"Clouds of Tyranny"

By J. R. Pond All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

Time for a Change

“Tara!” yelled Rina from inside the cottage.

Tara dropped the gardening spade and ran toward the front door.

“Mom?”

“Look at this, Tara!”

A twelve-year-old Tara ran through the front door in her pink polka dot dress with her pigtails flapping through the breeze. She burst through the door to see her mother hold up the first kitten of the litter.

“Awe, how cute,” yelled out Tara as she took it from her mother.

“That one, we keep. The rest I will sell in town when they’re old enough to leave their mother’s teat.”

“What should we name it,” asked Tara without looking up from the newborn kitten.

“It’s a she, Tara. And the name is up to you, but don’t go changing your mind every day.”

“I won’t,” squeaked Tara.

Tara cuddled the newborn kitten in her arms staring at his little face with still shut eyes while Rina assisted with the birth of seven more kittens; two of which that didn’t live. Tara put the orange tiger-striped kitten back with its mother to feed, then went back outside to tend to the vegetable garden.

Tara sat on her knees as she loosened the soil around the vegetables and herbs with an iron spade.

“How are they?” asked Rina standing behind Tara.

“The rosemary is wilting momma,” whined Tara.

“Well, fix it then. Just like I showed you honey.”

“Okay,” answered Tara.

Tara loosely pinched the stem of the herb and closed her eyes tight.

“Come on honey. Wish. Wish,” chanted her mother.

“I’m a wishing momma,” said the daintily young Tara.

Before their very eyes the base of the stem got greener and the entire plant flourished with life and looked ready to pull.

“Good Tara.”

It was nearly sundown and Tara was finishing up the hauling of the wood from outside to bring inside for the fireplace while Rina made dinner on her coal stove. Tara could smell the plentiful flavors of her mother’s chicken dumpling chowder.

“Mom?” called out Tara.

“Yes, Tara?”

“I put the wood in the fireplace.”

“How many pieces?”

“Three.”

Rina gave her chowder a quick stir so it wouldn’t stick to the side of the pot and went into the living room where the fireplace was. The fireplace was on the opposite side of the room from the kitchen doorway where Rina was standing. “Stand away Tara,” ordered her mother sternly.

Tara walked away and sat in a pink padded chair several feet away and watched the fireplace in excitement as if something were going to happen. Rina raised a palm and a small ball of fire shot from her hand igniting the fireplace.

“Wow,” exclaimed Tara. Rina chuckled and smiled at Tara, who despite seeing this trick countless times, was still amazed by it.

“Wish I could do that,” complained Tara.

“No, it’s dangerous and people are scared of it. Or worse, they want it for their own.”

“Why? It’s just an easier way to start the fireplace.”

“Yes Tara,” said Rina as she nodded her head from side-to-side at Tara’s ignorance of the evildoers of the world.

After eating dinner and washing up, Rina put Tara into bed and tucked her in.

“I love you momma,” giggled Tara.

“I love you too, honey.”

She thought hard for a moment as she looked at her in the light of the candle that sat across the room, several feet from the foot of Tara’s bed.

“Tara, I’m not going to be here forever and I want to make sure you’re protected.”

Rina got up and retrieved the candle from across the room and brought it back to the side of Tara’s bed.

“Now, before I show you this I want you to promise me something,” pleaded Rina.

“Huh?”

“Never use your gift for bad things, okay?”

“Okay momma.”

“Here, place your hand over the candle with your palm pointed down,” she said as she took Tara’s hand and positioned it a few inches above the flickering flame barely feeling its heat.

“Now, wish it to grow.”

Tara closed her eyes tight and ‘wished’. The flame grew bigger and bigger until it was big enough for Tara to feel its heat get hotter. Tara opened her eyes in amazement.

“Wow.”

Rina got up and placed the candle back across the room away from the bed and returned to Tara and kissed her on the forehead.

“Goodnight Tara.”

“Night mom.”

Tara’s eyes shuddered open, and felt the coldness of the women’s dorm. I forgot about the candle trick. Tara turned away from the wall to face Ruthie, but her bed was vacant and still made. She said she was coming to bed when I left the infirmary.

Tara threw the covers from her body and emerged wearing her nightclothes; white hooded sweater and elastic blue-plaid pajama pants. She tiptoed past all the sleeping girls and left the dorm to go find Ruthie.

She walked down the hall to find Ruthie in the infirmary curled up on the Doc’s small couch shivering; she hadn’t left Clyde’s side. Tara’s mouth curled and she looked around and found a generic blanket on one of the shelves and unfolded it and placed it over Ruthie’s cold body.

“It’s always colder after you fall asleep,” whispered Clyde.

“You should be resting,” retorted Tara sincerely.

“I hate sleeping, it gives me nightmares,” smiled Clyde.

“Funny,” said Tara without laughing.

“That’s Ruthie’s favorite too. I know what you’re thinking,” frowned Clyde.

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, maybe not this second, but I know what you’re thinking about me and Ruthie.”

“It’s really none of my-“

“It’s not romantic at all, trust me.”

“I wasn’t assuming-“

“It’s okay. She like a little sister to me; we met when her and Lock joined.”

“The Returners you mean?”

“Yeah, we were instant friends and I kinda saw myself as her protector in Lock’s absence. She is so energetic and gung-ho it takes both, me and Lock to protect her. I was actually banished from HQ for a month because I beat up a kid that had relations with her, cuz I thought he tricked her. When I got back, Ruthie slapped me, yelled at me, and said it was her idea.”

“She’s…experienced? Sexually?”

“Yeah, surprising isn’t it?”

“Very…well I better get back to bed. Nite Clyde.”

Clyde turned his head to face the ceiling as he closed his eyes.

“See ya, gonna have me a nightmare,” Tara smiled at his words and left the room quietly.

She stood in the hall and began to walk back to the room.

“Psst,” said a faint voice from the large empty room.

Tara stopped and turned around, in the dark dining room there was a figure sitting at a table holding an orange glowing dot. A cigarette? Ray? She walked over to the person until the image was clear.

“Oh, Pearl. You can’t sleep either?” She took a puff from her cigarette and blew out the smoke.

“I get up every two hours for a puff, can’t sleep without it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Why? It’s a blessing, not a curse.”

“Hmm.”

Pearl motioned to the chair across from her.

“Sit down.”

“Okay,” said Tara as she sat down.

“That was a lie wasn’t it?”

“What? That I was sorry for you?”

“No,” laughed Pearl half-heartedly, “The whole ‘I’ve been with someone before’ thing.”

“How did you know?” inquired Tara with squinting eyes trying to see Pearl through the darkness of the room.

“I’m a women. Woman that have ‘been there’ know that when you haven’t, you walk a little differently, talk a little differently, and are just a little more shy.”

“I hope men don’t notice that about me,” blushed Tara.

Pearl took a deep puff and exhaled overdramatically.

“Sweetie, men don’t notice shit!”

They both laughed at Pearls little joke for more than a minute.

“Tell me, “Said Pearl, “Have you kissed a boy?”

“Umm,” thought Tara remembering, “yeah, once.”

“How was it? Was he sloppy or sensual?”

“Hmm, I really don’t have anything to compare it to…I guess I’d call it ‘quick’”

“Quick?”

“Yeah, it was a romantic scenario. The lake at sundown, you know?”

“Oh yes, the best time to share each other’s body.”

“Our lips touched and within one second his tongue was in my throat, I almost threw up.”

“Hahaha,” laughed Pearl as she slammed her palm down on the table and Tara chuckled.

“After that I kinda didn’t want him to touch me anymore.”

“Good move on your part. He’s probably quick at other things too, how old were you?”

“Seventeen, I think.”

“Wow, two years since your last kiss. I thought I was bad.”

“Um, what do you mean quick at other stuff by the way?” scoffed Tara “Is that bad? I always thought that the whole point was to finish and that is what felt good.”

“No no no sweetie. The entire experience is good…with the right person, that is. How long do you envision sex lasting?”

“Ummm…I don’t know…five, ten minutes.”

“Sweaty, if it’s only that long. The man needs to die for the sake of all other women. My last time was a little under an hour.”

“Really? Wow.”

“Yup, about average.”

“Hmm, have you ‘you know’ with Lock?”

“No…but I know you’d like to,” teased Pearl at Tara nudging her in the stomach with her fingertips.

“Anyway, I should probably get to bed,” said Tara as she got up.

“Goodnight, thanks for the company Tara. Oh! Can you do me a favor?”

“I won’t tell anyone your fun to hang around. You’re a tough soldier chick, right?”

“Thanks,” said Pearl smiling at Tara as she walked back to the women’s dormitory.

Lock got up first, the sun wouldn’t be up for another hour but he wanted to get moving; his brain always woke him up when it was almost time to go, no matter what the time, his body was very in tune with its needs; a killers instinct. He crawled out of bed and rose to his feet looking over at Alex as he yawned. So beautiful, he thought as she laid there breathing calmly with her hands cradled under her cheek, I’m sorry Alex, I like you too much to bed you.

He put on the clothes he obtained the night before; a sleeveless black shirt, faded jeans with his daggers attached and a brand new pair of black military boots. He tied his Returner’s bandana to his head and walked over to Alex’s bed and sat down near her and began rubbing her arm.

“Alex,” he whispered, “Time to get up.”

She rolled onto her back and stretched her arms and let out a big yawn,

“Change your mind?”

“Nope, we’re out the door in thirty. Get dressed, I’ll grab some food.”

Lock got up and left the room stealthily.

After retrieving some scrambled egg sandwiches and a big cup of coffee, Lock returned to the room to find Alex ready to go and smoking a cigarette.

“Ya know, this dress makes it impossible to fight three guys at once.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said handing Alex a sandwich and a cup with steam rising from within. “They’ll be frozen in awe.”

Alex chuckled as she chewed her sandwich. She took a drink of the coffee and handed it to Lock.

“No thanks, I had mine while they made the eggs,” said Lock as he ate his sandwich.

“No, I mean get rid of it. It’s intolerable.”

“Yeah, the coffee here’s pretty bad. But the eggs are good.”

They both chewed as Alex nodded her head in agreement, “Here here.” Lock took the last bite of his and went to the side of the bed to retrieve his Damascus. Alex took her last bite and closed her eyes before taking another drink of the sewage tasting coffee.

“So,” said Lock, “What is that thing we rode in on?”

“My ride? It’s called a ‘ground rocket’, the S250.”

“Rocket?”

“A long time ago there were these cone-shaped vehicles called rockets; they were very fast. That’s where we got the name.”

“Interesting.”

“Yeah, I’m the only one that can operate it, kinda cool huh?”

“Yeah, ready?”

“Yup, man the rockets gonna feel good in this dress.”

“That’s gross Alex,” laughed Lock at her crudeness.

“Wouldn’t be thinking that way if you-“

“Let’s go,” said Lock as he walked through the door, “Hey, Aren’t you gonna take that night gown?”

She looked at it and shrugged.

“Doesn’t seem to work very well,” smiled Alex devilishly as she grabbed her dragon blade and followed Lock’s lead.

Once they got back to the metal shop where the S250 was being stored, Lock said his goodbyes and Milton raised the gate and they were off. As they raced across the plains Lock did the math in his head; he figured they’d be there a little after sundown, maybe. Lock’s brain was hard at work trying to find a believable lie about Alex; she’s pretty and can fight better than almost anyone Lock has ever battled. Hmm, blacksmith? No. Uhh, waitress? No. Dammit! This iron horse sure is- Wait! Horse trainer! That would explain her agility. And…her father was a …knight for the Velxeer army. Aces!

“Tara?” sung Ruthie to wake her up.

“Oh, hey Ruthie,” yawned Tara as she rubber her eyes.

“Thanks for the blanky.”

“Sure, how is Clyde?”

“He’s tough, wants to get up and walk today, but doc won’t allow it.”

“Oh. But how are you?”

“I’m fine, really,” assured Ruthie in her usual bubbly tone.

“You seem a little more like yourself this morning. Thanks for not being naked when I woke up.”

“No problemo, Ter. Come on, breakfast.”

Tara laid in bed for a few more minutes before getting up and seeing that on the floor next to her bed was her green tank top and white flowing skirt with a bamboo pattern along the bottom.

“Yesss! Girl clothes at last. All clean too,” she yelled out in excitement without disregard for other people in her vicinity.

She turned her head and a few of the young girls were staring at her. Tara cleared her throat, grabbed her clothes, and made her way to the bathroom to change, not forgetting to lock the door from inside.

After getting dressed, Tara went down the hall towards the dining room; as she passed the infirmary door she heard acts of violence.

“You son of a bitch! I want to eat with everyone else and eat what they’re eating!” screamed Clyde throwing objects across the room; most likely at the doc.

“Listen to me! You need vitamins, rest and proper nourishment, that means four pills twice a day, stay in that bed for six more days, and eat fruit and vegetables four times a day. That adds up to-“

“Eighteen shit head!”

“Wrong! Staying in this room and doing what I damn well tell you until I tell you not do what I tell you to do.”

Clyde stopped screaming and tried desperately to dissect what the hell Doc was saying.

“Besides,” continued the Doc, “There having chili for breakfast. That, my friend, is a step in the wrong direction for you.”

“Shiiiiit! They’re having chili today? I loooove chili! You had to tell me didn’t you, you sick son of a bitch! Chili? Oh man!”

“Yes I did. Should have been nice, Clarence.”

“Hey! Stop that shit: it’s Clyde. You want nice? Come over here within arm’s length.”

Tara couldn’t help but laugh; four bullets were pulled from the inside of his body and the lack of chili upsets him.

Once again, Tara found her way over to her usual table with Ruthie, Pearl, and Ray where her chili awaited; red and chunky with beans, onions, and meat protruding out of it. Just the steam going into Tara’s nostrils was spicy; she knew it was going to be good; she always liked spicy food, even when she was little. She sat next to Ruthie, as usual.

“Eating out here today?” asked Tara.

“Couldn’t listen to all the yelling any longer,” replied Ruthie.

Pearl smiled at Tara when their eyes met.

“Any news on Lock?” asked Tara directed at Pearl.

“No, nothing I’m afraid.”

“Don’t worry,” said Ray, “He’ll be okay, he always is.”

“Until he isn’t,” sulked Tara.

Ray gave her a confused look for a few moments.

“Are you guys doing each other or something?”

“That’s charming, Ray!” said Pearl sarcastically, “Doing? Why not just say ‘screw’?”

“Cuz, we’re at the breakfast table and I have class.”

“Really? Well, I think it fell out of your pocket when you were a teenager.”

“Enough!” yelled Smith who was at the next table, “Criminy, why don’t you two get married already?”

Pearl and Ray looked at each other and scoffed like Smith had lost his mind to imply something so hideous.

“I only date women,” said Ray.

“Look,” began Smith trying to calm the air, “I got a message this morning; Lock is on his way home with someone he rescued from the Empire and more importantly information on the Empire’s plans and statistics on how many soldiers are in Pan’dier, so we can take back the town and that will be one less piece of land the imperials occupy.”

Tara let out a sigh of relief.

“Oh, and Tara? More training today. Don’t worry, firearm training and Ruthie’s going to show you some hand to hand combat moves. Bullets don’t last forever, you know.”

“Right,” answered Tara then went back to her chili and out of the corner of her eye she saw the black German shepherd eating a bowl of chili on the floor as well.

“His name is Hans,” said Ruthie about the dog.

After breakfast Ruthie went to visit Clyde while Tara and Ray sat quietly waiting for Ruthie to return to take Tara to the training room.

“Whatever,” said Ray out of nowhere, “Me and Pearl? Smith ain’t all there.”

“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?” said Tara.

“What? Please.”

Tara smiled at Ray as she winked.

“So, what’s with that thing on your arm?”

“It’s an arrow turret. It holds eight mini arrows at a time, when I fire one the whole device rotates so the next on is just above my knuckles.”

“Neat.”

“Ray,” yelled Pearl from the doorway into the Returner’s private rooms.

“Yeah?” he inquired turning towards her still insulted by earlier comments.

“Come on, we gotta study the floor plans for the next mission.”

Clyde got up and followed Pearl down the hallway. Tara sat patiently for several minutes until Ruthie returned.

Then, they went to the training room where five of the young workers were setting up bull’s-eye targets for target practice. Tara took a series of shots from different distances; it turns out that she is a natural, landing several bull’s eyes and the rest inside the middle rings.

“Okay, Ter. First thing I’m going to show you is a sleeper hold,” said Ruthie walking behind Tara, “No matter how big your opponent is, this will incapacitate him.”

Ruthie got behind Tara and put her forearm across Tara’s throat and put her hand on her left bicep for leverage.

“Feel the pressure?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Okay, next is a move that will by you some time.”

Ruthie released her hold on her and got in front of Tara.

“Okay, you want to close your fingers half way and bend your knuckles back so they are almost touching the top of your wrist. Then, you want to punch using the bottom of your wrist right into the space just below their nostrils; where the nose meets the upper lip. This will push their nasal cavity up into their brain.”

Ruthie took Tara’s hand and formed it like hers.

“Okay, like that.”

Then Ruthie placed the bottom of Tara’s wrist in the area below her nose.

“Good. And you can always just chop your hand into the spot where the chest meets the throat. That’s always a crowd pleaser. They’ll be on the floor fighting to breath for a few minutes.”

“Hmm, good to know.”

Ruthie sat down on the floor, as did Tara.

“Did good today, Ter. So, when Lock gets back you’re not gonna do anything foolish, are ya?”

“Define foolish,” asked Tara half smiling.

“Kiss him…in his bed…while you’re both naked…”

“No, of course not.”

“But you want to, right?”

“Oh yes,” blushed Tara, “Very much, but I want him to make the first move.”

“Why? Guys like it when you make the first move, it turns them on.”

“So I’ve heard. I just get mixed signals from him and my biggest fear is him pushing me away.”

“Yeah, I gotcha. Rejection is never fun.”

“When do you think he’ll get back?”

“By morning maybe, if he stops in a town to rest.”

It was a few hours past sundown when Lock and Alex reached the wall of separation.

“So, what’s the plan? Am I your long lost love that you couldn’t leave in Pan’dier, so you decided to rescue me and bring me home with you?”

“Nothing that complex…or far-fetched. You’re a horse trainer that was born and raised in Pan’dier. Your father was a high level soldier in the Velxeer military; that’s where your fighting skills come from. And no spells and I mean it, Alex.”

“Okay okay, Dad.”

“Okay then,” said Lock as he leaned against the countrywide wall and pulled a glass flask from his jacket filled with a light brown liquid. Alex looked around in confusion, then looked to Lock for answers.

“So… what are we doing?”

Lock twisted off the cap and took a swig,

“We’re waiting till after ‘lights out’ before we enter.”

“Oh, I get it,” said Alex as she pulled out two rolled cigarettes, “Smoke?”

“It’s been a while,” said Lock with a long pause, “Sure, why not?”

“I can’t think of a reason,” said Alex as she handed Lock the cigarette.

Lock and Alex spent the next two hours sipping the whiskey and smoking cigarettes as they swapped stories of battles and more importantly the days before war when their lives were innocent and full of hope. Alex regaled him with her travels of the western continent, telling him of the large hand holding a torch that stuck out of the ocean along the northern coast. Lock, who had not changed his position from the wall since they had arrived, finally removed himself.

“Okay, let’s go in. Silence till I say otherwise.”

“Okay,” responded Alex.

The exchange of past experiences changed her feelings of him and made them more like friends than like an excuse to survive. She understood him more than most people could; they had similar lives. Their lives consisted of heartbreak, death, and utter disappointment.

Lock opened the door to the long dark corridor leading to the Returners hideout while he thought, Is it crazy I’m bringing her here? For some reason he trusted her though he didn’t know why. Lock made sure he was at least one step in front of Alex; he didn’t want anyone to see her yet. When they made it to the main dining area Lock peaked his head from the corridor and looked left; nobody. Lock looked to the right; the doorman was asleep with Hans resting his head on his lap.

“Okay,” whispered Lock, “Let’s go.”

“Why are we whispering?” asked Alex.

“Quiet!” Lock took Alex’s hand and pulled her through the door marked ‘Returners’ and into his private room.

“I’ll be right back, don’t leave this room.”

Lock left her standing there in the center of his room; she saw his private sink, big bed with one leg shorter than the rest, vials and herbs on the shelves above his dresser, and a wooden upright chair with limited padded. The door slowly crept open as Alex clutched her dragon blade; Lock entered and quietly closed the door and latched its lock.

“Okay,” said Lock with arms full of squeeze tubes and small boxes with various items protruding out of them and a duffel bag hanging over his shoulder that was undoubtedly filled with clothes, “It’s time for a change.”

“Sick of the dress already?”

“That was in case someone was awake when we arrived. Now, we change everything else about you.”

Alex narrowed her eyes in hostile anticipation.

“Like what?”

“Eye color for starters. Not many people have two different colored eyes. Kind of distinguishing,”

“That’s true, I suppose,” she said modestly.

“And of course-“

“No! Not my hair! I love my hair! Don’t even think about it you sick man!”

“Sorry, Alex. We need to cut and color it. Sit,” said Lock as he pointed to the wooden chair as he sat on the bed.

Alex pouted for a few seconds then grabbed the wooden chair and pulled it up to the bed and sat with her back to Lock. Lock sat the boxes next to him on the bed and removed a pair of stainless steel grooming scissor from one of the boxes.

Alex could feel Lock hovering behind her as he took sections of her hair in his hand as he cut it shorter and shorter. She couldn’t see what she was losing but felt the long strands fall along her arm to the floor, as her head seemed lighter. She cringed with each click of the scissors as they closed. After several minutes Lock exhaled a sigh of relief.

“Okay, short and acceptable.”

Alex closed her eyes in anticipation and ran her fingers through it; it was even shorter than she thought. Her hair went from a long beautiful golden blonde to short hair on the top and sides that barely reached her ears.

“Oh god! This is awful. What did you do to me? I look like a boy, don’t I?” screamed Alex.

“Shhhh! It will grow back one day.”

“Fine! What’s next?”

“Time to color.”

“Okay, just not brown, it’s so dull…no offense.”

Lock couldn’t see her face, but felt her smiling. Lock brushed the loose hairs from her shoulders and ran his fingers through the back of her hair looking for strays; she let out a small breath of happiness.

“Okay, lean your head back,” said Lock as he gripped a squeeze tube of dark red ooze peeking out of the nozzle.

She leaned her head back and looked at Lock as he brushed her bangs back so he had access to the roots. She felt Lock’s strong hands glide across her soft face. He began squeezing the thick liquid onto her scalp line. He felt her looking at him and shifted his eyes to look at her; she was staring into his eyes. I’m gonna miss those eyes, he thought.

“Where did you learn to do all this?” she asked in a desperate attempt to break the awkward silence while they looked at each other.

“I…looked after a little girl a long time ago and was kind of her father figure, so I had to learn these things,” he said not wanting to divulge too much.

He rubbed the ooze into her hair, massaging it so it was all evenly colored.

“Okay, just let it sit a few minutes… unless you want pink hair. Hmm, that actually suits you, Alex.”

“What? You’re crazy!” she laughed.

“While your heads back,” started Lock as he reached into another box to retrieve a tiny eyedropper, “Here, squeeze a drop into each eye.”

Alex took the eyedropper and did as he said. Within seconds of squeezing the liquid into her eyes they changed from blue and green to both becoming hazel.

“Well,” asked Alex.

“Looks good,” smiled Lock, “Okay, let’s rinse.”

Alex stood up and followed Lock to the sink as he turned the knobs and checked the temperature.

“Okay, dunk.”

Alex did as Lock said and the as the water fell against her hair the thick red dye looked like blood twirling down the drain. Lock held his left hand on her back while he helped rub the dye out with his right until the water went clear.

“It’s out,” said Lock as Alex stood and he handed her a towel. She took the towel and began drying her short red hair.

“Got a mirror?” said the muffled voice from inside the towel.

Lock opened one of the drawers to his dresser and pulled out a saucer-sized mirror for her to look at herself with. Alex took the mirror and gazed into it.

“Not bad, but I still like the blonde better.”

“Me to.”

She lowered the mirror and looked at Lock and they shared a quiet content look with each other.

“Ahem,” said Lock coming out of his trance, “got you some clothes too.”

“Lock?”

“Yeah?” said Lock not looking away from the duffel bag he was now immersed in.

“Come here, I’m not very good at this.”

Lock snapped his head up and walked over to Alex until they were directly in front of one another.

“Good at what?”

“Appreciation. I want to thank you for saving my life and getting me out of that place,” said Alex as she put her palms on Lock’s chest.

“You’re an amazing man and I’m sorry for trying to treat you like an object last night, I just needed a stress reliever. I hope you can forgive me.”

Lock smiled as he looked into her eyes.

“Of course.”

“Good, and I will do anything I can to help your group stop the empire from hurting anymore people.”

“Thank you Alex, it’s late, you can tell me all you know about the empire tomorrow. The bag has night clothes and day clothes for you, you can change in the bathroom in the women’s room.”

“Thank you.” Alex leaned into Lock and gave him a light nonsexual peck on the lips then smiled and walked to his bed to retrieve the duffel bag.

KNOCK! KNOCK! They heard a banging at Lock’s door.

“Lock, are you back?” yelled Pearl from behind the door.

“I gotta get that,” said Lock swallowing hard and walking to the door to allow the visitor entry while Alex stood there nervous for who this might be and whether they would somehow know who she is.

Lock opened the door to see Pearl standing there in her long white T-shirt that stretched all the way down to her knees, the same shirt she always wore to bed.

“You are!” yelled Pearl as she gave Lock a big hug.

“Yup,” he said hugging her back.

Pearl peeked into Lock’s room where Alex was standing with the duffel bag over her shoulder, then looked back at Lock and grinned like she knew what was going on in the moments prior to her intrusion.

“This is Alex; she’s from Pan’dier.”

“I’m a horse trainer,” said Alex nervously and abruptly.

Lock sighed.

“She was a prisoner of the empire, she has some information that could be useful to us.”

“Really?” said Pearl, “Like what?”

Lock froze and realized that she didn’t actually tell him anything yet.

“It’s late; we’ll all go over it tomorrow.”

“Sounds good.”

“I was just about to show her to the dorm,” he said looking back at Alex.

“Really?” scoffed Pearl, “For a minute I thought this was it.”

Pearl winked and turned to head back to her room, which was across and to the right from Lock’s room.

“Night Lock. Nice to meet you Alex.”

Lock hung his head in shame.

“How long do you think she was listening?” asked Alex.

After grabbing her duffel and her dragon blade she followed Lock to the women’s dorm. After getting changed in the bathroom while Lock waited, she emerged in Speedo-styled panties and a blue half shirt barely covering the bottom of her breasts. Lock was confused.

“I had to cut the shirt, I get very hot at night,” said Alex nonchalantly.

Lock led her to where Ruthie and Tara were fast asleep.

“Okay,” he whispered, “You’re sleeping here above Tara.”

Alex draped the duffel bag over one of the posts and climbed the small steel ladder leading to the top bunk, never releasing her sword as she slept; it was her answer to a teddy bear.

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