First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
PLEASE NOTE: I WENT BACK TO THE END OF CHAPTER 21 AND AM REWRITING FROM THAT POINT.
Nikol swung the stick in anger, barely even caring if she hit something — a fountain, a statue, someone.
“Here.” Aran walked up from – she hadn’t been paying attention, how had he snuck up on her? That was ridiculous! She should know where everyone was all the time.
He scooped up a stick from the stack of them she’d been collecting to practice some minor Workings and put himself in a guard position. “When you’re getting a little burned out, I always found it was easier to practice against someone, instead of against thin air. Pretty sure you’re better at this than me, but let’s give it a try?”
She looked at him for a moment. “You’re offering to spar with me?”
“I’m offering to spar with you,” he agreed. “Or, we could say I’m asking you to spar with me, because I’m a farmboy who had to pick up a stick to survive and you’re a professional. Give it a try?” he repeated.
“You – you have a point.” She shifted her stance. “What did you normally fight with?”
“Anything that came to hand. Road-sign machete, usually.”
She narrowed her eyes, pictured the blade, and nodded. “Ready.”
It turned out he was pretty good at what he did. He wasn’t wrong in his assessment of himself – he was a farmboy, but that meant he had come with a good idea of how to handle bladed instruments. He used his shoulders and hips in a way she often had to struggle to get new recruits to learn, and his footwork was fast.
“How did someone ever manage to get you on the ground?” she panted, when he had knocked her stick out of her hands for the third time.
He smiled grimly. “You think I’m good? You should’ve seen the other guy. Lady. Slapped that thing out of my hand with the flat of her blade and didn’t even notice, knocked me onto the ground and then someone else gashed me with a spear and I was nearly drowning in mud. Then here I am a half out later and there’s the same lady, so what did I do? Tried to hamstring her.” He snorted. “Come on, you’re better than this is what I’m saying, and you know it. You know you can do more than this, you’re just lazing about.”
“I am not-” She shifted her stance and took a step forward. “Bring it, farmboy. Let me see what you’ve really got.”
Their sticks clattered and bounced against each other until she finally managed to disarm him. She scooped up her stick and grinned at him, feeling her heart pounding like it hadn’t in ages. “Again.”
“Come on, soldier girl, show me what you’ve got. You’re not tired already, are you? It’s only been-“
“Seriously.” Ford stalked up, thumping down a pile of books on the ground. “Seriously, I leave for five minutes-“
“It’s been more like twenty,” Aran offered, not looking at all ashamed. Nikol had lowered her stick to a waiting position, as if it was actually a blade.
“She is supposed to be recuperating. And you have her out here working up a sweat. She’s turning ashen!”
“I’m fine,” Nikol protested. “I’ve got to get my tone back.”
“You are not going to get it back by working yourself until you fall down! Now go shower and I’ll bring these books to your place. You are sitting and resting while we work on this. Go!”
Nikol put her stick down, then paused. “Why am I listening to you?”
“Because you saved my life and Aran doesn’t like bossing you around and someone has to. So it’s me. Go on, go on. Shower, both of you.”
“You know, if we both shower…” Aran sounded more nervous than suggestive. Nikol eyed him speculatively.
Ford either chose to misinterpret or just decided they must be lovers. “I’ll be at your place in an hour. I expect you to be clean and clothed by then.” She turned her back on them pointedly.
“Ma’am, yes ma’am. We’ll see you in an hour, ma’am.” Nikol saluted at Ford’s back and then turned towards her house. Her third step was a little stumbling, but she found Aran’s arm around her waist before she could grab for support anywhere.
“Come on,” he murmured, “ma’am. It’s time to follow our orders. And since you’re my superior officer….”
She chuckled ruefully. “We’re an army of two, are we?”
“I saw this ancient poster somewhere when I was scavenging, all about An Army of One. Think I’d rather be an army of, you know, hundreds, but two is better than one.”
“Definitely.” She glanced over at him. “You know… “
“I think we’ve proven lately that I don’t know anything.”
She huffed. “Bullshit. You came up with a plan while keeping me alive and building these people into the start of a community. That’s something, for sure. And,” she trailed off. “Shower.”
He snorted. “Shower,” he agreed. “I think the place has three or four of them, you know, it’s ridiculous. And with the power going again, well, sort of, we could all take hot showers.”
“I haven’t taken a hot shower in forever. But it seems… silly… to shower in separate rooms? When we could wash each other’s backs.”
He paused and looked at her, really looked at her.
“Are you really suggesting…?”
“Well.” She cleared her throat. “It’s not a bad idea, and you’re… uh.”Want more?