Darkness surrounded Alice. But that was okay. The petit hare had been spending a lot of time in darkness really. Yet compared with the almost interminable boredom of being confined to her room with nothing to do but try to sleep, never mind trying to do the same in the damnable hospital bed, this was the closest to heaven she could feel right now. Even with the odd twinge of pain in her abdomen each time she leaned around a corner, or dashed to the next bit of cover. To say nothing about the aching in her legs. Both things she was pushing down on, choosing to focus on the weapon in her hand.
She was going to need that soon enough. She had only been here five minutes that felt like hours, and yet she hadn't seen the first sign of her enemy yet. Each time she had rounded a corner or popped her head up to take in her surroundings, her pistol had been ready, locked, cocked and very much loaded.
Yet, she couldn't deny she was nervous. Not nervous about what she might encounter, but how she might react. While she hadn't mentioned this to Hiromi, or Mellissa or even her doctors, she was afraid that her wounds might have affected her reflexes or confidence. She had heard many stories about soldiers suffering from that affliction that terrified her more than being wounded.
As often happens in times like this, often the thing you are waiting for comes along just when you need it. And now was no exception as Alice slipped around the low corner, being given barely a seconds warning to react to the figure that emerged from the shadows.
Instinct took over and before Alice had even thought about bringing her gun to bear, she had raised, aimed and shot all in one smooth movement, dropping her target a second later.
Well, she would have done had it been a person. Instead all she did was punch a hole through the paper target. Maybe not as satisfying as the real thing, but it brought with it a feeling of relief. One that Alice had to stop from growing into overconfidence as she moved through the rest of the shooting range with the same ease, taking down target after target until she came to the last one, the lights coming back up at that exact moment.
'What do you say we take this up a notch?' Alice called out, fighting the urge to wipe a paw over her face.
'What do you say we don't.' Mellissa called back from the booth where the tigress had been watching the whole thing, not to mention controlling the targets. 'Seriously, light exercise the doctor said. Not burning yourself out. You just recovered from a serious wound remember. Can't just come back from that in one day.'
'Hasn't exactly been one day. It's been a week since I was discharged.' Alice paused from reloading her gun, a sign that she was going to try to push the issue, one that Mellissa couldn't help but notice.
'Exactly. Discharged for bed rest.' Mellissa chided steadily, not surprised by her reaction. She was surprised by how casually she was talking to Alice and rebuking her. 'This is the first time you've been on your feet in a while. Don't want to pull those stitches out.'
'I'm not an invalid.' Mellissa detected the first real hint of frustration in Alice's voice. One that she could sympathise with. She would likely be feeling the same in her shoes. On the other hand, if the positions were reversed, Alice would be saying the same thing.
'No one said you were.' Mellissa soothed, deciding not to make that point. 'Seriously, I just want you to take care of yourself. You once gave me some advice about not going too fast. Was pretty good advice, both then and now.'
'I know.' Alice clacked the magazine of her gun closed, chambering a round almost instinctively. 'I just..left you guys for so long. This was supposed to be my command. And so far I haven't done much commanding.'
'Wasn't exactly much to command.' Arty joined in at that moment, his black fur and white hair making him look in many ways the mirror image of Mellisa, despite the different uniforms they wore. 'Not with us, anyway. And you had a mission to do. Can't blame yourself for that.'
'So you say.' Alice said with a sigh. 'I just..it feels so stupid, getting hurt like this. Doing something so simple.'
'I don't think there is anything so simple about it.' Arty said. 'I know there are some things about this that you can't tell us. That's the way it goes sometimes. Of course it does. It's part of the business. But that wound..that wasn't from someone attacking you with a salad fork. Do you know how many knife wounds I've seen in my time?'
'How many?' Alice asked guardedly.
'No idea.' Arty shrugged. 'But I know a serious knife wound when I see it. More over, I know a knife wound from a military knife when I see it. Now, I know you can't tell us or answer this question. But I also know that someone attacked you, another soldier attacked you.
'Yeah. Your right.' Alice nodded, leaving it open to interpretation exactly which question she was answering. 'Okay. Run it again.'
'I have to admit, it does feel good to be doing something again.' Alice dropped down to the bench in the locker room, taking a long pull of her bottle of water as she ran a paw through her bedraggled brown hair. Something she still managed to do despite the stab of discomfort that lanced along her stomach, nothing more than a twinge that she had gotten used to by now. 'Certainly beats sitting around doing nothing.'
'You've been doing more than most of us.' Arty reminded slowly. 'At least you got to go out into the field. Research and intel gathering is all we have been able to do.'
'I certainly can understand the need to get out there and do something.' Alice replied. 'And we will. We will get our chance. So, how has the search been going?'
'The house search?' Mellissa asked with a sigh that really told its own story.
'That well, huh?' Alice responded with a grin of her own.
'Well, it's not like we seen dozens of houses.' Mellissa said. 'Only the one. But, well, it wasn't what you would call a success really. Living with two owls and a bat would be a little lonely. Given they work nights and we would work days. So we wouldn't really see each other.'
'Sounds like you aren't just looking for a place to live.' Alice said pointedly.
'Well, we both already have that.' Mellissa shared a glance with Arty.
'We want somewhere that's a home. Or could become a home.' Arty finished.
'Well, these things take time. Plenty more places to look at out there.' Alice grinned.
'Anyway, I'm more thinking about tonight.' Arty grinned. 'Your still coming, Alice? I'd hope so. It's gonna be the first time we get to do something as a group.'
'The chance to kick back, take in a few drinks and just unwind?' Alice's grin grew. 'Couldn't keep me away.'
'The MD's aren't gonna like that.' Mellissa chimed in.
'Let me worry about that.' Alice said. 'I'm supposed to be the worrier around here. Besides, the MD's discharged me. So I can do what I like.'
Hiromi's paw hovered over the video file she had called up on her computer a good five minutes ago. Five long minutes she had spent simply staring at it. Oh, she meant to open it. She had been telling herself she was going to do so. Yet, something kept holding her back. Some deep, nagging, icy fear that she couldn't put her finger on.
It wasn't like she didn't keep replaying what she was going to see in her head anytime her attention wandered. Yet, maybe that was the problem. This wouldn't be in her head. This would be here, now, immediate. And she feared that she wouldn't be able to push it away this time.
Yes, that was her fear. That it would be like reliving it, not just replaying it. And that just might be like sticking a knife into an nearly closed wound and twisting it. Some of the details of her recollection had started to fade. Yet some were so clear it was almost like they were etched in her mind.
Closing her eyes now, she could see the meeting room, the bland colours on the wall, the pot of coffee and the blue mugs in the middle of the table, some already set before the officers that sat around her, some full, some half empty. Yet she couldn't hear, no more accurately couldn't remember what had been said.
Yet she could see Hannah as clear as day, her friends mottled fur shining as it always did, her face holding that same natural smile it always did as she stood for the last time. It was the expression on her face that haunted Hiromi. No pain, no sadness, no fear. No sign that she knew what was going to happen. Except for the fact that she stood, slowly, awkwardly, like she wasn't in control of her own actions.
Hiromi might have said something, she couldn't remember. Hannah certainly didn't, just smiling as her body began to glow, that radiance that could almost have been called beautiful spreading through her. Beautiful if she didn't know what it meant.
Nobody moved. She remembered that well enough. Not until the explosion ripped through the room, the wash of power and pressure knocking Hiromi flying. She might have landed on someone, or something. She had a distant memory of pain lancing through her back. But even then it hadn't really registered, her shock somehow numbing her mind as she made it back to her feet to look for her friend. Idly as it had turned out.
For there had been nothing to see. Not even anything to show the trace of a conventional explosive. No burns, no scorching. Just a pile of kindling that had been the table, fragments of paper still falling like mocking snow flakes to mix with the dust from the ceiling. Worries about its collapse, imminent or not, had been furthest from her mind. She had to find Hannah, her mind clinging to the thought that she was under the remains of the table and she had to find her, to save her. Then a hand rested on her shoulder. A hand that it took all of two seconds to realise wasn't in her memories, but here and now.
'You don't need to see that.' Natsuki's paw rested on hers, guiding it away from the mouse. 'Not yet. Don't even try.'
'I'm perfectly fine.' Hiromi didn't turn, her voice stubbornly kept even against the tears welling in her eyes. 'It's just a video.'
'Yes. Of her death.' Hiromi almost flinched at that, her control pushed to its limits. Not the use of the word death. But of her. 'I'm just not sure the time is right. Besides, you haven't even been to see her family yet.'
To see her family. Just those four words gripped at Hiromi's heart like an icy fist. How could she. In her mind, doing that would be the same as..as seeing her body. Seeing the last physical reminder of someone she could never see or hear or touch again; could never talk with again. It was just too painful to even think about. 'They don't want to see me.' Hiromi replied. 'What can I do anyway? Except remind them I couldn't save their daughter.'
'Do you really think anyone could?' Natsuki asked. 'Can you really tell me one thing you could have done to prevent this?'
'I could have tried.' Hiromi almost snapped. 'I could have been there, done something to stop her doing this. I should have seen the signs in her, should have seen something that..'
'That what?' Natsuki asked. 'That she decided one day to become a suicide bomber? She was no extremist. You know that.'
'I don't know what I know anymore.' Hiromi said. 'And it doesn't change the fact that she..is gone. And I just have to accept that.'
Hiromi hated lying. Especially to her oldest friend. She knew she wasn't accepting it, that it was easier to bury it. It was just easier. That was the truth of it. If she buried it, that meant she didn't have to deal with it. Not yet. Not really deal with it. She would at some point. Just..not yet. 'What reports do we have coming in from the field? Any updates from the 43rd Parallel Force?'
'Nothing substantial.' Natsuki answered in that voice of hers that she used when a discussion had been tabled, not dropped forever. For now, that had to be good enough.
Mellissa hadn't known exactly what to expect before she arrived at the Hooded Hare. And standing here underneath the creaking wooden sign, she still didn't really. Okay, it looked nice enough. As much as she knew about these things anyway. Still, she wasn't going to find out much about it standing around out here.
'Looks good. Shall we see what it's like inside?'
'Took the words out of my mouth.' Mellissa replied to Arty's suggestion, laughing at the time of it in a private joke. 'The others should be inside by now. Guess it would be rude to keep them waiting, wouldn't it?'
'Sure would.' Arty grasped the handle, holding the door open for his companion. 'After you, my lady.'
'Why, thank you.' Mellissa said, slipping in past a striking fire squirrel snuggled in the arms of a gorgeous green haired vixen, both of them very much lost in each other's company as the made their way out.
But Mellissa was not really paying them any attention. No, it was her surroundings that had easily managed to do that. It was like something out of another age, all dark wood and natural light, aided by the roaring fire in the huge hearth on the far wall.
'They certainly don't have anything like this back home.' Mellissa agreed. Not surprising really. Not for a city that wasn't on a war footing. Things back home tended to be more utilitarian, more military. Not at all like the warm, open and distinctly homely atmosphere she had felt the second she walked through the door.
'Well, that's really a shame. You must have come from a long way away.'
'You could say that.' Mellissa turned her attention to the coyote behind the bar. 'Very nice place you have here.'
'I'd like to think so.' She continued. 'Nice to see a couple of new faces around here. I'm Daria by the way.'
'Mellissa. And this is Arty.' Mellissa replied for both of them, slipping through the crowd and closer to the bar. 'I'm betting you don't see that many new faces.'
'Not so much these days.' Daria smiled. 'But that's okay. Makes those I do see all the more welcome. Now, let's see..something for the newcomers to drink.'
Mellissa must have looked nervous or something because Daria broke into a soft, melodic laugh. 'We aren't that kinda place. I don't get my customers blind drunk. Not even the new ones. I like to avoid trouble here. And I have the perfect drink for you. Give me one minute.'
'I'm not seeing any of the others here.' Arty chimed in. 'But with this crowd, we could easily miss them.'
'People don't usually miss us.' A voice behind them rumbled. 'Unless we really want them too.'
'And this time we didn't.' Drake grinned, taking one long pull to drain his almost empty glass. 'Nice to see you guys made it. And you met Daria. Has she gone to get you a drink?'
'Hey. Are you insulting my hospitality?' Daria chuckled. 'When I said I wanted to avoid trouble, I was talking about these two.'
'Oh please. We never give you trouble. Unless it's the kind you like.' Fireheart grinned. 'Besides, if you chuck us out, who is going to bring you those supplies of Blueflame Dew you like so much.'
That was one of those brief intimate moments of conversation that had Mellissa feeling adrift, something she would have been able to do back home. Something she also hoped she felt at home enough here one day to be able to do that herself. With an effort she turned her attention back the conversation, just in time to see Daria slide two glasses of pale amber liquid along the bar.
'Now that is the best ale in the city. Brewed right here by my own two hands. And if you find better, I'll eat my own hops.' Daria said proudly.
'Anyway.' Drake draped an arm around around both their shoulders. 'Let's not distract Daria. She does have a business to run after all. Besides, we don't want to keep the others waiting.'
'Are they here yet?' Arty asked.
'Not yet. Im sure it won't be long.' Drake said. 'Until then, we are wasting good drinking time.'
'I'm not exactly sure I can put it away like you two.' Mellissa grinned. 'I hear that Dragons can drink more than twenty times what other species can.'
'Nonsense.' Fireheart grabbed a table at the rear of the bar, the solid oak chair creaking under his solid scales. 'It's thirty times. But just because we can, doesn't mean we have too.'
'You guys do come here often though.' Arty asked.
'As often as we can. Not many soldiers do. They prefer the more modern pubs rather than quant taverns like this. This place is very much us.'
'And you never told me about it before?' Kuom broke through the crowd, her claws closed around a large tankard.
'We did now didn't we?' Drake replied. 'Means we trust you. All of you. Since we are a team now.'
'Yeah, I guess we are.' Kuom took a seat, followed closely by Ilya who had, Mellissa found out later, had been getting a cocktail mixed for herself. 'No matter where we came from. We all want this to be our home.'
'I'm not sure it's ever going to be home.' Mellissa said. 'I don't mean that to be a downer. And it's not. It's just..I have a home. I might have been banished to all intents but it's still my home. Here though, it has become homelike. And that's good enough. Once we actually find an apartment.'
'You are going ahead with looking for one?' Ilya asked, directing that question more towards Arty than Mellissa. 'Your deployment got extended then?'
'Indefinitely.' Arty answered. 'My government is as concerned as yours about current events. That and wanting to strengthen ties between us. Not that I'm exactly a political appointment. There will be plenty of those I'm sure. I'm just a soldier following orders. Not that I'm complaining about these ones.'
'Well, your people certainly have the best intelligence services.' Ilya added. 'Most of the communiques I receive come from your relay posts.'
'Well, we are always happy to share our intelligence. And to get some in return of course.' Arty laughed. 'But this is supposed to be an evening off.'
'Too right.' Alice pulled up a chair and took a long pull of her ale. 'Took me ages to get here and it's been even longer since I had a drink stronger than coffee. And I don't intend to waste any of it. So, who wants a game of darts?'
'Of what now?' Mellissa asked, hoping she didn't sound foolish by asking it. Not that could sound much more naive than she felt right now.
'Darts.' Alice continued. 'You get these little..well..darts and you..come on. I'll show you.'
Intrigued, Mellissa followed her as she stood, the pair making their way towards a small circular board affix to the back wall. It was her lead she followed as Alice handed tiny metal tipped lengths of molded plastic that she could only guess were darts.
'So..it's a shooting game?' Mellissa guessed as she felt the weight of them in her paw.
'Exactly.' Alice took a sip of her drink. 'There is a very complicated set of rules. But I like to play three shots high.'
'I see.' Mellissa eyed the board. 'Three shots and the highest combined score wins right? Which is why the centre one is so small? I'm guessing that is the highest score.'
'Got it in one.' Alice said. 'But don't worry about winning. Just give it a go, keep a relaxed wrist and you'll do fine.'
'Maybe I should have spent more time practicing with knife throwing in basic training.' Mellissa laughed.
'That's a technique I never thought of.' That voice came from a female skunk with purple dyed fur leaning casually at the end of the bar, one who's face was lit up by a warm smile. 'Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt. Was just wondering if you had room for another over there. It's a bit of a cheek, I know. But right now I've really got a hankering for a little dart action.'
'It's alright by me.' Mellissa smiled. 'If Alice doesn't mind.'
'The more the merrier.' Alice said brightly.
'Guess that's settled.' Mellissa extended her paw. 'I'm Mellissa.'
'Monique.' The skunk replied. 'Nice to meet you both.'
'Same.' Mellissa laughed. 'Might be good to have someone else here to distract from my terrible efforts.'
'Or I could teach you.' Monique winked. 'I'm a great teacher.'
'Taught a lot of people?' Mellissa asked.
'One or two.' Monique replied. 'Now, it's easy enough. You don't mind if I go first?'
'That's one way to give me a few pointers.' Mellissa waved her paw towards the board.
'Now, all you have to do is keep a loose wrist, relax and throw.' Monique put action to words, her dart sailing easily to strike the twenty around the edge, followed closely by two more
'As she said.' Alice replied took her place, almost mirroring her pose and action. 'Me, I prefer a bit more power in my shot. Have to find what works for you.'
'Right.' It did certainly seem to work for her, the three darts striking a ten followed by two fives, each landing with a solid thunk. 'Okay. I'll give it a try.'
Now it was Mellissa's turn to put action to words as she moved to line up with the board, doing the same with her first dart. Even if her first shot went a little wide, striking the two near the top rather than the 10 she had been aiming at.
'Well, that wasn't so bad..right?' Mellissa asked.
'Not bad at all.' Monique stepped up to her side. 'Just relax a little more. Stand side on. There you go. Legs a little wider apart.'
Mellissa couldn't help notice that Monique was standing much closer to her now, one paw resting on her hip as the other helped raise Mellissa paw to line it up with the board. She didn't exactly know what to make of that exactly, but it did make her feel hot inside. She didn't understand that either but she liked it. Luckily she had the game to concentrate on. 'Like this?'
'Atta girl. Now, throw it.' Monique said.
The game progressed with Mellissa managing to hold her own against the other two for a good half an hour or so. 'Well, I think I'm starting to get the hang of this.'
'Certainly are.' Monique said.
'Thanks to you. Another game?'
'I'd love too. Sadly, I have to dash. Early start tomorrow. But this was fun. Maybe I'll see you around and we can get another match in.' Monique shot her a grin before she sauntered away. 'Till next time, kitty.'
'You two seemed to be having fun.' Arty smiled.
'Sorry, guess I kinda neglected you.' Mellissa said slowly.
'Nah, it's cool. We were having fun over here too.' Arty smirked, that change in expression catching Mellissa's eye.
'What?' Mellissa asked carefully.
'She was flirting with you.' Arty's smirk turned into a full playful laugh.
'What?' Mellissa asked again, glancing the way Monique had left. That revelation did put her actions in a different light. Something she was glad she hadn't known at the time. It would have made it impossible to talk to her if she had. It was embarrassing enough to think about it now. And yet, secretly, it brought a warm glow to her chest.
'Can't be the first time.' Arty chuckled over his glass
'Actually, it kinda is.' With anyone else, Mellissa wouldn't have felt she could have said that, those words catching in her throat, held back by her own self consciousness. Something she had never had to worry about with Arty.
'Well, you should try it next time.' Arty smiled. 'She really seemed into you.'
'I'm not sure there will be a next time.' Mellissa replied, trying not to let the surge of sadness about that thought show on her face.
'Sure there will. Unless you aren't planning on coming back here.' Arty prompted.
That was left hanging as Alice, Koum and Ilya wandered over. 'What are we talking about?'
'Monique was hitting on Mellissa.' Arty chuckled softly.
'Arty!' Mellissa warned with a scowl.
'Noticed that too huh?' Alice flicked her a grin. 'She certainly was sweet on you.'
Was it only me that didn't notice that? Mellissa kept that question to herself. And luckily was saved from thinking about it any longer as Alice continued.
'So, no sweetheart back home then? No significant other to go back to?'
'Not really.' Mellissa shrugged. 'I never really had much time for that. Never really thought about it.'
'Why not?' Ilya leaned in curiously.
'It wasn't what my mother would have done. Career comes first she always said. Now, I'm starting to see what she said in a different light. Just because it worked for her, doesn't mean it works for me.'
'Reminds me of my older brother.' Fireheart rumbled as he drew up a chair, Drake aping that to turn it into a sevensome. 'He was like that too. Always wanted to be the best dragon he could be, proving himself at every turn. Not wanting to let anyone else in. He had to be the strongest, the fastest, the one who could stay in the air the longest. Someone turned up who had a hotter flame than him, he couldn't rest until he surpassed them. Yet, he missed out on a lot doing that.'
'Good thing too in a way.' Drake laughed. 'Could you really see him passing that onto his clutch? Uhuh. Bad idea. Not that my brother didn't have his share of faults. Chief amongst them being a fear of enclosed spaces. A claustrophobic dragon. Ridiculous right?'
'Could be worse.' Mellisa replied. 'Could have been afraid of heights.'
'Heh..that would have been funny.' Drake grinned.
'Especially since Dragon's have to fly to eat. And conceive.' Kuom added. 'Well, maybe not that funny. I just wish I had a funny sibling story to throw into the pile. But I'm an only child. A..rarity for Dragons. I didn't mind. But my parents, well, they were a little disappointed. I think they wanted a big brood to fuss over. So they kinda overcompensated with me. I became the brood they wanted. And the focus of everything they wanted. Pushed me to succeed I suppose. But for a while, I resented it.'
'Parents can be pushy.' Mellisa joined back in. 'I know that better than most. My mother is a perfect example of that. She always wanted me to be like her, to think like she thought and put our people first. Understandable maybe. She had made her career defending our people. And I want to do that too. But I see that we can do more. The time of us looking inward can't last. We have to look to wider problems. That's why I'm here. Selfish, isn't it?'
'I wouldn't exactly say selfish.' Ilya replied. 'Wouldn't say selfish at all really. It's a good thing you did. We all see it. Good deeds aren't always big ones. Sometimes it's the little ones. I've got two siblings myself. Adoptive really but I don't think of them that way. They are family. Simple as that.'
'Well, seems that Arty and I are the only ones without siblings here. Unless Alice wants to join the only child club.' Mellissa laughed.
'I'd love to.' Alice replied. 'But I've got an older brother. We aren't close, but there he is. We see each other maybe twice a year for the holidays. He works as an artist. Somewhere. We've never got on. And I don't think we will.'
'And on that, I think we could all do with another round. On me.'
Mellissa made good on that quickly, if awkwardly as she managed to make it to the bar with an armful of glasses, somehow crossing the distance without dropping anything.
'Well..there is a face I didn't expect to see.'
'I could say the same about you.' Mellissa turned to see the vixen standing behind her, multitude of tails flicking lightly. 'Sorry, that came out wrong. You just surprised me.'
'In a good way, I hope.' Samantha replied with a grin.
'Of course.' Mellissa said and meant it. It was funny but only after having met her once, she really did like her. 'After the past few days, seeing any familiar face is a good thing.'
'Rough few days? Searching for an apartment will do that too you.' Samantha replied.
'How did you know..' Mellissa trailed off.
'I know.' Samantha shrugged. 'I just get these hunches and I go with them. Sounds weird maybe, but..'
'Doesn't sound weird at all.' Mellissa replied. 'Don't suppose this clairvoyant talent has revealed any apartments looking for some lodgers?'
'I'm afraid not.' Samantha began. 'The notice board in my apartment block on the other hand does. I grabbed the card just in case. Call it another hunch. You might as well hang onto it. I can grab another if I need it.'
'Thanks.' Mellissa looked over the name and contact details. 'Things might be looking up.'
And To Hold is off, setting the scene for the more real life events I had in mind, hopefully with a little more planning and development this time as opposed to just making things up as I go and hoping they fit together. Or forcing them to do so. The latter of which I haven't done that much thank goodness. But this is going to be different. I've got the majority of the events and turning points planned out and it's all going to be smooth sailing.
For Melllisa and the others, not so much. There are going to be more than a few bumps along the way. I'm hoping you will stick with me through those. Thanks for reading. Comments and reviews are always appreciated. If you get the hankering for a little something written for yourself, then keep an eye out for my next batch of open commissions and request slots. Or you could check out my Patreon where I've expanded by first reward tier to offer access to some flash fictions I'm going to pen. You might even get to help choose the next one. So what are you waiting for? Get over there.
Now that the prologue is done, let's get into the thick of the action shall we? Things are going to happen pretty fast here, at least by my standards. I'm hoping to keep this story arc more on track and stay closer to the main thrust of the story I had in mind. Rather than wandering around loose threads that never seem to go anywhere. That's the plan anyway.
Also I want to give a massive shout out to Rondonu on FA for this amazing piece of cover art. We all look pretty nifty in out combat gear don't we. Do go and check out his profile.