Imogene raced across the room to grab the bo staff leaning against the wall, her opponent just steps behind her. The zip of his staff buzzed the air near her head as she ducked, rolled across the mat, and grabbed the weapon she needed from the holder. She turned and crouched with her back to the wall, wielding her staff to block her attacker. The clack of his weapon against hers vibrated up her arm through her elbow, jarring her teeth, but she ignored the discomfort—she was used to it—and shot forward.
“That’s all you’ve got?” She smirked at her opponent.
Vempur growled, showing his sharp incisors. His stark, black hair curled against his umber-toned temple slick with sweat as he followed it up by stabbing the end of the staff toward her face. His eyes, usually green flecked with sparkles of gold, turned completely black as he swung.
She blocked and went for a jab.
Vempur parried, then swung the staff at her head, once more with a loud grunt and frustrated huff. “You’re too quick,” he snapped.
Imogene smiled at her best friend but subdued the laugh. She knew he wouldn’t take it well in the middle of a fight. Not with everyone watching. Their silent, judgmental gazes were enough of a deterrent to keep Vempur’s temper in check. Besides, she wouldn’t have appreciated his humor at the moment either. There was too much on the line.
“You’re stronger. Taller,” she grunted out as she ducked once more. It wasn’t to feed his ego. “Find my weakness.”
“What weakness?” he snapped, frustrated more with himself than her, it would seem. “You haven’t lost yet today.”
“Exactly. I’m tired.”
Vempur growled, surging forward.
But she couldn’t afford to lose and that was the difference.
She rocked back, arching as the staff narrowly missed her gut, then swung her stick out to catch Vempur’s feet. He jumped and brought his bow down to the mat barely missing her back as she rolled out from under his strike.
“Stars!” Halo Mins—their instructor—yelled across the sparring room. “It shouldn’t look like a dance. It should look like a fight!”
Several of the other Year Sevens in the room snickered, and she knew it was at their expense.
“Shit,” Imogene swore, resetting as she hopped away. “He’s going to knock me down.”
“He won’t. He can’t.” Vempur punched out, and Imogene blocked the weapon. They pushed against one another and locked, resting for a beat. “You’ve dominated everyone today.”
“Not everyone.” She pushed, using her momentum to twist and swing, the pole wide, catching Vempur’s ankles. His giant frame slammed against the mat, and she went in for the kill, feigning a stab into his throat.
Vempur opened his hands against his bow staff in supplication and frowned. “Everyone knows you belong on the leaderboard, Imogene.”
The door slid open with a whoosh.
Jenna, human like Imogene, swiveled in her chair to face Imogene, grinning, her twin dimples deep in her cheeks and her hazel eyes twinkling. “Since when do you knock? Usually you’re yelling at me.” Her smile lit up her cherubic face. She had round, rosy, apple cheeks with wide eyes that appeared innocent (she totally wasn’t). Add to that her golden hair and engaging smile, Jenna was adorable.
“I always knock. A yell is a knock. I just wasn’t sure you’d be alone.” Imogene wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and walked into the room, the door slipping closed behind her. She flopped on Jenna’s bed. The room looked like most dorm rooms of an upper-classman who monitored a unit—just like Imogene’s. A bed, shelves, wardrobe, and a desk whose perks included a small kitchenette and a small bathroom with the centrifuge independent of the hall. Jenna had her room decorated with colors that reminded Imogene of images she’d seen of the sea on Jenna’s home planet, Lavi II. “Who knows what might be happening behind closed doors when you’re seeing someone.”
Jenna blushed and swiveled back to face her Com glowing with the text. “Good thing you weren’t here earlier, then.” She tapped the screen adding the open document for one of her classes.
“Why? You did have a special guest?”
“Several of them.” Jenna glanced over her shoulder with a grin.
Imogene threw one of the fluffy pillows at Jenna who ducked and laughed. “Oh?” She pushed a pillow behind her back and pulled another into her lap. “Does this harem have a group name?”
“The Fly team.”
Imogene laughed. “I bet Vempur could make that happen if you asked nicely.”
Jenna blushed again. “Stop!”
“You’re blushing. Since when do you blush?”
“I’m kidding,” Jenna said and turned her back to Imogene.
“Me too.” Imogene studied Jenna a few more beats, watching as her friend made finishing touches to her essay and wondering if there was something she was missing. Jenna wasn’t typically a blusher. She was audacious and funny, rarely embarrassed about anything. And though she’d shared that she was seeing someone—someone she hadn’t introduced to the group yet because she “wanted to make sure it was a real thing first”—Jenna didn’t often check herself. Of their friend group, Jenna was the impetuous one.
That’s how they’d met, in fact. During a lunch at some point early as Year Threes, Imogene and Vempur had been eating in the Globe, at their usual table alone. A norm. Jenna—who they’d never met—had plopped her food tray onto their table and sat with a vibrant and disarming smile. “This is okay, right?” she’d asked and proceeded to eat her lunch. Imogene remembered exchanging a wary look with Vempur, both of them positive they were being set up somehow, but lunch after lunch passed with Jenna returning to their table until that became the norm.
“Speaking of Vempur,” Imogene started, “where is he?”
“How should I know?” Jenna asked, straightening her desk. A nervous tick. Imogene knew another of her habits was braiding her hair, undoing it, then braiding it over and over. “You talk to him more than I do.”
Imogene observed Jenna adjust her Com, then readjust it as if deciding she didn’t like it where it was and moving it to a new place on her desk.
“Everything okay? You only fidget when you’re nervous.”
Jenna turned in her chair and clasped her hands together. “Stop studying me. It’s unnerving. And I’m not nervous. Everything is fine. Why wouldn’t it be? How are you? Better than after spar?”
A change in topic. Curious, Imogene thought. “You already know how I feel. I think I expounded on my feelings ad nauseam at the Globe earlier.”
Jenna nodded. “Understandable. And Timaeus–”
Imogene grunted at the sound of Kade’s name and hated that imagining him made her body feel sort of weightless. “He knew what he was doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“He picked hand-to-hand. Obviously, he would have the upper hand.”
Jenna made a noise that hummed from her nose. “And how would you have felt if he’d picked something where he didn’t?”
“Great!” Imogene said, her voice a bit too bright.
Jenna swiveled back to face her and narrowed her eyes. “Really? Because I can imagine that conversation. In fact, I think we’ve had it before. Damn him for thinking I’m weak,” she said, dipping her chin to her chest and pitching her voice like Imogene’s, “–and need an advantage.” Jenna lifted her brows in challenge.
Imogene wanted to argue the fact but knew Jenna was right. “That does sound like something I’ve said.”
Jenna smiled. “You know what I think is interesting.”
“I don’t know if I want to know.”
“You sure do a lot of talking about Timaeus Kade.”
Imogene frowned. “I fell, sir.”
It wasn’t a lie, though it was an equivocation. She wasn’t about to tell him the truth and hoped Kade would keep it to himself as well.
She noted Kade tense next to her, his elbow bumping against hers. She couldn’t turn her head to look at him, but imagined his light, brown eyes widening, and his black brows arching over them with the knowledge she’d lied to their commanding officer. Imogene knew he’d look stupidly endearing.
She schooled her face, clearing it of any emotion. “Yes, sir. I tripped. Then Kade helped me. He shouldn’t have had any points deducted. It was my fault.” She glanced at Kade, whose eyebrows shifted over his eyes. “I checked in at the infirmary.”
“Yes. I’m aware.” Glyn narrowed his gigantic eyes, tittering in the back of his throat, and sat back in the chair.
His eyes darted to Kade. “And you, Kade?” he asked. “You came in last as well.”
Though she wanted to look at Kade, sure he stood stone still and straight like the Baskin Monolith at the center of campus, Imogene didn’t move. She knew his face would be as unreadable as ever, though he’d probably be pressing his jaw together, the muscles twitching as he did.
She chanced a look to see if she was right. He stared straight ahead, stoic and steady, at perfect attention. His beautiful face was carved artwork, with his broad forehead under black hair and his eyes, golden brown in the suns’ light, framed by thick black brows, now impassive. His smooth brown skin stretched over full but sharp cheekbones that tapered to a masculine jaw shaved clean that hinted of new growth—and sure enough, twitching just as she’d thought, which had her suppressing a smile. His nose was strong and prominent from the bridge to tip, drawing her eyes to a generous mouth—a kissable mouth.
Imogene cut her gaze back to what was in front of her, annoyed at the direction of her thoughts. No. No. No. She wanted to shake her head. Focus, Imogene. The problem was that her preoccupation with Kade was happening more and more frequently. And now she was dreaming about him. She couldn’t afford to think that way. Not this close to the end. Even if he had helped her. Her stomach tightened as she maintained her focus out the window behind Sirkuhl Glyn, afraid for Vempur.
Her gaze slid to Kade again.
“Yes, sir. I just wanted to make sure another cadet was okay. I couldn’t leave a teammate behind.” Kade’s voice was deep and rich, and it irritated her that she noticed. And he was keeping her secret. Was she grateful? Yes. Did she trust it? No.