.

“Seatbelts.” Paige said in her usual cheerful and mischievous tone.



Laras waited in his seat, watching as Charon walked over to the small table where the antique set rested, something that remained in the office for each generation of teachers to enjoy. He could hear the clanking of the crystal as his colleague poured each of them a glass. Charon turned and walked towards Laras, offering him the drink. “So what do you think of all this? A first year student who's barely staid here long enough to have gotten his feet wet being the answer to our prayers seems a bit too good to be true, don't you think?"

Laras shook his head. Too good to be true was right. It was far too good to be true and he didn't know quite what to make of it. This, 'Tada' Paige was talking about... the perfect answer to the perfect question. It was like a surprise party with all the guests cheering 'TA DA' as the whole plot was revealed... It was definitely too good to be true. But the question wasn't really how possible the boy's existence was. It was a matter of practicality. Could he really come up with the answer? Could he find them a way in and a way out and not get them all killed?

Laras looked up at Charon and raised an eyebrow, "He could be. I'm inclined to consider him, even if it does prove futile." He took a sip from his glass, "We don't have to follow just because there's a plan."

Charon nodded silently taking a few sips. "But the fact remains that security at the Deklahnian base has no doubt been raised to 120% by now. The likelihood that anyone could find a successful way of entry and escape is virtually zero..."

Laras chuckled, "Yes. It is practically suicidal. But leaving Phelps with them could equally be considered the Oxford L-Pill." He fell silent, musing, "It's very unlikely to work I know but there's no harm in letting this boy... try... to think of something. If he can't..." I'd probably try anyway. Silently he berated himself for even thinking such a thing. It seemed much more like a Mia comment than something he should be thinking.

Charon was quiet for a long moment, taking a sip of his drink before responding. "None of us are truly expendable. Whoever our traitor really is, they are close enough to the center of Oxford to endanger everything, else we'd not be having this discussion. Even the most perfect plan only lasts until contact is made." The English professor took another long sip, nearly emptying his glass. "Regardless, I noticed a decided lack of one consideration in the discussion so far. We might find Phelps, but be unable to retrieve him. Time, injury, even brainwashing... there are any number of things that he could have endured or that could happen during the rescue that would keep us from actually getting him out. Before we go any farther, we must all be in agreement that if such a situation occurs, we will kill him before letting him remain, both for his own good and Oxford's." His fingers tightened on the neck of his glass. "And ours, admittedly."



She acknowledged the fact that she shouldn't have been listening outside the door. No doubt they knew she was there, though she did at least have the talent for breathing quietly. But the thought of killing Phelps washed over Mia like a...a tsunami made of ice. What Charon had to say made infinite sense--there was the chance that Phelps would be unable to leave the base--but it horrified the Princess. And it through something into stark relief for her. She'd been taking for granted that her closest allies--and friends--would survive this whole incident, but that was something that she now realized would be next to impossible. Mia had just hoped it wouldn't be so soon that she'd have to deal with death.



Laras found his mouth dry and throat tightening. He knew what was being said made complete sense, perfect reason, irrefutably logical... but it was painful to think of Phelps as collateral damage. He had been his one friend through school. The one tutor who had staunchly stood by him when he'd sought his own position in the university despite some of the criticisms that called him too young and too volatile. He had been Edward's best man and the first person outside the family to hold his children. He found himself struggling with the point, it was valid and it hurt.

"It's very true." His voice was hoarse but he didn't try to hide it, "And I know it's selfish but I don't... I wouldn't... I'd have to do it myself. I'd have to know it was the last option. The last possible option. If we get in. If we succeed in finding him but... he's too far gone... I want to know. For certain. That not only is it the only choice available but that he is killed mercifully and with the honor owed him. No matter what. That's what I need."

He drained his glass and handed it back to Charon who again refilled it. It was clear by the look on Charon’s face that he could tell Laras was struggling with this. Phelps was his friend. Looking up at him, Laras could tell he knew and for once was fine with someone seeing that just like anyone he too had a fortress that could be breached. No one would deny the difficulty of this topic. Charon returned with his drink and handed it to him. He brought the drink up, swirling it under his nose, and taking in the heady scent. He could think of reasons to go and reasons not to as well.

“I understand and agree one hundred percent. To be honest, I don’t quite think the students are up to that kind of challenge just yet anyway.”

“No… probably not…” he paused, staring at the colors in the crystal glass in his hand. Bringing it up to the light still allowed for a few dull rainbows to shine through onto the rug and wooden floor. There was an auburn tint from the liquid itself. "As for the spy and expandability. You're right there as well." He took a sip of his new glass, "We have to consider which is the lesser of two evils. Risk to ourselves or the risk Phelps poses as a tool in the hands of the Doctors. And of course... whether he's already been cracked. Whether we're already too late and this whole thing will be futile except in the case of maybe saving the life of a good operative." Charon nodded in agreement and watched as Laras sighed heavily “I don’t know about you, but I for one am eager to learn about that boy Miss Summerstone told us about. Perhaps afterwards these shenanigans might cease.” he said as he eyed the door.

Charon smirked. “Indeed.” after taking the glass from Laras and setting it and his own down on his desk, grabbed his keys, and turned. “South Parks road it is then.”


Paige’s finger tapped the steering wheel as impatience welled up inside of her. “Relax Paige. She’ll be out soon. At least this way we can get a clue as to what they’re thinking.”

“Yea…”

“Even if they do spot her eavesdropping it’s not really doing to damage our main goal- at least I wouldn’t think so.” Jerry added.

Paige sighed again. “Well probably but I’d prefer not risking pissing our teachers off. We need their help. That much is obvious.” she turned and looked at the front doors and saw Mia pushing the doors open and running down the stairs. She rushed over to jeep and hopped inside.

Buckling her seatbelt she said, “let’s go.”

“Right.” Paige grinned, putting the jeep into gear and speeding off. It wasn’t till Paige noted the dead silence that she realized she didn’t like it and that Mia wasn’t talking about what she heard. Paige leaned forward, turning the radio on just enough to create some background noise. “So, what’d you hear?” she asked as she glanced over at the princess. She was staring out the window with a thoughtful gaze.

“What is it?” Jerry asked.

“You went and took the time to listen in, Mia. Tell us what ya got.”

The princess turned and looked at Paige, then over her shoulders at Shlomi and Jerry. “They’re heading towards the science area. They’re gonna learn what they can about Tada.”

“That’s good.” Jerry grinned.

“but?” Paige asked. She could tell there was something much more important on Mia’s mind.

“They were talking about Phelps. What the Doctors might have done to him. We might have to kill him if they’ve corrupted his mind too much. They‘re worried we wont be able to accept that responsibility if it rises.” Paige turned right onto Broad Street. All of a sudden silence was a little more welcoming than any response Paige could come up with.

Shlomi sighed. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.”

“But if it does?” Shlomi looked over at Jerry.

“We’ll have to do what’s necessary for the security of Oxford.”

Paige didn‘t say anything. “It’s something we’re all gonna have to talk about but it’s not really my place to say yes or no. I’m just the driver.” she looked over at Mia and smiled. “At least till my aim gets better.” she chuckled. “By the way everyone, we’re taking the scenic route so we don’t risk the teacher’s spotting us. I prefer we stay off their radar till they’ve made their decision.”



Tada was quickly approaching Broad Street. Balliol should be to the left across the street if he remembered correctly from the tour Paige had given him when she’d told him Oxford would be good for him. He looked ahead at the corner of Broad Street and Turl Street. She’d parked there.

Paige turned in her seat, smiling. “Down there on this side of the street- that‘s Balliol. If you go down Turl Street you‘ll find yourself at Exeter. You probably won‘t ever need to go there for the degree you‘re wanting to get but if you ever train with some of the Tutor‘s it may be a useful thing to know.”

He nodded. “So, how much do you know about Oxford?”

Paige chuckled, getting comfortable. “As much as a student can… and a little bit more. I like to keep an eye on the school. Even if it’s not needed. It’s sentimental to the family so even with all the teachers and administrators keeping everything in order I like to know as much as I can about what‘s going on. Of course I don’t go blabbing about what I know. I like to think of myself as a tutor in training.” she laughed a little more with that.

Tada smirked. “Is that so?”

Paige grinned. “Yup. So what do you think? Wanna see more or am I boring you?”

“No, I’m fine. Let’s keep looking.”

“Okay, I’ll take you to where you’ll probably feel more at home. Department of Experimental Psychology, here we come.” Paige glanced over at him as she put the jeep in drive and sped off. “Now I know what you’re thinking but I promise we’re not torturing anyone and experimenting with them.” she laughed.

“Well as long as it’s all for the greater good.” for a second Paige just eyed him before seeing the jest in his face. She gave him a funny look.

“Well I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”


Reaching the corner Tada looked up seeing a familiar black jeep speed off down the road. He spotted Mia in the front passenger seat and two others in the back. The tinted windows in the back hid the identities of the other two passengers but he could tell one was a girl and one wasn’t. He pulled his phone out- the one Paige had given him, and sent her a text.

Hey, what are you up to? he asked. A few seconds later he got a reply.

Just driving around… what are you doing today? she was keeping her eyes on the road.

Answer my question first.

… With Mia. She asked for my help with something.

Help with what? he could practically see the slightly irritated grin on her face. She hated it when he persisted when she was being vague for a reason but then that’s why he did it in the first place.

… I answered your first question. You answer mine.

Paige what‘s going on? he put his phone back in his pocket, waiting to cross the street. He jogged across when he found an opening and walked up the stairs. He heard the sound of a car speeding down the road. Someone was in a hurry.



Charon shifted, making the car go faster. He smirked a little, happy with his new car. He’d turn down Parks road. “I hope this kid is as good as they say he is.”

“Me too. If there’s any way we can get Phelps out alive without any casualties on our side, I want to find it.” Laras agreed.

Charon nodded. “It’s been a while since I’ve gone this way…” It had been a while since he’d seen Sofia too. Hadn’t had much time in the last few years. And his collage life seemed like forever ago.

“It’s been years for me. Do you think she’ll help us any? If she’s anything like she used to be, she’ll give us a hard time.”

“Probably, but I think she’ll give in once we tell her what we’re up to.” Laras sighed heavily causing Charon to look over at him. “What is it?”

“Nothing… it’s just Ortrun. She’s always been a headache.”

Charon chuckled. “I’m sure she’s mellowed out since then. We’ve all changed at least a little.”

“Really? Then you didn’t see her get drunk this year after the ceremony?” Laras asked.

Charon coughed. “Eh… well I suppose some of us change and some of us just get older.”



Answer my question please. ^_^ or else.

Trying to finish my assignment. Stop being vague.

What‘s your assignment? XD

Tada smirked with a mischievous grin of his own as he texted his response. Answer my question please. ^_^ or else.

LOL kk. Trying to get an extra credit assignment.

How?

Nuh uh- your turn ^_^ what‘s your assignment?

Analitcal tactics exercise.

Now who‘s being vague?

He smirked. You‘re turn. putting his phone back in his pocket, Tada walked down the hall. He stopped and asked someone where Charon’s office was. By the time he started heading there, Paige responded.

Just a timed scenario run through based off of what a real mission might be like. Where do you think you‘ll be in an hour?

Liar.

??? What makes you say that?

Because I know you and I‘m pretty good at it actually.

What‘s that supposed to mean? You think I‘m always up to something?

No but I know when you are.

You have no proof !!! XD

Who needs proof? he slipped the phone back into his pocket after turning it on silent. Tada knocked on the door. At least he’d be one more step closer to finishing his assignment and discovering a better answer. He waited a few seconds but when he didn’t hear any movement he tried again. …Nothing. He tried the door knob. Locked. Charon wasn’t there either. He sighed. “What are the odds?” he wondered out loud as he turned to leave. He grabbed his phone, turning the volume back up. Paige had responded.

This is Oxford Tada. Without proof you have nothing. Especially if you‘re from the St. Cross building studying law. ^_^ Now then, where you gonna be later?

I‘m not sure yet.

sigh… well clear your schedule. I’m probably gonna kidnap you for a while.

For what exactly?

I thought we could have some fun in the jeep later on. Too much work and no play makes Tada a dull boy. Hehehe

T_T

Crying for joy are we? Why Tada I didn‘t know you were this bad off. All you had to do was ask… or beg. :P

-_- *face palm*

LOL. Good well let me know when I can pick you up. Right now I‘m just waiting.

lol no seriously. What‘s it about?

It‘s a surprise. XD

I perform better when prepared.

O.O! hehehe duly noted.

That‘s not what I meant.

No? Well that‘s probably for the best hehe. I may need you for something later is all silly. I promise you‘ll like it. Don‘t think dirty!!! Hehehe >: )

You‘re making that really difficult you know…

What‘d you picture me in this time? Hehehe

Where should I meet you?

Pouts. Just head up to the psychology building if you‘re not already there. That‘s where I‘m waiting now.

Can do. : ) he wasn’t sure why Paige was there but it was obvious she wasn’t going to tell him anything. As he walked down the street he started wondering if there was a connection with anything. Laras and Charon were not in their offices and Paige was being as vague as ever. She had Mia and two others in her Jeep and is waiting outside where his main teacher is. Suddenly Tada stopped. Paige had texted him.

Where are you?

Walking

From where?

Balliol.

Why didn‘t you tell me? I was just there.

I know. I saw you.

… need a ride silly?

yes

K. it‘ll be a tight fit though. Luckily the ride‘s not too long.

That‘s fine.


Sofia tapped the mouse as she stared at the computer screen. Where was Zack with that picture? She’d sent it to him a while ago. How much work had gone into that filter that had been placed over Tada’s eyes?

So? she typed on her keyboard.

Still not done yet. Almost. Will keep you posted. She sighed heavily as she looked away from the small chat screen. That’s when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and looked over her shoulder seeing Laras and Charon approaching, looking ever more the nervous volunteers for her department of expertise. These two were just another set of hard nuts to crack. God forbid anyone ever figure them out. She quickly exited out of the page as she turned towards the teachers.

“Well isn’t this a surprise. Dr. Trusko… Professor Nikolao… what are you two doing here? How long’s it been since the two of you wandered out of the luxury of your offices to come see poor little Ortrun?” she teased as she turned in her chair, smiling.

“The door opens from the inside too Miss. Ortrun. You could leave your little rats nest anytime you like.” Laras pointed out as he looked around her office. It was clean aside from a small pile of papers on her desk. Her office didn’t hold the same historical kind of feel as Charon’s or Laras’. The Department of Psychology hadn’t made their permanent move into this building till 1971- long after the other buildings had been made.

“I’d hardly call this a rats nest, thank you. Now what do you two want exactly? I doubt I’ve even come across once in your tiny little memory banks in the last five years so what makes today so special that you should come straight to me and skip the phone call or email entirely?” both men sat down in the chairs behind her desk. They were metal framed with black leather cushions of them. While Exeter and Balliol still held some mystery and magic from the old world through its architecture and interior, this office still held its seventies feel. Thankfully it didn’t smell that way.

“We’re a bit curious about one of your newer students and were wondering if you could do us a favor and let us look at his files.”

Ortrun raised an eyebrow, looking at them curiously as she leaned back in her chair. “Who?”

Both men paused as soon as their mouths opened and looked at one another with the same thought in their heads. Paige had only given them a first name. Not that it wasn‘t unique enough to narrow down the search but they‘d seem less professional giving her what they had. “We don’t know his last name. His first is Tada.” Charon admitted as Laras looked a bit annoyed beside him.

“No.” Sofia turned back to her computer. Her mind raced. Had someone else discovered what she had about Tada? Or had they found something else?

“What? Why the hell not?” Laras had stood, leaning over her desk with his hands firmly placed on it.

“Privacy boys. Why on Earth should I give you a students information because of a silly curiosity?” she asked without looking at either of them.

“This is Oxford- what privacy, Sofia?” Both men looked at her as she swiveled in her chair to face them again. She had a cool look on her face with her arms resting on her chair and her fingers intertwined in each other. “Now give us the god damn file.” the female teacher looked up at him smirking.

“No.”

Charon leaned back a little in his seat, bringing his ankle up to rest on his knee. “You do know the situation involving Phelps don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well we heard he could give us a plan that could bring him back safely.”

“Oh really? And who told you this?” she asked, truly curious.

“Jonathan’s daughter- Paige Summerstone.” Sofia’s eyes widened for just a second before she grinned.

“I see.” she chuckled to herself as she turned back around facing her computer. “Well I suppose I can let you take a peak. I must admit I’m a bit surprised you’re here though.”

“Why’s that?” Laras asked.

“Because I sent Tada after you on an assignment. He’s supposed to talk to everyone who went on the mission that Phelps got captured on and come up with a better plan of action. I was going to take this plan and suggest it to the school board.” she turned back around, grinning. “No doubt he’s probably already gone to your offices to try to talk to you but, you’re here.” she burst out in laughter. “Here you go. Look at it as much as you like.”

Laras and Charon looked at each other then Sofia. Charon chuckled a little. “I see, then you must have substantial faith in his capabilities if you already foresaw that he might be able to come up with a rescue mission. Is he really that good? He hasn’t been at Oxford for long.” Sofia smiled as she leaned forward a bit.

“I don’t think even Tada knows just what his capabilities are. Not yet anyway.”
“So we are actually going to get Phelps back—or at least make the effort?” Mia leaned against the wall, sipping at tea that was piping enough to be almost unbearable, sweetened to near ridiculous proportions. “And we’re letting Tada plan the thing?”

Paige shot a glare up to the princess, barely suppressing an eye roll as she took a swig of her own drink. “Yes, Mia. We’ve been through this aspect of the plan already. Now we’re moving on to more important aspects of the evening.” Mia bristled, ready to shoot back a biting retort. The two women had been at loggerheads for almost a week, ever since Mia had gone against Paige’s recommendation and spied on the professors’ meeting.

Laras, his cup warming him against the chilly night air more from within than anything else, the spicy aroma of vodka wafting through the small room, sat up. “Enough. This isn’t a pissing contest, ladies.” He shot a warning look at Mia, urging her to remain silent. Mia was his student; he had more control over her actions than anyone else’s.

“Paige, enough,” Charon whispered, though his voice carried well enough over the tense silence that permeated the teachers’ lounge. Laras spoke next, voice gruff as usual. “We’ve been through all of our options. Tada is the only unknown entity we possess. Along with the Princess, of course. It is for this reason only that we are allowing the two of you to come along.”

Shlomi, who stood next to Mia, but positioned closer to the door, straightened from his habitual slouch and gave a half smile. “Oh come on, Professor. Let’s not act like Mia’s only coming along because she’s an unknown. We’ve grown up enough to give Tada his due as a strategist, let’s at least admit Mia is a formidable fighter on her own. She’s good enough to beat anyone here…”

“Except maybe Laras, of course,” Mia shot in. “I’m not quite good enough to take him on just yet.”

Eyes twinkling, Tada chuckled. “At least not in the ring…” Mia and Shlomi joined in on the laughter, Mia shooting Laras a veiled glance that she was reasonably sure no one but the Russian noticed. To his credit, Laras’ face remained impassive, nothing but habitual annoyance clouding his features.

“If we’ve had quite enough of our unnecessary jocularity, perhaps we should move on to more important matters.” Charon’s face was serious, but his voice lilted just enough to betray amusement. Paige, on the other hand, stared daggers at the Princess, annoyed beyond words that Mia had so easily derailed the conversation.

“By all means,” Mia replied. “I’ve brought a map of the north station that Laras and I have been drawing out over the last couple of days.” For a brief instant, Mia’s face colored as a rather passionate montage of what else they had been doing over the last couple of days flashed before her eyes. It was an expression that was not lost on the dissemblers and spies of the room.

Much money had exchanged hands, after all, when everyone had guessed that Mia and Laras were sleeping together.

Neither the Russian nor his protégé knew that their secret was nonexistent. For all his skills and intelligence, Laras was in the throes of newly acquired passion, a situation vastly unfamiliar to him. He spent too much time trying to figure out what he was feeling to realize that he was the only one who didn’t know.

For her part, Mia didn’t really care. She had spent too much time pretending to be pleasant to care at this point. It was much more fun to be an insufferable know-it-all who butted into peoples’ business.

Spreading the map over the table with Shlomi’s assistance, Mia beckoned to Tada. “Tada, I have taken the liberty of marking everything everyone was able to tell me about this place. I never thought mother’s drawing lessons would come to any good, but I am proven wrong about her once again.”

Tada, eyes still gleaming with amusement, came to stand over the map. Within moments, his face was stone sober, only his dark eyes moving. “How did you get in before?”

“Air ducts. There was a weakness in the building design. A small weakness that we were only just able to exploit. They will have combed over the building by now and repaired any other such weaknesses.” Charon joined Tada in standing over the map. “Coming in from above is out.”

“What about from below?” Mia regretted speaking as soon as she asked. This was Tada's show, not hers. She was still getting used to the idea of being part of a team. Bossing people around had always come easy; it was listening she was trying to learn now. Someone not listening was precisely what had put them into this situation. “I’m sorry…no doubt you’ve already thought about that.”

“No, it’s a good idea,” Tada replied. “The weather’s been unseasonably cold for this time of the year. That means the mud up there has hardened and damn near turned to ice.”

“Yes, and only a fool would attempt to dig through it.” Charon looked down at the first year student, brow raised with incredulity.

Tada nodded, smiling. “Exactly. Fools. What’s the likelihood of their expecting us to dig tunnels beneath their facility? If we could get to these forests here, we could very reasonably hide while we dig a tunnel. It’d have to be far enough down that their scanners wouldn’t pick it up, and we’d have to coat it with digital refractors.”

“How do we get to the forests?” Paige asked. “We can’t exactly just drive up there.”

“Sure we can,” Mia replied. “Mother has a cabin up there. Who’s to say that the Princess cannot adjourn there for a holiday?” Standing, Mia smiled. “Or perhaps the Queen is worried about the reports of sedition that she’s heard recently and has decided to remove her daughter from the hotbed of treason?”

“And how would the rest of us get up there? Everyone knows we’re rebels. The only reason Omega hasn’t struck us down is because they don’t have enough proof that we exist as a program. Only proof that there are a few rebels.” Paige sighed. “I’m willing to bet the only reason they haven’t come to arrest us all is that they’re waiting for us to do something even more stupid and betray everything.”

“Fuck if they are. They’re planning something already.” Laras pulled a flask out of his pocket and dispensed with the teacup. “We’ve got no more than a week before the shit hits the fan. So we might as well go out with a bang.”

“As far as getting there,” Mia continued as if Laras hadn’t spoken. “The same way I got here. Cloaking devices. Also…Charon, what if you were to leak that we were coming? Tell them we’re planning something and then show up early?”

“No. It wouldn’t work. If I tell them we’re coming, they’ll swoop in and take us all the earlier.”

Mia shrugged. “I’ll call my mom, then?”

Charon sighed. “I don’t know, Mia. We’ve got enough planning to do without getting her into this. It is a good idea, but we will see. Tada, Shlomi and I will continue to plan. The rest of you should continue business as usual. Mia, I will let you know if we need to involve the Queen.”

“So we’re dismissed?” Paige stood, brushing herself off. “Alright. I’ll be out at the range attempting to shoot the broad side of a barn.”

“And I guess Laras and I will return to our dungeon and attempt to beat the snot out of one another.” Mia chuckled. “I’ll make sure to keep my mother on speed dial, though. Just in case.”

*****


Laras pressed into her without so much as a by your leave, pinning her arms above her head and trapping her beneath the heft of his not inconsiderable bulk. Mia sighed and wrapped her legs around his waist, pushing her breasts against his chest. “Laras,” she breathed out, voice half whisper.

With a soft groan, Laras slid into and out of Mia, digging teeth and nails into willing flesh. More than half the bruises on her body had come from sexual rather than combative sport these days, though the sex between them was close enough to combat that there was hardly a difference. Letting go of her hands, which Laras had so conscientiously bound together with her own shirt, Laras grabbed at her legs, using them as a fulcrum to gain better access.

Growling, Mia locked her knees and, with a grunt of effort, flipped the two of them over so that she was on top. “This isn’t all about you, hon.” Arms locked behind her, Mia arched her back in pleasure as she rode her professor cum lover, satisfaction looming ever nearer for the both of them.

For his part, Laras did not seem to mind the new arrangement between them; neither the new position nor the week-old routine of three square entanglements a day keeping them stretched and limber. “I don’t mind this. It’s a great view.”

Mia chuckled and leaned forward, briefly pressing her lips to his. “Shut up, ass.”

After the first time between them, Mia hadn’t expected it to ever happen again. Laras had seemed so open after they’d finished, but then he’d shut up and become cruel again, lashing out as was his habit. But then, that night he’d slipped into her room next to his, breath sharp with alcohol, and her body had been unable to turn him down.

And then a bout between them the next day had ended in a rather…interesting position. Then he’d walked in on Mia doing her yoga, while she was in a position known as the bridge. Apparently the sight of her breasts pressed into a thin piece of white stretch fabric had been too much for him.

It hadn’t all been sex, either. At least not in the traditional sense. They’d explored the world of tongues, fingers, toys, and any other sundry manner of bringing the other to repletion. After the first time, a sort of wall had broken between them, though Mia was a touch heartbroken to understand that, for Laras at least, there was little emotion.

Laras was still at the “ooo, I’m fucking a hot chick” stage of their relationship and hadn’t even begun to come to terms with the fact that he might actually like the woman he was boning several times a day.

Not to say, of course, that Mia wasn’t thoroughly enjoying the new direction of their relationship, but she did rather hope that they would be able to take it somewhere further some day. They were about to go to war for real with Deklahn, especially if this plot to rescue Phelps went well; Mia just felt like perhaps they should reach for whatever human connection they could get while they could.

But she had never lost someone before. Maybe it was too much for Laras to give in again.

At least for now.

Some day, though, Mia would need to push him into making a decision because a Princess of England didn’t go around fucking her professor without doing something about it.

Suddenly a torrent of Russian came rushing out of Laras’ mouth as the man arched and shuddered, spending himself within her. All at once, Mia bucked as her own body plummeted over the edge and into a pale of bright pleasure.

“Ai, Princess, you’ve turned into quite the sex kitten in but a week,” Laras panted, kissing the musky sweat from between Mia’s breasts.

“It’s all the practice I’ve gotten in that time.” Mia smiled, body still replete with the light-as-air feeling of afterglow. “Seriously, if I bend over to stretch, you’ve usually got me naked by the time I stand up straight again.”

“You’ve got no problem with that.”

“Not at all.” Mia splayed against her lover, allowing his fingers to dance a wanton pattern along her spine. “It’s good exercise. I haven’t had to hit the school gym at all this week.”

“Been too sore, have we?” Laras bit at the flesh of her shoulder.

“Perhaps. But you haven’t been yourself, either. So the pleasure isn’t all one sided.” Mia stopped smiling for a moment. “Laras, I’m worried…scared. I’m scared. What if I’m not ready for this? What if everyone’s right and I’m just a liability?

“What if I ruin it all?”

Laras was young when he entered Oxford. Young, naive and bitter; he was also formidable. His father had bred him to hate the interplanetary alliance and after his mother was killed, he didn’t need to cultivate the determination he felt to destroy the Dehklans. That wasn’t to say that he hadn’t learnt a lot from the university, underground or not. The first lesson he’d been taught was not to think a head of the game. There was no knowing the future. He couldn’t predict the outcomes and he couldn’t govern fate. But looking at the earnest face before him, flushed with a passion just past and eye alight with a feverishness that he knew well enough from his own reflection, he realised that Mia had yet to learn even the first truths of war.

He looked at her, seeing her pretty face creasing in worry, her beseeching gaze meeting his scrutiny with a disconcerting sincerity but he said nothing. Instead, cupping her chin, forcing her not to look away, he brought his forehead to hers, almost glaring, almost tender. Let her see the foolishness in her question, in her uncertainty: there was no room for hesitancy and she had to know that if he didn’t think her capable of the role given to her, he wouldn’t have been won over into this madness they’d begun. If he didn’t trust her with his life he wouldn’t put it into her hands, but he was and so was the rest of the team. Let her see that each of them was a domino, placed so that if one fell, all fell. Let her realise for herself that these doubts were dangerous, albeit human. He waited for the expression to come, the calm, the dawning of understanding like a fever breaking, quiet and calm in her eyes.

And then he spoke, “You’ll do fine.” And then he kissed her, one of the few real kisses that he gave her since the first. Initially teasing, a breath of skin on skin, then harder, pulling their sweaty bodies tight together, their previous encounter still fresh; quivering flesh, which had been cooling in the afterglow, fizzing again with desire. If he could understand the emotion he might have lingered longer but consciously he batted the sense of protectiveness away, “And I expect you’d best my wayward student if given half the chance.”

The latter was spoken with a rueful grin and he felt her mouth curl into a smile as his lips grazed her cheek. She was his protégé in a way that Templeton had always failed to be. He wouldn’t say that he favoured her any more than Templeton, if their newly developed relationship was excused, but where the boy had been apt enough to warrant his attention, she never took that ability for granted like he had. Mia, loathe as he was to admit it, was simply a better student for him. She paid attention but she thought for herself, she challenged him but she also recognised times when she would have to back down in order to learn. Templeton was unable to do those two simplest of things because he was arrogant. He was a great fighter, one of the best, but he had only learnt because he liked dominance; he had challenged when he thought he could get away with it, he had backed down because his pride was at stake. Of course, Templeton was good, Laras had taught him everything, but Mia was going to be better. Maybe she already was.

Teasingly, he nipped at her ear, pinching above the lobe so it stung, then pulling away so he could gather himself, pull back from the moment and reassert his usual frontiers. It wouldn’t do to let anything go now. He couldn’t be the comforter if she was going to ask any more questions like this because at this point in time, only their precarious balance between aggression and pleasure was allowing him to hold himself together. It was too much. He kissed her lips once and withdrew completely. To let anything other than animalistic attraction seep into their relationship would potentially undermine his resolve entirely and he couldn’t risk it. Flowers, petals and thorns. His father’s words still rang in his head even after so many years after his death.

Mia’s eyes were closed, her chin tilted upwards towards him from where his lips left hers. There was a small smile playing across her face and as he finally rolled away, putting space between them.

“If you don’t best him I’ll be thoroughly disappointed in you.”

She laughed, “Just a few weeks ago that would have been ‘fucking disappointed’, you know.”

“Fuck if I don’t know it.” He said with a smirk and she let out a giggle at his drawling tone.

He shook his head and stood, moving away from her sprawled form in the bed. They still hadn’t made it to his, although using the sofas, the chairs, the piano stool, the shower had been common enough. Taught muscles, lithe and hard and supple, glinted in the half-light coming through the gap in the curtain. For a moment, he was almost immobile by the bed, a stone silhouette with the yellow sunlight sliding off his skin. She was watching him, he could feel it, the itch across his skin as her gaze prickled over him.

“We should prepare ourselves for tomorrow morning.” He didn’t look at her, knowing that if he did, he’d see her reaction to his moment of tenderness. What that would be, he didn’t want to know, “Get some sleep tonight.”

Within minutes he was walking back into his own rooms where the open window was letting in the damp spring dusk. He looked around the room, noting the empty chair where weeks ago Edward had sat. Sighing, he ran a hand through his hair and tried not to think too hard over the plans for the following morning. It wasn’t good to over think the night before, it would eat away at the much needed rest that was required for the operation. He could only hope, after their last meeting, that the others did the same thing.

Everyone’s faces had been pinched and drawn, exhausted with the days of planning. Charon had been grim, hands tensed in frustration and eyes dark and worried. Paige was wearing a perpetual mask of anger tinged with guilt, the tension in Tada had been enough to put them all on edge as Shlomi paced, restless. Mia had been vocal, her eyes fierce and determined but her skin pale with sleepless nights. He knew that his own unrest was no doubt palpable but they were used to his peculiar mix of distemper and stoicism. What was uneasy was the disquiet between himself and Charon – their mutual attempts to maintain order within the group had created something strange and uncertain that no one was entirely comfortable with.

*

“Have you heard?” Said a tenor

“Heard what?” Replied a soft woman’s voice, a lacy voice like a summer wind in the lilacs.

A young boy listened to the voices in the darkness, alone in his bed and fervently listening.

“Oxford has made their move. They’ve opened themselves up to exposure.”

“No fucking way.” A bracing, Irish voice intercepted, “Why would they?”

“Shush Pads, you’ll wake Denny.” The woman spoke again, there was a pause a rumble of an apology from the Irishman, “How did it happen?”

Denny was listening closer now. He’d always heard of Oxford. His daddy had gone there long ago but he’d disappeared when he was a baby and his mam had told him wonderful stories in her lilac-lace voice. She would have been beautiful too, if her face wasn’t so scarred from when they thought they’d killed her. And now they lived underground in Dublin, far away from the green hills and sloping farmland of Sligo. Sometimes she told him stories of how the fae lived down here and she’d murmur sweet lilac-lies (because he was seven and he knew they were lies now) about how if he counted all the windows and doors, put out milk and sweet honey then they’d let him see his true love and always protect him from evil. He dreamed of Oxford, and castles with towers and wonderful secret passageways that didn’t smell of mould and dirt and muck. He dreamed of sunshine beating down on a school of warriors, brave-faced men that smelt of metal and grass, of determined women with bright flashing eyes. He dreamed of the faceless enemy, drawing storm clouds along with them, surrounded by sulphuric flames and flashes of black energy, staring back at the sun-drenched heroes. He dreamed and dreamed. His true love was Oxford.

“I saw it Above, it’s all over the screens – some of their idiot students posted anti-Dekhlan messages in their newspaper. The editor has already disappeared though no one’s saying if the Doctors got her or if she fled. Either way, it’s out.” The first voice, the voice that had come with a clanking of metal boots and a cool rush of air, began, “They’ve made the first move, thrown down the gauntlet and,” his tone hushed and Denny had to strain his ears to catch the words, “I heard that Edward Phelps has been captured.”

There was an intake of breath, a string of muttered curse words that his mam didn’t try to hush.

“Edward Phelps,” Pads started in a rush, “was the liaison five years ago that helped us go under. Do you think... oh jeesus.” He cut off, “Jeesus shiteing mudderfucker.”

Denny knew that w